Riana Head-Toussaint is moving and shaking the status quo in choreography

Riana Head-Toussaint performing in Dignity of Risk (2017), photo taken by Tracey Schramm.

Riana Head-Toussaint performing in Dignity of Risk (2017), photo taken by Tracey Schramm.

Multidisciplinary artist, Riana Head-Toussaint, is a finalist for the 2020 Keir Choreographic Award. We spoke to Riana about her work for the Award, Very Excellent Disabled Dancing, and to learn about her thoughts on how the dance industry can be more inclusive of artists with disability.

Congratulations on being selected as a finalist for the 2020 Keir Chorographic Award. Can you tell us a bit about the work?

Thank you! The piece is called Very Excellent Disabled Dancing. It looks at some of the problematic ways that dance is typically consumed and understood when it’s performed by people with disability – and aims to challenge and reframe those ideas. It is about genuinely engaging with, understanding, and appreciating disabled bodies and their place in dance.

The work involves live performance by three female dancers with visible disabilities – me being one of them – and utilises different types of video, both live-feed and pre-recorded. It’s a massive undertaking in terms of the demands of the project, and also the significance for me as an artist. I’m really excited about presenting it.

You are a multidisciplinary artist working across acrobatics, film, and theatre. How did you end up working across these three artforms?

I’m not married to any particular artform. For me the concept always comes first and that largely dictates what artform will be used. It’s more about which medium I think will be effective to explore something, why, and who I want to collaborate with.

As an actor you have spoken about the need for more authentic casting of people with disability. What do you think needs to be done in order to make it a more level playing field in the industry?

Like all industries, people with disability and those from other marginalised communities face multiple systemic barriers, and a history of exclusion. Changing this requires a massive cultural shift on many levels – around audition practices, the assemblage of creative teams, and the makeups of administrative and curatorial teams in arts and cultural organisations, institutions, and companies.

It requires gatekeepers to acknowledge that we are the best people to tell our stories and that if we’re not involved, the culture of our industry isn’t going to shift in a meaningful way. Space needs to be made and held so we can get in the door and begin to shift things from the inside.

There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about how artists with disability are making their performances more accessible for audiences. As an advocate for accessibility, how do you think this can be achieved?

Embedding of access in artworks, for example AUSLAN, audio description, and captioning, is a way of ensuring that anyone can access a work, as opposed to only audience members who are, for example, sight or hearing privileged.

The reality is that embedding access takes development time and money, so more finances are desperately needed to enable this. I’ve been in situations myself where my team and I have had the skills and desire to facilitate this, but we’ve had no funding or time to execute it, which is really disheartening. Funders and programmers need to actively assist artists they support and program to embed these elements during the development of their works.

This avoids the artists retroactively tacking these elements on, or worse, not having them at all. I feel there is a collective responsibility to ensure this happens – it’s not just on the artists. It’s also not only the responsibility of artists with disability, this is something all artists should be striving to achieve in, and around their works. It’s relevant to everyone.

Often the lived experiences of women with disability is not represented in different artforms. How do you think attitudes can be changed and more opportunities can be given to women to tell these kinds of stories?

The way to increase authentic representation of the experiences of women with disability is to create more targeted opportunities for us to tell our stories.

Opportunities don’t really happen without an acknowledgement that things aren’t good enough, that something needs to change, and that a real commitment to change is needed to make it happen. Even if it might be ‘hard’, or ‘expensive’, or whatever other excuses commonly get used to justify sticking to the status quo.

This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #EachforEqual – what do you think we can do collectively, to help create a gender equal world.

Listen. Learn from each other. Make and hold space for the women who are so often spoken for or excluded from traditional dialogues about womanhood – those who are disabled, Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), LGBTIQ+. We need to genuinely engage with other people whose experiences are different from our own and work together. That would be a good start.

Keir Choreographic Award 2020

The Keir Choreographic Award is a national biennial award dedicated to commissioning original works and promoting innovative, experimental, and cross-artform practices in contemporary dance.

In 2020, the eight commissioned artists of the Keir Choreographic Award will develop works for the Award with the four finalists performing at Carriageworks in the finale season, 12-14 March.

Image: Riana Head-Toussaint performing in Dignity of Risk (2017), photo taken by Tracey Schramm.