Ge Huichao: into Switzerland’s inclusive arts

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Ge Huichao [China] embarked upon a research trip of Switzerland’s inclusive arts from 21 May to 1 June 2023. After the trip, she wrote a story about the scene.

The concept of inclusive arts is unfamiliar to many in China. In 2019, an organisation I founded called Body On & On established China’s first inclusive arts festival. The festival brought together inclusive arts groups from all over the world, with artists  from countries like the UK, the USA, Germany, France, Israel, Singapore and Japan to share their high-quality works. In the fourth Luminous Festival held in 2022, we also screened Planet HORA by Theater HORA. For us, our first encounter with this renowned inclusive theatre group from Switzerland was through videos and online events during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite travel restrictions, we were able to draw from these vivid artworks, as well as public talks and discussions, to develop our understanding of different countries’ approaches to inclusive culture, policies and art.

I am well versed in the history of Switzerland’s most renowned inclusive theatre group, Theater HORA. This inclusive theatre group’s numerous achievements demonstrate their capacity for growth in terms of both their artistic project and cultural impact. But I am curious as to what it is about Switzerland that gave rise to such an exceptional group like Theater HORA. Aside from Theater HORA, my preliminary research also brought my attention to the IntegrART festival network, which takes place simultaneously across four cities, a model I was fascinated by because it was one of the possible development paths I myself had envisioned for the inclusive arts.

So it was with this basic understanding, sense of curiosity and series of questions that I set foot in Switzerland for the first time. My packed schedule would see me witnessing the great spectacle that is IntegrART’s four-city inclusive arts festival network, attending performances in person and exchanging ideas with creators of inclusive arts.

Theater HORA – The Benchmark for Inclusive Theatre Groups

Theater HORA and Das Helmi Puppentheater’s collaborative work Riesenhaft in Mittelerde™ © Ge Huichao

Our involvement with Theater HORA over the years has included the fourth Luminous Festival, the third Luminous Festival (during which we organised a screening Disabled Theater at the Institut Français, which included a discussion with Jérôme Bel) and an in-depth interview we carried out with Stephan Stock. Stephan works alongside Yanna Rüger as what could be described as the third generation of artistic directors at Theater HORA. During our interview, which was just over a year into their tenure at Theater HORA, these two young artistic co-directors were still getting a feel for the direction the theatre group would take in the future. Would they continue to collaborate with famous artists, or would they search for a radically new approach and unique style? In our discussions with Stephan, we learned of Theater HORA’s extensive artistic resources, complete creative autonomy and patient approach. Stephan also shared with us how working alongside people with learning disabilities has taught him to accept a slower pace of life. The process by which Theater HORA members rehearse and interact with one another has allowed him to resist the demands for haste that come from contemporary meritocratic society.

Theater HORA was established in Zurich by theatre pedagogue Michael Elber in 1993. Coincidentally, I saw an online collaborative piece by Michael Elber and Comuna de Pedra, which was performed by Macao residents with learning disabilities (mostly intellectual disabilities) in Macao’s Todo Fest. Elber came across as exceptionally kind-hearted and tolerant. At the time, he had already stepped down from his position at Theater HORA and become an independent artist, but his contributions to the development of the group cannot be overlooked.

The origins of Theater HORA are closely related to a performance at Berlin’s Theater Thikwa entitled Im Stehen sitzt es sich besser (which translates to While standing it’s better to sit). It motivated Elber to devise his first theatre production performed by people with cognitive disabilities, the aim of which was to make audiences see and understand the limitless potential of people with learning disabilities. This was how Theater HORA began.

Thikwa was the first pilot project in Germany to attempt to combine artistic expression with the rehabilitation and education of people with learning disabilities. Thikwa currently receives subsidies as part of Germany’s secondary labour market policy, which means that as professional artists, participants with learning disabilities are able to receive a wage a little lower than that offered by the primary labour market (which, in contrast to the subsidised secondary labour market, is determined by market forces). At the same time, Thikwa can receive various subsidies from Germany’s social security system and cultural programmes, although cultural subsidies must be applied for individually and are time-limited. Theater HORA on the other hand started off somewhere between art and charity, which meant navigating the cognitive and organisational ambiguities of this space to find their place in the cultural ecosystem. In 2003, they became a part of the Züriwerk Foundation, signalling the charity sector’s recognition of the role of people with learning disabilities in the arts. Another milestone event was Disabled Theater, their 2012 collaborative work with French choreographer Jérôme Bel, which became the subject of widespread attention and heated discussion in the theatre scene throughout Europe, if not worldwide. In 2013 it was selected as one of Berlin Theatertreffen Festival’s “10 remarkable productions” and received a Swiss Dance Award. This in turn signalled the art world’s recognition of the unique expressive and creative abilities of people with learning disabilities. The success of Disabled Theater has had a lasting effect, encouraging more artists to focus on people with disabilities and inspiring academics to discuss the political, identity and aesthetic implications of people with learning disabilities participating in theatre.

In Zurich, I paid Stephan a visit during a Theater HORA rehearsal. The actor Simone Gisler continued to exhibit her preference for waddling on stage like a duck. In such cases, collaborating artists always adopt an attitude of encouragement and receptivity, never forcing their own ideas or demands on performers. When Stephan arrived, many of the actors walked over and hugged him, wrapping themselves around his body. This was their special way of expressing themselves and was something he had gotten used to. I didn’t speak with Stephan for long, but we discussed possibilities for collaboration with Theater HORA. When it comes to artists with learning disabilities this can be complicated because the creative process involves difficult questions of ethics, communication, time and localisation, but Stephan remained open to the possibility of collaborating with China.

Towards the end of my trip, I returned to Zurich to watch Theater HORA’s collaboration with Das Helmi Puppentheater, a massive-scale installation performance entitled Riesenhaft in Mittelerde™, which took place in Schauspielhaus and featured both performers with learning disabilities from Theater HORA and professional actors from Das Helmi Puppentheater. Drawing inspiration from Lord of the Rings, the natural performances fit seamlessly with the overall tenor of the piece, exuding a carnivalesque atmosphere reminiscent of a Dionysian celebration. I could sense that Theater HORA had discovered a new mythic-epic performance style that made full use of the actors’ strengths. The piece conveyed the idea that when faced with the unknown, we all become curious children embarking on a journey together to explore the mystery and uphold justice.

IntegrART– Interconnected Network and Disabled Subjectivity

Programme for Out of the Box – Biennale des Arts Inclusifs, Geneva © Ge Huichao

Most of my travel itinerary was organised around events taking place as part of IntegrART, the network of inclusive arts festivals spanning four cities – Basel, Geneva, Lugano and Bern. As the name suggests, IntegrART seeks to integrate a wide variety of inclusive arts into its programme. Established in 2007 and taking place once every two years, IntegrART is an interconnected network that incorporates existing inclusive arts groups and festivals from four cities.

IntegrART believes that disabled and non-disabled artists lead the way when it comes to rethinking familiar forms of expression and expanding the horizons of possibility for both the cultural sector and audiences – one in which the utopia of an inclusive society can be realised on stage. In addition to incorporating art festivals from four cities (Basels’s Wildwuchs Festival, Bern’s BewegGrund.Das Festival, Lugano’s ORME Festival, and Geneva’s Out of the Box – Biennale des Arts inclusifs) IntegrART also organises various discussion panels. IntegrART has connected these four cities and provides commissioning, production and transportation support for each city’s art festival.

It is worth briefly discussing the organisation that started IntegrART, the Migros Culture Percentage, invested by Switzerland’s largest chain of supermarkets. Another famous programme funded by the Migros Culture Percentage is Dance Festival Steps, which is also a prominent network connecting those in the dance industry. For over thirty years, the Steps’ artistic director Isabella Spirig has been responsible for its programme, shaping the festival’s artistic vision and unique character. The premieres of many dance groups took place at Steps and some of the world’s most famous choreographers had their early work performed there. Steps was also early to focus on questions of diversity and inclusivity and in 2006 began commissioning and choreographing inclusive dance performances in response to issues of cultural equality and the changing landscape of dance.

In Switzerland, I was fortunate enough to meet Isabella Spirig and talk to her about her work. She founded IntegrART while acting as the artistic director of Steps. It was the integrated multi-city approach of the dance festival that acted as the model for IntegrART, serving to promote unity and better facilitate touring. She brought together inclusive arts groups and festivals from all four cities, encouraging collaboration and providing what support IntegrART could give.

The work of disabled artists appears with more frequency in Swiss theatres than it did ten years ago, which is a welcome development. However, it is still rare to see disabled artists with complete creative autonomy over their work. The overall aesthetic direction of inclusive projects usually lies in the hands of able-bodied artists and artists with disabilities don’t occupy any leadership roles in cultural organisations. IntegrART seeks to break the impasse for disabled artists and reshape the structure of the performing arts sector. By allowing for the emergence of collective modes of creative practice and new paradigms, they hope to make such a transformation possible. This is why Isabella decided to step down and make room for a new artistic director at IntegrART – Inga Lass, who is hearing impaired. Isabella believes she has done what she set out to do at IntegrART; now it is time for Inga to take the lead.

Different Methods, Dynamic Expression

ORME Festival’s opening ceremony from the Lugano Arte e Cultura to the Piazza della Riforma © Ge Huichao

During my visit to Switzerland, I had individual conversations with the artistic directors of BewegGrund.Das Festival in Bern, ORME Festival in Lugano, and Out of the Box – Biennale des Arts inclusifs in Geneva. I also attended some of the performances. Most productions toured all four cities of the IntegrART festival network, but naturally some of the pieces were site-specific. The scale, operations and leadership style of each festival were different. Furthermore, the three cities I visited were divided between the German-speaking, Italian-speaking and French-speaking parts of the country. Overall, each festival receives sufficient support. BewegGrund.Das Festival has its own dance group called BewegGrund, and ORME Festival has its own theatre group. Out of the Box – Biennale des Arts inclusifs operates solely as an art festival with a visual arts component, but it receives the most support from the city in which it is located, Geneva. Each festival’s artistic director is open to and passionate about the development of inclusive arts. However, they face difficulties of varying extents in terms of the standard of pieces created by disabled artists, the enthusiasm of audiences and the development of funding operations.

Independent artists who left a particularly profound impression on me during my research trip in Switzerland include Yann Marussich and Alessandro Schiattarella. I like Yann very much and I find his creative ideals moving. He recently tried to perform alongside people with disabilities in his new piece, which points out the extent to which modern people, particularly Europeans, are physically disabled by excessive sugar intake. Alessandro’s life experience is a classic tale of transition from an able-bodied artist to an artist with disabilities. Once an exceptional ballet dancer, he was diagnosed with a rare disease that meant he could not control the movement of his fingers. At first, he refused to accept his condition and would wrap his hands in tape before going on stage to make sure there wouldn’t be any mishaps during the performance. However, later he chose to embrace his bodily imperfections and identity as a person with a neuromuscular disability. He began to perform self-choreographed works that were both true-to-life and radical. He discovered that his works were most effective when he accepted himself as he truly was.

I am very grateful for the truly multilingual and multicultural experience afforded to me by this trip to Switzerland. Although I was there for only a short time, I feel I have seen many layers of Switzerland’s inclusive arts sector, from its cultural origins, enthusiastic proponents and generous supporters to the artistic activity behind the scenes that make such work possible: exploring new methods and dynamic modes of expression.

Biography

Ge Huichao, Founder of Body On & On, Founder of Luminous Festival, Producer of performing arts, Curator.

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