Brighton-based dance artist Amy Bell is an exciting voice in dance, posing questions about how we view and label the female body and offering inventive answers. As a self-identified queer female, her work forges a space in which less ‘conventional’ bodies and ways of moving can find expression. We caught up with Bell, who recently debuted her piece The Forecast at the Place, to learn more about her work, her inspiration and what the future holds.
Tell us about the inspiration for The Forecast!
I was thinking about identity, body, sexuality and gender, how people are always in flux. I was thinking how difficult it can be to accept and work with that. Our very human need to know, to put down solid markers in the face of chaos, to predict, convince, to name, are useful and yet ridiculous. I was also thinking about my own experience as a queer female dance artist and wondering how I could draw from all the goofiness, difficulty and sincerity I feel around that, and, importantly, how I could connect it to wider experiences that anyone could relate to.
You collaborated on The Forecast with Hetain Patel (animation and dramaturgy), Jamie McCarthy (sound and music) and Lucy Hansom (lighting design). How was working with them?
I approached Jamie McCarthy and Hetain Patel to work on the project with me with a view to, amongst other things, finding larger metaphors for the ideas that I had been researching for a long time around my own identity. To move the project on, it was important for me to work with artists I had things in common with, but who were also different to me, so could challenge my assumptions and widen the thinking and feeling in the project. I also needed to trust them as artists and people. This collaboration was central to finding the main metaphor of The Forecast. I had been looking at female masculinity in movement and at the lack of queer female presence in dance. For many years, Jamie has been working with long durational drone structures, which often take inspiration from cloud movement and the weather systems. Hetain, who has been working on the formation of cultural identity for many years, proposed some studio tasks, including one that connected a TV weather forecast and gender. Something clicked, and I knew quite quickly this was a direction I wanted to take. Lighting designer Lucy Hansom joined the process later on, but the whole thing has been very collaborative and so a really rich experience. The piece is richer for it too.
Your work seems both deeply personal, and also touches on universal themes. Do you ever make abstract work? Or do you think something of yourself will always come through?
I seem to always need to acknowledge what feels to me like the absurdity or, at least, the odd situation of dancing in front of people in the moment of doing it. I can’t pretend that that is a normal thing to do. That doesn’t necessarily mean the dancing is personal, but perhaps it does make it different to some more abstract work. I love watching abstract work, I often find it very beautiful and indeed personal, but when I am making or performing, I somehow find that I have to acknowledge that we are people here together – performers and audience. That can be a wonderful material to work with, whether we get personal or not. I think perhaps that is something abstract work doesn’t necessarily get so interested in.
In terms of working with personal material in The Forecast, I wanted to find ways of making it relatable to people who did not share my experience. I love that struggling with the unpredictability of the weather is something we can all relate to on a very concrete level, and I thought it was a lovely way into thinking about our internal, bodily or psychological gender weather. I hope to share the absurdity and humanity of trying to ride the storms of gender and sexuality as they play out across the body, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what you make of it, of course.
You read English at Cambridge. Tell us about the relationship between language and movement in your artistic practice.
Yes, this relationship has become very important to me in my work. I enjoy the slippage of meaning that occurs when the body in movement is set against words. The playing out of this tension is happening to us in every moment. Our bodies are often saying something very different to the words that come out of our mouths. There is something so human about it, and I enjoy exploring this interplay further through choreography.
In my installation piece TOMBO(Y)LA, for example, I conduct relatively natural conversations with people while, at the same time, I am engaged in improvised movement scores. The piece often happens in gallery or public spaces where people might feel alienated by contemporary dance movement or might start to objectify me. The conversation, since its register is familiar and hopefully unpretentious, draws people together and then allows a playful, subversive, nuanced physical undercurrent to bubble up in our exchanges. In the work I am also asking people to give language to their physical, bodily experience of their gender identities, a place where language often breaks down. I love the way that movement, set against this search for verbal expression, prompts memory, sensation, and a more visceral or grounded searching into their own somatic experiencing and into mine.
Who and what inspire you to move and create?
It’s hard to put a response into words. I think movement and creativity are pretty fundamental human urgencies we all share. It’s very powerful to tap into that as a way of making a life for yourself in the world. Even though it’s not easy to carry on with it and it sometimes feels completely pointless, it’s kind of addictive and brings with it glimpses of some kind of truth – if I can use such a risky word – that can make you feel ‘alive’ in a way other things just can’t. There are many artists, creative thinkers and activists who inspire me and I think working together, sharing resources, caring for each other and challenging each other is completely at the heart of what we do. No one can do this alone.
Can you describe your movement style in five words?
I don’t believe in “style”.
Excellent use of five words! You’re curating Splayed – a ‘festival of disruptive femininities’ at the Place this May/June. Sounds fantastic! Can you give us an idea of what to expect?
I am also excited about Splayed! You can expect a week of subversive and super engaging work and events! The festival is geared towards disrupting conventional notions of femininity through experimental movement, performances, discussions and a free zine. I wanted to address the fact that there is amazing work going on at the moment rocking what we think we know about desire, identity, power, violence, gender binaries and embodiment. Having these works rub up against each other in a relatively mainstream dance context will hopefully set some sparks flying. I hope that there might be a wider debate about dismantling the norms of physical expression and a celebration of the range and richness of individual experience.
Splayed! Festival will be at the Place this May/June and The Forecast will be available for touring in Spring 2019. Learn more about Amy Bell at www.amy-bell.com.