On October 15 at 7:30pm, Gibney Dance and Choreographic Center will screen we sleep no more, a “power chair ballet film” choreographed and directed by Carina Ho in collaboration with filmmaker William Tyner, dancers Jay Kern, Bonnie Lewkowicz, Judith Smith, Nils Jorgensen, and Cynthia Noonan, and cellist Isabelle Nichols. Ho is a Bay Area native and Oakland resident, who became paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident in 2014. A classically trained pianist, Ho turned to digital composing during her long recovery after the accident. Ho, who is also trained in ballet and various contemporary dance forms, imagined that her dancing days were over until a friend put her in touch with Judith Smith, then artistic director and co-founder of AXIS Dance Company, an Oakland-based mixed ability dance company. After two years with the company, Ho decided to pursue her “own thing as a female musician, woman of color, dancer with disability.” She was a 2018 Fulbright Fellow to Montevideo, Uruguay, where she taught at the national dance conservatory, and received a 2019 Dance/NYC Craig H. Neilson Foundation Disability.Dance.Artistry Residency. She also works for Airbnb as part of their disability team. Busy, busy woman.
I attended a shoot on August 25 at The Ed Roberts Campus, an 80,000 sq. ft. universally designed, transit-oriented campus in south Berkeley, and then met with Ho at The Alice Collective café, a new space in rapidly gentrifying Oakland that does more with biscuits than previously imaginable.
Sima Belmar (Rail): You’re a composer, instrumentalist, singer, dancer, and choreographer. What made you decide to make a dance film?
Carina Ho: I chose film because the community that I would love to see my work doesn’t always have the ability to get out and about. I wanted a medium that could present the full beauty, power, and grace of these people in the comfort of your living room.
Rail: When I was at the shoot, you were working on a beautiful 8-count unison phrase that got me thinking about that time signature as a constraint in relation to other constraints. How did you work with the five dancers in power chairs, each of whom appeared to have different limitations?
Ho: Although I’ve danced with AXIS and am therefore familiar with how a choreographer needs to adjust their choices based on the bodies they’re working with, I was working by and large with bodies that don’t have a ton of mobility. So even things I can do as a disabled dancer wouldn’t always translate to their bodies. A lot of my original ideas had to be altered along the way. I would look in the mirror, come up with a little thing and think, “Okay, this looks great, we’re all wheelchair users, cool.” And then they would be like, “I can’t do that, my joystick is on the left side, everyone else has theirs on the right”—things that I had no idea about. That phrase looked very different from what I’d thought up in my head and danced out in the mirror. But what I’m going for is an honest portrayal of these dancers. I’m not going to try to make them do what is out of their comfort zone. Also they’re much older than I am. They’re dealing with aches and pains and bodily limitations that I don’t experience. Factoring in these differences and hearing the dancers advocate for themselves is part of the process.
Rail: So despite being yourself a wheelchair user, there were several aspects of the dancers’ experience that weren’t visible to you, demanding a recursive process.
Ho: Absolutely. Those “ouch” statements were forms of input that informed the way the piece turned out. Nobody in this group is a trained dancer in a traditional sense. Two of them started AXIS, so they have a fair amount of dance experience, but they came to it post injury. As someone who had training in a more traditional sense, I needed to work with that as well—what’s it going to take to memorize choreography, to hear the music cues? I wrote the music and had to really think how the dancers could respond to cues.
Rail: I love how music rather than shape drives the unison phrases in this work. Each dancer had their own way of doing the same movement within the rhythmic structure. Clearly the idea is not to have everyone look like swan clones.
Ho: Working with unison is a conscious decision I make as an artist with a disability who wants to invite mainstream people to view this work. I incorporate things that I know will win people over and look great. Another restraint I was working with is when you have five people in large power chairs they can’t really engage with each other in terms of contact. There was one sequence that I call Fruit Ninja, where I did want to see the dancers engage a little bit more in terms of conversational movement because I realized there was very little of that. It will be my ongoing research project to find out how to create environments where someone can feel they have more [movement options] to do.
Rail: Choreographers have long created structured improvisations to place restrictions on their dancers in the service of a choreographic idea. It seems to me that this may be necessary when there appear to be no limitations on the body. We all have constraints and limitations, but with a project like yours, with people with more obvious constraints, especially in relation to the dance world, you’re engaging with a community that knows something about what it means to move through the world as a structured improvisation.
Ho: I made a little video of the dancers talking about the project that I’ll present at the screening so viewers can hear more about what the dancers feel. In answer to the question, “How does dance give you power?” Jenny, one of the dancers, said that movement in general gives us power. Maybe from an outside perspective it doesn’t look so, but everything in our daily lives is athletic—picking the keys up off the floor when you’re immobile in this big power chair, you have to strategize, you have to play with your constraints in order to reach this objective. From that perspective, we’re always playing with our restraints and pushing the boundaries with movement.
Rail: It’s a massive intervention into ableist ideologies.
Ho: I still have ableist thoughts just having lived most of my life as an able-bodied person. Most of my experience with dance and movement is from an able-bodied perspective, and I still impose those expectations on myself, on what I want to see, on what I deem aesthetically pleasing. So I view this project as an interruption of my own mental habits. Of course there are times when I’d be frustrated—“You can’t do that? Aargh! That was such a good idea. Ugh, gotta scrap that.” It’s a learning curve as an artist and as a human to become at peace with that.
Rail: It sounds like the frustration comes more from what you want to see than some kind of kinesthetic or feeling-based expectation.
Ho: That’s a disconnect when you’re working with disabled people because when someone who has a different disability from you says “that doesn’t feel good in my body” or “I don’t have the strength” that triggers the need for empathy. I have no idea what it feels like to be a quadriplegic, so I just need to trust you when you say this isn’t working for your body. I never want to make anyone feel shitty for what they can’t do. To overthrow the toxic bias for disabled dancers and able-bodied dancers, I focus on inciting empathy. This is my form of activism. I go into rehearsal and think, even if you’re frustrated, don’t dare show it on your face because then you’re violating everything.
Rail: Do you feel pressure to be a voice for disabled dancers?
Ho: As a disabled artist, I’m representing people with disabilities. I choose to take the route of being political without needing to say it, letting my work speak for itself. If people like the work and think it’s powerful, and yeah, I’m different and everyone in my work is different, and they get on board with that, then I’ve achieved my goal. My general goal as a disabled artist is just to put myself on stage and let that do the talking. Being on stage is such a powerful tool of normalization.
Rail: Were there any governing themes for this project?
Ho: Redefining beauty, power, and fragility. Packaging it in a way where you can be unapologetic and very honest about bodies that aren’t beautiful or powerful to the mainstream audience is one way to make it beautiful and powerful. You know how contemporary dance can melt into this, smooth, gentle thing? I really wanted to not fall into that pattern. I want to see fierceness, thrashing, silence, almost as a protest—no, we are not just soft, gentle beings; we are violent.
Rail: Fragility and vulnerability as power rather than weakness is all over the TedTalk/Netflix circuit these days. It seems like a lot of people are making buck off of vulnerability without ever performatively enacting it.
Ho: That was the piece that was missing for me with Brené Brown. You’re telling me all this stuff but I don’t see it. My little sister raved about her talk. What am I missing? Maybe it’s my lived experience that supersedes most people’s, not like it’s an oppression or trauma Olympics, but the fact that on a daily basis I experience a lot more vulnerability than the average person, so when people talk about vulnerability or fragility, I’m like, y’all don’t know anything.
Rail: Or you do know something about it but you haven’t actually touched your own story.
Ho: You haven’t had to exercise it in really hard ways.
Rail: It’s back to the power of visibility. Just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean we can’t imagine it and develop empathy.
Ho: This is where I think art serves a true purpose—in our society many people are afraid of looking at disability. So often, when I’m a little bummed out that I’m in a wheelchair, they’re like, but look what you’ve accomplished! That’s a way of focusing on the snap back as the victory, diminishing any sort of recognition of what it took to get to the snap back. This film is not focused on the tragedy or trauma but on the journey—it’s real, let’s not be afraid to look at it. It doesn’t have to be super ugly, nor is it always super beautiful, it’s just a fact.
Rail: The violence of “triumph over adversity” rhetoric.
Ho: I’m still living with it so, I didn’t triumph, I’m just here.
You can find out more about Carina and watch her music videos at https://onikhomusic.com/.