Author: sfdancematters

(in)Visible, Jess Curtis/Gravity, Thursday, Oct 3rd, 2019

Guest Blog Post by Megan Nicely

I couldn’t attend Jess Curtis/Gravity’s (in) Visible at CounterPulse (Oct 3-6 & Oct 10-13) so I asked Megan Nicely to write a response. I Posed three questions and Nicely offered three compelling answers.

Did you feel that the dance was able to engage you differently without being able to see it? In other words, how did the dance “dislcoate[d] vision from the center of your experience?

I’ve attended Jess Curtis/Gravity’s work for many years. I’m engaged by the questions Jess asks and always curious how he will address them. In general, I would say that he begins with the body and looks for ways to expand or test different thresholds of experience and perception. He often works in collaboration with performers and other artists, and more recently philosophers. Reflecting on the performances I have seen, I observe a gradual shift from a focus on the performer’s body to increasingly include those of audience members as well. The recent piece (in)Visible is designed with this perspective in mind. The promotional materials ask: “How do you experience a performance? By seeing it? What if that’s not possible?”

The night I attended I was part of a much more diversely abled audience (at least based on albeit limited visual markers), which already speaks to some of the politics of Jess’s work. Audio Description and ASL interpretation were made available, and the visual experience I did have as a seeing person was enjoyable–six dancers’ skillful navigation of the circular and narrow spaces through the scattering of audience chairs, which heightened my kinesthetic sense. Throughout the evening, I appreciated having time to attend to my own audience body. I was not asked to participate in the ways some immersive experiences demand, nor was I simply watching a spectacle. By addressing what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible,” (in)Visible speaks to the politics of dance aesthetics and challenges audiences to find meaning in new ways. 

After experiencing the work, however, I found myself grappling less with other sensory modalities than with the space left by the demotion of vision, and what came in to fill its place. I find that the above promotional questions can be taken in several ways: first, they ask how artists might expand the art form to include multiple access points and varieties of sensory awareness, but they also ask what we can learn about vision’s role in dance by destabilizing its hierarchy. Because this work was designed less to give a seeing person a new experience than to include a non-seeing audience, I did find myself constructing meaning in new ways. In this particular piece, speaking stepped into vision’s location, accompanied by some less dominant touch as air, a prop, or a performer made subtle contact. This dominance of the voice stood out to me, not because I necessarily consider dance to be “nonverbal,” but because language, like vision, is a tool of power that can make explicit or invisible certain experiences. This choice interested me.

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(in)Visible by Jess Curtis/Gravity. Photo: Robbie Sweeny

What did you take away from the dance? What questions linger?

First and foremost, as an audience member, I felt well taken care of. Prior to entering the theater we were each given a glow stick and were instructed that if at any time we felt uncomfortable or needed to leave the performance, we could simply break it, signaling a desire to exit. We were also greeted by performers as we looked for seating in the groups of chairs arranged on and around the periphery of the stage, and were reminded several times during the show that if we did not want to be touched by a performer, even if we had chosen to sit in an interactive chair, we could opt-out. These tactics set the tone for performance in the age of consent, where crossing conventional theatrical boundaries in order to shock audiences out of a “false reality” were instead approached with caution, suggesting not tamed performance so much as a new training of how to bring an audience body into a performance experience. Maybe it’s time to update Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty for today’s age?

What lingered after the performance was that these consensual audience interactions did not lend agency to the audience, except in refusal by saying “no.” Those in the participatory seats were manipulated like puppets or props, with often humorous commentary (“I am taking off the subject’s shoes,” “I am looking for the subject’s phone”). The specifics of these interactions were articulated verbally just before they happened, a skillful consent strategy. However, they were not questions but statements (although I did experience a whispered personal exchange next to me between a performer and audience member as the performer attempted a more ambitious move–standing on the audience member’s thighs–whispering as they ascended, “ok?”) I was awakened to the vast range of performance strategies for connecting with audiences without merely eliminating boundaries altogether. Here, the lines between the performance of consent and actual consent were blurred–as they often are in “real life.”

Does the dance resonate with any social/political issues out there right now?

The piece left me questioning what seems to be a problematic issue in our human social world: ambiguity. Not only are there grey areas of meaning and interpretation, but even when seemingly “factual” or descriptive, statements and actions do not always line up. Anyone who has stepped briefly into performance theory knows that the performative–when “saying something is doing something”–can either be truthful or in J. L. Austin’s words “infelicitous.” It is only truthful when socially agreed upon and repeated so that others understand it as such. While not performative per se, (in)Visible was a beautiful example of truthful alignment. Even when phrases themselves were more abstract or interpretive rather than descriptive–i.e., “I am not ignoring the subject” while dancing close by–there was little question that what was said and what was done were in agreement. 

The alignment or word and deed is increasingly rare and often not the case. Different interpretations of words and actions populate today’s headlines. Words and movements can lie, as well as tell truths, depending on context, and with the rapid changes to these contexts, it is no wonder we don’t quite trust either words or actions very much at the moment. Will removing vision–and speaking for that matter–lead to other kinds of centralized experiences, both in performance and outside of it? While a welcomed change, do proceed with awareness. Lest you surrender all visual capacities, the digital audience survey, which earned one a free drink, did not allow one to “opt-out” of any of the questions. I guess that is the price for diverting attention to other sensorial desires. 

 

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The Classroom, September 7th

Alyssa Mitchel’s The Classroom is an hour-long dance that centers on Mitchell’s past frustrations as a student, her work as math skills tutor, and 26 interviews with teachers and students at 5 different schools in the San Francisco Bay area. I attended the world premiere on Saturday, September 7th at the ODC Dance Commons. In development for 18 months, The Classroom reflects the ways in which personal experiences often translate into research questions that can drive creative processes. While the piece included audio recordings from Mitchel’s interviews as well as recorded essays from students at the Urban School of SF, dance seemed to be the primary vehicle by which Mitchel sought to engage with issues of frustration, questions of intelligence, struggles with learning disabilities, and more.

Mitchel’s commitment to her project is undeniable and the messages clear. The dancing by Jessica Bozzo, Jessica DeFranco, Sierra Heller, Franke Lee III, Nicole Maimon, Tayler Kinner, and Katherine Newmann was equally committed. They danced 9 different sections in various formats demonstrating their emotional range and technical precision. Most of these sections directly corresponded to Mitchel’s research. “Frustration” and “Defining Intelligence,” for example, both relied on audio from interviews with students and teachers. I had the pleasure of responding to these sections as part of the ODC Pilot Program (#70 and #71 respectively). In the current production, these two sections were altered slightly, the difference slight, but noticeable. Previously, both sections included video. This time, audio excerpts replaced the video in “Frustration” and only music accompanied “Defining Intelligence.” This change amplified the visual field of the dance and directed the audience toward the movements and dancers, creating more space to observe the kinetic relation between words and bodies.

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

The inclusion of spoken word – live, audio, video – is not new in dance. Neither is research-based dance making. I admit this is an overly broad category. For example, Bay Area Artists such as Hope Mohr Dance, Keith Hennesy, Joe Goode, others often use words in their dance and performance works. So as I sat watching I kept thinking about the relationship between the audio recordings and the dancing. Why bring dance to these interviews? What (and how) does Mitchel’s choreography add to the concepts, questions, and reflections articulated by the audio recordings?

The first section, “Frustration,” as I noted in a previous response, “embodied and expressed the myriad ways frustration manifests – as small fits, exhaustion, isolation. The dance also served as a reminder that we are not alone, especially when it comes to learning and the structures that constrain that process.” The movements in this section amplified rather than duplicated the content of the interviews. For example, one dancer slowly moved backwards on their hands and feet – crawling – while the other dancers moved more freely, which highlighted the different paces at which people learn. This nuance, however, wasn’t always the case in other sections. 

In The Classroom, Mitchell included 4 sections titled after 4 students from the Urban School of San Francisco – Maia, Ben, Eloise, and Alexa. Each of these sections included recordings of those students talking about their experiences in school; they seemed to be reading essays that they wrote. The third one, “Eloise’s Reflection” really hit me as a teacher – the words overtook the stage and I didn’t notice much of the dancing. “Alexa’s Reflection,” 7th on the program, seemed to work better. Maybe because the spoken essay was more emotive and lively. Maybe because the choreography embodied more subtlety. This is the challenge when choreographing with spoken word  – not to be too literal or too abstract. The last piece on the program, “Recess,” while fun and playful didn’t bring us back to the dance’s messages about learning. Why end here? How does the concept or activity of recess offer us a conclusion? How does it send us out of the theater?

 

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

I want to close with a final reflection on audience. As a teacher and parent, I can relate to a lot of the content in The Classroom, but I’m not sure this dance was choreographed for me. Where does this dance belong? Who does it belong to? Mitchel already has an answer: “I think it would be cool to show this work in schools.” I don’t disagree and I hope that happens. The Classroom has a message that still seeks an audience. That audience, I have no doubt, is eager and waiting.

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Lavender Country, April 25th Post: Ballet

Writing with Julian Carter

Post: Ballet’s Lavender Country is named after the first gay country band and album of the same title, released in 1973 and re-released in 2014. The ballet premiered in 2017 and returned to San Francisco’s ZSpace in April 2019. It’s 2.1 miles from ZSpace to the dance hall at 550 Barneveldt, where a thriving 20-year-old LGBT country-western dance community meets twice a week. Your $5 entrance fee includes access to lessons in two-step, country waltz, West Coast Swing and line-dancing; there’s a Two Left Feet Club for total beginners, Line Dance Pro for advanced dancers, and hours of open dancing. It’s home to a nationally respected line-dance choreographer and a competitive dance team. Each fall Sundance hosts the four-day Stompede, the largest gay country-western dance event in the world.

If you’re wondering what that has to do with Post:Ballet’s performance, the answer is not nearly enough. The show revolved around Patrick Haggerty, the original lead singer/songwriter on Lavender Country who performed in front of an energetic and skillful band while the Post:Ballet dancers moved in the dance space just below the band stage. Between songs, Haggerty spoke directly to the audience telling stories about coming out, talking with his father, losing friends to AIDS, finding a husband, and more. His performance of live memoir was often compelling—poignant and funny, and occasionally a little embarrassing in its earnest articulation of political visions now decades past their sell-by date. But neither the music nor the historical culture from which it sprang found reflection in the underwhelmingly generic movement.

Lavender Country looked like it was made by someone who lacked connection to the material and had no real interest in the technical challenges of building dance that speaks queer culture, sexuality, and politics—present or past. It showed little awareness of country-western dance and its traditional structures, rhythms, vocabulary or spirit. Haggerty’s music wasn’t originally made for dancing but it’s expressive and emotionally vivid. It’s also fun. Vanessa Thiessen’s choreography was not. Its affective and aesthetic flatness might explain why we found it difficult to stay connected with the dancing.  

We came to Lavender Country interested in how Post:Ballet would embody gay country-western music. We’d been investigating Rodeo (both de Mille and Peck versions) and talking about gender and race fantasies embedded in musical references to the American West. We thought Lavender Country might fuel our larger conversations about heteronormativity and whiteness in dance. That didn’t happen. In fact, we were unable to discern any real conceptual structure for the piece. We were especially puzzled by a cringe-worthy sequence to the song “To a Woman.” Haggerty explained that this love song was written and first performed by a lesbian member of the original band. Then all the musicians and five of the dancers left the stage, the lights went down, and a single dancer rolled and writhed on the floor to a recording from the original album. Even well-danced, it was difficult to imagine how this exaggerated and angst-ridden isolation could possibly express anything but resistance to desire and romance between women. Instead, it seemed to recycle the tired old assumption that lesbians die alone.

When we sat down to write this response we looked for other reviews of the dance from its 2017 premiere and found nothing. This seemed strange to us given the strong culture of queer dance and performance in the Bay Area. It left us wondering why this dance was overlooked by area dance writers. To us, this piece seemed in desperate need of post-performance reflection and thinking.  After the show, we talked with a number of LGBT people who were equally disappointed. A two-step dancer of many years told us that he felt two conflicting urges–one to let his critique rip, one not to badmouth–and reflected that both responses felt like they came from a gay place. A professional modern dancer disliked what he saw as inappropriately heteronormative pairing and asked how this composition could bill itself as radical in any way. And a relationship coach, who doesn’t have much experience with dance, asked in all innocence why nobody had pointed this was a bad idea. It’s a legitimate question, and the answer is larger than this review can hold.

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The After Party:  Lavender Country, ZSpace April 2019. Photo Credit: Michelle LaVigne

May 10th, Dance Exhibit, Lauren Simpson Dance

Writing with Megan Nicely

We were invited to write a response to Lauren Simpson’s Dance Exhibit, described asa multidimensional arts experience centered around a physical and embodied exploration of the Atrium space and the sculptures contained within.” Each performance had a different post-show speaker. We were curious about how the dance is extended by including the perspective of Sarah Hotchkiss, the guest speaker on May 10th; when does a dance end? We’ve recently been inspired by The Hundreds, a book by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart in which each “essay” is written in one hundred words or multiples of one hundred words long.

Upon reflecting, we decided to try out Berlant and Stewart’s hundreds practice as a way to respond to Simpson’s piece. On one hand, this seems like a suitable framework for blogging – – a shorter writing form. On the other hand, it seems to fit, at least to us, how Dance Exhibit displayed meticulous attention to detail not only with the movement quality but also with its relationship to space and sound. Nothing seemed out of place or unnecessary. We each took a different approach with our hundreds practice, yet feel they capture the varied ways we see and write (this) dance.

Artistic Labor, Megan Nicely

I felt strangely idle. Women in colored jumpsuits moved silently and efficiently at the peripheries of audience clumps, repositioning pieces of industrial material–rebar, fluorescent tubes, coils of extension cords–while we chatted. It had started, the performance I mean. The bodies in colored jumpsuits–orange, blue, black, white, green–were already exhibiting the behind-the-scenes labor of installation crews to us, you know, the ways objects are placed in museums and galleries just so. These bodily gestures, measurements, and precision are what make the art object appear just right, and that is what these bodies–these dancers–were doing, and continued to do throughout the piece.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

At some point we stopped our idle chatter. Maybe it was because the labor force had unified, and displaced us. We watched as the bodies staked their claim on a large wooden staircase, itself part installation, part architecture. Soon we also occupied this space, now a formal seated audience. We observed the art laborers mirror the forms of the art objects down below. I let myself continue the labor installation narrative, seeing the danced actions as a process of gathering information about the objects, so as to know what next to do with them–a way to understand their nature somehow.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

After the performance, the speaker referred to “ooo”–object-oriented ontology, which means everything existing equally, rather than humans at the top. Did the objects communicate their preferences? Was the human precision a way to contain and manage the situation, to avoid mess or spillage? Clean, even, focused–these are not words we often use to describe labor, yet if a body is to repeat activity for a long time, or remain in relationship, a somatic aesthetic is helpful. Approach touching the material with care. You may not know the past lives that have allowed the things to arrive to this moment.

(“Dance Exhibit” with Lauren Simpson Dance, Dana Hemenway, and Sarah Hotchkiss; Alien Phenomenology by Ian Bogost; Awareness Through Movement by Moshe Feldenkrais)

Space Making, Michelle LaVigne

Walking into Minnessota Street Project, I felt curious and slightly impatient. I read that the dance started at 7:45; I didn’t want to miss anything. People were busy talking, walking, and sitting throughout the space. As we mingled, five dancers dressed in different colored coveralls moved around the open space, manipulating different objects – – glowing fluorescent tubes, macraméd extension cords, and twisted rebar. They moved to the stairs and slowly rolled their way down. We were then directed toward the stairs and sat down to watch the dance continue or was it just beginning? A new start or a resetting?

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Michelle LaVigne

 

The dancers then began to interact directly with the objects; they moved them and moved with them. They also moved like them; sculpting their bodies to mirror their shapes and energy. By taking on these shapes, the dancers activated these objects, suggesting they could be otherwise. The materials and space that might ordinarily seem static became mobilized, pliable. The soundscape performed live by Shanna Sordhal added to this tactile-ness. The dancer’s white shoes echoed through the space, also helping to amplify and alter the very white space. The manipulation of bodies, materials, and sound challenged the stability of expected forms.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

The end came a bit abruptly; I was surprised to hear clapping from behind; my vision blocked by the I-beams bisecting the space. The shift from dance to words ended the evening with Sarah Hotchkiss, our speaker and then moderator with Simpson and artist  Dana Hemenway. We got glimpses into their creative practices and insights into how things (like Hemenway’s macraméd extension cords) come into being, how they have ontological status. It was an insightful end; their conversation left me wondering about space, things, and the power of bodies to move materials into ideas – – are we that different than things?

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

April 6th, PILOT 71 – “Six Second Rule”

This is the second time in five months I’ve been invited to write a response for the ODC Pilot Program.  Pilot 71 – Six Second Rule featured 5 dances by ayanadancearts, HB//Collabs, Kickbal, Alyssa Mitchel, and PULP. I’m not sure how these dances were connected under the production’s title, but I did notice that each paid particular attention to rhythm and used that rhythm to amply a range of themes, questions, and moods.

The first piece, Tane choreographed by Ayana Yonesaka (in collaboration with the dancers), was danced by four adults and an 8-year old. The piece had a playful, thoughtful quality to it. The choreography didn’t move too fast, which suggested a kind of taking care, especially between the dancers and their representative generations. This mood was interrupted by one dancer expressing a moment of frustration – voice whining, body tensing. This moment stood out and surprised me as if I had encountered this scene at a playground, on a sidewalk, or in a store. Why this moment was necessary? I wasn’t quite sure. Tane ended after the 8-year old went to each adult dancer and gestured as if placing an object into each of their outstretched hands, which underscored the notion of care. Overall, the dance reminded me that we can (and perhaps should) learn from the perspectives of children.

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Tane, ODC Dance Commons April 2019. Photo Credit: Mark Shigenaga

Wonderment “focuses on the emotion and experiences of joy” and incorporated recordings from 7 interviews. Choreographed by Hayley Bowman (in collaboration with the dancers), the movement and gestures exemplified togetherness, including the clapping and holding of hands. The recorded interviews and music created a disjointed sound experience that seemed at times unnecessary to the concepts at work in the piece. Why not let the movement speak more? What did the words add? The dance ended with all the dancers in a clump, one on top of the other and then one dancer stood on top before jumping off as the lights darkened. The concept of joy as articulated in Wonderment suggests that the experience of it can be intimate, scant, small, and even difficult at times. The dance’s message seemed clear (to me): Joy should not be taken for granted.

Relic, the third piece on the program, was playful and introspective. It started with a dancer taping down a large piece of white butcher paper on the floor stage left; once in place, the dancers walked around it counting out their steps as if measuring distance. Later, another dancer rolled out butcher paper across the back of the stage, tapping it down. Then she rolled across it while at the same time outlining parts of her body on the paper with a sharpie. These tactile moments and earthy hue of the costumes gave the dance an archeological feel – were they making relics? Discovering them? The dancers also played with the audience by smiling and winking; It was hard not to smile back. While I wasn’t sure what choreographers Emma Lanier and Ky Frances wanted me to take away from Relic I did enjoy the whimsy articulated by the dance and dancers.

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Relic, ODC Dance Commons April 2019. Photo Credit: Mark Shigenaga

Frustration is part of a larger work by Alyssa Mitchel titled The Classroom based on Mitchell’s experiences as a math and organizational skills tutor and, like Wonderment, includes audio from interviews. This is the second time I’ve seen Mitchel’s work, which was also part of The Classroom. The dancing in Frustration clearly embodied and expressed the myriad ways frustration manifests – as small fits, exhaustion, isolation. The dance also served as a reminder that we are not alone, especially when it comes to learning and the structures that constrain that process. The research behind Frustration is compelling yet the inclusion of the interviews at times seemed intrusive to the choreography and my experience of the dance. My 7-year old daughter wrote in her notes that this (i.e. frustration) “happens a lot of times to me.” The message in Frustration clearly speaks across ages, which doesn’t happen very often in dance but maybe it should more.

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Frustration, ODC Dance Commons April 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

The last piece on the program, Foot Fault, choreographed by Jenna Valez (in collaboration with the dancers), was infused with rhythm of five dancers that never seemed to stop dancing. Before the dance started, the curtains were pulled back to reveal the windows, providing a backdrop of the street and amplifying the communal feel of the dance; we were not in a theater anymore. The choreography – with fast gestures, movement cannons, and a delightful head-bobbing moment on the floor – was consistent and playful. The dancers kept moving. The music choices suited the movement quality of the dance as a felt experience of shared energy. Foot Fault didn’t dive too deep and seemed a fitting way to end the evening of dance.

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Foot Fault, ODC Dance Commons April 2019. Photo Credit: Mark Shigenaga

I’ve been attending the ODC Pilot performances on and off for years and am always pleasantly surprised by what I see. The dancing across all 5 pieces was committed and thoughtful, suggesting that dance can include 8-year olds, field research, interviews, outlining, and more. Reflecting on this evening of dance I wonder how often people take the time to try out a new choreographer, dance venue, or art form. I’m thankful for the opportunity to keep trying new things and hope the ODC Pilot program continues to thrive in a city that seems sometimes at odds with its artistic sense of self.

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.

Reflecting on “Leaving the Atocha Station,” January 27, 2019

Choreography/Direction: Hope Mohr, in collaboration with the performers

Mohr’s newest piece, Leaving the Atocha Station, is inspired by Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel of the same title. Working with and from text is not a new format for Mohr. In 2015 she co-directed (with Mark Jackson) a dance theater production of Antigonick, Anne Caron’s translation of Antigone, for Shotgun Players. Many of Mohr’s previous dances are directly inspired by texts such as extreme lyric I (2018), Plainsong (2012), and The Force that Drives the Flower (2009). She also often relies on oral expression as part of her choreographic structure such as in Manifesting (2016). Last, Mohr’s ambitious Bridge Project is framed by orality as it is “a form of community organizing to facilitate equity-driven cultural conversations.” Given such, Mohr’s work can be situated between dance and theater, body and text. Leaving the Atocha Station is easily placed within her oeuvre and a distinctive contribution.

In Leaving the Atocha Station, Mohr takes on the task of translating and transforming Lerner’s “auto-fiction” to create a “hybrid theater” piece that included dance movements and theater-like monologues. The interplay between these forms amplified a commentary on art that astutely reflected the humor and strangeness of experience – the everyday and extraordinary, the self and other, the familiar and unfamiliar.

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Pre-Show January 2019. Photo Credit: M. LaVigne

The 55-minute piece began as the 2 dancers, Christian Burns and Wiley Naman Strasser, entered the space and sat down at a table strewn with empty pill bottles. They faced each other as if looking into a mirror, Strasser wearing a paper hood that covered his head and neck. They moved, copying each other’s gestures and movements, eventually touching each other as if wanting to know more about the other/the self. Toward the end of the opening, Burns reached over and grabbed the paper hood to take it off. Strasser quickly grabbed it back, clutching it to his body and turning to the side. He wore sunglasses and headphones – clearly not ready to be seen. How do we encounter the self as a self? What masks, screens, pills, and relationships do we hide behind?

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Post-Show January 2019. Photo Credit: M.LaVigne

I have not read Lerner’s novel, but critics understood it to be informed by Lerner’s personal experiences while living in Madrid, Spain as a Fulbright scholar in 2003. It seems fitting then for Mohr to orient the piece toward the subjective.

A series of scenes followed this opening in which Burns and Strasser took turns reading from, moving with, and responding to parts of Lerner’s novel. Maureen Corrigan (book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air) described Lerner’s novel as an “offbeat little novel [that] manages to convey what everyday life feels like before we impose the structure of plot on our experience.” Yet, Mohr’s editing-by-way-of-extracting gave Lerner’s words an elegant form that allowed the audience to witness the processing of events and happenings experienced by the novel’s main character, Adam Gordon, and performed by both Burns and Strasser; they took turns inhabiting Gordon’s persona. This format provided an alternative way of “reading” Lerner’s novel that allowed the audience to viscerally experience an art encounter in the Prado museum, witness the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and observe a conversation about a drowning. This last moment was striking. Both performers read this conversation from Lerner’s book while standing at microphones. They kept interrupting each other, which gave this section a kind of tragic urgency that left me still – could this be true? Leaving the Atocha Station ended with Burns and Strasser each performing a last scene – one with words, the other with movement. For some reason that I can’t pinpoint, it seemed fitting that the dancing came last. Perhaps dance can offer an embodied rhythm that resonates more clearly than the verbal. Perhaps dance can better “put into words” when the verbal (or textual) seems lacking in descriptive or active potential.

While Leaving the Atocha Station is not a departure for Mohr it was refreshingly poetic in its form and movement. I enjoyed laughing and encountering the question(s) of experience – art, self, and otherwise – the pleasure of not understanding and the wonder that travels with them.

PS: I was fortunate to watch and reflect on the piece with a few friends, which inspired my response in several ways. I would be remiss not to thank them – SW, MN, ML, JH, and MM. It seems fitting that my response here absorbs these conversations. As Lerner noted in an interview in Granta his novel “assimilate[s] many other modes and sources: it contains a poem from my first book of poetry (a poem I feel is changed considerably by being transposed into the fiction); entire pages from an academic essay I wrote on John Ashbery; lines from my third book of poetry; language stolen from friends and heroes; and so on. So yes, I do love how a novel can absorb and constellate other forms, what you called its ‘elasticity’.”

Last post of 2018/First post of 2019

One of the last dance performances I saw in 2018 was Performing Diaspora 2018 at Counterpulse featuring choreography by Cynthia Ling Lee and Melissa Lewis (with Kim Ip and Nina Wu). It was an exceptional way to end a year of watching and writing dance. I was grateful to learn about the Santa Cruz, CA Chinatowns and Chinese labor camps that existed between 1860-1955 in Lee’s Lost Chinatowns. The layers were sometimes hard to see through, but some points resonated – the value of testimony, community, and memory. I couldn’t help but think about my grandmother, my Oma. She immigrated to the U.S. after WWII with my 7-year old Mother. How did she manage to make a home and find a place after the atrocities of war? Then I thought about how much she never talked about that time and how many stories get lost – the unspeakability of things.

It seemed fitting for the evening to end with I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father. It was poignant and funny, thoughtful and fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect (I explicitly avoided the KQED review of the piece before seeing the show). As part of the Performing Diaspora Residency at CounterPulse, I suspected this piece would be about racial identity in some way. Race was part of the conversation, but it didn’t dominate, which allowed for Lewis, Ip, and Wu to dig deeper into issues of ancestry, identity, and longing. Part dance, part theater, part movie set the pieces of  I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father added up – the dancing amplified the content along with the costume changes, karaoke singing, and spoken word. I didn’t get lost or wander too far.

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I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father, CounterPulse December 2018. Photo Credit: Robbie Sweeny

This multimedia, and multimodal piece asked the audience to consider the past as part of how we are now, in the present. What are the lineages that keep us moving, keep us asking not only who we are but who we hope to be? This inquiry, as played out by the dancers, is serious and also humorous. Writing for KQED, Gluckstern claims the piece “doesn’t lead to a greater revelation of the persistence of outmoded stereotypes.” I noticed that too, but that criticism didn’t linger for me. What lingered for me were questions about ancestry and a longing for connections between parts of ourselves that we don’t know to connect or wish we could do better.

As I walked out into the night, I thought about what I long and hope for. I can’t think of a better way to end 2018 and begin 2019.