Month: February 2020

Gerald Casel, “Dancing Around Race” February 15th

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I hopped on Muni to the Asian Art Museum to catch Gerald Casel’s “Dancing Around Race.” The event included a lecture by Casel, 5 site-specific performances, and a post-show discussion. 

It started with a 20-minute lecture by Casel, “Dancing Around Race; Interrogating Whiteness in Dance,” which provided a framework for watching the 5 dances on the program. These dances “reflect on a year of research” – the choreographers, Yayoi Kambara, Raissa Simpson, David Herrera, SAMMAY, and Gerald Casel, participated in Casel’s year-long Community Engagement Residency through the Hope Mohr Dance 2018 Bridge Project:

“Together they interrogated the dynamics of equity in performance, specifically how the structures and systems of dance presentation are affected by race and power” 

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Dancing Around Race: Interrogating Whiteness in Dance by Gerald Casel. Photo: Michelle LaVigne

I stand in relation to Casel’s work as a white woman and I appreciated Casel’s framing as it encouraged me to consider the multiple ways in which my perspective is (always) shaded by this stance. Casel’s talk charted his journey in curating and creating Dancing Around Race. It was thoughtful, reflective, and insightful and brought into constellation questions, terms, and realities of bodies, dance, and dance-making:

  • Invisibility of whiteness
  • Equity
  • False universalism (as whiteness)
  • White fragility
  • Whiteness as neutral, normal, ordinary
  • Systems
  • Economies

Casel did not hold back. He voiced struggles and frustrations working on Not About Race Dance and the Dancing Around Race Public Gatherings. He stressed the need to keep naming the inequities from various standpoints. I was particularly struck by his list of major dance companies in San Francisco dominated by “white individuals.” 

Casel’s framing lingered as I moved around the Asian Art Museum encountering works in Samsung Hall, the Wilbur Grand Staircase, Bogart Court and Lee Gallery. I didn’t take too many notes as I wanted to experience the dances without distraction. By the time I ended up back in Samsung Hall for Casel’s Duet X, I felt invited into a conversation that had already been happening and at the same time ongoing. Both Herrara’s It’s Always Also Me and SAMMAY’s a technoritwal asked the audience to carefully, mindfully and playfully consider their points of view, and their bodies’ views – they articulated and spoke. With all 5 dances, I noticed direct and unwavering movement modalities that clearly embodied a year of research and the persistence of work. The post-show discussion continued Casel’s opening lecture as the choreographers discussed their movement modalities, offered ways white communities can “decenter,” and considered what it means to unpack white neutrality.  

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a technoritwal by SAMMAY. Photo: Michelle LaVigne

A week later I found myself sitting at a university forum on black women in the academy. They began by asking: “who’s research is considered valuable?” University of San Francisco University Professor Stephanie Sears responded by explaining how her research on “how black women and girls work with and against each other to create safe space, construct identities and empower themselves” was seen as “too particular” and not generalizable enough. With “Dancing Around Race” Casel is asking us to stop generalizing dance and to value dances, dancers, and dance-makers of color for their particular stances, experiences, and perspectives. Casel, like Sears, is a researcher to watch and read.

San Francisco Ballet, “Cinderella” Jan. 25th 2020

 

I took my brother and soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter to see SF Ballet perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella (2012/2013). Choreographed for SF Ballet and the National Dutch ballet, Wheeldon’s Cinderella is a more recent version that shifts the familiar Disney storyline, includes some different characters (and characterizations), and displays sublime lighting. As Steve Winn remarks in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle the combined efforts of Julian Crouch (sets and costumes), Natacha Katz (lighting), Basil Twist (puppeteer), and Daniel Brodie (production designer) “merge in a series of museum-quality stage pictures.” Wheeldon’s choreography is fresh and well suited for Prokofiev’s score. Craig Lucas’ libretto digs back into the Brothers Grimm darker tale to rewrite Cinderella as “being more in charge of her own destiny” (according to SFBallet program notes). On Saturday, Misa Kuranaga danced with a supple strength that embodied a woman that has not given up on worldly kindness nor future possibilities. Writing for Utah Arts Review, Kate Mattingly’s review of Ballet West’s “refreshed” Giselle suggests that there is room for growth and change within classical works and Wheeldon’s version of Cinderella is another example.

Until Act II I was all in, convinced that this was a Cinderella story I could get behind. As I often do, I did not read the program prior to the performance so I was not too surprised to see three princesses and their attendants representing the countries of Russia, Spain, and Bali. I get that Prince Guillaume’s parents want to marry him off and expect that princesses from other countries are likely to be involved. I’m baffled, however, as to why Wheeldon chose to make these princesses characterizations; their costumes, movements, and inflections remind me of cringe-worthy moments of the many Chinese or Arbarian variations I’ve seen in The Nutcracker. Just check out minute .43 in SF Ballet’s trailer for Cinderella. Ballet can and should do better with not only re-thinking Disney storylines but also unthinking the cultural appropriations embedded within ballet’s history. If the Balanchine Trust can allow alterations to its Chinese variation in its Nutcracker, then I would like to think that contemporary choreographers can do the same, and should.