Dance Me to the End of Law: Art, Justice, Improvisation

by | 30 Jan 2023

At its core, improvisation demands an ongoing interaction with shifting tight places, whether created by power relations, social norms, aesthetic traditions, or physical technique. Improvised dance literally involves giving shape to oneself and deciding how to move in relation to an unsteady landscape. To go about this endeavour with a sense of confidence and possibility is a powerful way to inhabit one’s body and interact with the world. 

Danielle Goldman (academic and professional dancer, NYC)

Methodological joy abounds when improvised dance is paired with legal scholarship and pedagogy. Kristen and Sara have been collaborating for about 5 years now and have performed at various conferences, events, and workshops, both in-person and online. Together, through spoken word, improvised dance, performance art, and attentive listening experiments, we have explored those “shifting tight places”, which Goldman mentions above, that are created by embodied power relations with our aim being to make visible unwritten laws and norms that can perpetuate injustice and intolerance in society. 

One of our most joyful methodological collaborations took place during a very unjoyful time, namely, mid-2020 when world-wide COVID-19 restrictions were at their most rigid. In light of the global pandemic, the annual Guelph Jazz Festival was postponed, and the online Improvisation Festival (IF) was created ( Our submission to the festival engaged, via spoken word and improvised dance, with a text written by Jacques Derrida, which he performed onstage alongside free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman at the La Villette jazz festival in Paris on 1 July 1997 (the text was later published in English as “Play: The First Name”). With the Derrida-Coleman collaboration as our inspiration, we attempted to unpack improvisational practices as that which are paradoxically experienced both as traumas and openings where justice might enter. We explored the idea of justice-as-improvisation, as a self-conscious engagement with tradition and convention along creative lines. Justice as improvisation opens up possibilities for new ways of being together in society, both locally and at the global level. However, as evidenced by the pain Derrida experienced when he was booed off the stage at La Villette, improvisation is always also traumatic: any first appearance of the “not yet recognised” unsettles and destabilizes our current knowledge and understanding of the world. Nothing can prepare us for the arrival of the wholly new. Applied to the context in which this performance took place, the seemingly unforeseen nature of the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly had extremely devastating effects the world over. Yet, it also offered an opportunity for possible societal change and a re-evaluation of many aspects of contemporary life. Thus, this collaborative piece was an attempt to make visible the dual nature of improvisation through embodied practice.

From a methodological standpoint, our collaborations are linked to the field of Critical Studies in Improvisation (CSI), which views improvisation not just as an artistic or musical practice, but as a social one, teaching us how to listen – really listen – to the singularity of a situation and its relationship to context and the surrounding circumstances. Attentive listening is not just about the sense of hearing; it is a multi-sensory and collaboratively enacted practice, involving human and non-human actors. Listening includes deep attunement to the body and its relations to other bodies, a skillset core to improvised dance practice.

Many of our performances/papers ask the audience to engage in arts-based attentive listening as an embodied practice that moves beyond the auditory and acoustic, inviting people to think more deeply and creatively about how we might create new power relations, social norms and/or “laws,” as we navigate our way to a more just and equitable future. 

Through our collaborations, we interrogate the unwritten/hidden laws and power relations at play in everyday performances and ask how attentive listening can be applied in a variety of ways, not only to artistic practices, but also to our personal and professional lives on a daily basis. We explore the body’s role as both recipient and creator of law: the body as silent but potent transformative agent in the body politic. We play with the tension between the written laws that overtly govern behaviour and the unwritten/hidden laws that covertly—and often much more powerfully—determine how and where our bodies can move. How do our bodies behave when unwritten laws conflict with written law? How can listening attentively to how bodies move help create new law as we navigate our way through social norms and unspoken taboos that create profound inequality and silently restrict our freedom of movement? How might the new law of our bodies lead the way to a more just future? These are just some of the important questions we probe applying our arts-based, and immensely joyful, methodology to the everyday experience of living and being with one another in law and society.

Kristen Lewis is a dance artist and legal advocate. She is the Artistic Director of Gull Cry Dance Theatre and the Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Men and Families (Vancouver division). She holds a JD from the University of Victoria Faculty of Law and an LLM from the Osgoode Hall law school.

Sara Ramshaw is Professor of Law and Director of Cultural, Social and Political Thought (CSPT) at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada


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