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 gave them independent study work for the first two weeks, and had them creating their own personal practice structures and then also working with improvisational scores, and writing and reflection. But then we added a Zoom component in the last two weeks, because so much of the class is about the group and having that experience in the room with everyone, that sort of physical 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 it was so frustrating, I was just like 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. But yeah because I arrive in the academy with a PhD and not an MFA which means that my degree is really academic-bound, I have that kind of history of working with text. I do really try to incorporate, I work primarily with undergraduate students, who are there because they want to dance, and so its always news to them that there is also 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, and visual art, and visual studies and the performance of everyday life and that sort of thing. So it really just depends on the course. 

With the technique class with this kind of added challenge of remote teaching, I was bringing in—I guess it become really popular in the sixties and seventies with the early sort of postmodern-y type people— the process of writing scores. So creating a language, sometimes imagery based, but sometimes just like structures of limitation that you then will improvise inside of and working with these principles for a period of time and developing movement that way. It’s a really different way of initiating movement in dance. A lot of times its mimetically transferred, the students usually watch somebody and do the stuff, so it’s a really different way of developing movement material, engaging with one’s own body, and also working from a place of interiority, and also problem solving.

I sort of think about, there’s all sorts of choreographic scores and improvisational structures that we all kind of socially engage with and have knowledge of, whether its like walking or driving, like “ do you pass on the right or on the left”, or how much time we spend in our homes, our bodies start to really have this innate sense of moving through different zones of obstacle or where we spend more time, spaces of rest or transition. 

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

I’ve definitely read a lot of Lefebvre, I wouldn’t say that he’s my go-to, but he definitely did a lot of amazing work. I mean The Production of Space, it’s like 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, and its so dense, and I kind of like that too, cause there’s kind of impassioned “life’s work” there. I think that he’s really sort of operating at a moment of structuralism and the post-structural. It’s an encyclopedia to return to.

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

I definitely do engage in a way that is rendered site-specific, but I also really think that 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 like a really specific architecture, 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 first way of understanding is like: “what is the tone that is happening in here?”, “what is its history?”, “what is its function?”, and then how can it also be shifted a little bit, or there is a little bit of tension, or a kind of facing towards that context in a way that it becomes a part of what the work is about. 

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

Bell, Biba. “Excavating the Room”. Photo c/o Danielle Ross

Do you work in public spaces with the class?

I have. I actually 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 kind of inherited it, so I sort of rewrote the syllabus in a way that kind of made sense to me. And one of the projects was having the students creating workshops or lab experiences around themes that came up in community, like 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 and it involved interacting with pedestrians and other people. And in some ways it was like a big failure in terms of what she had intended, but it ended up being the most interesting practice to investigate.

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

It really is just sort of documented in our memory and the conversations around it. And there’s other stuff we’ll do in public, especially if its nice weather, we’ll take the class outside and we’ll improvise moving out of the building and into other parts of the university and on the streets.

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, and also 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 felt like “am I gonna do graduate school?” And I was starting 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, and this might be something to look into.” And the first department for Performance Studies was at New York University, and I did a Master’s degree and ended up really liking it and I just felt like that was the tip of the iceberg and 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 looking at the NYU school, our first kind of intro classes were kind of thinking about this intersection between theatre and anthropology and kind of looking at theatrical devices within everyday life, cultural ritual, different passages one would have through life socially, transformations and subliminal spaces, and thinking of them as performance. And on the other hand there is also a big part of the school in which you think about performance through speech act theory and looking at performativity and thinking about through the lens of Judith Butler and J.L. Austen, we read some Derrida, and looking at it in terms of performativity, 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 the also the potential to deviate from the norms of that sort of chain of repetitions as Butler may say, the kind of iterative drift for Derrida, kind of the radicality for politics to happen, to impede those kind of shifts from the norm and from structures of power or oppression. 

When did you move from New York to Detroit?

I started spending a lot of time in Detroit in 2007 and I let my 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. We were very nomadic. All of the work we did was performed kind of in this touring model, and we shifted all 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 did some of the work here, and I think 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 sort of think about that real estate wise, that there was a really different sort of sense of how space was accounted for on like a radar of sorts. We had an opportunity to work in lots of interesting locations, and I guess that was like ten years ago, and so that started me thinking about—also coming from New York City, there was a really different kind of expansiveness or way in which the city is spread out. That really affected things. 

I worked for a long time in my apartment, I rented an apartment and started working in the apartment. I became really 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 really dwelling.” That became really interesting to me, it’s a city of homes. And how on the flip side it has this history of industry and factories and the coupling of those two spaces, and the productivity and kind of relationships and embodied practices that happen in each. 

So I did a project in an apartment building, a modernist apartment building in Lafayette Park, one was a solo and one involved a group of dancers, and then from there shifted from the kind of glass-tower-in-the-sky apartment and then decided to go to the park, that that was the next place to go after this very hermetic space. So then I did 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. And that was really modeled on this exploration of the social.

It kind of came back to the days when I was part of that nomadic group, Modern Garage Movement, and we’d make dances wherever we could. And it was really about looking at what’s around us, being resourceful, especially in dance and arts in general, this question of scarcity. What if we look at not through this lens of scarcity but perceive the abundance, and make dances in our apartment. 

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 perspective, but I also just love being in the midst of the mess, of the messiness, and experiencing that through a kind of dancing, improvising, participating body. And that’s really what I think performance has the opportunity to produce.

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

What are you working on now?

So I’ve had this reoccurring dream since I was a little kid, like really little. And it’s always about this house, kind of again returning to the dwelling space of the home, but in this dream it always starts out in the house that I grew up in which is in Northern California, and my mom lives in the house still, so it starts with this familiar space I’ve known my whole life. And throughout the dream it sort of builds, it’s like I have these experiences where I find these new rooms or new wings of the house, and I didn’t know they were there. I’m conscious in a way as they’re happening. And it’s always like, in a way the shock, and it’s really beautiful and there’s some sort of joy but it’s always really scary and terrifying.

There’s this way in which it produces this kind of uncanny, the dissonant part of it is also what continues to propel it forth. As these dreams have occurred I’ve always had this sense that these spaces are haunted and that there are these kinds of presences in them. Usually it’s kind of breezy and the walls are kind of dematerialized and I’ll go out the back and it’s like a whole other landscape.

So I decided at the beginning of this project that I would spend more time trying to search this memory, and that’s what really propelled the project. The piece is called Excavating the Room. I’ve also been looking at different writings, so there are these artists Madeline Gins and Arakawa who I really love, they worked with this kind of idea–they’re known for this work called Reversible Destiny, they think about architecture as a device towards producing immortality. There have been spaces they’ve designed and built, but there’s also a lot of writing and it’s poetic, and really playful and kind of absurd, and they have this one section of a book that they wrote called “The Architectural Body”, and it’s sort of set up like a play, and they’re showing some friends this new architecture that they’ve been developing, and you can’t see it, they’re like, “where is it, I don’t see anything.” But then as they sort of walk around the perimeter of it they start to lift up this material and create this whole structure that only really articulates itself upon entry, if that makes sense.

I’ve also been looking at some works by other artists in terms of holes in memory, and if we think about architecture as sort of holding memory within a sort of memory palace, what about the memories that we don’t remember. What do those spaces look like and how do we locate them? I’ve been working with this scenic element that my friend sewed for me and with an operation of exchanging texts with a poet, Douglas McDonald who lived in Detroit but now is in upstate New York, so it was sort of a collaboration. And the piece is nomadic and iterative, so it’s different every time I perform it. I want to do a residency where I can really delve into these materials and think about my own history and my ancestral lineages as a European, colonial histories moving into this continent, passages, and how looking at that will reposition myself now here as a woman teaching dance at Wayne State.

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