Eric Minh Cuong Castaing

Exalting ‘atypical’ bodies through dance

10 min read
Credit: L'Âge D'Or. Copyright © 2018 Shonen, Insolence Productions
Credit: Chroniques Parallèles. Copyright © 2018 Audi Talents
The awakening moment

Eric Minh Cuong Castaing didn’t realize until a day in 2016, in the sunny port city of Marseille, France, that a single experience can completely shift the direction of one’s life and career. 

Eric, a contemporary dance choreographer, was running a dance company in Marseille which often collaborated with the Festival de Marseille. As part of the festival, he held a workshop on dancing at a center for disabled children. Eric had never before worked with the disabled. 

On the first day of his visit, he recalls, the atmosphere at the center was cold and distant. He felt frozen. The next day, when he returned, the kids were energetic and smiling to his surprise. A day of dancing already had an impact on the children. Feelings were shared and transmitted and by the end of the day, everyone in the room was crying.

Credit: L'Âge D'Or. Copyright © 2018 Shonen, Insolence Productions

That night, Eric came back to his room and reflected on this experience. Something changed within him. A big shift had occurred in his mind. It was a moment of epiphany for him about the perception of ‘atypical’ bodies. Their movements were limited, but at the same time, there were whole new range of movements that couldn’t have come from ‘typical’ bodies.

Credit: Chroniques Parallèles. Copyright © 2018 Audi Talents
Championing disability in contemporary dance

Marseille wasn’t a disabled-friendly city. It was uncommon to spot ‘atypical bodies’ on the streets nor was the public infrastructure designed to make life easier for them.

Eric decided to choreograph for atypical bodies and shoot a film about them, not just to capture their movements but to help others view them differently – as he did. The project culminated into L'Âge d'Or (Age of Gold), a project filming how Shonen, his dance company, works with disabled children to explore movements specific to them. In another film project with adults, Forme(s) de Vie (Form(s) of Life), Shonen explores various movements with a former boxer and a former dancer who has lost mobility. In every performance, Shonen’s professional dancers become their prostheses and support and their movements.

Credit: Forme(s) de vie. Copyright © 2021 Shonen

“Atypical bodies give new gestures you never see – flexibility, energy, dystonic motions. There’s a lot of carrying involved. That creates new perception about this body,” he adds. “For example, the boxer loves moving his legs. He has knowledge about boxing which we don’t have. Instead, we give back by designing motion. Through this negotiation, this allez-retour, this exchange of feelings, we reflect on how we can work together.”

Exchange is important for Eric, who started off as a hip-hop dancer in his early years. What he loved about hip-hop was that it was “relational.” 

“You give gesture to somebody and they give back. You exchange. It’s pingpong dance,” he says. 

Much like hip-hop, exchanging motions and emotions is enjoyable for Eric when working with atypical bodies. “I like the fact that it’s ‘relation dance.’ This dance contact, with different bodies – specifically with disabilities – is a new way of being in relations, new way of integrating and creating choreography.”

This creates new representation and new ways of being empathetic as well. 

“If you close your eyes and you touch somebody, it will change the representation of these people,” he says. “Seeing a kid in the middle of the stage dancing without music, just in relation with the body, could be destabilizing (for the audience) because we don’t see this body in usual life.

Credit: Chroniques Parallèles. Copyright © 2018 Audi Talents
Origins, discrimination and finding meaning

Eric was born in Seine-Saint-Denis, the periphery of Paris. His parents were immigrants who escaped the Vietnam War. The kind of discrimination that the disabled face these days is equivalent to the kind of racism he faced, he says.

The disabled people are facing the same thing as colored people did. I lived through the racism about my origin. So for me, to invite atypical bodies into my creation and to go to their world has become a convergence of fight.

Just like there is a blind spot in art as well as in society, there is also a blind spot in dance – and it is about people with atypical bodies. This is the gap he hopes to fill. For a professional dancer, dancing with the disabled may not come as an easy task because dancers are educated to be in the limelight.

Eric’s message speaks through his works. In the end, he wants to tell the world, “Don’t be afraid by complexity.”

Credit: Forme(s) de vie. Copyright © 2021 Shonen
Credit: Forme(s) de vie. Copyright © 2021 Shonen
Technology, performance, and overcoming body limitations

Eric merges technology heavily into his performances, using robots, drones, or VR headsets. After graduating from l'école de l'image Gobelins, Eric worked as an animator and character designer for 10 years for animated films. Merging digital media with other forms of art came naturally. “

I work with drone and robots. We connect with dancers by Skype and the stage becomes an extension of this room. Even though he (the disabled dancer) can’t move, with technology, he can relate to the audience. Even people with disability can be present on the stage using technology (robots).”

Credit: L'Âge D'Or. Copyright © 2018 Shonen, Insolence Productions

Atypically-bodied dancers are often given headsets to wear to follow the movements of the professional dancers guiding them, to see the world in the eyes of their dancing partners. 

Audiences may be overwhelmed, confused, or even taken aback by the performances. But in the end, they say to Eric, “I want to be in your arms instead of the kids,” meaning they want to feel what is felt by the disabled dancers. 

The mission

With his two film projects, L'Âge d'Or and Forme(s) de Vie Eric has already gained public recognition and from the art world. L'Âge d'Or was supported by the Audi Talents 2017 award and Forme(s) de Vie won the LE BAL Prize for young contemporary creation with the ADAGP 2021 and held a video exhibition at LE BAL, an exposition hall for contemporary images. 

Eric now feels it is his mission to continue his journey on working with ‘atypically-bodied’ dancers. “

I want to continue in a better way to spread the word,” he says.

Just as an animator he “gave life to something that is not human, like the Pixar lamp which becomes a character just by moving,” he wants to change the perception of the public on disabled bodies by exalting their movements. 

His message is clear: No one is more human than by dancing.

Credit: Chroniques Parallèles. Copyright © 2018 Audi Talents

More information