Danced Testimonies of the Traumas of Migration

Sarma Nov 2007English
This paper was presented at CHOREOGRAPHIES OF MIGRATION, 40th ANNIVERSARY CORD CONFERENCE, Barnard College, New York, November 8-11, 2007. An expanded version of this essay appeared in Valerie Briginshaw and Ramsay Burt, Writing Dancing Together, London (Palgrave MacMillan), 2009, pp. 153-164.

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Contextual note
This essay is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection 'Cairography' (January 2014), which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt), edited by Adham Hafez and Ismail Fayed, and produced by ARC.HIVE with the additional support of Sarma.

This paper examines the way two dance films – Ellis Island (dir. Meredith Monk, 1981) and Three (dir. Isaac Julien, 1999) – explore the lingering after-effects of the experience of migration. Ellis Island was filmed in the former reception centre in New York harbour and takes as its premise a spectral archaeology. It asks: what ghostly traces of the migrant origins of the families of many of today’s US citizens might such an archaeology uncover? Three was made in collaboration with Ralph Lemon and Bebe Miller, and filmed at locations in Manhattan. The two of them, together with veteran British actor Cleo Sylvestre, appear as mature, self-aware, modern subjects, contemplating scenes that evoke memories which sometimes trouble normative narratives about the past. Ralph Lemon was also one of the performers in Monk’s film, and both combine sections of filmed dancing with ones which show people performing ordinary social activities. Migration is often represented as a painful and disorienting experience that needs to be gone through in order to reap the promised future rewards of integration and assimilation within the new, more modern, host country. Monk and Julien’s films draw on the tradition of US modern dance in ways that complicate this narrative of progress and assimilation. While not suggesting that they are against either modernism or progress, in my view, these films use sites of memory to propose an alternative way of looking at migration. This, I shall show, corresponds in significant ways with an account proposed by the philosopher Vilém Flusser of the homelessness experienced by the migrant.

Flusser left his native Czechoslovakia in 1939 to escape the Holocaust, and then, after 30 years living in Brazil, migrated again due to unease at living under a military dictatorship. For the rest of his life he lived in the south of France. He was, therefore, someone who migrated from the old to the new world and back again. This experience led him to argue that migration is liberating because it frees individuals from the unconscious threads that tie them to a home (that is partly a national identity). His family, who had remained in Prague, died in concentration camps while all his German Czech friends died on the Russian front. Prague, he wrote, had nothing left for him, but he had found San Paulo much more difficult to leave. What the migrant experiences, he suggested, is not “cutting off all relationships with others, but weaving these connections in cooperation with them. The migrant does not become free by denying his lost home but by overcoming it” (Flusser 2002: 95).(1) Flusser’s surprisingly positive view of the migrant’s state of homelessness is one that is framed in ways that are explicitly critical of the modernist ideologies underpinning the modern nation state. It is this critical attitude towards modernity that I suggest underlies the way these two dance films look back at past migrations.

In each film, the descendents of migrants are shown acknowledging, rather than suppressing or denying, the hidden memories of lost homes. Memories are indicated in two different ways. They are brought into play because of the associations of particular places: Ellis Island, and a monument to El Cid in the Washington Heights district of Manhattan. They are also evoked through dancing. To embrace homelessness not only means freeing oneself from the national ties of the past; in Flusser’s view it also creates the possibility of escaping any further ones. The migrant, he argued, “is a man of the coming future world without homes. In his subconsciousness, he carries the mysteries of all the homes he has once passed through. [...] he gives evidence to the native that there are not only numerous homes, but also numerous mysteries. Moreover, his evidence that there will not be any more mysteries of this sort in the near future” (ibid.: 102). By talking about mystery, Flusser is, I suggest, avoiding some of the ideas that might come into play had he used the term Otherness. My aim in this paper is to examine the way these two dance films refer to the kinds of migrant experience that Flusser has discussed. By acknowledging, rather than suppressing or denying, the hidden memories of lost homes, the films point towards the possibility of new kinds of non-national, cooperative ways of connecting with others.


Ellis Island

Monk’s Ellis Island imaginatively restages scenes at the migrant reception centre during its heyday. Performers act out the roles of the historical migrants and officials at Ellis Island, and present-day tourists. The migrants seem to inhabit a world that has lost its centre and in which the meanings of things have been transposed or subjected, on a number of levels, to confusing substitutions. As Flusser observed: “When one is without a home, and unprotected from the usual and what one is used to, everything comes to us as noise and nothing is information. In a world without information, a world of chaos, one can neither feel, nor think, nor act” (2002: 100). In this vulnerable state, the migrants in Monk’s film are subjected to institutionalized, “scientific” examinations that are medical, ethnographic, or eugenic. These are carried out both by officials from the time when Ellis Island was still operating as a reception centre, and by time-travelling archaeologists from 1981.

A large, white medical ward is initially shown empty. Then the image of a woman whose eye will be inspected appears as a transparent trace which slowly solidifies. Other migrants and medical personnel walk into the room and freeze in positions as if in the middle of some action. Then finally they all come to life. Standing half hidden behind the woman is someone in modern black trousers and T-shirt who is her “shadow”, bending back and lifting her head when the migrant woman bends for the doctor to inspect the health of her eye ball. Another shadowy figure copies the movements of another migrant in a half-curtained cubicle in the background. These shadowy figures inside the scenes are “archaeologists” from 1981 when the film was made.

The archaeologists’ presence is also indicated by striped measuring rods that appear in many scenes in the film. In one, the camera makes a wide panoramic shot from one corner of a dusty, ruined shed to another, discovering along the way a group of migrants posing warily for a formal photograph. Concerned that they should look their best, one woman picks a speck of lint from the lapel of her husband’s overcoat. Another scene shows a fretful old woman with two girls posing for the photographer with large, numbered labels attached to their shawls. Both scenes highlight the migrants’ anxiety that the quality of their performance may perhaps make the difference between acceptance and rejection by the officials. The camera’s surveillance retraces the patterns of institutionalized dominance enacted by the officials who originally inspected the migrants.

An impassive, male warder with folded arms looms over an old woman rearranging four pieces of card at a small table in what must be an intelligence test. While all permutations seem equally felicitous to her, she senses that something else is expected and keeps looking up at him to check his reactions. To a “modern”, Western eye, it is obvious that the “right” arrangement of pieces will make a white square on a black background. Modernity is a mystery to the old woman, and for other early twentieth century migrants shown later in a classroom trying to learn the names of late twentieth century, suburban, consumer good like microwaves and snippers.

The doctors, warders, and teachers in the film who represent “modern” Western values seem to approach their charges using methodologies that probably inspire uneasy feelings in twenty-first century viewers. This uneasiness becomes explicit when a hand holding a marker pen interposes itself between the film camera and a migrant’s head. It is as if someone is drawing on a photograph in order to analyze racial features, making measurements, and drawing attention to a nose or the angle between eye and ear. The hand writes on one face “SERB”, and on another “J” for Jew. But little wavering movements of the head and blinks of an eye lid betray that this is not in fact a photograph, and that the migrant subject is actually there. The marks are being made on a sheet of glass. Is it an official in the past or an archaeologist from 1981 who is seeking out and marking these signs of racial difference and for what purposes? The more the film shows the dehumanising, modernist processes to which the migrants were subjected, the more it makes the film’s spectators aware of the basic, common elements of humanity through which bare life survives. The film’s waltz scene, which I will discuss shortly, uses dancing to celebrate these basic common elements which, in Flusser’s terms, make migrants people of the coming future.



Ralph Lemon, who as I noted earlier, appears in a few scenes in Ellis Island, is one of the three performers in Three and, with Bebe Miller, the choreographer of the movement material in the film. On a narrative level, it establishes a close personal relationship between Lemon and Miller (who had been dancing together intermittently for many years) by showing a claustrophobic night-time conversation in a car and an improvised dance scene in a black box television studio. It then expands and complicates this relationship by introducing the third performer Cleo Sylvestre. She takes Lemon’s place in a recapitulation of the car scene and dances with Miller in a rather different way, her Englishness adding a cosmopolitan flavour to the film. In a resonant sequence, Lemon embraces Miller and they talk about sometimes being so close that there is no room to breathe. This starts in the studio and then cuts to the same embrace in a leafy yard, and is repeated later with Sylvestre in Lemon’s place.

Three’s debts are to the underground cinema and to Maya Deren in particular. Like her A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945) with Talley Beatty, there are moments in Three where a dance movement starts in one location and a jump cut shows it finishing in another. Repeated footage of a moment when Lemon tips Miller off the table in the black box studio shows her rolling, not across the studio’s lino floor, but across the grass of a rural back yard. And her rolling metamorphoses into running feet along a track through woodland. These feet seem to propel her towards the location of another recurring scene where Lemon observes her meet Sylvestre on an elegant bridge in a sun baked public park. Lemon and Miller’s duet is later mirrored when Sylvestre waltzes with Miller beside the monument to El Cid and in a studio overlooking the Flat Iron Building on Broadway.

Julien often uses visual art in his films to make complicated interventions within cultural discourses. For his 1992 film The Attendant, for example, he filmed Professor Stuart Hall contemplating the 1840 painting Scene on the Coast of Africa by the French painter, Auguste-François Biard. The film invites the spectator to consider how this eminent Professor’s response to the painting might differ from that of the French public in 1840 when slavery was still legal in French colonies. The scene in front of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s composite monument to El Cid functions in a similar way. Located in front of the Hispanic Society of America’s headquarters on Broadway between 155th and 156th Street, it shows El Cid, on horseback, flanked by four smaller sculptures of medieval warriors. These supposedly represented the orders of chivalry, but in medieval Spain there were only three such orders, and the heroic knight on the fourth plinth has African features. El Cid, however, was a Christian hero who fought to free Spain from Islamic and thus African occupation. Miller and Sylvestre’s presence in front of this African knight draws attention to what all three of them have in common. It thus raises questions about what the monument as a whole was meant to represent, and whether this meaning changes when the beholders are black. By questioning representations in this way, Julien’s film uses a specific site to make spectators aware of another way of looking at Western culture, one that is, in Flusser’s terms, mysterious.

This quality of powerful and compelling mystery is perhaps most strongly conveyed during a solo that Lemon dances in the dance studio overlooking the Flat Iron Building. Dancing constitutes another kind of site of memory. Postcolonial theorist Paul Gilroy has argued that, within African American culture, music and dancing have served as key sites for embodied memories that resisted and survived the dehumanising effects of captive migration and slavery. Lemon dances clothed, and is then briefly filmed naked in slightly out of focus shots from a moving camera that seemingly cannot keep up with him. His movements are light and fast, covering a lot of space close to the ground. Occasionally putting a hand to the floor for support, he bounces up to spin around with his arms extended in what are almost Cunningham-esque shapes.

Lemon’s solo in Three resembles solos in other recent films and installations that Julien has made, all of which were danced by dynamic, mercurial black or ethnically marked male dancers.(2) While working on Three, Julien, Lemon, and Miller discussed footage from Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren’s unfinished film of Haitian voodoo rituals. Julien says they were particularly interested in the rough, spontaneous improvisations of these untrained dancers when the gods rode them like horses and they became possessed with dance. While working on his Geography trilogy, Lemon had been thinking about how his dancing might contain memories that informed his identity as an African American. His dance movements in Three, as I have described them, are not in the least African in their technical basis. Their energetic quality, however, could, in Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s terms, be called Africanist. Lemon’s quick bounds and flashy spins are full of what Gottschild calls high affect juxtapositions.


Sites of memory

Dancing also functions as a site of memory in Ellis Island. Towards the end of the film there is a long scene where various migrants from different countries all dance together. The music they dance to is a waltz tune, composed by Collin Walcott and arranged and sung by Monk and her music group. The dance steps themselves sometimes suggest the middle class, nineteenth-century waltz and sometimes older folk dance material. The informality of the choreographic structures and the aesthetic sensibility of this “waltz” recalls the work of Judson Dance Theatre of which Monk was a younger member. Some dancers firmly tread out the waltz rhythm in a pedestrian, late twentieth-century way. Some couples waltz with a self conscious awkwardness that recalls Monk and Ping Chong’s chaotic waltz in their 1972 piece Paris. Some dancers in peasant smocks link their arms in a chain, and step sideways in a style that recalls Balkan folk dances. Meanwhile children skip through the crush of dancers in a headlong race. The camera records this changing scene from a fixed position, and different filmed sequences dissolve one into another. This suggests that different people become involved at different times in an ever changing dance that was already going on before they arrived and will continue after they have left. Flusser said that the migrant does not cut off all relations with others but weaves these connections in cooperation with them, and this is what I suggest happens during the waltz. Rather than blandly assimilating different cultural traits, the “waltz” imagines an utopian mixing up of all those differences.

The “archaeologists” in Ellis Island, like the three performers in Julien’s film all contemplate sites of memory that evoke the dehumanising, modernist processes to which migrants have been subjected. Both films nevertheless celebrate resistance and survival. The dynamic, mercurial, Africanist quality of Lemon’s solo can perhaps be read as a positive energy that draws on both African and American experiences to create possibilities for future agency. The waltz in Ellis Island suggests the potential to form new kinds of non-national, cooperative connections with others. The subtle, haunting ways in which each film combines the poetry of place with the affective qualities of dance movement prompts the beholder to appreciate rather than fear the sometimes inassimilable mysteries that make migrants heralds of a coming future world.



(1)         Flusser, V. (2002) ‘Taking up residence in homelessness’. in Writings, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 91-103.

(2)         These including Ben Ash in Vagabondia (2000), Javier de Frutos in The Long Road to Mazaltán (2000), and Stephen Galloway in Fantôme Afrique (2005).