Migration through Dance

A conversation with Sivan Rubinstein and Sarah Fine


Sivan Rubinstein is a London-based dance maker. Using social and cultural themes, Sivan’s work questions and explores the world around us. Her work is deeply rooted in collaboration with different artists and art forms, while keeping body language central to her investigations. Her work has been presented at festivals and venues such as B.Motion Festival & Hangartfest (Italy); The Dutch Dance Festival (NDL); Arts and Humanities Festival (King’s College London), Sotheby’s, Sadler’s Wells, Migration Museum, The Place, JW3, RichMix (London); Turner Contemporary (Margate); Dance4 & The Attenborough Arts Centre (Midlands). Rubinstein has been awarded the title of “Exceptional Artist” by the Israeli Ministry of Culture, selected by The Place for “Exit Visa”, a programme of Artist Development support for emerging choreographers, and chosen as the UK artist for Pivot Dance. Sivan is a King’s Artist 2019-20 at King’s College London. She is co-founder and director of OH-Creative Space, a London studio at the Biscuit Factory and also a member of the Swallowsfeet Collective who develop, curate and produce OOPS Festival (Brighton) in partnerships with Brighton University and The Old Market Theatre.

Sarah Fine is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College London, where she has taught modules in contemporary political philosophy, the history of political philosophy, the ethics of migration, and gender and philosophy. She is also a Fellow at the Forum for Philosophy, an educational charity which runs free public philosophy events, a podcast and an essay series. She co-edited (with Lea Ypi) Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership (Oxford University Press, 2016). Her research focuses on the ethics and political philosophy of migration and citizenship, and particularly the question of whether states have a moral right to exclude non-citizens. She is also interested in methodology in philosophy, especially thinking about who is asking the questions and which voices are included in the conversation. She has been engaging in more and more work at the intersection of philosophy and the arts. She is involved in a number of arts collaborations around themes of migration, movement, exclusion and borders, including this one with Sivan. Listen to Sarah Fine discuss the right to exclude on popular podcast Philosophy Bites here.

Liran Donin, Harriet Parker-Beldeau, Masako Matsushita and Seke Chimutengwende in MAPS at The Place. Photo Credit: Paul Seaby.

Sivan and Sarah have been collaborating since 2016, exploring migration through dance and philosophy.

Q.1. How did you both come to the subject of migration?

Sivan: I think I have always been interested in the meaning of home. I felt detached from home. I’ve been migrating a lot myself, fighting for visas. Borders have always been part of my life – not just physical borders, but also philosophical borders. For example, that everything in dance has to be categorised and defined, in a way that detaches from the essence of a piece of work. My father is a cartographer, and I’ve always had an admiration for the making of maps and of navigating – in the map, in the road, looking at pathways.  So that’s the background. When I became part of ‘Pivot Dance’ with The Place—a three year project looking at the value of creating dance performances in consultation with audiences, artists and producers, funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Commission—I realised that the piece I was going to make wouldn’t belong in and to one place. So I thought that it was my time to explore the concepts of maps. The concept is so big and I love philosophy so much, that I decided I needed to do some more research on this. And that’s how I began working on a series of projects that explore migration through dance.

Sivan Rubinstein leads an Active Maps workshop. Photo Credit: Paul Seaby

Sarah: I’ve been thinking about these issues for many years. As early as my undergraduate dissertation, I was developing an argument in defence of more open borders. Political philosophy is often focused in some sense on ‘the state’—especially the nature of the relationship between states and the people subject to their authority. I became fascinated by the relationship between states and people who are not their citizens, for example resident non-citizens, and non-citizens who would like to enter and settle in the state. We learn a lot about authority, legitimacy, power, citizenship and other central themes in political philosophy by thinking with and about migrants and migration. On a more personal level, I am very interested in the meaning and importance of ‘belonging’ and ‘home’ for people who feel themselves to be on the margins of communities. 

Q2: Tell us about your work on this topic?

Sarah: My research has focused on the ethics and political philosophy of migration. I am particularly interested in challenging the widespread (but in my view mistaken) assumption that states have a right to exclude non-citizens from their territory and political community – to set their own immigration and naturalisation policies in line with their own interests and priorities. This has taken me on a journey through some complex questions about the nature and significance of nationalism, territorial rights, sovereignty, and democracy. I am also interested in a range of issues around participation. Who should be involved in these decisions and conversations, and why are some people excluded from the outset? How does that exclusion affect understanding, decisions and conversations? So exploring migration and borders with Sivan through dance has been incredibly illuminating.  

Sivan: We created MAPS, a dance inspired by the ‘theatre of the world’, a map from 1570 which is thought to be the first modern atlas. MAPS explores a desired world without borders. The idea is that all maps are a snapshot in time, a fixed interpretation of our world, unable to capture the ebb and flow of people, places and politics. MAPS considers the world map through its constantly changing nature, as a moveable image. In collaboration with Sarah, my father cartographer Yehuda Rubinstein, and 50kgs of salt, MAPS takes the antique map of the world and fuses it into a culturally mixed, rhythmic and music flowing groove, revelling in a new cartography of the world. We have had an amazing artistic team, including brilliant dancers, Masako Matsushita, Seke Chimutengwende, Harriet Parker-Beldeau, and Nathan Goodman, and my wonderful collaborator, composer, live musician, and music producer, Liran Donin.

Another part of the project is Active Maps. This is an interactive movement workshop, drawing on music, visual art, and philosophy, in collaboration with Liran Donin, choreographer and visual artist Hamish MacPherson, and visual artist Adam James. We invite the participants to explore the world map, their own personal maps, and the map that the group creates together.

A third part of the migration series is Ports that Pass, a collaboration with Loop Dance Company, which examined the passport, travel and identity, through dance, sound and photography.

Harriet Parker-Beldeau performing Ports that Pass at the Migration Museum. Photo Credit: Paula Harrowing.

Q3: Why did you want to work with each other?

Sivan: I started working on the subject of migration, and I had a desire to work with an academic researcher for quite a while. Via The Place, the UK’s leading dance space, I contacted Leanne Hammacott in Culture at King’s College London with a brief about the project, and she encouraged me to think about what kind of work – which discipline – I was really interested in for the project. I was working with performance maker and producer, Xavier de Sousa. We looked through the Philosophy Department’s faculty online, and then noticed Sarah Fine’s page. It was almost like a dating app. I saw ‘migration’ and ‘ethics’. It was like she had already developed my idea just by virtue of her interests and work.

So we wrote to her. And then we met, and we just clicked. We found that we both pushed and developed each other somehow. This partnership became the roots of all the work. It’s become what my physical practice is based on. Not just the conceptual side, but the physical, too. My notebooks are full of ideas that have inspired me through our interactions. I think the most important thing is that conceptual artists like me, we work with concepts, with ideas, but we are not as trained in the research. Where is the information coming from? There is so much knowledge around these topics, and so having a research partner with you on the road is really empowering. It feeds the work and the practice.

Sarah: Initially I was just excited to try something different and to see the way in which ideas and emotions could be communicated through dance. It was so much fun. Sivan invited me into a wonderful new world of creativity, embodied knowledge, and the fusion of dance, philosophy, music, and visual art. It felt like anything was possible. I think at first I imagined that we were both working with similar ideas but using different methods of communication, and engaging with different audiences. It felt like I was coming with ideas in words—speech and text—and Sivan was coming with movement, music and bodies. As time went on, I realised that there was much more to it than that. 

It’s been very humbling to see how much research goes into Sivan’s dance pieces. They are built on a huge amount of knowledge drawn from a range of sources. Her process is intensely collaborative, and it is wonderful to witness the participation of all the team in the creation and life of the pieces. I am always energised and inspired by the experience of being in the room with them and seeing them work. It’s been amazing to be able to share this with my students, too. We have put on workshops for students at King’s, and students from my Ethics of Migration class have visited rehearsals of MAPS. There’s more of that to come, as it was clear to us how much students gained from exploring these themes through movement and music, and through engaging with their own stories and experiences.

Active Maps at JW3. Photo Credit: Paul Seaby.

Q4: What have been the benefits for you and your practice of engaging with each other’s work?

Sivan: I feel like every time I had a creative crisis in the studio, Sarah always helped to lead us to new information, to a new reference, or moved the spotlight, shifted the conversation. Many times we spoke about things together, and I remembered some, forgot others, and then Sarah would come to the studio and bring that idea back. For me, working with Sarah was like working with a dramaturg. And that’s also how important the concept and the study behind the aesthetic was for the piece. When we started, Sarah told me about the creation of home after people migrate, about how diaspora communities build a home together. This idea really fed into the story of MAPS. She also talked about circular migration, people who move back and forth between two or more countries. She talked about living in one place but working in another – the multiple senses of home. Maybe physically you live here, but your home is not with you. Sarah has also always emphasised the importance of listening to the voices of migrants. She pushed us to bring that in, and a lot of that came from Sarah’s research. She always reminded us of that struggle. And working on this project has made me – us – want to talk more about the world as one big home. This has led us to our next work, Generation Z and Dance No. 2°, about the climate future and the human experience of the climate crisis.  So in that way it has been pivotal because we are still working together and still learning together. And there is a lot more to come.

Sarah: I could fill a book answering this question. Working with Sivan has had a profound influence on my thinking, my writing, my teaching, and my plans for the future. I’ve learned so much about the importance of the body and embodied knowledge – how much we experience through our bodies and the significance of the connection between body and mind. It might seem odd, but in all these years of working on migration, the body itself isn’t something I had thought about very much. It brings a really interesting angle to my new research on displacement, the meaning of home, and attachment to place. Working on difficult and controversial themes with dance and movement has illustrated for me the benefits of approaching topics from a range of angles, disciplines, backgrounds, and perspectives. I’ve also learned a lot about how to incorporate personal stories and testimony into my research and teaching.

There are obviously things you can do with dance that you can’t do with speech and text. But there are also things you can think with dance. That’s thrilling. What’s more, dance allows people in, it can embrace, it can be inviting. Philosophy tends to be confrontational, presented in the form of an argument. What are your objections? How can I respond to those objections? But dance doesn’t have to invite disagreement or ask you to take a position on divisive issues. We can just be present in the same room, experiencing something new together.  Exploring a world without borders via words on the page invites the mind to come up with problems. How could this come to pass? Isn’t it unrealistic? What about the costs? But exploring a world without borders through dance allows the body and mind to experiment. How does it feel? How does it sound? What does it look like? That’s exciting and it helps us to push ourselves to see and think beyond the here and now.

Sivan Rubinstein’s Dance No. 2 Photo Credit: Bar Alon