The Animal called Human Being

Johanna Hörmann in conversation with Chiara Bersani about Gentle Unicorn  
 
© Alice Brazzit
Johanna Hörmann in conversation with Chiara Bersani about Gentle Unicorn  

Where do unicorns come from? What is their story? To whom and where do they belong? How do we look at them? What do WE see in THEM?[1] What does actually happen when we do not observe judgmental eyes but rather soften the gaze? Questions, which the Italian performer Chiara Bersani addresses in her piece Gentle Unicorn (2019), which was set to premiere at Tanzquartier Wien in April[2]. Her slow movement on stage, how she is operating in space and in front of the audience, her shy gaze and curious nature reminded me of the “strategy of joy”[3]. The distancing effect Chiara creates by “entering” the unicorn – very gently but fierce – seems to be a productive way of rewriting a story, to deal with the dark side of being rare and “exotic”, such as social stigmatization and voyeuristic behavior. How does it feel to be involuntarily exposed to the observation of others, feeling powerless in response to their judgmental thoughts? The performance provides a setting where “a creature without homeland and history”[4] can feel seen, valued, held and cared for – a space in which they can feel loved.

I want to start this conversation with a statement by theorist Jack Halberstam on the concept of “wildness”:

“All eras are marked by crisis, it is not that this era is different, but crises shift and change with the times and the challenge for the artist and the intellectual is to identify our crisis, our insurrection, but also our pleasure, our strategy of joy.”[5]

JH: As a performer and choreographer, what is your “strategy of joy” – as a response to crisis or, let’s say, to be able to stand and guide you through changes?

CB: This is the first interview in which I talk about my work after the pandemic. During the last few months, I had decided to speak only as an activist and as a disabled woman, because I felt that we weren’t just living in a pocket of suspended time, but this was a real breakdown. This is why I felt that I did not want to talk just about my work, while human lives were at risk.

While I was at home taking care of myself and the others, I had no idea of what I would find in the world and in my artistic practice, once I were to start inhabiting the world again. During those months, I felt that my way of interpreting reality had been crushed and that all strategies I had used before the pandemic were (suddenly) ineffective.

Now, that I take my first steps out of home, I think that all our previous attempts to keep afloat have been failures.

Without poetry.

We have failed, and I’m saying this by referring to the most scientific and creepy sense of the word “failure”.

I as an artist, I can only stay where I am. Refusing both the rhetoric of debris and the rhetoric of rebirth. I accept that during these months I looked the ferocious savage into his eyes, his mouth opened in front of my face[6], and now, with this new perspective, everything will have to be rethought and readapted. Every thought. Every strategy.

Even the very desire of crossing the storm.

When I watched your performance online during self-isolation, my impression was that when you “enter” the unicorn, you also take care of it. You feel responsible. How does the unicorn relate to your work, your body and your image of yourself on stage?

The unicorn is often used to talk about queer bodies and thoughts.
In the performance, I explain that unicorns have never been directly addressed by human beings, nobody knows them, but everybody feels entitled to interpret them. Obviously, I do not know them either, but I find inside me that feeling of my body being written and rewritten by hands that are not my own.

I take care of the unicorn when I choose not to sweeten the complexity of my motricity. In fact, it is not my body shape that makes me similar to the unicorn, but my way of moving around in the world, and this is what I claim by way of this figure.

I am used to employing a tool (my wheelchair) to move around, and this is something that makes me similar to many disabled people. And that makes our presence more comfortable and understandable for the rest of the world.

But what is my true way of walking?
If I decided not to use any kind of support, how would I move?
To reveal the queerness of how I walk means to unveil my unicorn, and it is frightening.
That is why I take care of the unicorn, and, by doing so, I take care of myself. Only then, I can take care of the others, the audience.
Gentle Unicorn is an action of collective care, a training to soften our gazes.

You pointed out that “collective thought has made the unicorn a mythological figure without a coherent myth to justify its existence; the unicorn has become a symbol of extinction and fragility”. Unicorns haven’t always appeared the way we imagine them today. Do you think this matter of myth and absent genealogy is somehow linked to queer existence?

Queer is often linked to the concept of the eccentric.
Eccentric is a word borrowed from geometry, and it is a word opposed to “concentric”: we have at least two centres, but they do not overlap.
What can we do?
Because of the difficulty of getting to know both centers, the easiest solution is taken. A norm is established – a center – and everything that does not stick to the norm is read as something separated. We do not ask the second center to talk about itself, we do not listen to that story; meanwhile, by observing it with the same interest with which we address what is “exotic”, we imagine all its answers and we interpret it with a vested interest.

The unicorns have neither a story nor roots, but they have bodies and an identity. I do not only refer to genealogy – that can be refused, lost, broken – but I do refer to trajectories, to self-awareness, to acknowledgment. In the same way in which we ignore the unicorn’s past, we discard the complexity of the eccentric body.

To be silenced, to be depicted as a bi-dimensional shape: these are elements that you can find both in the experience of the eccentric(s) and the unicorn.

Animals have provided a theme and a model for movement in dance and theatre since ancient times. Currently, choreographers and performers have an affinity to emphasize the analogies between humans and animals on stage rather than the boundaries. From your perspective, what political and aesthetic questions of (human) identity and crisis can they reveal?

I believe it is impossible to capture the complexity of this question in one answer or a series of answers.

The ways in which animals move are many, and the meanings that movements can take or unveil are many, as well as the traps they can fall into.

In my case, the question of the animal is intertwined with that of the disabled body, whose motricity is modified in order to adapt itself to a world that does not recognise it. I did not attempt to analyse or simulate  how the unicorn moves, I did not take inspiration from horses or lions, I have mainly studied how my body moves in space without using a supporting tool.

A dancer learns first how to walk and then how to dance. Walking is the movement that the animal called human being makes in order to move around. In my daily life, I do not perform what would be my walk. I do not know it. My daily movement is highly civilised and has nothing to do with my natural one. The animal called human being is the one that emerges from my choreographic study.

The kind of human being whose skeleton rises up against the hegemony of the erect humans.

Can you tell us more about the background of your concept of a “political body”? How does your body transform itself into a “manifesto” on stage?

I started to work as an actress when, according to the Italian standards, I was still very young. I was 20 when I performed my first show as the protagonist, and, on that occasion, a well-known journalist from a national newspaper wrote that I was “a young lady with a deformed body”. Only afterwards, he said something more about my artistic performance.

I was 20, as I said. He was 50.
I was debuting, he had a solid career.
I was unknown, he was well known.

It was a violent experience, especially, because at the beginning I did not understand that the one with whom something was wrong was him and not me.

I and my colleagues were told that a body like mine was not easy to look at, to read, to accept. Until that journalist, other people had felt that it was difficult to look at my shape, but the supposed distance of a written article allowed him to express his discomfort in the most violent way possible. And I was convinced that I just had to understand that.

During my first years of working, similar articles were published. Although my performance was praised, the words that were usually used to describe my body were words that would have been considered unacceptable if used to refer to an abled body.

The concept of a/the political body, my need to become a “manifesto”, the need to provide the right words to talk about my body shape, my reflections on gaze and perspectives … all this has been my way of “asking back” the questions to the society that raised them. I could not and I would not let it become a pain I had to live with alone, it was not a personal matter. Among all the justifications that people provided, only one was making sense: those words did not address me, but everything my body represented.

This is why it was important that, from being one, I would become many. I had to accept a role I had not chosen, to become the symbol of a constructed category of people, in order to modify it from the inside.

To translate this concept onto the stage, I keep working, I do not overexpose my body but rather hide it, I do not exoticize it, but I unveil it, I choose with care the authors I work with, I try to understand when to withdraw … to be a manifesto means to know that everything has multiple meanings, especially in a body that is eccentric, and to accept this responsibility.

In your artist statement, you claim that it is humiliating when rainbows come out of the unicorn’s ass. Is Gentle Unicorn a piece about having control and power over how society perceives body images? Is it humiliating because it was not a question of choice and freedom of decision?

Gentle Unicorn is a performance that aims to reposition the gazes.

There is nothing wrong with the instinctive reaction – may it be curiosity, hilarity, refusal. However, the only request I make is to not run away. To take responsibility for our own sensitivity, whatever it might be, and to be present, to stay in that relation, giving it a chance to evolve.

Confronted with something unpredictable, might it be a body or an event, something strong happens inside of us. But if we resist the temptation of running away, if we take the time to get familiar with the situation, the breathing relaxes, the sensations change and the gaze acquires a new kind of depth.

I just ask the audience to take the time to get used to each other. Without plans. To let things be without harnessing them.

Thank you, Chiara.

Let’s come back to Halberstam by sharing a quote from “The queer art of failure” – in this context a non-strategy: “Under certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world”[7].

  

Johanna Hörmann is a dance and theatre scholar. Since April 2018, she has been a research assistant and PhD candidate at the Department of Musicology and Dance Studies of the University Salzburg. Since October 2018, she has been a member of the doctorate school PLUS gender_transcultural. International guest lectures, e.g. 2019 in Shanghai, Beijing. In addition to her academic endeavors, she works as a dramaturge (HÖRFRAU Kollektiv) and freelance dance critic. She is especially interested in the connexions between myth and history, exploring alternative ways of looking at the past. In her doctoral thesis, she focuses on the Greek Satyr and the resonance of this mythological figure in contemporary thought. Her current research interests include the staging of wildness/queerness and representations of the animal on stage (in different historical formations).

 

[1] With an emphasis on the simple dichotomy of we/they, inclusion/exclusion and the corresponding social conditions and power relations that are (re)produced.
[2] This digital interview, an email correspondence between Austria and Italy, took place in May and June 2020. Chiara had provided me with the video link to a recording of her performance. Giulia Traversi (Communication and PR) stressed several times that Chiara would need more time to deal with questions about her performance, and that she is currently not working. I mention this because I think it is important to know, as a link or framing that makes aware of the struggle with “normality”, and to not talk about ourselves and our work as before. In a strange way, this crisis has bought us more time to reflect on established expectations, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. But there is also a growing pressure to go back to “normal”, to the usual, to the before, to a routine that no longer works (I can tell). Clearly, there is this rush to start the transition back to the workplace. But what about refusal, disruption and discontinuities in working practices, in the art world and elsewhere?
[3] Jack Halberstam: Strategy of Wildness (2019). http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/praxis1313/jack-halberstam-strategy-of-wildness/?cn-reloaded=1 (Last visit: 13. Mai 2020)
[4] Chiara Bersani about Gentle Unicorn.
[5] Jack Halberstam: Strategy of Wildness (2019)
[6] Upon inquiry Chiara Bersani specifies this phrase as a metaphor for the unknown, the unexpected, that has no limits nor rules.
[7] Jack Halberstam: The queer art of failure. Durham 2011, S. 3

 
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