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.”
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.”
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.