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.
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. 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.
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.
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.