Thinking Through and With Learning Disability

Margaret Ames
Prifysgol Aberystwyth University 

Gestures, actions, postures: throwing outwards, throwing upwards, polishing, milking and praying; arms up, head down, turn the page, opening and closing, chopping and stamping, beating the floor, clapping; look up and think, point, hand over mouth, shaking hands, snarl, growl and shriek; puss puss, slash and scratch, lead the bull, crow and cockerel.

We have just completed our performance for 2019. Cyrff Ystwyth presented John over two nights here at Aberystwyth University. It was devised and choreographed by Adrian Jones: his sixth piece of work. Adrian is a learning disabled person. The work was a response to the death of his brother, loss, mourning and the unanswerable questions that haunt the living. Elvis Presley accompanied Adrian’s distinctive choreography of gesture and postural shifts. Elvis’s voice and poignant lyrics of love moved us beyond the theme of romance and into the territory of love and loss. Having the privilege of working over many years with Adrian and the ensemble, I have been thinking about their work and how embodied knowledge, what we know in our bones, in our cells, in our hearts, is a form of thought and agency. As choreographic material, the gestural repertoire of the company, created by learning disabled colleagues, moves over time, since actions created at one moment in time serve new purposes in different performances sometimes years later. Polishing the floor moves from signalling the endless work of cleaning the house and the outbuildings to buffing the name plate on a coffin. Looking up and thinking, waiting, moves from an illustration of the act of remembering to the wariness of waiting for something to happen: waiting for an impulse deep inside to surface and to move, to become externally visible. I remember Adrian telling my colleague in the university what he had been doing in rehearsal: ‘moved my arms and legs I did’. This seemed to be a definition of kinaesthesia and of intention as well as a precise account of what we had all done. He does not waste words.

My thinking about our shared practice has caused me to become aware of underlying effects that are taking place through this work. At the moment I am wondering about these effects and how:

  • creative theatrical processes produce social and communication skills that re-frame thought, action and perceived deficit of disability to forge understandings that are culturally generative. Agency, the capacity to take one’s own action, can be staged and for people with learning disabilities this is of high significance.
  • Through live theatre and dance we might understand nuance in thinking through learning disability that speaks beyond mimesis and beyond techniques of the body as representative, acting as a character or portraying a role or emotional state.
  • That ensemble theatre practices challenge assumptions about inclusion.

I am interested in three theoretical lenses that help me think about these propositions:

  1. Recent work in dance studies helps me to understand how dramaturgy operates as a shared communication and that what is communicated through embodied action circulates freely within the ensemble process, between bodies. According to Maaike Bleeker this is a way of thinking – and she calls it ‘thinking no-one’s thought’.1
  2. Kinaesthetic action points the way to understanding embodied knowledge as productive of affect and information.
  3. Carrie Noland’s concept of gesture as agentic: she states that gesture is a form of writing, that it is inscription and constitutes acts of building culture.

Driving home after rehearsal, I asked Adrian what he wanted to say to the audience about his brother. He does not use language with any confidence, being limited to yes or no responses and a couple of stock phrases. Suddenly from the back seat of the car, in the dark, he spluttered: ‘but Mags I can’t say it’.

I link this extraordinary verbal event laden with affect with an early and equally profound communication in gesture – again in the dark in the car. How do you feel? I asked. He drew his hand in a loose fist shape up towards his mouth sucking air in noisily, and then he exhaled, long and loud whilst pushing the palm of his hand far out in an extension into space – now, we call this the feeling breath – what could not be spoken, embodied.

There are many gestural and postural themes that have emerged over the years. We share this vocabulary and recruit specific actions for different thematised responses. Some, as here, belong to particular colleagues’ personal repertoires. Others belong to another company member Andrew Evans, who joined the company in 1988.


The form of thought is embodied and produced via kinaesthetic action that is driven by intention, which opens up information regarding context, theme and the subjects that perform actions. Kinaesthetic action and affects produced via dramaturgical arrangements are the materials I work with during Cyrff Ystwyth’s process. Dance ethnographer Deidre Sklar’s definition of kinesthesia informs my understanding. It is specifically ‘proprioception of the joint and muscle action involved in movement and the word kinetic [refers] to any movement, including but not limited to joint and muscle action.’2 The intention is towards communication of certain ideas, experiences and presence – that is, the performer’s desire to be seen and recognised as agentic producer of creative expression. This, therefore presumes an audience to see the performer and to experience their communication and perceive their intention and the intention of the overall work in which individual acts of embodied thought create the theatre, the dramatic, the work of art.

The work is grounded in relational proximity – one body in relation to others, performers and audiences. The processes are abstract and embodied as they are pure movement and sound. Sklar notes that our awareness of embodied knowledge often forgets that kinetic vitality is part of such knowledge. She states that kinetic vitality reveals cultural constructions and ‘ghosts’ all gestures. She claims that sensory, bodily processes are the ground for all thinking. She positions this claim in the context of anthropological work by Constance Classen and David Howes who find that cultural sensory profiles emphasise different sensory modalities such as sight, touch, smell, hearing etc.3 But Sklar argues that there is the omission of kinesthesia in anthropology, and she posits that this is because it can only be grasped through the lived experience of our own bodies – it has no external object to evidence it or reveal it. In the west we are images: through film, photos or mirrors we become externalised. Carrie Noland says that she takes ‘kinesthesia to be fully a sixth sense, a source of sensations of which the body is more or less aware.’4 Kinesthesia is about doing, not just appearing. In contrast to the surface of image such as a photograph or a moving image on a screen, kinesthesia offers internal awareness at deep physiognomic and affective levels. Theatre is the realm where both doing and appearing can merge in the intention to communicate thought. So theatre is both an object and event that produces thought in audiences, and a means of thinking for makers and audiences. The work becomes the site where we think together.

Gesture communicates through play between mimesis and abstraction. This play between the external reference of mimesis (what I am trying to communicate is out there in the world) and particular personal movement preferences that produce abstraction create nuance in the play between outside and inside. This is the mark of culture evidenced in mimesis and personal nuance of internal embodied knowledge. It also suggests a challenge to current understanding of inclusion for disabled people in terms of access to activity. Usually this is about a disabled person accessing the non disabled world. Through this particular ensemble practice it is the other way around. Each performer learns the material of a learning disabled colleague. The work is always fleeting but performers learn through copying and embedding units of gesture, posture and spatial trajectory through their own personal movement preferences, physiognomies and capacities. This is not about including learning disabled people in making theatre. It is the reverse and begins with embodied knowledge, kinaesthetic responses, themes, ideas and thoughts of a person with learning disabilities. Hegemonic distribution of inclusion that goes only one way – meaning inclusion in a non-disabled matrix (normativity) is challenged. Here performers without disabilities learn from those with disabilities.

As each body is complicatedly different whilst sharing a general schematic appearance, the reproductions and reiterations of the kinetic material, now choreography, are always multiple and shiver with the interruption of flow, with misfires and judders. This mode of dancing is an inversion of the trained dancer’s body whose flow cannot be stopped and who shapes their body through repeated patterns of movement in training in order to present the smooth surface of continual movement and controlled shape. This tendency of dance identified by Andre Lepecki is undone here.5 This is a literal assemblage of dis-abled flow and kinetic chains. A challenge to inclusion in normative contexts, via dance theatre, produces thought through bodies: we think through learning disability by moving. The variety of relationships and the details of creative collaborations between people who require support and those who respond to those needs in the practice of making theatre is a thoughtful embodied process.

In performance: Head in hand, wash, brush, breathe; hand on heart, rise and drop, rock and roll; cwtch, legs wide, turn and rock, spin and stop. Stop/go/stop/tug/stop/shake/sigh/stop.

Wait…wait…wait…forget…look…wait…hands on floor.

Carrie Noland observes that gestures are ‘organized forms of kinesis through which subjects navigate and alter their worlds.’6 Gesture is a means by which the body is extended into the world. Gesture is learnt and our capacities to gesture bring attention to qualities of our thoughts and actions – our dispositions and affective relations – rather than just producing results as bare actions do. The gestural choreography made by my colleagues is not functional but moves between mimetic explanation and description and pure abstraction. Following Noland’s claim that gesture is an act of building culture, I am proposing that the shared kinesthetic thoughts circulating  freely between ensemble members that are shaped via this dramaturgical process produce stagings of cultural agency. Ability or disability is not relevant and questioning a person’s skill or ability to do the work never occurs. Those who commit to the work select themselves. I suggest theatre as a place where the thoughts of people not credited with the capacity to think beyond functional tasks, because of learning disability, are both revealed and experienced as serious contributions to the field of live performance, to our culture, via work that takes its material from the embodied and abstract gestures of artists with learning disabilities. I am thinking/feeling, understanding action and intention through my sixth sense: kinesthesia.

In performance: sigh, tug sleeve, sigh, stretch, rub-head, run, stop, stagger, reach arm towards audience, shout, reach, again, again, laugh loudly, bow, bow again, again, again.

Margaret Ames is a Senior Lecturer at Aberystwyth University. She is a practice-based researcher.  Her interest is in how live performance work created by and with learning disabled people challenges and contributes to theatre practices and aesthetics, and how such work might reveal embodied expert knowledge that is communicated via performance.

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  1. Maaike Bleeker, ‘Thinking No-One’s Thought’ in Dance Dramaturgy: Modes of Agency, Awareness and Engagement, ed. by Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison  (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 67-83 (p. 75)
  2. Deidre Sklar,  ‘Remembering Kinesthesia’ in Carrie Noland and Sally Ann Ness (eds.) Migrations of Gesture. (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. 2008) pp. 85-111 (p. 104).
  3. David Howes and Constance Classen, ‘Sounding Sensory Profiles’; in Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East, ed. by Annette Schellenberg and Thomas Krüger (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019) pp.3-42.
  4. Carrie Noland, Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 9.
  5. Andre Lepecki, Exhausting dance. performance and the politics of movement (New York and London, Routledge, 2006).
  6. Noland, Agency and Embodiment, 4

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