Dancing Around Race, Public Gatherings #1 and #3

Guest Post by Julian Carter

Public Gathering #1 Thursday, September 20, 2018
Featuring Aruna D’Souza, author of Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in Three Acts

Public Gathering #2 Thursday, February 28, 2019
Featuring Thomas F. DeFrantz, Professor of African and African American Studies and Theater Studies at Duke University.

“Dancing Around Race” was a year-long series of dialogues generated and hosted by choreographer and dancer Gerald Casel in his role as Lead Artist in his 2018 Community Engagement Residency, a program of HMD’s Bridge Project.  For his residency, Casel convened a cohort of 5 dance-makers to explore “the role race plays in dance production and presentation.” Yayoi Kambara, Raissa Simpson, Sammay Dizon, David Herrera, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto spent a full year researching and discussing the layered intersections of artistic practice, community engagement, institutional resources, and racial identity, awareness, and ideology in the contemporary dance world. Casel also invited three highly-qualified outside experts to the Bay Area: art historian Aruna D’Souza; Barbara Bryan of Movement Research; and dancer/choreographer/writer Thomas DeFrantz.

I went to the first and third public events. Both events began by introducing the artists of Casel’s cohort and proceeded with presentations by the invited experts. In session #1, there was a potluck at Humanist Hall, an Oakland community center. People mingled in the garden and there was a general social excitement in the air. Someone took time to lay out beautifully articulated ground rules for talking about race—guidelines intended to foreclose specific kinds of derailments and especially to guarantee that the conversation would not get bogged down by white defensiveness and willful ignorance. Instead, it was constrained by the expert presenter, Aruna D’Souza.

Aruna D’Souza is a dynamic presence and her book White Walls is a quite wonderful analysis of the racial economy of visual art exhibitions in the contemporary white box. Under many circumstances, I would enjoy listening to her do a keynote, but I had been invited to a conversation about dance, and so I was restless at discovering myself in the audience for what seemed more like her book tour. I doodled and wondered whether my fellow audience members were also feeling the energy drain out of the room. I was curious about why Casel chose not to redirect her comments to speak more directly to our common interest or create space for other voices and perspectives to be heard. Relief came in a group activity: we were instructed to migrate around the room writing on hanging pieces of butcher paper in response to prompts like “what would racial equity look like in dance?” I gathered that these prompts were generated by the artists in the cohort, who had been working on them together for several weeks.

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Photo Credit: Hope Mohr

When we returned to large-group conversation there was some powerful testimony about racial type-casting, and a few important threads emerged about:

  • how dance training leaves legacies of white dominance in the body;
  • how our standards of excellence continue to be shaped by white aesthetic traditions;
  • how work made in those traditions (specifically ballet) receives disproportionate funding and attention.

But the evening was almost over and despite a general atmosphere of willingness, and many people’s decision to stay far later than the original posted ending time, the discussion did not go very deep before I had to leave. Writing for inDance, Sima Belmar noted a similar feeling.

Session #3 had a completely different and much more intense quality. Over 70 people, more than half of them white-appearing, crowded into the Eric Quezada Cultural Center, a small featureless Valencia St space. Tommy DeFrantz’s brief presentation blended personal reflection with historical analysis before he invited Gerald Casel into dialogue. Then the assembled audience was broken into 12-minute small-group discussions led by the artists of the cohort. At the end of this exchange, each group selected a representative to report back to the re-assembled room, thus initiating collective discussion. Time was carefully monitored and transitions had been planned. Overall the evening was structured with much more attention to sequence and flow; yet the room seemed energetically foggy and withheld in a way that queer artist of color Bhumi Patel, who was the Dancing Around Race Program Coordinator for HMD, identifies as white anxiety.

I came away with two responses and a list of questions. First, I was struck by the way that this conversation kept returning to the quantitative: people talked about budgets, scarcity, rents and wages, audience sizes, and tokenization. All these issues are absolutely real and yet I found myself wondering whether the recurring emphasis on numbers was also a tactic for keeping things abstract–not too visceral, not too personal. Moments, when people left numbers behind to talk about the quality of human relationships and interactions really, stood out.  

Second, I noticed that a lot of the conversation in session #3  took an interrogative form. I found myself fancying that might have something to do with women’s leadership in the dance world, and many women’s deep training to soften declarative statements into questions; and also that it might have something to do with an ethic of inclusion in many marginalized communities, where questions rather than statements can be a way to hold open the space for collective critical thinking. These are the ones I wrote down:

  • How do we know when a dance is good? How do we know when we’re racializing a dance to determine whether it’s good?
  • Who are you facing toward? Who values what you do?
  • How do we value who we address?
  • Who is this dance for, and what role do I play in that?
  • What can our art make possible, and for whom?
  • How would it look different if our work was fully facing our communities, rather than keeping one eye on the funders?
  • Why don’t we push back and say no, this grant isn’t enough for what you’re asking me to do?
  • How are we sharing out toward an assemblage of care? What is it to move toward, to be in, relationship?
  • How do white people see one another? How do we hold one another accountable
  • How do we get past the person at the top?
  • We have alternative models for relationships and institutions; why don’t they get taken up?
  • Why do we imagine that problematic institutions should be fixed instead of destroyed? Why can’t we just cut them off? What if instead of reinventing institutions we ended them?
  • What actions can actually overturn the existing power structure?
  • How can I as a white person work to create a more powerful space for people of color? What power and resources do I need to yield or hand over?
  • What is the line between stepping back and retreating into white silence?

These questions are powerful and ongoing. For me, they are the measure of the events’ success. It remains to be seen who takes them up, how they are answered, and whom those answers ultimately serve; but they define important conversations that all of us need to be having.

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