Moving Kinship with the More-than-Human

By Dr. Beatrice Allegranti

Dr Allegranti is Reader in Dance Movement Psychotherapy and Choreography at the University of Roehampton, London.

Moving Kinship, a form of embodied activism involving people living with rare young onset dementia, family carers and Beatrice Allegranti Dance Theatre[i]. Social, psychological and political issues of equality, autonomy, dignity, social inclusion and solidarity have been raised in relation to people living with dementias, but little attention is paid to the role of the moving-expressive body and to creative processes in advancing issues of social justice and health — particularly in the areas of young onset dementia (YOD). Even less attention is given to health inequalities and BIPOC and LGBTQI experiences of kinship and dementia. The project creates a space for artistic collaboration that supports people affected by YOD and their families to speak out, be visible and be heard. A core aim of Moving Kinship is to investigate how our collaboration allows people affected by young onset dementia and their families to understand and deepen their capacity to engage with life and kinship bonds in embodied, accessible and more-than-human ways.

Drawing from transcribed interviews/participants stories and experiences and my own affective movement and written responses, I work in the studio with professional dancers and a musician (in my company) to co-compose bespoke performances (including music) for each family. We develop bespoke choreographic and acoustic responses to participants’ experiences and stories, shaping the impact of this material on our own bodies – through a kin-aesthetic ‘storying’ of the families’ life material. ‘Kin-aesthesia’ is the term that describes ‘the sense of movement’. My neologism ‘kin-aesthesia’ includes proprioception, interoception and the material kinship that emerges between people dancing and its ethical and political dimensions.

The project has partners[ii] across the arts, health and science sectors, and aims to create bespoke dance theatre performances for and with families affected by YOD. Regular Moving Kinship hubs for families affected by YOD have been established in north and southwest London and from Summer 2021 across six Surrey boroughs. The hub is a place of possibility and hope, a place of learning. The hubs offer an interdisciplinary (artistic-psychotherapeutic) methodology that support, in creative and embodied ways, the mental health of families affected by young onset dementia. Here, I present an extract from a case study[iii] that captures the entanglements of bodies, environment, language, vulnerability, age, dis/ability, power and loss. Revisiting this extract for the multispecies dementia blog during the COVID pandemic brings to the fore seismic bodily changes and entanglements[iv] we are faced with. A time of incipience, perhaps, as we re-configure our affective understandings and experiences of health, illness, loss and death with natural and medical environments. There is an urgency to attend to the tangle of social, political, environmental and economic layers: we must cultivate an ethics of engagement that defies the Humanist notion of the subject as separate and individuated. Instead, we can turn to a Moving Kinship: possibilities to grow new bodies and increase our capacity for progressive relating. Moving-with human and more-than-human others enacts subtle, sensorial and incremental changes, and makes a space for our unimagined hopes.

The specially commissioned illustrations are by artist Neil Max Emmanuel[v] as a visual response to this writing. 

Language, I hate it!

During our conversation Kevin and Zuli talk about Kevin’s charity work to support people after the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. A few moments later they speak of the impact of the dementia diagnosis two and a half years previously. Kevin lives with Frontotemporal Dementia, characterized by progressive difficulties in speech production and word comprehension, and uses the adjective “difficult” to convey his experience. He is beginning to find it “difficult” to have conversations; to understand what people are saying; to recognize words; to find words, declaring: “Language, I hate it!”. In this instance, Kevin’s uninterrupted and incisive statement is the interlocutor for our dance. It finds its way to the dance studio and into Luke and Takeshi’s duet with forceful acceleration, stamping, stumbling – grabbing at silent, half words. Luke reflects, two months after creating the material: “it’s quite demanding of attention,” evoking a refusal to remain silent or passive as this distributed agency begins to choreograph itself into Kevin and Zuli’s bespoke dance.  

Surrender

A few weeks later, whilst performing our bespoke dance for Kevin and Zuli, Kevin, poised in his chair, carefully watches Luke, who is dancing just a few steps away from him. As Frontotemporal Dementia erodes Kevin’s brain, abnormal proteins gather in clumps and neurotransmitters fail, I wonder what is happening in Kevin’s premotor cortex, the region of the brain that is activated not only when we plan and execute movement but when we witness movement that we recognize in others[vi]. What is being triggered for him affectively in his witnessing Luke open his arms and surrender to falling backwards? Luke’s repeated surrender of weight, falling backwards with open arms, evokes memories of Kevin’s work as a Minister and summons an image of renaissance post-crucifixion. And yet, as the other dancers gather round to gently support Luke’s weight during his fluid falls, I am struck by Luke and Kevin’s similar physicality, their length, stature, warmth and tactile-kin-aesthetic ways. In this performative moment, I see beyond the tropes of obliteration and visceral erasure that figure so prominently in Anglo-American narratives and biomedical accounts of dementia and  recognize a collective becoming-with. Has Kevin has experienced this too?

Radical Intimacy

After the bespoke dance, Kevin and the rest of the group join us for a collective improvisation. Kevin is already articulating the affective impact of his witnessing, he seems unsettled, as he stands next to me, tears brimming in his eyes, he is nevertheless poised to speak. Pronouns almost disappearing and syntax ebbing away he turns to me: ‘See. What you are doing…beautiful…thank you’. Over time, I have come to understand that Kevin’s comment and strong visceral response is not only aesthetic recognition. It is more than this, it is a relational incipience that goes beyond a hypercognitive individualism. Kevin’s engagement with this choreographic material grasps how beauty is imbued with a sense of potentiality, of something not-yet-conscious glimpsed and felt, of hope[vii]. Kevin’s witnessing the choreographic unfolding viscerally mattered, it moved him. More, Kevin reminded us that affect remains accessible when other parts of his bodily being-in-the-world are becoming less within his grasp, that a lifetimes affect can be enacted into a performative moment.

Throughout Kevin’s tears the group is stilled, waiting. In a parallel process, across the room, Luke’s eyes are also brimming with tears and later he speaks of the affective immediacy of this moment,

I felt naked and vulnerable and disarmed in the performance…it felt different to any other performance that I’ve done…I had that feedback from [Kevin]. He was looking at me directly in the eyes and he was crying and staring back at me. And that’s the best response I’ve ever had…to anything I’ve ever done. Better than a standing ovation.

Everyone is encouraged to release a collective breath and realize that Kevin has given us all permission to be with the wave of vulnerability that Luke names, to recognize it. Sabrina, also reflected on the “tsunami of tears and yet, we all reached each other.” Dwelling on the proposition of reaching summons early developmental processes predicated on tactile-kinaesthetic engagements as formative invitations to become beyond identity[viii]. There’s a radical intimacy in this process – it highlights how autobiographical dementia stories chime with wider socio-political taboos about what constitutes kinship, identity, age, loss, language and care. In contrast to biomedical prognoses of silence, language impairment and solipsism, this process focuses on the kinship that emerges not only between people dancing, and its ethical and political dimensions but with the ever shifting process of relating with the kin-aesthetic material itself.

I wonder how Kevin and Zuli are reaching beyond their ‘tsunami’: a series of family deaths; the strain on Zuli’s working life; and then the diagnosis of dementia – Kevin losing himself mid-sentence, mid-life, and Zuli’s new role as his carer:

Zuli: I feel like I’m running two lives. And it’s very difficult to have conversations now…it’s difficult to go out for a meal and we can’t sit and talk…[turning to Kevin] I feel like it’s quite isolating for you…

Kevin: For me?

Zuli: Yeah. And I feel increasingly isolated as well. Because a lot of people don’t know how to deal with people who have dementia…they assume Alzheimer’s and someone eighties plus.

Tsunami

In a parallel process, the seismic waves engulf me and the dancers in our studio practice and, as we make material we are tangled with human and non-human forces. We experienced a bodying of the visceral force of a tsunami, the sea’s response to an earthquake, and how, as as marine biologist, Rachel Carson describes: the preceding voice of the breakers is suddenly stilled and in a matter of moments the water rises rapidly, as though the tide is coming in much too fast, but without surf[ix]. Our affective resonance with this storm has us grappling with layers of intimate relating where we reach, tentatively, defiantly, lovingly, fearfully, into our future with our tactile-kin-aesthetic improvisations, sensing our way into our own and each other’s’ lives and into the lives of our participants living with dementia and their family carer. Our bodying of the tsunami became ‘flocking’ choreography where the dancers assemble as a more-than-human organism, sensing, surging and retreating, tangled, porous, in flux between a loosening and tightening grip of hands. Choreographing-with waves, wind, environment is an ongoing genesis, a bodying of potential becoming[x] rather than an ontology of the body that presupposes a fixed state of being. This flocking choreography temporarily takes form only to loosen and then re-form, never fixed. 

Later, Jill, the composer, sonically engages with this ongoing genesis and transforms the soundscore for this section of the performance into music that is like a ‘requiem,’

The tsunami from the dance studio rolled across the north sea and reached me, on the Island of Askøy. We often think of people like Kevin as stilled and quieted by the losses of dementia, I hear people saying ‘he is a shadow of a former self’, a shell.  Emptied of who he once was. At the same time, we often think of people like Kevin caught in the storm of dementia – waves of agitation, fear, aggression, a disruptive force, a destructive force that changes everything its path. I think of Kevin as the eye of the storm, like a hurricane seen from space. I recorded the wind and waves on the Island where I live, I notice how similar they sound.  

My youngest child is frightened by the strange noise of the wind the night I made the recording, he tells me the wind sounds like scary voices. I tell him not to worry, it is only the wind, and head out into the storm to try and record it. I struggle, it’s difficult, the weather is resistant to my attempts to capture it, I am disorientated and deafened. When I listen back to the recordings I notice how similar it sounds, the waves, the wind, but as I listen carefully I hear the voices – just like my son did. So the voices in what you [Beatrice] call the requiem grow from the wind and waves – things I couldn´t hear until someone reminded me how to listen. 

Affective resonance travels, it wanders, it leaves its mark and however fleetingly, the choreographic process and soundscore activated our relational potential the feeling that as Luke reflected: “we’re in the same ocean.” But these dances are not ephemeral because as we moved our entanglements Kevin reminded us that despite his losses – affective resonance lives on, it keeps moving in more-than-human ways. Zuli is also affected by the affective traces of life and loss,

Thank you, so much expressed from what we talked about – to our work together – and the dancers today! I felt such a mix of feelings – recognising the hurt, hope, care, sadness, joy, anger, fear and, on we go.

Useful Links

  • Watch the Surrey Moving Kinship launch event webinar here
  • Further information about London Moving Kinship Hubs can be found here
  • Short films and testimonials from London Hubs here and here
  • Watch the 3 minute trailer for the film I Can’t Find Myself and see further information about it here 
  • Read about out how the film I Can’t Find Myself is used as a dementia resource in this feature article written for Therapy Today Magazine here 
  • Watch #bellaciao a short film about the production I’ve Lost You Only To Discover That I Have Gone Missinghere

Endnotes


[i] Beatrice Allegranti Dance Theatre (BADT) produces international and politically progressive work across several mediums: performance, film, participation and publications. The company work tackles burgeoning and interrelated social and environmental issues of loss, mental health, migration and ‘othering’ — through outstanding and ethical dance practice. BADT works in collaboration with a pool of 6 professional dancers: Luke Birch, Takeshi Matsumoto, Rudzani Moleya, Onyemachi Ejimofor Maria Palliani, Anea Zwierzynska; actor Chiara De Palo, composer Jill Halstead, musician Robert Howat, a registered nurse practitioner and fifteen project partners across the arts, health and science sectors.

[ii] Moving Kinship hubs are supported by Arts Council England, Surrey Arts and delivered in partnership with Alexandra Palace, Merton Arts Centre, Public Health, St Georges NHS Trust, Age UK, Dementia Pathfinders, Dementia Action Alliance, Created Out of Mind at the Wellcome Hub, Wellcome Collection, Bergen International Festival with Bergen Red Cross, Norway, University of Roehampton, South West Yorkshire NHS Trust, LGBTQ+ International Music Network, University of Bergen with Social Acoustics Project.

[iii] Allegranti, Beatrice. (2020). ‘Dancing Activism: Choreographing the Material With/in Dementia’. In Chaiklin, Sharon. and Wengrower, Hilda., (Eds). Dance and Creativity within Dance Movement Therapy: International Perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Allegranti, Beatrice. (2019). ‘Moving Kinship: Between Choreography, Performance and the More-than-Human’. In Prickett, Stacey, and Thomas, Helen. The Routledge Companion to Dance Studies. London: Routledge.

[iv] Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

[v] www.neeneecreative.com

[vi] Calvo-Merino, Beatriz, Grèzes, Julie, Glaser, Daniel. E, Passingham, Richard, E., and Haggard, Patrick. 2006. ‘Seeing or Doing? Influence of visual and motor familiarity in action observation. Current Biology, 16, 1905-1910. 

[vii] Spry, Tami. 2018. “Skin and Bone: Beauty as Critical Praxis.” Qualitative Inquiry 24 (5): 342-344.

[viii] Manning, Erin. 2007. The Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. Minneapolis: Minnesota Press. P xv.

[ix]Carson, Rachel. 2014. The Sea Around Us. London: Unicorn Publishing Group. 2014, p126

[x] Manning, Erin. 2007. The Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. Minneapolis: Minnesota Press. Pxxi.