Rhetoric

September 16th, Transform Fest at YBCA

Choreography by Amy Sweiwert; Larry Arrington with Sandra Lawson-Ndu and Minoosh Zomorodinia; and Fog Beast

I’ve been looking forward to this evening of dance since YBCA announced its lineup for Transform Fest – 7 choreographers responding to the question “Why Citizenship?” According to Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Chief of Program and Pedagogy at YBCA, “The curation of the festival is intended to reveal our artists as accountable agents in service of civic impact.” This claim merits further investigation in relation to the dance works presented so I will come back to it later. It frames the pieces on the program in a very particular (and rhetorical) way, which I found problematic for several reasons.

Audience

Walking into the YBCA lobby around 7:15 the energy was palpable. A group of people were sitting at a large table engaged in a pre-performance talk of some kind. Small groups were forming and others were exploring the Tania Bruguera, “Talking to Power / Hablándole al Poder” exhibit on the first-floor gallery. We were not allowed into the Forum space until performance time (about 8 pm). Just before the doors opened, Marc Bamuthi Joseph grabbed a microphone and welcomed us to the evening; it was odd as usually these remarks are made after entering. He informed us there would be one intermission and that the audience could expect to participate and be asked to move around. So in we went.

The Forum is a large room in which various kinds of seating had been arranged so you never know what to expect. By the time I entered the performance space, the only seating left for my two friends and I were foam cubes – they were not comfortable. In addition to these foam cubes, which framed part of the space, there were short stools on wheels placed in front of regular chairs on bleachers. File_000 (31)After the first 40-45 minute piece by Fog Beast and an intermission, we moved and were able to sit in regular chairs. I think some folks left (I noticed that Marc Bamuthi Joseph did). I was surprised that no one warned the audience that some of the seating options could be difficult for those with mobility challenges or injuries. I was also surprised that the printed program for the evening was not listed in correct order. Usually, there is a supplemental insert or an announcement when something deviates from the printed program. These are some of the initial reasons I didn’t feel tended to as an audience member.

Dances

The three pieces on the program were framed by the question “Why Citizenship?” in different ways: reconsidering the past;  exploring its connotations; challenging the present; addressing incongruity. Fog Beast, “He’s One of Us,” began the evening with a little satire. The audience was segregated into “conference attendees,” “citizens,” and “honored supporters” by Patricia West, the conference M.C. The other dancer, who was the keynote speaker, reminded us of the importance of success, privilege, networking, and belonging. This world is all about words. The dancers then shifted into a different world – one of movement and little words. I couldn’t quite grasp the message here or how this world related to the conference. Was it meant to reflect some aspects of our social life – the shifting between two different ways of being or thinking? As a result, the witty satire didn’t seem to go far enough. How might we find our way out of or around the current state of our “conference.” What other ways of living do we need to remember or recover?

I was eager for Larry Arrington’s collaboration, “Opia,” with Sandra Lawson-Ndu and Minoosh Zomorodinia, in part because I had seen Arrington’s work in the past. Arrington started with a poem of sorts. I didn’t catch all the words but understood that rather than assert an answer to “Why Citizenship?”  the piece enters through the question through the back door. Arrington’s backward movements of crawling on hands and knees and tiny bourrees reflected this impetus. There was stitching, searching, and reflecting of fabrics, lights, and sound. It was at times hard to see and at other times hard to follow, but I didn’t mind too much. “Opia” was kind of dream-like and as a response to the question of why citizenship the piece suggests that maybe it is a myth, a wish, a desire. Citizenship is yet to be fully realized but perhaps we can glimpse it in our dreams.

The last piece by Amy Seiwert “The Degree to Which you are Free,” started with a white costumed duet followed by a group dressed in black that danced to protest songs inspired by acts of protest such as “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” About half-way into the piece Seiwert talked about “Danger of Speaking,” a dance she choreographed for Austin Ballet in 2011, which was not without controversy. Seiwert talked about it as her “first experience with censorship.” These three different elements seemed oddly connected and I couldn’t quite figure out what Seiwert was trying to articulate about citizenship.

Did these 3 dances answer the question of “Why citizenship?” either individually or collectively? I’m not so sure.

Was the evening just another night out at YBCA? Perhaps.

Curation

I had ample conversation with others after the show but on my way home couldn’t help revisiting Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s claim about the festival: “The curation of the festival is intended to reveal our artists as accountable agents in service of civic impact.” To me, this claim suggests that the pieces on the program would be advocating for change or engaging in civic participation. As an audience member, I do not see how these artists felt themselves as “accountable” in “the service of civic impact.” Do the messages of these dances have an impact outside of the YBCA Forum? Are these artists accountable for something other than what happens on the stage?

In his program notes, Marc Bamuthi Joseph goes on: “The question at the center of this work appears to be rhetorical, but the stakes of our social landscape don’t afford us the luxury of witness without personal implication.” As a scholar and teacher of rhetoric, I find this sentence problematic. It suggests that rhetoric is not part of our social landscape. It suggests that rhetoric is a bystander in the work of change. It suggests that rhetoric involves actors (or rhetors) that are not implicated in what they say (or do). Rhetoric is an art of potential – it is a way of being the world that aims for change. It doesn’t always aim for the “right” kind of change and it doesn’t always achieve the change it intends. Rhetoric does indeed matter, and to suggest that art is somehow different from (or above) rhetoric seems to miss the valuable connections that could be made by engaging with dance as a sometimes rhetorical art.

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Antigona, February 25th

Where is Antigone?

Whenever my brother comes to town we go see some dance. This time, we saw a flamenco version of the Greek tragedy Antigone by Noche Flamenca. It was a feast of sound, rhythm, and drama. It had dancing like I had never seen before. It held my attention from start to finish. I wanted to see it again. I wanted to talk with the director, choreographer. I think there are a lot of questions to ask about this piece.

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I have a history with Antigone and ancient Greek tragedy. I’ve studied and taught about Antigone. I also wrote about tragedy in my dissertation. So my response is an extension of this history and heavily influenced by my field of study – rhetoric.

I’ve always been drawn to the story of Antigone as told by Sophocles. In 2015, there were 3 productions of the tragedy in the San Francisco Bay area; I saw two of them but only wrote about one. There is something timeless about this tragedy – we keep coming back to its multiple struggles between public and private rights; human laws and law of the gods; duty of kinship and religious obligation. The program notes explain that Antigona addresses the themes of “catharsis, issues of dictatorship, repression, loss, the strength of family and female empowerment,” which are also strong themes in flamenco. The notes end with a reflection on the character of Antigone as a “poster-child for civil disobedience and free speech.” The words behind the piece suggest that Antigona will show the strength of Antigone as a female hero through the language of flamenco.

I was disappointed.

Antigona begins with the story of Creon and his family, and it is not until the 6th scene (out of 15) that the Sophocles’ tragedy actually starts. Sophocles’ Antigone starts with her words, her voice. Antigona’s beginning features the male characters – Creon, Tiresias, Polyneices, Haemon. Even though Soledad Barrio dances a powerful Antigone, her part seems diminished somehow along with the politics that drives the drama. 

Might Antigona rely too much on the language (and culture) of flamenco to tell Antigone’s story? I’m not ready to answer that question for I’d need more knowledge of flamenco not just as a dance form but as a way of thinking. It is a question worth asking especially when so many of us claim Antigone’s story as our own. What is gained? What is lost? Why does it (still) matter? 

June 3rd & 4th “Walking Distance Festival”

Choreography by Many

Writing Out of Sequence

I’m a little out of sequence posting this response – lots of dance at the beginning of June.  I’ve watched and written this festival for 3 years.  This year, The program consisted of two different experiences: an evening of theater dance and an afternoon of site-specific dance.  

In her program notes, Marie Tollon (ODC’s Writer-in-Residence) framed the Friday night’s program as “Identity as a Constellation,” which aptly captured the thematic connection between the two performers, Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu and Christopher K. Morgan.  Both share a connection to Hawaiian tradition in contemporary contexts.  In their dances, these connections were forged in direct ways, explicitly leading the audience to consider communal and individual journeys by dancing and talking.  In this context, the talking by Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu director, Patrick Makuākane in between the dances.  I learned a lot about the hula dance tradition and was interested in how Makuākane uses the language of hula to participate in political conversations.  For example, Makuākane choreographed The Birth Certificate Hula in 2012 in response to the “controversy” over Obama’s birth certificate.  Yes, even hula can be rhetorical.

After Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu I walked from the ODC dance commons to the ODC By Way to watch Pohaku.  The two companies met in the street and performed a ritual – it seemed fitting.  Pohaku, choreographed and danced by Morgan also included talking.  Morgan and danced and narrated this dance theater piece that brings “together storytelling, hula, modern dance, classical music, and projection design to explore compelling universal themes in the story of Hawaii’s native people, including land loss and fractured identity.”  I didn’t think much about this piece.  So I tried to seek out a little more information and watched this short video about the piece.  I found much more interesting than the dance itself. I wonder what makes a dance more interesting to watch in the process of making than to watch in performance.     

Saturday afternoon the festival included for the first time a set of site-specific dances all over the mission.  Titled, “Mission Street Dances,” the audience was led to six different locations to see dances by Smith/Wymore, David Herrera Performance Company, 13th Floor, ODC/Dance, Dance Brigade, and Kim Epifano’s Epiphany Productions.  I enjoyed much of what I watched including the streets.  The small duets by ODC/Dance dotted the route between the six dances that were mostly staged outside in a park, parking lot, storefront, alley, and side of a building.  There was talking, singing, dancing, and more.  I really didn’t have a favorite dance, but I did enjoy the afternoon of walking and watching, and I enjoyed seeing dances that I had never seen such as Dance Brigade and 13th Floor.  The pulse of the street was felt in both expected and unexpected ways.  

April 3rd, “Antigonick”

Written by  Anne Carson  and Co-directed by Mark Jackson & Hope Mohr 

A friend of mine commented that she didn’t like this production of Antigone. She said as a story it left her cold; she didn’t really care about anyone.  Honestly, I hadn’t thought about that.  My interest in Greek tragedy, especially Antigone, has a history (Chapter 2 of my dissertation was about the Greek tragic chorus).  Hence, I am always interested to see how rhetoric gets treated in Antigone – how do the public/private, justice/law, man/god, individual/communal binaries get drawn – how much does the power of speech matter – how does the chorus move (rhetorically).  As such, I don’t need to care about anyone.   Antigonick doesn’t shy away from rhetoric even if it doesn’t “do it all.”  Not all the elements are in this production (a common fate of modern productions of Antigone, at least the one’s I’ve seen). But it didn’t bother me. Perhaps I was distracted by the dancing or the use of plastic and dirt.  Maybe it was the literal moving of a dead corpse throughout the play or the humor displayed by the messenger/guard.  There was a high level artistry in this production.  Antigonick reminds us that tragedy does matter (it can still teach).  Because we keep repeating their lessons, the Greeks are never that far away from us even if their tragedies appear differently.   I might try and see this again before it closes, and that doesn’t happen very much.

PS. I know this isn’t a dance, but there was a lot of dancing and I just couldn’t help but write about this.