Dance as Social Exploration: In Conversation with Biba Bell


Biba Bell is a dancer, choreographer and writer based in Detroit. Her choreographic work, often set in unconventional venues, focuses on domesticity, labor, and architecture and has been presented at the Kitchen, Danspace Project, Movement Research, Centre Pompidou, The Garage for Contemporary Culture, Jack Hanley Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts, Insel Hombroich, among others. She has performed in the work of Maria Hassabi and Walter Dundervill and was a founding member of Modern Garage Movement (2005-2011). She earned her PhD in Performance Studies from New York University and is an Assistant Professor in the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance.

With COVID-19 forcing everyone to complete their semester at home, what does teaching an embodied practice like dance look like in an online setting?

I offered my students at WSU independent study work for the first two weeks, asking them to create their own personal practice dream warm-up. We  then worked with improvisational scores, writing and reflection. After the first two weeks we added a Zoom component. So much of the class is about the group and being in the room with everyone, that kinesthetic, ensemble kind of experience. But you can’t really get that through Zoom;it’s this weird dancing-alone-but-sort-of-together phenomenon. The first couple of times I tried it was so frustrating–I felt like I was performing for this computer screen.

Is reading and writing about dance a big part of an academic dance program?

It depends on the course. For a daily studio technique practice there is less writing, but there is quite a bit more that happens in choreography and compositional classes, and also within performance theory and dance history courses. Because I arrive in the academy with a PhD and not an MFA which means that my degree is primarily academic-based, I have a history of working with text and spend a bit of time grappling with relationship between dancing and writing. I do try to incorporate…I work primarily with undergraduate students, many of whom are pursuing a degree in performance,  because they want to dance. It’s often news to them that there is this whole other arm of the discipline, and the field that also moves between dance and the broader lens of performance, which then brings us into conversation with theatre, visual art, visual studies, the performance of everyday life and that sort of thing. How I approach incorporating these broader discussions really depends on the course. 

For technique class teaching remotely proposed a more distinct added challenge, and I resisted “zooming in” as the best alternative.  Instead I opted to bring in choreographic score practices – playful and poetic approaches to making dance that became popular in the sixties and seventies with the early postmodern-y type dance people. This involves creating a language, sometimes imagery based, but sometimes building structures of limitation or enabling constraints that dancers might then improvise inside of. I’ve been super inspired by Simone Forti’s work in this department, but also the writing and drawings of Ralph Lemon. Each of the scores I dedicated to a different artist, mentor or friend who loosely inspired it We worked with these principles for a period of time and developed movement that way. It’s a really different way of initiating movement in dance than through mimetic structures of transmission. It’s a really different way of developing movement material, engaging with one’s own body and history, of working from a place of interiority or somatics, and also problem solving.

If I think about it, there are all sorts of choreographic scores and improvisational structures that we socially engage with and have knowledge of, whether it’s walking across an intersection or driving and deciding,  “do you pass on the right or on the left”? How much time we spend in our homes or workplaces, and how our bodies develop proprioceptive reflexes, an innate sense of moving through different zones of obstacle or familiarity within where we spend our time, our spaces of rest or transition. 

Did I read that you’re interested in Lefebvre too?

I’ve definitely read a lot of Lefebvre, though I wouldn’t say that he’s my go-to, but he definitely did a lot of amazing work. The Production of Space, it’s a brick of a book. It’s so heavy. I feel like sometimes I get into it and I feel the gravity of the writing. It’s so dense, and I like that too, because there’s an impassioned “life’s work” centered there in its very materiality. He’s operating at a moment of structuralism and into the post-structural. It’s an encyclopedia to return to. There are a number of theorists about space and architecture who I return to with more frequency, mainly those that engage spatial practice through lenses of gender, affect, and labor. Elizabeth Grosz is a favorite, as well as Beatriz Colomina.

Do your classes focus on site-specificity and architectural context as well?

I do engage in a way that is rendered site-specific, but I’ve always wondered what are the things that motivate me and push my work into motion. It really is about context and the tangibility of the “where”. So, it could be that it’s a specific architectural place, because I do love to work architecturally, but even when it’s not, even if it’s in a studio or a theatre, which are more conventional spaces, my initial questions are consistent: What is the tone that is happening in here? What is the history? What has happened or tends to happen? What is its function? How might the habits and assumptions that sediment in or as place be shifted a little bit? Is there is a point of tension, and a choreographic strategy to face towards that specific context in a way that incorporates it in and as the aboutness of the work.

I definitely approach teaching in such a way that I am asking students all the questions about what it is, but then also the para-text around it. To me that is an architectural question, not in a literal, disciplinary sense, but within a broader meaning-making sense, of how the work functions and circulates within economies of production and consumption, all of these things, relationships and collaborations that are happening around, that maybe don’t start as central but end up having a lot impact.

Do you work in public spaces with the class?

I have. I had a class last year… it’s a class called Dance and Community., It’s a class that’s been in the curriculum for a while and I inherited it, so I rewrote the syllabus in a way that made sense to me. One of the projects involved the students creating workshops or lab experiences around themes that came up in community– site-specificity, public space, participation, social activism and dance activism, etc. But anyways, one of the students created a workshop for the Q-Line and it was really great, we went onto the Q-Line during class. The workshop started in the studio, and moved us out from Old Main onto Woodward and onto the Q-Line. It involved interacting with pedestrians and other people. The workshop shed light on assumptions that had been overlooked and could not be accessed solely developing something in a studio context. There were failures and ruptures, but also super important conversations and experiences. It ended up being a much moreinteresting workshop to investigate. Public space can be unruly and indeterminate; it has a different register of risk for performance.

Is that something that you document or is it meant to be ephemeral?

It was documented in our memory and the conversations around it. There are other classes we’ll do in public, especially if it’s nice weather. We’ll take the class outside and improvise moving out of the building and into other parts of the university and on the streets.

Bell, Biba. “At Home”. Photo c/o Biba Bell

You mentioned coming to the program with a more academic program, and a PhD instead of an MFA, what is your PhD in?

Performance Studies. I lived for a number of years in New York City. I’m originally from the Bay Area, so I was back and forth between those two locations making work and dancing with other choreographers for about eight years. And then I guess I kind of, I don’t know, I wondered “am I gonna do graduate school?” I was beginning to write about the work that I was doing, the projects that I was making, and the performance work I was doing, and I was like, “wow, how do I write about this? I feel like there are tools out there and I don’t know what they are, this might be something to look into.” My sister had gone to New York University for Performance Studies, which was the first department in the field. I became increasingly interested in the department, and did a Master’s degree. I ended up really liking it and I just like that was the tip of the iceberg and so I kept going.

Is that where your critical theory background came from? It sounds very interdisciplinary.

Yes absolutely. It’s very interdisciplinary.

What sort of texts would you be reading?

Well, in terms of the NYU school, our first intro classes were thinking about this intersection between theatre and anthropology, and looking at theatrical devices within everyday life, cultural ritual, and different passages one would have through life socially, transformations and liminal spaces, and thinking of them as performance. On the other hand, we were asked to think about performativity through the lens of speech act theory, through the work of Judith Butler and J.L. Austin, we read some Derrida. Looking at locution and perlocution, in the sense that something would be said and then done- the power of speech, the utterance, the ways in which language propels events into motion or action, and also the potential to deviate from the hegemony of norms, the chain of repetitions as Butler may say, or a kind of iterative drift for Derrida, to venture into performance as action, event, and a kind of radical potential for politics to happen.

When did you move from New York to Detroit?

I started spending a lot of time in Detroit in 2007 and I let my NYC apartment go in 2010.

Has that move affected your practice?

Absolutely. When I first moved here I was working predominantly with two other dancers and we had a performance collective that travelled called Modern Garage Movement, or MGM for short. We were very nomadic. All of the work we did was performed in and through a touring model, and we would connect with communities throughout different parts of the country. We would do these tours where we would go for three to six weeks and perform one to three times a day in different locations, always the same work, but in dramatically different contexts. We performed in Detroit, and at that time the city felt different in certain ways. I think about it in terms of the ways in which every space is accounted for, and I guess you could think about that real estate-wise, as what David Harvey discusses as “landed capital.” There was a different sense of how space was accounted for and thus inhabited, how it was on a radar of sorts. We had an opportunity to perform in a range of unique locations. This was over ten years ago, and that started me thinking about –especially coming from New York City—there was a really different expansiveness in the way the city is spread out. That affects manythings, how people connect and gather, how we interact.

I worked for a time in an apartment. I rented an apartment which became my home and my studio. I was interested in the way in which the home functioned in the city for people. After being in New York City for ten years, there was always this sense of, “your home is a resting place but everything happens outside of it,” and that really shifted when I came here because it was like, “oh no things are happening inside of it, that’s where people are dwelling.” That became really important to me: Detroit is a city of homes. And how, on the flip side, it has this noted history of industry and factories and the coupling of those two spaces, and the productivity and relationships and embodied practices that happen in and across each. 

So, I did a series of projects in an apartment building, a modernist apartment building in Lafayette Park., Oone was a solo a duet and and another that involved a group of dancers. The apartment was aesthetic, it was theatrical and cinematic, orienting the body and desire in all sorts of ways. These pieces were research into these spaces, the drama and subjectivities that they produced. The apartment was also practical, I could afford to work and live there. I then shifted from the glass-tower-in-the-sky apartment and went to the park, a coupling that  produced an ideal model for classical modernist urban utopia. It was appropriate for me artistically too after spending so much time in a hermetic space. So then I created a project in the park for two years and that involved dancers from Detroit, New York, Chicago, D.C. and one dancer who was born in Detroit but now lives in Vienna. That piece was modeled on this exploration of the social, loosely inspired by social dance and the vernaculars of Detroit’s hustle.

This project brought me back to the days when I was part of that nomadic group, MGM, and we’d make dances wherever we could. It was really about looking closely and with keen reflexivity at what’s around us, of being resourceful/. We were intent on eschewing anxieties around scarcity, especially as it pertained to dance specifically and art making in general. What if we could look not through this lens of scarcity but instead perceive the abundance? All of our para-textual performance practice was about developing these tools. Thus, we would make dances in our apartments. 

I’ve performed in theaters around the world and I love the technology and how much you can do, the refinement of that space, the control and forced perspective, but I also love being in the midst of the mess, of the messiness, and experiencing that through a dancing, improvising, participating body. This is how I think performance is a highly rigorous way to explore often discussed things like resilience, sustainability, community. These are practices for survival.

Bell, Biba. “excavating the room”. Photo c/o Danielle Ross

What are you working on now?

I’ve had a reoccurring dream since I was a little kid, really little. It’s always about this house, again returning to the dwelling space of the home, but in this dream it always starts out in the house where I grew up in Northern California, and my mom lives in the house still, so it starts with this familiar space I’ve known my whole life. Throughout the dream it continues to build. I have these experiences where I find new rooms or new wings of the house. I didn’t know they were there. I’m conscious in a way as they’re unfolding, slightly lucid. But its always a shock. It’s really beautiful and there’s some sort of joy but it’s also scary and terrifying.

There’s this way in which it produces this kind of uncanny, or sense of unhomeliness. The dissonant part of it is also what continues to propel it forth. As these dreams have continued to occurI began to have a sense that these spaces are haunted and that there are these kinds of presences in them. They may manifest through the house’s breezy demeanor or the walls are dematerializing as a move throughout. Sometimes, if I get to the back of the house, which is rare,  there is a foreign landscape.

I decided at the beginning of this project that I would spend more time trying to search through the detritus of these dream-image memories, and that’s what propelled the project. The piece is called excavating the room. It’s informed by different writings too, especially two artist collaborators. Madeline Gins and Arakawa, whom I really love. They’re known for developing a work titled Reversible Destiny, in which they theorize architecture as a device towards producing immortality. There a buildings they’ve designed and built, but they also produced a lot of writing that is poetic, playful and at times absurd.There is one section of their text Architectural Body that I’m working closely. It’s sort of set up like a play, and they’re showing some friends this model of a new building or space that they’re designing, and you can’t see it, they’re like, “where is it, I don’t see anything.” But then, as they walk around the perimeter of it, they begin to lift up this material and create a whole structure that seems to only articulate itself upon entry, if that makes sense. Later they sing a song about human-snails.

I’ve been looking at other works by other artists that venture into the holes in memory, where, if we think about architecture as type of function towards holding memory in place, like a sort of memory palace, we might search for memories that we don’t remember. Intangible narratives. What do those spaces look like and how do we locate them? I’ve been working with a scenic element that Julio Efrain Dominguez sewed for me and with an vocal recording from text based exchange with a poet, Norman Douglas McDonald who lived in Detroit but now is in upstate New York. These collaborative elements create a fundamental structure for the work.The piece is nomadic and iterative, and has been different each time I’ve performed it. I’d like to do a residency where I can delve more deeply into these materials and in order to reckon with my own history and my familial and cultural lineages as a person of mixed European ancestry, colonial histories that immigrated to this continent, transformations and passages, joy and terror, and wonder how excavating these legacies will inform how I move now, here, as a woman dancing in Detroit.


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