Month: November 2018

Molly Rose-Williams and Co., “Social Movement,” November 17th & 18th 2018

Guest Post: Using Ridiculousness and Some Dance Moves for Social Change by Dalton Alexander

“Raise your hand if you have ever felt small.” The majority, if not all of the audience raised one hand.

“Raise your other hand if you are pro-nuclear disarmament.” The collective was taken aback by this out-of-the-blue proposition yet chuckled at the incongruous juxtaposition made by the performer, Chelsea Boyd Brown. Most raised their other hand. An intertwining trio then engulfed Brown to the rising volume of rock music. Her voice softened and slowed as she was pulled backward saying, “You can put your hands down now.” The ridiculousness of a scene like this highlights just one theme in Social Movement.

On November 17 and 18, 2018, Molly Rose-Williams and Co. presented Social Movement, an evening of dance, moving targets, hope, and human pyramids with opening-act guests, Suzanne Beahrs and Jiten Daiko at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center (SADC) in Berkeley, CA. The central question of the evening was: What roles might dance, art-making, and performance play in creating social change? I wouldn’t say the evening worked to directly answer this question but did create a space for one to be affected and potentially changed by the dance’s provocations.

SADC is a house converted into multiple studios and can be used in various ways as a performance space. The audience began downstairs on night one with two dance films by Suzanne Beahrs. Night two featured Jiten Daiko, a young taiko drumming group of 7. On both evenings, the audience was ushered upstairs where the company performed an evening-length work focused on themes like community, individuals, frustration, and awkwardness.

My experience began with Jiten Daiko’s Yama Kawa. As the performers started clicking their sticks to resonate the wood of their drums, a sense of ritual and history felt grounding. As the performers danced through and around the drums, the energy of the group maintained as their dynamics ebbed and flowed – supported by two tempo keepers. Moments of kaleidoscopic turning and polyrhythmic playing by two, three, and finally all seven performers were as much visually as aurally pleasing.

Onward upstairs to the main studio, Rose-Williams welcomed us with a laughing exercise by posing: “Often dance is very serious. Here is your permission to laugh. Let’s practice.” We laughed – fake at first, but more legitimate as the laugh redirected to ourselves and the situation. Just seeing Rose-Williams’ bright smile pulls a giggle or two out of many that know her. And that is exactly what the audience felt like in general: a community of people who Rose-Williams has gained the trust and support of.

Social Movement (the dance piece) began with an entrance through a door, then a retreat. Followed by a build-up of many chases, run-ins, and lock-outs between gendered bathrooms and the studio entrance. We got glimpses of every-person-for-themselves as well as more collective efforts to open a locked door or squish through another. The focus zoomed in when Galen Rogers, the only male dancer in the company, began backing slowly out of the men’s locker room while exploring intricate hand movements. The other three performers attempted to mimic, distract, or distort his task, but fell short in changing his course. Was this meant to be a comment on gendered bathrooms? If yes, it was very subtle and would only be noticed by those actively searching for “meaning.”

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What was clearer was the theme of the individual versus the collective. In these moments, the audience could focus on what one person had to say and then witness the improvised responses by other members in a “Yes! I have felt the same,” manner. In another moment, as a quartet attempted to pretzel their bodies together in a pyramid to fully support at least one person and transport them through space, success, not surprisingly, did not come the first time. We humans try and try to advance things for the better, but often feel like we are getting nowhere. Social Movement wove the successes of embodied tasks with a collective understanding of the frustrations within a fight.

We were also shown unison choreography that advanced through the space powerfully but fell short in relaying the strength of the collective that the improvisation allowed. By working with fantastic improvisers, the choreography felt and looked uncomfortable at times. Nonetheless, when speaking to James Graham of James Graham Dance Theatre (and renowned Bay Area gaga teacher), he shared an appreciation saying, “It was a very interesting compositional choice to see the company do movement that was clearly from Molly and then to see Molly, herself do it right after in her solo.” Often this is not the case for the choreographer/director to also perform the same movement separately, or at all, from the group as “other choreographers may come across as ‘one-upping’ their dancers, but Molly’s acumen as a performer and charismatic M.C. helped the choice come across as rather curious and bemusing.”

For the third part of the evening, Rose-Williams very much did perform her material as a solo entitled Soliloquy. She performed with an intricacy that made you want to zoom in and be in on the secret. It was the silence she held when entering, seeing the audience for who we were and knowing that we saw her, which catapulted us all into a shout at a corner, a collecting of imaginary apples, a making of a stew by drawing “ear dust” from the audience, and an exit that was just that, an exit. Rose-Williams’ transition from fully energized physicality to a shrugging off of the entire event itself allowed us a deeper connection to who she is and showed us a confidence that she’s just “doing the thing.”

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There are two definitions of social movement which Rose-Williams and Co. brought to mind. First, there are the political and justice-oriented social movements. These are the “good fights” that we may or may not be privy. Then there is movement within a social scene – a boogie, a jam, a place to be more embodied and research what that means. By working in the latter embodied realm, Rose-Williams and Co. were able to physically address their own battles which could be (and were) interpreted in many ways by both performers and audience.

Is not the simple act of being exposed to things we would never think of in our daily lives a social change in itself? We are asked to interpret new experiences through previously constructed mechanisms. Yet, we fall short because the moment is so new. We must be open and chuckle when we are taken by surprise. This is what creates change. This is how we build new ways of seeing the world. Unfortunately, not the whole world looks at dance this way, nor is aware of possible internal changes due to, simply, the scene of address.

Was the company’s question answered then? Can dance, art-making, and performance create social change? That’s a hard ask and one that needs to be assessed on the individual level. I am changed by seeing friends perform in ways I have yet to. But do I feel more pro-nuclear disarmament? Not more than before. But it is now on my mind. To be able to change people’s perceptions on specific social issues through dance performance, the audience needs a clearer and more directed message to dive into, tear apart, and reflect on internally. However, by just creating a scene where new experiences are expected and even welcomed, we can argue that this flows into how people look and interact with the world outside of the performance scene.

In the moment that this performance was occurring, over 600 people were still unaccounted for from the Campfire north of Sacramento – California’s deadliest fire to date. It seems even more necessary that this community that so loves and supports the work of Molly Rose-Williams and her company members leave their isolated homes despite the hazardous smoke outside. We need that touch, that laughter, that connection.

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Nov. 13th Aura Fischbeck Dance, “Dusk”

Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter

The sun glares weak and orange through the ashen skies at noon. By 4 it looks tired. We stand in the little lobby at Joe Goode Annex waiting for the house manager to let us in; when she pulls the door-curtain back, the tall western-facing windows glow brighter by contrast with the gleaming black floor. There are four bodies scattered in huddled lumps that remind me of dropped socks, although these, unlike laundry, are moving…. A red line of chairs frames the three unwindowed walls.

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Many audience members stride into the space and choose seats without visible self-consciousness. Maybe they’re schooled in contemporary performance, and aren’t easily perturbed by the lack of clear boundaries; maybe they’re just focused on getting to the bathroom. Either way, we all share the stage for an extended moment. Without a light cue, it takes quite a while, maybe ten or 15 minutes, for the house to settle down.

Was there sound when we entered? I think so, and it has no propulsive energy or melodic structure to mark time. At some point, I realize I recognize only two people there, choreographer Gerald Cassell and tattoo artist Idexa Stern. The red chairs are full and a house manager comes to offer floor mats. I stand; several children choose to sprawl. After what seems like 10 minutes, the dancers are moving more now, not faster really but more frequently. Eventually, it becomes clear that the one closest to the windows is migrating toward the audience, while the other three, already closer to us, are migrating toward one another. I think about knotted clumps of worms. I wonder about their timing, and I fancy I can identify a leader from whom the other three are taking some cues. I notice that two of the dancers are now touching—spooning in slow motion– while a third is several feet away and the fourth is still separated from them by yards. From 4 individual sock-piles, they’ve morphed imperceptibly into a dyad with two asymmetrical outliers. At the end of the evening—after much dancey-dancing– they huddle under the windowsill, where the streetlights can’t touch them and their shapes recede into the shadow, four individual bodies in a line that then stand to come toward us and take their bows.

I’ve come to this performance for three reasons. One is that dusk has always been my favorite time of day. The other two are Arletta Anderson and Karla Quintero, who are dancing tonight; both are lucid, eloquent, and intelligent movers, always worth watching. Anderson is quick and fierce, with something urgent in her concentration. Quintero is languorous and elegant and sophisticated. More than once during the performance I find myself imagining that Arletta is setting the pace, but when I seek confirmation by focusing my attention, whatever I thought I saw has dissolved. (Phoenicia Pettyjohn and Aura Fischbeck, the choreographer, are the other two dancers. While I’ve known who they are for years, I don’t know that I’ve ever watched either of them perform before.)

How do you track the fade to grey? When does afternoon give way to evening? What is the difference between twilight and nightfall? These are questions that occupied and enriched the seasons of my rural childhood, quiet in the backyard near my brother; I’m well prepared to pass time with people, being near them as darkness gathers, sharing the end of the day in silence. Maybe that remembered companionability is part of why I am most attracted to the segments of the dance when the edges of the stage dissolved. At one point, while the other dancers are leaping about, Karla lies down on her side with her back almost brushing the toes of the people sitting two chairs to my left. In front of me on a floor mat, her back brushing my toes is a child (about 8) whose body begins to vibrate with the extra energy of Karla’s proximity. Careful not to be in the way, she pulls herself into her center the way a snail pulls in its eyestalks; and taking up a smaller space makes her dense so that I can feel her intensified presence as a charge in the air. I am half-hoping and half-fearful that this subtle disruption of the boundaries between dancer and audience, stage and house, will be developed. Will the child by my feet be able to hold even more energy? That’s when I realize I’m really not finding much meaning in the larger composition, and without formal clarity or choreographic experimentation to engage me, I am reaching for relational motivation. It isn’t isolated and framed and highlighted and developed the way I’d like it best, but it’s there. At another point Arletta mirrors Karla’s placement, curling up on the floor across from me. The audience members behind her—both women– simultaneously swing their closed knees to opposite sides, opening a V between them as though they’d rehearsed becoming a frame. Here as in our entrance into the space it seems as though we are about to be solicited to understand ourselves as in the dance, with the dancers. It’s as though the point of dusk is to be in it together.

These moments are fragmentary, but even as shards they are beautiful and not always safe. Twice Arletta performs a series of short runs, full tilt on a straight line directly toward the end of a row of seats so that her feet have to stutter under her, breaking her momentum just in time to avoid a collision; and again I find myself eager and interested. I hope she is looking directly at the person she is running toward. I hope she slips and careens into them. I do eventually identify a couple of unmistakable cues the dancers use to shift into new sequences, but I no longer concern myself with them, because it seems clear that the relationships among them will remain abstract and disconnected as long as they are on their feet. When they are on the ground, something else happens. Toward the end the four women curl around one another in a loose and mobile geometry, limbs and heads resolving into momentary comfort before one slight adjustment sets off a chain of responses in all the bodies.

The dancers’ mobile spooning reminds me powerfully of the way infant mammals climb on their mothers’ bodies, of the comfortable accommodations of middle-aged lovers, of the presumption of sexual innocence in contact improvisation. What would have happened if the dancers had inserted themselves into the body of the audience with the same calm and skillful boldness? What might have happened if the lights had not come up as the sun went down and the movement gained force? Could touch and sound have taken over from vision as a way to know who was where in the room, doing what with whom? I don’t mean to imply that Fischbeck ought to have staged an orgy, but rather to underscore the interesting moments of discomfort she created when the boundaries weren’t held stable. I’d have liked to have spent more time there, then, hovering in the moments when it isn’t clear whether it’s day or night

October 13th, “Movement for Sound”

Watching Dance with Others, Part I

Back in October, I took my 6yr old daughter with me over to Shawl-Anderson Dance Center to watch 5 dancers respond to the music of Michael Wall. She was nervous and we were almost late but got settled quickly on the last cushions up front in a large studio converted into a cozy performance space. I brought her for two reasons: 1) this kid loves music and 2) the show started at 6pm. After the hour-long performance, we were home by her bedtime.

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The evening featured 5 responses to Wall’s music: Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations, dazaun.dance, Dana Lawton Dancers, ka⋅nei⋅see⎥ collective, and Molly Heller. What stood out to me was how the live music that accompanied the first and last pieces amplified the physical space and resonated through bodies moving, gesturing, and gazing. In Still Life No. 1+5+7, choreographed by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg and danced by Stulberg, the music didn’t just fill in the dance’s movements of stillness but amplified them to generate a lingering emptiness full with potential. In Heartland, choreographed and danced by Heller, the music “danced” along with Heller, adding to messages of must-ness, persistence, and unrelenting-ness. When I asked my daughter about the show she said she liked Daybreak the best; she enjoyed how all the women danced together.

The best part of the night really wasn’t the dancing or the music but spending time with daughter watching and talking dance.