Other perspectives – a reflection on Make/Shift as practice-led research by Penny Grennan PhD

Exploring how contemporary choreographic practice might engage with the refugee experience of displacement.


The growth in practice – led research has yielded some very interesting results, results that I would suggest would not have occurred under purely theoretical or practice conditions. The interplay between the rigour of the research question and the fluid and experimental nature of practice can, if scrutinised carefully, produce a synthesis that extends beyond the theoretical frame. However, the problems inherent in practice – led research are evident to anyone who has tried it. The relationship between practice, whether Fine Arts, dance or music and theory is often slippery, with shifts occurring when one least expects it. Being at all times vigilant so that neither the practice nor the theory becomes illustrative of the other does not prevent large chasms appearing at any moment down which the project might fall. Assuming that a continuous process of interrogation and reflection takes place, and that the research question has traction, then usually a degree of faith and rigour will yield some unexpected results, results that can only emerge from the relationship between practice and ideas. The research undertaken by Make/Shift: that of exploring the relationship between contemporary choreographic practice and the refugee experience of displacement was always going to be difficult, especially as the research involved the participation of non refugee children, non refugee adults, adult refugees, dancers and non dancers. The relationship between dance and choreography to the lay person may be confusing but this project has managed to navigate all these challenges and the results are truly impressive. It works because it is practice- led and the rigour of the practice has been scrutinised by the practitioners throughout.

The process.

Central to this project is the process of iteration: the reframing and questioning that produces new ideas and strategies, as well as throwing new light on existing evidence, which then feeds back into the practice and thinking. This occurred throughout the project using choreography and dance, writing, film, recording, blogs, a web site, music, stories and events to explore the questions that were raised.

The two choreographers worked together on their own practice of studio-based improvisation and choreography, writing and recording their thoughts and ideas using them as prompts for new work and new enquiry. The use of props in the choreographed sections was limited to a rope, a chair and a tyre, all of which carry their own narrative which added to the emotional resonance of the pieces.

The film maker documented the process of devising and executing the dance pieces and work, as well as making his own film about migration, which in turn contributed to reframing of the research. The film prompted by human migration is devoid of people and challenged, through animation, western centric views on migration and questions where the centre is located.The film was used as part of two pieces of dance adding to the sense of the people being tracked and on the move.

The work with school children was imaginative and dynamic and illustrated that, although these children have never experienced the traumas of enforced migration and statelessness they demonstrated through dance, movement, writing and song an empathy with the experience of refugees. The critical element of this work is that it moved passed imagination and was inhabited by the children, not in a disturbing way, but in a way that can only happen through practice and connection. This is where this project has been very successful. It has accessed the common feelings that we experience as human beings, whether refugees or not. We have all experience loss, longing, kinship and a sense of place often called home, and we have all experienced fear and threat, kindness and care. It is with these human experiences that this project is ultimately concerned: what happens when our basic human attachments are disrupted and threatened. The commonality of these human experiences makes the plight of the refugee a powerful catalyst for exploration.

The complexity of the issues that this project is concerned with was evidenced by the differing responses of those who were involved in it. I do not mean the enactors, rather the participants in the public workshop events whose responses and expectations often resided in their own feelings about the refugee crisis. Some wanted to know the facts as experienced by the refugees who were involved and on hearing their stories wanted to know what they could do to help. Discussion sessions often included these responses while others were able to feel the process of dislocation either through watching the dance or through being their own choreographers.

The last session of the 4-month project involved 20 adults, which comprised participation through movement, viewing and discussion, exemplified the coalescing of practice and theory. The walking and greeting exercise was concerned with movement and meeting strangers, who were engaged a common purpose and the small room heightened the sense of people on the move and the need to navigate the space. This must be the experience of refugees, but without the fear. This session became more intense with the introduction of props that featured in the choreography: the tyre, the rope and the chair. The physical experience of carrying and passing these objects: and a tyre surprisingly heavy, a rope binding and connecting and a chair, portable and something to support the body, changed the dynamic of the group and the movement within it. One of the participants asked what countries were represented in the group. The countries included Holland, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, UK, as well as Pakistan, Iran, Congo and Nigeria. This added to a sense of the world outside their current location and a diversity that was not evident beforehand. Following the movement session Tim and Claire performed their work in progress and Christo showed his film, and the refugees told their stories and sang songs and recited poetry in English and /or in their own languages. The resulting discussion evidenced the complexity of the issues and the impact of the research process. One person said that the act of shutting the blinds in preparation for the performances made her feel like she was being pushed into a small dark space, others talked about their feelings of loss and longing and dislocation. The refugees, when asked about their involvement in the research project, said that they welcomed the opportunity to tell their stories in a new way, as most of their stories are normally told for bureaucratic purposes. One participant said that the dance should have been more literal in its storytelling but most did not agree as what they have seen and done in the session was the prompt for them to reflect on how it feels to lose what you value, whether a place , a person, or identity.


The project scoped the possibilities for addressing the refugee experience through contemporary choreography and reconciled the fact of refugees with the experience of the other. It also reconciled the tension between research questions and practice so that they aligned and neither was in service to the other. It shifted the discussion from helping refugees (an unequal power relationship) to sharing a common experience and in the process accessed common human feelings and demonstrated the capacity of art to prompt responses as a way of engaging with the experience of other. It became clear that those involved in the project felt rather than knew the experience of dislocation and loss that refugees experience and it succeeded in accessing the ground between practice and research that can only be found by using both approaches together. This project exemplifies the value of moving beyond language, and fact, into the realm of imagination and experience.

August 2016


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