A bigger and better butterfly

An interview with Miriam Rother – a dancer and choreographer committed to art for all.

Dance of the Muses workshop, led by Miriam Rother (far left), for students and faculty at Bar-Ilan University (photo credit: MARIA DERECHYNA)
Dance of the Muses workshop, led by Miriam Rother (far left), for students and faculty at Bar-Ilan University
(photo credit: MARIA DERECHYNA)
Born in Canada, Miriam Rother is a dancer and choreographer who immigrated to Israel in 1971.
Since then, she has lived and worked in Malawi, Thailand, Hungary, Switzerland and Kenya.
At the center of Rother’s creative life is a commitment to diversity. She is the artistic consultant to Pamoja Dance Group, an inclusive company of dancers with and without physical disabilities. She is also the core dance adviser to Picasso PRO, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of integrated arts. Now based in Tel Aviv, Rother is studying non-fiction at Bar-Ilan University, where she is writing about the most poignant moments in her fascinating career.
I met with Rother in Jerusalem, where we discussed classical ballet, Thai culture, Greek theater and her steadfast commitment to the accessibility of art for all.
When did you begin studying dance?
Dance is something you study from a young age. I started at five or six with ballet, like most little girls.
Then I got very serious. I really wanted to do it professionally, and my parents were horrified. I was a reasonably good student and a Jewish girl. So we made a deal. I could dance three times a week if I went to Hebrew school every day. And I could dance if I went to university.
I really enjoyed studying, but I danced that whole time as much as I could. And as soon as I had my BA, I went to study at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem (now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance) for three years. There I studied ballet, modern dance, choreography, movement – everything you could imagine. It was unbelievably wonderful.
What does dance give you?
I was always interested in movement and body language as communication. It gave me different things at different times. When I studied ballet, it was a kind of beauty and elegance, another world. Modern dance was much more earthy and what I thought was communicative, until I also got tired of that. I decided that dance was very difficult to communicate with actually, and that’s when I looked for other ways of working in dance.
This led me to people living with disability, the idea of unusual bodies and people who may not have access to art.
What is difficult about communicating with dance?
Dance is stylized. You are bound to a vocabulary; in ballet especially, but even in modern dance. I go to a performance and I know what’s going to happen. Somebody wants to show that they’re in anguish, so they contract their whole body. How do you communicate, on one hand, abstract ideas, and on the other hand, things that are concrete? Learning the technicalities is an important part of training and development, and you can stay there with those technicalities. The art is when you express something, when you communicate with an audience.
Describe your first experience working with dancers living with disability.
One of my ballet teachers taught dance to deaf children, which was amazing because she used sign language as body language. This was very unusual then because people were still asking deaf people to speak.
Now that’s not what happens; the language is sign. She was definitely one of my big heroes. When I was a teenager, I helped her.
Professionally, the first time was in Malawi, and it happened by accident. I was teaching ballet in the British school system, and one of my students was afflicted with cerebral palsy. She had very little strength in her legs and could only walk with walking aids or holding on to something. She was very intelligent, but her speech was slurred because the muscles around her mouth were affected. Her name was Fran. And she came to ballet. It was very interesting because there was a new way to think about organizing the class.
One day I said to my students, ‘Okay, you have to find a way to balance together on one leg and hold your arms out to the side like a butterfly.’ Most of them didn’t use each other because they didn’t need each other. They were just kind of standing back to back. Fran and her partner held on to each other’s shoulders and held their other arms out to the side. They balanced for a long time. Fran said, ‘See, because we’re standing like this, we can balance longer than you. We’re a bigger and better butterfly.’ That was a turning point. Everyone realized that this class was going to be a gift to all of us because of Fran. It was amazing.
What prompted you to switch from dance to choreography?
At the Rubin Academy, I had a very interesting choreography teacher named Gertrude Kraus, kind of a genius. She was one of the last students of Mary Wigman, who worked in Germany between the wars, very experimental. And we had another influence which was invented here, a type of movement and dance notation called Eshkol-Wachman. It’s the idea of “anything a body can do.” And that’s really the way I choreograph.
Early on, I thought I wanted to study dance therapy, which you couldn’t study in Israel then. So I went to York University in Toronto. They have a big dance therapy program. The person who interviewed me listened and said, “You can do this, but you’re not talking about dance therapy. You’re talking about choreography.” I was really grateful. She recognized that I was talking about composition, improvisation, working with physical themes in order to get people out of their comfort zones. I was not talking about therapy. This is dance as art. This is an artistic focus that might have some therapeutic value.
Creatively, how do dance and choreography differ?
They both give you a kind of dynamism, an energy, a passion for movement. Most of the dancing I did was modern dance, and I was really doing something that somebody else told me to do. I enjoyed that – perfecting movements, working within an ensemble, feeling the rhythm of the group. But I wanted to compose dance.
It’s creative in a different way. It’s like playing piano. It’s very creative to play Schumann or Chopin, and it’s also very creative to compose music. It comes from a different place, and they’re both interesting.
How do you choreograph for disabled and non-disabled dancers working together?
It’s integrated. Actually, integrated is not the correct word – it’s inclusive. Because ‘integrated’ means that you’re integrating one group into a larger group. That’s not at all what I do. I don’t ask people to adapt to the dance of the able-bodied world. You can do that, and there are dance companies that do that. You can have people sitting in a wheelchair perform ballet movements with their upper bodies. We create a third language by the meeting of disabled and non-disabled dancers.
Where is that meeting point and how do you reach it?
There are many meeting points, but it comes about through improvisation and experimentation. For example, how can a disabled dancer lift a non-disabled dancer? You find a way. You find a way to bal- ance your weight. You find a way to approach the person. And then you’ve created another language.
How do audiences react to inclusive dance performances?
It depends where and when. When I first started working in inclusive dance, people weren’t used to these things. They were uncomfortable. They looked away. They didn’t know what to expect. They were fascinated. Now audiences do know what to expect.
People come because the dance groups are very professional. They are interested in what’s happening and in what the body can do.
Are there common misconceptions about disability?
A lot of people say that we are all disabled in a certain way. For example, I can’t do math very well. But it’s not quite the same, and I don’t think that’s fair to people living with disability. Disability is a way of being in the world, with its particular desires and needs. Of course, disability is a very general word.
Some people say that the world is disabled. In other words, you can’t get into a certain building because that building doesn’t have a ramp. You have to navigate the world in a different way. But as soon as you have a ramp instead of stairs, you actually navigate the world in the same way.
How did you become involved with Pamoja Dance Group?
At the Kenya National Theater, there was a twomonth inclusive project for disabled and non-disabled dancers. For the dancers it was a dream come true, and they were desperate to continue after the program ended. They heard that I was interested in inclusive dance and approached me. I agreed to work with them. For that first meeting, the dancers invited a few of their friends, all physically disabled, and I asked several able-bodied dancers to join me. We danced outside in the theater square to the music of choirs rehearsing or to the sounds of a lone drummer.
Each week, more and more people arrived: men and women on crutches, some driving hand-operated bicycles, and others with the support of a friend. The dancers’ self-esteem grew, as did their physical strength and artistry. They began to see themselves as a dance company and chose the name Pamoja Dance Group. Pamoja means “together” in Kenyan Swahili.
All of the Pamoja dancers are comfortable on stage and love to perform. During its first two years of operation, the group performed in all the major venues of Nairobi. They appeared on several television programs and shared the stage with the London Festival Ballet and the Stuttgart Ballet Company. Pamoja is now 10 years old and continues to perform and do outreach work all over the country.
How does culture influence creativity?
I confronted this head-on in Thailand. Thais have rituals and patterns to their lives which they consider very important. There are ways of being, ways of acting in society, and other ways are not so accepted. Of course, this was in 1994, so it’s a little different now. Because of globalization, things have opened up all over the world.
But certainly then, you didn’t touch your partner in public. You rarely expressed anger – you just lowered your eyes. And these things are all physical.
I was teaching Western dance to very accomplished Thai dancers. They had a bachelor’s degree in traditional Thai dance and went back to university to get a master’s degree. I started one class by asking them to form their bodies into a shape and move somewhere in the room. They sort of didn’t do it. They were very reserved, and the reservation was present in their bodies. One of the dancers who spoke some English said, “We can’t take a shape and dance if we’ve never done it before. We have always danced this way.”
“We have always danced” – that’s present perfect, a very interesting tense. It means that there is something in the past that’s continuing in the present and will have a future.
I realized that what I was teaching was not working, so I went home and thought about it. Eventually, I asked them to show me a pose of Thai dance with their feet and add some arms to that. That worked. It’s a cultural thing. If I was teaching here in Israel and said, “Make a shape and take it somewhere in the room,” it would be fine as in most any Western country.
So that was very interesting, the strongest example of cultural influence on movement that I encountered.
What is Dance of the Muses?
In my son’s first year at St. John’s College [in Annapolis, Maryland], one of the professors, A.P. David, gave a lecture about his theory on the Greek language.
Ancient Greek has very little in common with modern Greek, so we don’t know how it was spoken.
But there are syllables that are stressed and unstressed, long and short, and this forms a kind of musical score. He believes that the Greek chorus was a musical score that was danced. That as the dancers moved, they said the words. Some people think he’s wrong.
Some are surprised. Some would like to know more. He gets a lot of huge reactions.
What is your role in the project?
My son, who knew that I was interested in inventing movements, said, “You have to speak to this guy.”
So I spent a long time reading about ancient Greece, reading plays, teaching myself a little of the grammar and looking at the images on ancient vases. It seemed to me that his theory is correct. The images on the vases look like dance notation. One posture goes into another. You can discern what energy they moved with. For example, the upper body tells you a lot about tension; our shoulders and backs and the backs of our necks. Those figures told me the same thing.
Was it a tense or a loose movement? David went to the dean of the college and asked if we could design a workshop. So I went to the college three or four years in a row and choreographed to the Greek words by understanding their rhythm and meaning. We very fortunately presented this work at a conference at Olympia. Two years ago, we did this in the Classics Department at the University of Brasília, and then at other universities.
Tell me about your writing projects.
I’ve always wanted to write about these experiences around the world, but I didn’t think I could do it. I wanted to write with a ghost writer. Then I had to design a curriculum for a project here in Israel, and I was asked to write something about myself; my professional milestones or anecdotes about how I came to work with disability. So I wrote them. Later, I started going to writing workshops with [teacher] Judy Labensohn. After a few meetings, she said, “You should think about going to Bar-Ilan.” These are all things that developed into my thesis: what happened in these dance projects, what happened to me as a result of this work, what happened to the people I worked with, what happened in dance.
What did happen to you as a result of this work?
I guess it’s still happening. I continually reimagine what dance is and what dance can be. And I suppose that’s exactly what happens to the people I work with. I’ve learned that people should have access to art. Everyone. It’s not the disability that keeps people from a life in art; it’s the nature of the artistic world.
In many countries, there is no stage that is accessible.
We’ve had to carry people up the stairs. Some people have had to crawl on their hands and knees.
What advice can you offer other artists?
I’m very grateful that my career has involved so many different ways of creating.
Go with whatever presents itself. And if you have the opportunity, work in other cultures. You have to be willing to make mistakes, like I did in Thailand.
The other thing is to work with a variety of populations.
If I wanted to create a new piece of dance, I thought I would start by going to a senior citizens’ group and dancing with people, seeing what comes out of that. I don’t know if I’m going to create a dance piece for them, but I know I’m going to learn something about choreography by working with a specific population. Work with as many people as you can. 
To learn more about Miriam’s Rother’s work, visit www.pamojadance.org