Pain as a Generative Source of Creativity
An Interview with Maggie Bridger
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Maggie Bridger is a dancer, choreographer, and PhD candidate whose work focuses on the intersection of dance, disability, and pain. Here, she discusses how her choreography and research inform one another, as well as some of her initiatives, like the Inclusive Dance Workshop Series at Access Living she initiated with her colleague Sydney Erlikh, or a lab for early career disabled dancemakers through her residency at High Concept Labs.
Note: This interview was first published in Stance on Dance’s spring/summer 2023 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.
Can you share a little about your dance history and what shaped who you are today?
I started dancing really young. I grew up in a small town in Missouri called Bolivar. I did the typical ballet, tap, and jazz at a local studio for a long time. Dance was all I really wanted to do. When it came time to figure out college, that’s what drove my decision. I went to a small women’s college called Cottey College that has an incredible dance program for such a small school. The faculty were invested in developing students’ voices as artists and offered many dance-making opportunities. From there, I transferred to Columbia College Chicago, which also has a strong dance-making component in addition to performance and pedagogy. Dance-making was my primary interest. Through that, I found dance studies as a discipline. There were a couple faculty at Columbia – Peter Carpenter, Raquel Monroe, and Bonnie Brooks – who were doing amazing dance studies work, which was something I hadn’t previously envisioned for myself. I ended up doing both the dance-making and dance studies tracks.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in my freshman year at Cottey. I got it under control before moving to Columbia, but in my last year at Columbia I got very sick and had to quickly figure out how to continue dancing while being sick. Almost out of desperation, I found the work that is happening in disability in dance. I was trying to figure out how I can continue to do this thing that I love while being sick. I came across the one disability studies book in the library, and from there I found disabled dancers like Alice Sheppard and scholars like Carrie Sandahl, who is now my PhD advisor. I started to think about how I can dance in this body I have.
After I graduated from Columbia, it became hard to continue dancing. In undergraduate, I had these structures in place that protected my right to be in that space. That wasn’t always true outside of a college dance program. I also needed to find a way to make money and have insurance. I ended up working in the nonprofit sector and teaching on the side until working multiple gigs became unsustainable.
In 2017 and 2018, I started thinking seriously about returning to dance, especially with regards to research and disability. I got in touch with Carrie and worked with her on getting ready to apply to a PhD program at the University of Illinois Chicago. I am now in the PhD program studying dance and disability.
How would you generally describe your choreography to someone unfamiliar with it?
Early on in navigating disability in dance, I got interested in thinking about non-apparent disability and the interesting problem of making disability dance when there’s no signifier of disability onstage. Right now, my work and research focus on pain in dance and thinking deeply about pain not as this bummer thing but as a generative source of creative thought and processes.
I first started thinking about these themes in my solo practice. I created a dance film called Radiate that’s a duet with a heating pad. That was developed early on in COVID. I was thinking about the ways the heating pad or other access tools I use facilitate or limit movement. Now I’m thinking more about how I take this solo practice of generating movement from my own body in pain, and how that becomes a group effort. How do we read pain across bodies in space? I’m working with a couple of collaborators, Robby Lee Williams and Alex Neil-Sevier, who are similarly interested in this idea and who also experience chronic pain. How do we quantify and read pain in each other, both in a medicalized way like the pain scale, but also in interdependent and caring ways we practice in community? Both the disability and dance community have informal and interesting ways of caring for one another’s pain.
You are currently working on a PhD in Disability Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. What does your research focus on?
I’m also looking at pain. Whereas in my choreographic practice, I’m looking at how disability intervenes in ideas about pain, in my PhD research, I’m interested in how pain structures the practice of dance in unspoken ways. Often in dance, we think about pain as inevitable and career ending once a dancer has a certain amount of pain. Pain and injury are talked about as the same thing. This is interesting to me because my pain doesn’t necessarily stem from my dance practice. I’m interested in how people in the dance field think of pain in glorified ways (“no pain no gain”) or complete denial (“the show must go on”). Those ideas of pain reflect the labor conditions of dance. They tell us about the expectations of what dancing bodies must do in order to be considered dancing bodies. Dance scholar and practitioner Anusha Kedhar also writes about this through the lens of British South Asian dancers and their racialized experiences of pain and labor. The practices of care we cultivate in disabled communities can intervene in those assumptions about pain in dance.
How do your personal dance practice and your research for your PhD intersect?
I try to think about the choreographic process as enacting the research by informing the questions I’m asking and the development of the research. It’s this cyclical thing I’m still trying to figure out how to articulate.
I understand you are a co-founder with Sydney Erlikh of the Inclusive Dance Workshop Series at Access Living. What does the workshop series entail?
That project was born out of a fellowship Sydney and I received called the Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellowship. We proposed to host community dance workshops for adults and children at a local independent living center called Access Living. It was open to all bodies, minds, and experience levels, so it was truly open to anyone who wanted to join. It started in 2019 as part of the fellowship and has been going ever since. We have weekly workshops on Wednesday nights. They started at Access Living but are now online for COVID reasons. Our community prefers to be online, so that’s where we’ve stayed, though we’re beginning to have one-off in-person monthly workshops.
Sydney and I started doing all the lesson planning and facilitation, but it has grown into a community-run workshop series. We now have five or six folks who run different parts of these workshops, and we have a community of 10-15 dancers who join us. On top of the workshops, we’ve made some dance films and we perform occasionally. One of the community leaders, Lauren Sheely, created a piece on some of the dancers for CounterBalance, an annual integrated dance concert in Chicago. We have had some guest facilitators: a local Bharatanatyam dancer named Sangeetha Nair, improvisational dancer Alison Kopit, and some voguing lessons with a disabled vogue dancer called Willyum LaBeija, among others. It’s become a wonderful community who are interested in exploring dance in different ways.
Sydney is also a student in the PhD program with me, and her interest is dancers with intellectual disabilities. We were looking for a space to try out some of the ideas we were reading and thinking about in our PhD program, so we started the inclusive dance workshops as a way to put some of the theory in action. We have been thrilled that we were not the only ones hungry for that kind of space. One interesting thing that has happened is that dancers who were injured or felt like they had to move away from dance have come to our workshops and now consider themselves dancers again. It’s also very intergenerational. Our youngest dancer is 14, and our oldest dancer is Ginger Lane, a local legend in her 80s.
You are currently in residence at High Concept Labs, and I understand that as part of your residency you are creating a new piece, Scale, and a new lab for early career disabled dancemakers. First, what is the impetus behind Scale?
Scale is the piece I’m developing around the ideas of pain. One thing I’m working on, along with Alex, Robby, and our collaborators, is incorporating access intentionally and broadly within the piece. We’re working on crafting audio descriptions as part of the process, so the audio description grows and changes with the movement, which has been exciting and difficult at the same time. We’re just now pulling in a Deaf dance artist, Joán Joel, and another dance artist, Jordan Brown, who will help incorporate ASL. I’m also working with a group of disabled crafters to make handmade care tools – blankets, pillows, alternative seating options – that audience members will use to care for their bodies as they engage in the work. That’s something I started thinking about during COVID. I was watching these incredible pieces of choreography online on my couch under my blanket with a heating pad. I’m never comfortable in a theater. I got really precious about that experience and didn’t want to lose that level of comfort while watching dance. I wondered: How can we prioritize the embodied experience of engaging with dance? How can we enact an ethic of care for both the dancers and audience?
I want to be intentional about the sensory experience of moving through the space and model how we hope people will be in the space with us. We’re going to individually bring people in and help them find whatever tools they might need. We’re also going to open the piece with a score the dancers and I have been practicing where we sit or lay on the floor and try to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, and only move when we feel discomfort. The score is about trying to seek comfort. We’re going to invite the audience to participate in the score with us.
When I gave that score to the two dancers I’m working with, one of them said it wasn’t comfortable for them to be on the floor. I didn’t know what to do in the moment, so I asked him to try seeking comfort in the best way he could. In the end, we did some troubleshooting and found a way for it to work for him. I think we might reenact the conversation in the show, hopefully giving permission to the audience members to be critical of what comfort is for them and push back if what we’re saying doesn’t work for someone.
What are your plans and goals for creating a lab for early career disabled dancemakers?
Recently, I was in residence at the Learning Lab at the Chicago Cultural Center, which was supported by High Concept Labs. That was the incubator for this larger project that will happen in the next year through High Concept. We held a convening of Chicago-based disabled dance artists with the purpose of identifying barriers to performance, training, and choreographing. We also dreamed about solutions. We came up with some huge ideas, like creating a disability dance center in Chicago, but also actionable things that we are creating working groups around. The four action items are: a writing group to work together on crafting grant and residency applications, an open lab where folks can show work and get feedback from the disability community, educational and training opportunities for the wider community, and a social space for folks to hang out.
High Concept is opening a second location in collaboration with a space called Experimental Station, where we’ll start to host working group meetings, social events, or trainings a couple times a month.
From your point of view, are opportunities and considerations for dancers with disabilities changing? If so, how?
Of course. Even the ability to dream on this grand scale is an indicator that people have already done an incredible amount of work to gain visibility. A signifier of progress is being able to have a conversation about not just the barriers, but how we can address those barriers by pooling our resources. Even the fact that we’re beginning to have resources is progress. How can we use our resources in ways that are interesting and generative to us? That’s an indicator of an incredible legacy of work to make disability dance happen.
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