It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually involve? In this the fourteenth in a series of interviews, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with visual anthropologist Joy Brandsma, who joined the ATD Lectorate team a few months ago.
Part 14: Dance with me
It was in 2021 that Joy Brandsma graduated from the University of Amsterdam with her documentary Dancing in Captivity. Her original plan had been to conduct research into dance as a form of protest, in the context of Berlin’s club culture. But the pandemic changed all that: in Dancing in Captivity, we see five dancers dancing alone, at home, and talking with Joy on Zoom. And in her graduation essay accompanying the film, she sets out her radical agenda: to break down heteronormative barriers and test out a new form of anthropological research that takes dance as its starting point.
Joy issues an invitation to her readers – to dance with her. ‘I didn’t stop grooving as I danced while making the film,’ she writes, ‘And I’m keeping on dancing in this essay. I invite you to reason from the perspective of the dancing human. When you dance together, you participate. When you participate, you relate. Let’s examine and engage in movement. Get ready to dance!’
The essay interweaves snippets of poetry and stories about the over 200-year history of the scientific and academic perspective on sexuality and race; about the dominance of the spoken and written word in classical anthropology. It also explores the phenomena of dance, trance and queerness, as well as the anthropological illusion that it is possible to grasp anything fully, and the right to be unfathomable. Joy repeatedly reminds the reader that they and she are dancing together: ‘Follow me slowly as though we were dancing; dance with me.’
‘Dance has always been a big part of my life,’ explains Joy, ‘I feel a strong pull towards styles that originated in the underground, where dance is an act of resistance and liberation. My BA thesis was about Voguing, and Waacking played a big part in my graduation piece. There’s a level of expression in the Vogue and Waacking scenes you don’t encounter in other dances. The two styles started in the 1970s and 80s in the black queer scenes of Los Angeles and New York respectively. The first Ball I went to was at Amsterdam’s Compagnie Theater. It was part of the What Ish Gender? festival. House of Vineyard were performing. I was there on the sidelines and it blew my mind.
What was it you saw?
A catwalk, and queer black people dressed in lavish, extravagant costumes, and wearing lots of make up; men who could be very feminine and were getting appreciated for it, and the sheer joy they radiated. The music was loud, and the people in the audience were dancing and yelling. It was a real celebration, a truly safe space – a place where you could dress how you liked and be who you wanted to be. That was where I also saw Waacking for the first time, and I was hooked right away – you can channel so many different stories, so much expressiveness, all at the same time; you can say so much with dance, without it being fossilised into words.
Can you describe Waacking for me?
Waacking involves your entire body, and you use your arms and hands to tell your story. The originators were African-American and Latino-American gay men. They were previously known as ‘punks’ – they used very feminine movements they couldn’t display out in the wider world. Waacking got its inspiration from jazz and old Hollywood movies, like the Sunset Boulevard character Norma Desmond. But there’s also influence from martial arts and comic strip figures – that’s where the ‘boom’, ‘pow’ and ‘wack’ come up from.
How did this experience with dance lead you to do academic research from the perspective of the dancing human?
Well for the last four years I’ve been learning Waacking from Sarada Sarita at Native Moons, and I had one particularly intense experience in dance that gave me a lot of inspiration for my studies. It was just after the Black Lives Matter demonstration on Dam Square in Amsterdam. A whole group of us went there, a real mix of black and white, and it made a huge impact on us. We found it difficult to put our feelings into words, but by dancing for each other, one by one, we were able to communicate our pain and passion to fight for change. And there’s something transcendental about what happens in the cypher [the group] – you create really powerful connections; you get past all the differences and really feel each other.
The basis for my research is the idea that your body is a channel you can open up by dancing. And being affected emotionally connects you in new ways to things that are happening far away. In that sense, research through dancing is less about the dancing itself and more about letting yourself be affected. I use a range of tools to achieve that: in my film I interweave music, dance, poetry and conversation; in my essay I didn’t write everything out in full, and sometimes used poetry to express myself.
Is that acceptable within the academic world?
Yes – apparently [laughs].
At my final interview, I heard that the film and essay had been well received by my teachers. The conversation focused on what it exactly was that I’d made, and what my intention was. I was searching for an opening. I was asking: What exactly is knowledge? Is it only what is logical or rational? Or can it also be physical, experiential, spiritual – like a sudden insight that comes to you, as if out of nowhere.
Would you agree that your academic research seems closely aligned with the artistic research being conducted here at DAS Research?
Yes, there is a connection. I think the most important difference is the context. My research has a different kind of impact within the university and prompts different kinds of questions than it would in the arts world. Questions like: Is this research? Is this knowledge? How should we define tangibility? Does this fit in the framework of a research masters? There are lots of people at the university who want to experiment, but how should you go about it in the context of academic research?
And there’s one other major difference: when you study anthropology, you learn from the outset about global processes, about trade routes and power structures. All the details get pulled apart and compared with each other at macro and micro levels; all the shades of meaning and variables are compared and contrasted. And when you’re done doing that, where do you place yourself? Is there anything to say as an individual? What’s great about art is that you get to shape and colour your own research – you’re expected to make yourself heard, using your own voice.
Joy Brandsma is an associate researcher in the ATD Lectorate working on a range of projects including Climate Imaginaries at Sea and Access Intimacy, and in collaboration with the 5 O’Clock Class. Alongside her work at the Lectorate, Joy Brandsma is working on a new documentary, A Thousand Colors,which will be released in October 2023.
Text: Hester van Hasselt