The following is an edited transcript of a meeting November 16, 2018 among the members of the Dancing Around Race cohort, led by choreographer Gerald Casel, and three writers who cover dance and performance in the Bay Area: Heather Desaulniers, Claudia La Rocco, and Ann Murphy. Members of the Dancing Around Race artist cohort include Yayoi Kambara, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Sammay Dizon, Raissa Simpson, and David Herrera. HMD Director Hope Mohr was also present at the meeting. Dancing Around Race is a program of HMD’s Bridge Project.
This interview took place on September 29, 2018.
Hope Mohr: I’m interested in the work and thinking you’ve been doing about decolonizing curatorial practice.
Michèle Steinwald: A big need for me right now is accountability. If you’re changing the playing field and using new rules, what about those people who are perpetuating colonial, white methods of engagement where they don’t have the language yet? How do you build accountability into a field that is at different places?
I’ll be facilitating a talk at the upcoming 2019 APAP conference in New York called Artists Building A Code of Ethics in the Era of #MeToo. There are examples of artists-- predominantly women-- in different communities in reaction to the #MeToo movement who are building an explicit code of ethics. I want that to be a bigger conversation. Accountability is critical.
HM: What would that look like? Are you talking about accountability on the part of funders, curators?
MS: All of it. In dance, partnering can be very gendered. Costuming can be very gendered. Gesture can be very gendered. If you have a mixed race cast, power dynamics will read differently depending on the backgrounds of the performers. But dance is greyer than in theater or music. In music, female composers are underrepresented, period. In theater, it is much clearer when prejudice is part of the dominant logic within a play.
What sparked it all for me was seeing an original production of West Side Story done locally here [in Minneapolis]. Nowhere in their materials do they talk about the racism and the sexism, but also the homophobia and the transphobia [in the musical]. They cast Rosalia, the woman who is more nostalgic for Puerto Rico, as being overweight. She carried a cupcake the whole time she was on stage during the America number. The whole idea was that if you are not slender then you are simple. There was a body-shaming aspect of the production. But none of that was addressed in the program notes. I was appalled to see a work without any accountability in an opera house-size theater. If you’re going to do a work of a certain time period, what is your responsibility? Everybody thinks they are being responsible by presenting art and making sure that it gets to an audience, but I don’t think that’s enough.
HM: What would accountability look like? What would be the mechanisms for that?
MS: Artists and presenters need to state their values and goals within a work so that there can be something tangible you can point to and say if your goal was, for example, to show a historic period that was full of misogyny, then you have succeeded. But if your goal was to preserve an art form in today’s context, then you have not.
HM: That would make space to evaluate a work on its own terms or check an artist or curator by asking: does your work do what you think it does?
MS: Right. There’s this nostalgic sense in dance that you go into a studio, you feel inspired, your body moves a certain way, you translate it to a cast and then you manipulate it into choreography—that it’s an instinctual process that happens through inspiration, so it transcends language and one’s ability to explain their motives. I don’t ascribe to that. It’s just an exercise we haven’t done.
HM: Maybe part of decolonizing dance is about examining why an artist’s work might not do what they set out to do. How can that kind of critical thinking come earlier in the creative process? In the studio?
MS: MAP fund is now using the “Animating Democracy” project’s Aesthetic Perspectives Framework as their sole criteria and that has changed who gets awarded. It’s no longer these ambiguous “artistic excellence” and “innovation” criteria within the western white canon. Where organizations have changed their criteria based on Art for Change, that’s where I’m seeing traction. Where there is new language being used and new values being promoted and applied in systems that are still flawed, it has changed the narrative within an oppressive system.
To me, decolonizing is about two things. One, if you’re going to pull inspiration from another person, you give credit to them. And if you are inspired by someone else’s practice and art form, you need to understand the context and honor their values when you bring it into your context.
The other aspect is owning your whiteness and asking, what is that heritage of appropriation, erasure and binaries? I work within oppressive systems so I can represent them in conversation to be able to effect change. I can’t say that I’m not part of those systems. I am. I’m not to blame for those systems. I’m to blame for what I perpetuate. And being conscious of what I perpetuate is my responsibility.
I rarely see somebody within an institution say, “Enough is enough.” People in institutions trade in expertise and hierarchy. By dismantling that, they have to reposition their place in the system. Not everybody’s willing to do that. The people who have inspired me have been artists who have spoken up. Artists who have taught me, directly or indirectly, lessons I have applied in my work in addressing racism in my practice. These artists include:
Kevin Iega Jeff of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater
Cristobal Martinez of Postcommodity
Rosy Simas of Rosy Simas Danse
Dr Ananya Chatterjea of Ananya Dance Theatre
Pramila Vasudevan of Aniccha Arts
Deneane Richburg of Brownbody
The last four are artists I’ve collaborated with, and to do that work, I’ve had to understand my biases and name them so I can be accountable. Biases are also my leanings, what my taste is. If I understand that I’m more likely to root for the experimental, the feminist, the embodied, then I understand what I’m not so interested in.
I’ve been trained as a dancer and a choreographer and a lot of my processing ability is through listening to my body. To honor that goes against the patriarchy. As dancers, when we’re training and we start to do somatic work, you don’t just tell your body to stop doing something that isn’t helpful, you have to replace it with a new pattern. I can’t name all of the oppressive patterns that I’m perpetuating, but I can actively replace or center practices that I know are healthy. That is the decolonizing: the replacing of patterns that I may not have full control over and cognizance of with patterns that are aligned with my values and my goals.
I go back to “This doesn’t feel good. What is going on here?” I keep the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s chart of the attributes of white organizational culture in my notebook as a touchstone. I also refer to the article on White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun.
Looking at these two lists, I can say, ok, that is why this doesn’t feel good. That is why I get disoriented in my body. That is why body is no longer available to me as part of my intelligence. When I can’t access my body, I’m in a white patriarchal system that denies that my body is valuable.
There is a colonial sensibility that is used in extracting resources from others. What if I’m not extracting, but I’m honoring? There is a brutality that comes from a society wanting to extract resources from others. For me the decolonizing has gotten to a place where I’m checking myself for unconscious patterns that are reinforcing binaries, hierarchy, and I’m replacing them with intentional patterns around inclusiveness and respect. Now there is no relationship I enter unless it is reciprocal. If I have those as goals as fundamentals, the outcomes will be different.
Tema Okun’s article about White Supremacy Culture lists different aspects of white supremacy culture and ways of counteracting it. It’s practical. I don’t have to reinvent anything. I just have to apply it. My training with Deborah Hay has always been, “Notice the feedback.” I go back to my dance training and have the feedback come through my body. As an artist, when you are creating a structure based on values, your outcome is different.
HM: What you are describing sounds like a mindful, process-based approach. Would it demand artists be less product-oriented?
MS: I think you still get to an outcome.
HM: But if you’re in the studio, if your attention is on outcome…
MS: It’s a different sense of time and relationship.
I feel cellularly different when I’m in relation to some artists’ work: luciana achugar, BodyCartography Project, Deborah Hay, Miguel Gutierrez… When luciana first started making group work, she wanted full transparency. If she got $5000 to do a project, she told her artists: this is what we’ve got. They divided it up equally. The money was part of her transparency. They figured the work out together. That creates a different process and outcome. Whereas more recently, she has wanted to mold the experience and direct more deliberately. So she had to change her language. She became the director and the dancers were “guest artists.” So then that power dynamic allowed her a more direct form of authorship, but with full transparency.
We’ve had such a narrow vision. That is what the binary does. Once you undo binaries in your thinking, there is never a right or a wrong, a good or a bad. Once you undo those binaries, you see more possibilities. It’s not either a big improvisational process where clothes come off in ecstasy by the end of the performance or a work that is dry, linear, calculated and directive. There’s so much more.
HM: When I read Tema Okun’s list of attributes about White Supremacy Culture (e.g., perfectionism, either/or thinking, only one right way, worship of the written word) I realized that almost every single one is at work inside of me. To unravel every one of these attributes, I’d have to take sabbatical and dismantle my entire practice. It’s profound.
MS: I started to read your blog post on liberating craft. How do you pull specificity away from perfectionism? Perfectionism is a control mechanism. Specificity is an intention and a value. I don’t have to throw away all of my craft and skill to avoid perfectionism.
HM: It’s also about cultivating agency within a group of artists or collaborators. Having an intention has to come from inside. It can’t be externally imposed.
MS: And to have intention, there has to be relationship. There has to be trust. There has to be reciprocity.
I can’t become unracist because I live in a racist system and I’ve been brought up in it. But I can start to unravel how I interact inside the system. I did the two-and-a-half-day People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s training on undoing racism. I came to the training fully understanding that I was racist. Their definition of racism however uncouples “racist” from “bigot,” so I can be an unbigoted racist. I understand that I am benefitting from a system—my whiteness is benefitting, not my female self. I’m trying to be an unracist racist. That was an important training for me. They are really centering black men to illustrate their points. They don’t bring in indigeneity. They don’t bring in feminist theory. I understand why they keep their focus limited, but I’m trying to add in indigeneity and feminist principles into my practice. I’m trying to get to a place where I am upholding First Nations peoples as the expert stewards of our world, and providing more opportunities for my sisters’ narratives, whether they be trans or cis or femme-identified stories.
Marked by four major influences, Michèle Steinwald is a feminist, DIY, artist-centered, pseudo-forensic, embodied, community-driven, cultural organizer:
At age 14, she saw Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in Rosas’ Bartok and fell in love with contemporary dance (1986).
At age 15, she produced her friend’s postpunk band Pestilence at the all-ages music venue One Step Beyond in Ottawa, Canada (1987). Seven people came. She knew all but one.
At age 21, she studied with choreographer Deborah Hay and was forever changed (1994).
Since her teen years, she has deliberately watched the TV series Law & Order, noting human behavior and gut instincts through problem solving.
White Supremacy Culture, From Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001
Artist Talk and Op-Ed Launch: Postcommodity
Christopher Emdin SxSW Keynote Speech
Dr. Emdin offers insight into the structures of contemporary schools, and highlights major issues like the absence of diversity among teachers, the ways educators of color are silenced in schools, the absence of student voice in designing teaching and learning, and a way forward in addressing these issues.
by Hope Mohr
Craft: Skill in planning, making, or executing
Formalism: Concern with form and technique rather than content in artistic creation
Once after a dance show, I turned to a colleague next to me and said, “That was really well-crafted.” “Yes,” she said. “But all you could see was the craft.”
Craft is not enough.
Many people advocate that in order to move the dance field toward equity, we should abandon criteria like “artistic excellence,” “mastery” and “virtuosity” in choosing what art to make and support, arguing that these words have been codes for art that conforms to Western European, patriarchal, heterosexist norms. Yvonne Rainer refused mastery and virtuosity in her influential “No Manifesto.” But however much these post-modern refusals and their progeny have democratized dance vocabulary, they have not done so for the dance field as a whole.
If we accept that the frame of mastery is steeped in patriarchy and control, what questions might we ask instead to evaluate art? Some possibilities, gleaned from recent conversations with colleagues, most recently at the Rainin/Hewlett Foundation’s New Pathways for Artists convening (small group discussion on decolonizing the field) and HMD’s recent Dancing Around Race public gathering:
Is the work authentic?
Does it promote freedom?
Is it necessary or urgent?
Does it positively impact the community?
Does it promote joy and pleasure?
Is it relevant or contemporary?
Does it make me feel something?
What does the work risk?
Aruna D’Souza, at the recent Dancing Around Race gathering, noted that the issue is not whether or not we should abandon standards of artistic excellence, but whether we can adopt different standards. For example, hip hop has its own standards of excellence that differ from those used to evaluate ballet.
I undertake this inquiry to, in the words of Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, “question, mark, and check” my whiteness, to challenge white dominance as it operates through default positions in my cultural behavior. This reckoning demands that I examine my aesthetics. When I say aesthetics, I mean my ingrained sense of what is good art and who is a good artist. I also mean what I put out into the world as an artist.
This reckoning can begin by asking ourselves, in Rankine’s words: is my imagination my own? When I was a very young girl, even before my first dance class, I liked to walk up and down the hallway of our apartment touching the walls on either side with my fingertips, crafting pattern. Those patterns came from inside of me, not from some internalized system of oppression. I’m not a fascist because I like craft. That doesn't mean I shouldn't be interrogating the roots of my preferences. This inquiry can begin by recognizing my cultural and artistic lineages. White supremacy pervades my aesthetic evaluations because it is at the foundation of this country and I can't get away from it. When I watch and make dance, I see patterns in time and space. Those patterns are a function of my whiteness.
I want to argue that dance, as a form, can be liberated and liberating through committed and thoughtful practice. I want to argue that when form is liberated, it then can also be liberatory by demonstrating the kind of thorough application of ethics that might make all of us better citizens. A thorough application of ethics in relationship to our craft must examine the integrity of the relationship between our form and our content. I want to ask myself—to ask ourselves—if we are borrowing heat from politically trending subject matter and then skating by with forms we know will be palatable to a Western concert dance audience?
Craft can and should be a function of research and inquiry. I want to anchor this inquiry in the work of Adrienne Rich, a lesbian feminist who wrote extensively about the possibilities that sit at the intersection of politics and poetry. Adrienne Rich writes, in her essay Rotted Names:
“[W]hiteness—as a mindset—is bent only on distinguishing discrete bands of color from itself. That is its obsession—to distinguish, discriminate, categorize, exclude on the basis of clearly defined color. What else is the function of being white?...[P]eople have defined themselves as white, over and against darkness, with disastrous results for human community.”
Similarly, Adriano Pedrosa writes: "Straight society is based on the necessity of the different/other...But what is the different other if not the dominated?" (Adriano Pedrosa, What is the Process," in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating.) As an artist, how can I develop forms and structures that do not depend on dualisms, binaries, hierarchies? How can I "discover other models and theories beyond the Euro-American toolbox of abstraction, pop, minimalism, conceptualism, the grid." Pedrosa answers: "To learn new tools we might need to unlearn old ones."
How do we unlearn our approach to craft? Visual thinking is often rooted in difference. But embodied thinking—sensation-based thinking—is less tethered to difference. Dance’s unique power sits at the intersection of seeing and feeling. The craft of choreography has the potential to subvert dominant modes of thinking by infusing the visual with embodied knowledge.
Rich writes, in her essay “What Does a Woman Need to Know?”:
“It was only when I could finally affirm the outsider’s eye as the source of a legitimate and coherent vision, that I began to be able to do the work I truly wanted to do, live the kind of life I truly wanted to live, instead of carrying out the assignments I had been given as a privileged woman.” (emphasis mine)
What does an outsider formalism look like? Or as dancemakers, let’s ask: what does an outsider formalism feel like?
Case Study: Hinterlands
On August 17, 2018, I went to see the premiere of John Jasperse’s new work Hinterland at Hudson Hall in upstate New York. The cast of five featured DeAngelo Blanchard, Eleanor Hullihan, Mina Nishimura, Antonio Ramos and Jasperse. The description of the work on Jasperse’s website reads: “A varied group of dancers, including Jasperse, comes together with a commissioned score by Hahn Rowe, to build a micro-community, where dance is both a celebration and a refuge from the wreckage of culture and history.”
The work was performed in the round. The dance space was marked off with a large square of hot pink gaff tape containing many intersecting lines. At times during the work, the dancers traveled along these lines. At other times, the lines appeared irrelevant.
The performance began with a body (Hullihan) hidden under a beautiful piece of fabric. Hullihan manipulated the fabric into shapes and images, blurring the line between body and object. After this extended opening sequence, a processional entered the space: Blanchard, Jasperse and Ramos clad in flamboyantly colorful costumes that obscured the head, face and body. They were cosmonauts, Teletubbies, circus creatures, drag queens.
The work bled into the margins of the room. Entrances and exits unfurled long before and after the performers entered or exited the official performance space. About halfway through the work, two performers pulled up quite a bit of the hot pink floor tape and stuck it on their faces. The pink tape also demarcated a smaller box off to the side of the playing space. In this visible, marginal space, the dancers changed looks and states, rested and played with pieces of fabric.
Throughout the work, the dancing was minimal and formal. I recalled Barbara Dilley’s term “elegant pedestrian.” Post-modern (lack of) affect. There was one exuberant aerobic ensemble section of patterns and high energy, but a stripped down vocabulary prevailed.
The heart of the work was a series of duets that juxtaposed the different bodies in the cast. There was a duet between Blanchard (African-American) and Jasperse (white). Another duet between Blanchard (African-American) and Nishimura (Asian). Another duet between Hullihan (white) and Nishimura (Asian). Even the ensemble section was a high-energy reshuffling of pairs.
I can’t write about the work without noting the racial identities of the performers because the content in the work was not choreography per se, but difference. Difference in the performing bodies. If the cast had been all white, the choreography would have been boring. The choreographic content of the duets was extremely minimal—mirroring of basic shapes and simple weight shares. The duet vocabulary was not technical, ornate, complicated, or fast.
In its restrained sensibility, Hinterlands still felt like a John Jasperse work—he did not shirk authorship. But compared to work I’ve seen of Jasperse in the past (I’ve seen his California, Prone, Within Between, and just two dancers), Hinterlands was a bit simplistic. Jasperse, a skilled craftsman, had surrendered his craft to difference itself. Perhaps Jasperse was consciously choosing to take up less space as an author? Perhaps he was making a statement about identity being the only politically viable choreographic content right now? Perhaps he was trying to situate or mark his whiteness by foregrounding difference? In any case, identity and craft blurred.
Many white people don’t need to think of identity on a regular basis. The term “identity” is rarely applied to whiteness:
“Racial identity is taken to be exclusive to people of color: When we speak about race, it is in connection with African-Americans or Latinos or Asians or Native People or some other group that has been designated a minority. ‘White’ is seen as the default, the absence of race.’"
--Laila Lalami, Group Think, New York Times Magazine, November 27, 2016.
The aesthetic corollary of the whiteness-as-neutral fallacy is that white artists working in abstraction tend to take unity of form and content for granted. In contrast, artists of color often must fight to legitimize their abstractions. Zadie Smith writes, of African-American painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye:
“Yiadom-Boakye is as committed to her kaleidoscope of browns as Lucian Freud was to the veiny blues and the bruised, sickly yellows that it was his life’s work to reveal, lurking under all that pink flesh. In his case, no one thought to separate form from content, and Yiadom-Boakye’s work is, among other things, an attempt to insist on the same aesthetic unities that white artists take for granted.” (emphasis mine)
Similarly, Hilarie M. Sheets writes:
"‘[White visual artist] Donald Judd didn’t have to explain himself. Why do I have to?” asks Jennie C. Jones, an African American abstract painter who has grappled with the issue of how her work can or should reflect her race. ‘[White visual artist] Fred Sandback can make this beautiful line and not have to have it literally be a metaphor for his cultural identity.’"
--The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract Painters, ArtNews, June 4, 2014.
Kara Walker, in a recent artist statement for her 2017 show at Sikkema Jenkins, expressed her fatigue from having to explain her work in terms of her racial identity as she acknowledges the inescapable weight of American racial injustice:
“I don’t really feel the need to write a statement about a painting show. I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche. It’s too much, and I write this knowing full well that my right, my capacity to live in this Godforsaken country as a (proudly) raced and (urgently) gendered person is under threat by random groups of white (male) supremacist goons who flaunt a kind of patched together notion of race purity with flags and torches and impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim sociopathy. I roll my eyes, fold my arms and wait. How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology, and in how many ways will the racists among our countrymen act out their Turner Diaries race war fantasy combination Nazi Germany and Antebellum South – states which, incidentally, lost the wars they started, and always will, precisely because there is no way those white racisms can survive the earth without the rest of us types upholding humanity’s best, keeping the motor running on civilization, being good, and preserving nature and all the stuff worth working and living for?
Anyway, this is a show of works on paper and on linen, drawn and collaged using ink, blade, glue and oil stick. These works were created over the course of the Summer of 2017 (not including the title, which was crafted in May). It’s not exhaustive, activist or comprehensive in any way.”
Perhaps liberated craft looks and feels different depending on the identity of the artist. But regardless of whether or not identity is the subject of a dance, ultimately that dance will not be fully realized—whether you want to call this finished ideal “excellent” or “impactful” —unless form is indissoluble from content. Again, Adrienne Rich:
“The power and significance of an emerging consciousness, of form discovering its meaning, form indissoluble from meaning, is the process art (as creative change) depends on—and embodies.
‘What are your poems about? a stranger will sometimes ask. I don’t say, ‘About finding form,’ since that would imply that form is my only concern. But without intuition and mutation, in each poem yet again, of what its form will be, I have no poem, no subject, no meaning.”
---Six Meditations in Place of a Lecture
Similarly, Zadie Smith writes, “Everyone is born with a subject, but it is fully expressed only through a commitment to form.” (Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Imaginary Portraits, The New Yorker, June 19, 2017) Smith quotes the African-American painter Lynette Yiadon-Boakye, talking about her artistic process:
“Over time I realised I needed to think less about the subject and more about the painting. So I began to think very seriously about colour, light and composition. The more I worked, the more I came to realise that the power was in the painting itself.” (emphasis mine)
The power is in the painting itself.
A big part of craft is committing to the material. Listening to the material. Letting it speak. A thorough application of ethics in relationship to our craft demands a dialogic process. Not a solipsistic process. Not a process of appropriation. But a process in which we go within, and then out beyond ourselves, and then back within again, and then again out past ourselves, and so on, in a constant conversation between our form and the world. I think that kind of process make sense if my liberation is bound up with yours.
Rich urges poets to examine their form “for ignorance, solipsism, laziness, dishonesty, automatic writing.” (Tourism and Promised Lands) This reminds me of Hilton Als’ recent critique of Young Jean Lee’s new play, “White Men”: “By trying to lampoon whiteness, she’s made a “white” play: shallow, soporific, and all about itself.” (Hilton Als, The Soullessness of “Straight White Men”, The New Yorker, August 6 & 13, 2018 (emphasis mine)). A liberated craft must find, in Rich's words, the “dynamic between poetry as language and poetry as kind of action, probing, burning, stripping, placing itself in dialogue with others out beyond the individual self.” (Blood, Bread and Poetry) (emphasis mine).
On the flip side, if we anchor our artmaking exclusively outside ourselves—in the desire to make the world a better place, for example—we risk disconnection from our own poetics:
“We do not trouble the waters with a language that exceeds the prescribed common vocabulary, we try to ‘communicate,’ to ‘dialogue,’ to ‘share,’ to ‘heal,’ in the holding patterns of capitalistic self-help—we pull further and further away from poetry.”
--Adrienne Rich, Tourism and Promised Lands
An arabesque has nothing to do with poverty. Our forms should exceed the prescribed common vocabulary. Dances that claim to be “about” social justice issue X (sex trafficking, poverty, global warming) and claim to accomplish this by putting a voiceover about issue X underneath their abstract dance fail as art because there is no connection between content and form. Many dances “full of liberal or radical hope and outrage fail to lift off the ground, for which ‘politics’ is blamed rather than a failure of poetic nerve.” (Adrienne Rich, in Tourism and Promised Lands).
It’s moving in the right direction to source movement from, or through dialogue with, an impacted community (or melting glacier). But the power must be in the dance itself, not borrowed heat from the subject matter. White artists cannot take unity of form and subject matter for granted. We need to summon the poetic nerve to insist on a deep dialogue between our craft and our content. Only then might our dances pulse with “an engaged poetics that endures the weight of the unknown, the untracked, the unrealized.” (Adrienne Rich, Poetry and The Forgotten Future)
In this writing, I have focused on the finished work of art, not the choreographic process. The two could be related. But you can have a diverse cast and an equitable creative process and still not produce a finished work of art that contributes to societal equity. Likewise, you can make a work through autocratic methods that nonetheless promotes equity through its message.
Special thanks to Megan Wright for significant contributions, Tracy Taylor Grubbs and the Dancing Around Race artist cohort.
The next Dancing Around Race public gathering is Friday, October 26th at 10:30 AM at the Joe Goode Annex. Featuring Barbara Bryan, Executive Director of Movement Research in New York City in conversation with Gerald Casel about institutional thinking and models of advancing equity in the arts.
There’s a Dancemaker Clinic coming to town. A new opportunity for artistic growth and career coaching with choreographer and director Hope Mohr in ODC’s beautiful Studio B (50 feet x 61 feet). A full hour of individualized, private mentorship tailored around your needs and questions. Mentorship includes artistic feedback, production coaching, career strategy and a variety of tools to support your process. Artists can use the hour to show and document work in progress. Performance makers from all disciplines welcome. Appropriate for artists at any career stage. Monday nights at 7 and 8 PM (one slot per artist). October 22 -December 10.
SIGN UP HERE: http://odc.dance/DancemakerClinic.
Hilton Als, The Soullessness of “Straight White Men”, The New Yorker, August 6 & 13, 2018.
Casel, Gerald. Responding to Trisha Brown's Locus, the body is the brain, November 1, 2016
Charlton, Lauretta. Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary, The New Yorker, January 19, 2017.
hooks, bell. "Postmodern Blackness,” Postmodern Culture, vol. 1, no. 1 (Sep. 1990).
Kao, Peiling. "On Per[mute]ing," the body is the brain, October 27, 2016
Lalami, Laila. “Group Think: The Identity Politics of Whiteness,” New York Times Magazine, November 27, 2016.
Menand, Louis. "What Identity Demands,” The New Yorker, September 3, 2018.
Mohr, Hope. "Choreographic Transmission in an Expanded Field: Ten Artists Respond to Locus,” TDR: The Drama Review 62:2 (T238) Summer 2018.
Pedrosa, Adriano. "What is the Process," in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating. Ed. by Jens Hoffman, Mousse Publishing, 2013.
Profeta, Katherine. Dramaturgy in Motion: At Work on Dance and Movement Performance, University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.
Rankine, Claudia “Teju Cole’s Essays Build Connections between African and Western Art.” New York Times Book Review, 9 August:12, 2016.
Rich, Adrienne. Essential Essays: Culture, Politics and the Art of Poetry. W.W. Norton & Co. 2018.
RIFF TALKing on Identity and Performance, with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Joy Mariama Smith, Sara Smith and Tara Aisha Willis; moderated by Cassie Peterson. Originally printed in Contact Quarterly, Vol. 42 No. 2, Summer/Fall 2017.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2016.
Sheets, Hilarie M. The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract Painters, ArtNews, June 4, 2014.
Smith, Zadie. “A Bird of Few Words: Narrative Mysteries in the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.” The New Yorker, June 19, 2017.
by Yayoi Kambara
I feel my face getting hot and I realize I’m starting to sweat. Self-introductions always freak me out. Everyone else sounds so articulate and thoughtful about their creative practice and artistic histories. I look around the conference table and wonder if I’m having a major bout of impostor syndrome. I look over at Gerald Casel, who gives me encouraging looks with his warm eyes and slow, calm nods as I begin. I get some positive hmms and snaps from group members after I finish. All of a sudden I realize: I belong here in this cohort, Dancing Around Race. In fact, I really need to be here.
I felt honored and intrigued when Hope Mohr invited me to participate in Gerald Casel’s Dancing Around Race cohort, so I quickly signed on board. Mohr's Bridge Project is supporting choreographer Casel and a cohort of artists for a full year through its Community Engagement Residency. Members of the artist cohort for Dancing Around Race are: Raissa Simpson, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Sammay Dizon, David Herrera and myself. Our group is meeting monthly for a year to engage in discussions about the intersection of race and the performing arts. We’ve invited critics, curators, funders, designers, and scholars to join our conversation. A key line of inquiry for the year is how to make creative practices and cultural institutions more equitable.
So, what is equity? To say defining and tackling this question as a group has been challenging and mind-blowing for me as an individual would be an understatement. One of the most powerful discussions regarding (in)equity to emerge in Dancing Around Race so far has centered on the colonized body. My body is colonized. My body has been colonized by white aesthetics. I don’t think I could have said those words aloud and fully understood them until this summer. I was born in Japan, my family emigrated to California when I was seven, we then moved to England for four years, and since the age of sixteen I’ve spent my life back in the US. I’m a person of color who grew up as a third culture kid and didn’t even know I was a person of color until I lived outside of Japan.
For me, the colonization of my body comes from the fact that I’ve mainly trained in European dance forms, and I was ushered along in my dance training and career because I had a certain body: thin, athletic, able-bodied, with a facility for movement. Although one can argue that dancers willingly sign up to have their bodies choreographed on and scrutinized, no one prepared me for the implications of this colonization. I feel at odds with the constraints of white aesthetics because I have felt that inside of these constraints, I didn’t belong. Perhaps my third culture upbringing manifested itself in my ability to creatively problem solve and integrate other aesthetics while still preserving my Japanese identity. Having felt tokenized as a dancer, as a choreographer I am now looking to have a seat at the creative table. Although I'm incredibly grateful to and cognizant of the amazingly talented choreographers I've had the pleasure of working with and learning from, I think it's fair to say that the artistic leadership in contemporary dance is predominantly white.
Another aspect of (in)equity in dance that I’ve become more aware of this year has been the impact of my racial identity on how my work receives funding. One of the advisory board members for my company, KAMBARA + DANCERS, who has followed my work for years recently asked me why I wasn’t creating something “simply gorgeous,” particularly in these troubling times when people might appreciate a respite from the news. I replied that I haven’t received funding for my work unless social commentary is involved. Instead, I’ve only received funding so far for work tied to my racial identity. For example, one of my dances is a reflection on the Japanese-American Internment and its current relevance. This work received funding. In contrast, another work I recently wanted to make that was not explicitly related to my racial identity didn’t.
If artists of color only receive funding for conceptual work related to their racial self-identity, it denies artists of color opportunities for expression. For me, this granting trend implies that only my race matters in evaluating and funding my art. This trend also implies that if artists of color create dance for dance's sake, it has less value than the works that white choreographers are allowed and commissioned to create. In their attempt to promote equity by funding identity-driven dance, funding sources reinforce racial boundaries. Just because my racial identity informs my person and my work, does that mean that all my funded creative expression needs to be somehow related to my skin color?
I rarely hear white choreographers articulating their diasporic history, defined as any group migration from a region or country, or evaluate their ethno-racial backgrounds in relation to their work. While they may have a diasporic history themselves, their privilege or ‘whiteness’ in dance translates into a freedom simply to make work. Funders, curators, and the press relate to their work as choreographers without requiring an added lens. I’ve noticed when qualitative discussion or critique occurs around the white choreographers by grant panels or the press, we often hear about form, choreographic craft, physical architecture and the experience from the viewer’s perspective. As artists of color, we have to self-identify and explain ourselves in relationship to the work we make, particularly in concert dance. In our current funding structure, our work is discussed with a narrative that includes self-identity and how it’s embedded in work. Is it equitable to have different systems to critique and potentially fund work? Is there a future when artists of color don’t have to explain themselves or is this just a reality not only of our field, but our lives in the U. S.?
The freedom to dream is our best creative habit. As such, in my upcoming curatorship for the Asian Art Museum’s Thursday Nights Program, I’m asking local self-identifying Asian artists to create outside the constraints of aesthetic cues that are generally stated in project grant proposals. In our current dance funding system, artists of color are rarely afforded this luxury. Institutional support that isn’t earmarked for a specific project can liberate artists and validate our creativity.
Along with my participation in Dancing Around Race this year, I was invited to be a 2018-20 fellow in the APAP Leadership Fellows Program (LFP), an international cohort of 25 administrators, artists, and curators looking at equity and how performing arts organizations define and implement equity in our practices. My involvement in these ongoing conversations has prompted me to update my company's core values. During the APAP LFP intensive, choreographers Liz Lerman and Marc Bamuthi Joseph defined the categories that any arts organization must consider: Aesthetics, Community/Social Values, Organizational Health and Personal Responsibility. As a choreographer, the aesthetics category concerns me the most. How do I value a dance as good, beautiful and true?
I’ve realized that I cannot discuss aesthetics without discussing (in)equity, particularly when it comes to race, as one piece or kind of art cannot represent everyone’s experiences. Can I be trusted to build work that embodies my definitions around (in)equity, whether it is pure dance or conceptually driven work around my identity and community?
If the three pillars of equity are Access, Power, and Representation, how do we ensure all audiences have access to and engage with art that they want to see? Ken Foster, who co-directs APAP LFP with Krista Bradley, stated that “art is life.” What he means is that art exists within a web of socio-economic ecosystems. As in any ecosystem, adaptability and resilience are necessary to survive, particularly in the arts. From this, I understand that the consumer-oriented transactional basis for the patronage and consumption of the arts must change. In order for there to be equitable access to the arts, we need to reinvent the ticketing structure. For KAMBARA + DANCERS, I’ve made a commitment to offer a sliding scale for tickets to all events. I want my supporters to know that they have access, the power of choice, and they represent with their presence at the event. They choose which pricing tier bests suits their wallets. I like to believe that this gives the audience a sense of agency in its relationship with the arts. Another way to change the hierarchy of ticket pricing is to not tier tickets, so there are no VIP tickets and seats. Shouldn’t all audience members be VIPs?
Another key area where financial (in)equity must be addressed is in regards to dancer pay. We’re all aware that Bay Area cities are some of the most expensive cities in the country. But sadly, many emerging and even established choreographers pay their dancers a stipend or an hourly rate well below minimum wage. Perhaps choreographers have experienced this themselves as dancers and thus believe it to be an equitable practice. However, it’s exploitative and mainly those dancers who have other means of financial support can participate in the creative process. Also, how do we justify paying the lighting designers, production managers, and tech crew more than the dancers? I value all the talent needed to make a production come to life, but aren't dancers at the core of our work? Can we, directors and choreographers, commit to paying an equitable hourly rate at or above the minimum wage?
In May, the Dancing Around Race cohort met with a group of funders: Margot Melcon from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Ted Russell from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and Barbara Mumby from the Arts Commission. We asked each of them how their organizations were addressing equity. Russell discussed the role of white patriarchy at the root of inequity and how in the US, racism is built into the very structure of our country. He commented, “If you can move the needle on race, you move the needle on everything else. If you don’t mention race, it’s very easy to leave it out because of the deep discomfort around the issue.” In my opinion, some arts organizations make sweeping statements regarding diversity and inclusion, thereby shutting down the possibility of real discourse. Our “deep discomfort” with these topics prevents any real action. Unless we directly address race when we discuss inequities, we’re doing nothing to move this needle.
In July, I was a student in Nicole Klaymoon’s Embodiment Project’s summer intensive Get FREE. The Get FREE Workshop is a Hip Hop Dance Festival and intensive rooted in cultural preservation, tradition, and community. And the whole week was completely cost-free. Every teacher was deliberate and intentional about the roots of the movement language and dances, and we participated in daily panel discussions addressing equity. The classes also stressed non-verbal ways of learning and nonhierarchical ways of warming up. This intentionality about street dance and its roots in Black/African American culture further liberated me from the white aesthetic of concert dance. And I literally sweated aesthetic ideas out of my colonized body. I felt free.
Dancers might be some of the most open-minded people, but we all have biases to address. We must continue to update our equity lens in order to bring our performing arts field forward. In our April meeting for Dancing Around Race, artist Julie Tolentino stressed that we need to uplift one another as we confront racial inequity in dance. Let’s commit to doing so.
Special thanks to my family, dance colleagues, company dancers, the dancers I sweated with and on during the Get FREE workshop, and the APAP Leadership Fellows Program. And a super loud shout-out of deep gratitude to my invaluable Dancing Around Race cohort group.
Yayoi Kambara performed with ODC/Dance from 2003–2015 and has danced with numerous Bay Area companies. The founding of KAMBARA + DANCERS in 2015 was a big year of transition from performer to choreographer. Kambara’s choreography credits include Opera Parallèle (Little Prince) and the Center for Contemporary Opera (Gordon Getty’s Scare Pair). She has been commissioned by Mardi Gras with Garrison Keillor at Nourse Auditorium, and Yerba Buena Gardens Festival Choreofest.
The next Dancing Around Race public event is Thursday, September 20th at Humanist Hall in Oakland at 7 PM. Featuring guest speaker Aruna D'Souza, author of Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in Three Acts. FREE to the public, but reservations are required: https://www.artful.ly/store/events/15335
Photo: Yayoi Kambara at one of the Dancing Around Race cohort meetings.
By Hope Mohr
Reprinted from TDR: The Drama Review 62:2 (T238) Summer 2018.
by Hope Mohr
A New Artist Residency
In 2017, HMD’s Bridge Project created a new program, the Community Engagement Residency (CER), to provide sanctuary and opportunity for artists who identify as coming from the margins. The CER extends HMD’s deep commitment to supporting Bay Area artists. Core values of the residency are artist autonomy and flexibility, the intersection of art making and activism, and building community among artists. From its inception, The Bridge Project has had a focus on lineage. The CER cultivates a different kind of lineage—the lateral lines of influence that sustain creative community.
Julie Tolentino was the first CER recipient. This post reflects on Tolentino’s residency through writing by Tolentino, contributions from participating artists and collaborators, images, and video. Part 1 looks at Tolentino’s studio practices with a small cohort of other artists; Part 2 looks at a.u.l.e., the installation that grew out of those studio practices and was a part of the 2017 Bridge Project, Radical Movement: Gender and Politics in Performance; Part 3 features reflections from the artists who were intimately involved with Tolentino in group process; and Part 4 considers .bury.me.fiercely., the residency’s culminating performance event.
“How does my practice intersect with my wish to be with others?”
Tolentino began her residency by working intensively with a small group of other artists, selected by Tolentino herself, to share art practices and create work. Tolentino’s decision to work with a cohort of artists came out of her practice and archival focus on “artist-to-artist relationships, including artist (as reader, writer, activist, advocate, maker, and thinker) concerns, needs i.e. fatigue from long-term work in the field, political entanglements, community concerns, and the drive to explore how aging plays into our experience of involvement.” (Tolentino)
Shortly before Tolentino’s residency began, she returned to her native Bay Area after a thirty-year absence. Her decision to work with other artists was inspired in part by her wish to connect to the city and local community after navigating an intense period of caregiving and loss. She imagined working one-to-one and in group settings with other artists “to promote a head and body space to explore dependency as creative opportunity, rather than as a form of degradation or lack.” (Tolentino)
Invited artists of the cohort included Larry Arrington, Maurya Kerr, Xandra Ibarra, and Amara Tabor Smith. Each artist had invited Tolentino into their studios prior to this invitation. Tolentino formalized these relationships with the support of the residency, acknowledging the artists' roles as cultural leaders and beloved Bay Area performers. The idea of the gathering, in Tolentino’s words, was to “focus on individuals who often give, lead, create for others,” as well as to “bring us together in a supported environment to think about language, bodies, movement.” Tolentino temporarily named this cohort “The Hard Corps.”
Tolentino held a monthly meeting with the full cohort as well as individual sessions with each artist, alongside time to parse her own practice. In working with the artists, Tolentino drew directly from her own archive and studio practices. The first five months were, in Tolentino’s words, “somatic and exploratory - focused on movement, experimentation, getting to know, while also introducing other ways of working en-studio, with materials, scent, scores, touch, textures, habits, good and not-necessarily good ideas.” Below, Julie writes more about the group work:
[My intention is] to focus on their/our shifting and exhausted bodies, minds, and oft neglected or unarticulated (= time needed to study one’s own) practices. I try languages and articulation through practical anatomical exploration and movement. I offer customized and generative exploration, improvisational, and meditation techniques as a critical link towards intimacy and intimate community. We express the difficulty of “getting to know” due to the incredible feat of all of the things they do, we do, some do: freelance teaching, art making, grant writing, work with clients, dancers, artists, administrators, curators, partners, friends, colleagues, as well as our community efforts in the streets, the sheets (ha, yes!), and personal responsibilities along with the realness (and theoretical renderings) of debt, expenditure, dependency, familial bearings, and need. Though utopian-sounding, The Hard Corps allows for a grounded “dependent immersion” into the <____> characterized by the offer of the invaluable: Time, Attention, Depth of Study, Exploration, Bodywork, Support, Ranting, and Listening – including finding oneself unsure or too sure or shoreless. Working amongst colleagues and fierce feminist art makers – we acknowledge how our work is, achingly generated and enacted through the body…I am trying to respond to something. Path-opening as leadership, a being WITH or being IN … as opposed to be about. I am thinking about how we openly cite each other as way into or as a new canon. I am trying to learn if somatics or allowing for plain temporality to de-colonize my practice. To bring me or us back to the outside, to where I don’t know what is going to happen – and how difficult that is going to feel.
In Tolentino’s words: “I am thinking through my decades-long practice in performance and as a defector of dance. I don’t want to accidentally make a dance. What I aim for is environmental – a kind of experience that makes space beyond a narrative – yet offers experience and risk. It’s movement-driven, but not traditionally choreographic. In many ways, I aim to de-center the individual body by focusing on the body as a container of history, relations and experience outside of the canon. ” Tolentino’s project with The Hard Corps was not geared toward the spectacle of performance, but towards the idea of "intra-dependency" in a lab environment. In talking about the work, Tolentino says she is playing with Karen Barad’s term “intra-dependent” as a way to devise entangled experiments to consider both nature as well as culture in transmissions.
Studio time offered the artists close readings of their engagement with a web of improvisational scores. Below is some language that I caught while observing one of The Hard Corps’ group monthly studio sessions. The “catching” practice that Tolentino refers to invited the artists to physically capture and embody not only the movement of other people in the room, but also their location, relationship, and energetic imprint: an intimate and immediate form of transmission. The “whispered she” score invited the artists to describe what they saw out loud in the third person “she.” In this practice, the artists agreed to be identified as “she.” In this score, in Tolentino's words, “'she' is used not as a narrative, but as sound and a somatic carving for the mouth, i.e. a shushing, a hiss, puckered lips, a kiss."
All language in italics is Tolentino’s.
even though you are actively looking, be super easy with your eyes
what it means to go with a body…to accept… to refuse/infuse …to question…and to re-connect back to the source, your source, as resource
experience this catching as a kind of citation
[re: the whispered “she”]
a score of the mouth
allow it to be nonsensical
allow yourself to be a gaggle of voices (aka allow yourself (singular) to be a gaggle of voices (multiple)
we’re using the “she” not for the naming pronoun but for its sound
consider listening less and talking more to create more generosity for the fieldwork, the ground – with, and for, others
a little bit more tempo
lots of entanglement
remember if you are touching,there is an intention to offer while also one to receive
notice what happens when you go in and out of focus
allow a very small movement to be a choice
it doesn’t have to be “morph-y”
leading & offering
speed, go for speed
who can make it go faster? can you be the person to make it go faster? moving faster speaking faster good good faster faster like really fast –(after several minutes)-- and freeze
let the thing settle off of you
let the thing absorb into you
now with your eyes closed retrace some of the movements…the decisions that other people gave you and that you received, you took on. how they are now a part of your Self.
like a freeze frame: I remember this. Stop.
[Tolentino places pieces of fabric in the space on the floor]
when you encounter the thing let’s go into describing the thing to itself, using its shape to help you move
keep yourself super focused, like in the real
still trying to smell
and catch keep catching
see if you can get someone to catch you
keep it simple
and more offering
as much catching as you possibly can
catch more people
see if you can catch the most of each person
what can you receive within this time? what can you give away?
The dense, interlocking scores that Tolentino facilitated, in combination with the intensity of her live coaching, functioned, from my view, as a stamina practice for the artists that required as much mental attention as physical. The scores also offered the artists the opportunity to shapeshift, to work with choice, to activate many senses at once, to work with speed, observation, clarity and intensity. The complexity of the scores was an effective tool for challenging the artists’ default settings as movers and performers. Through months of working in this way, Tolentino and the group built a shared vocabulary to reference in subsequent practice and performance.
Questions that Tolentino held throughout this group studio work included, in her words:
What is and who offers sanctuary?
What do I dare need?
How do we work within the wide abstract of words, worlds and of the ongoing stratification of race, sex, gender, and class?
Am I able to facilitate a space of the unknown – that includes the vulnerability of being part of the group?
How can I produce artist and audience agency through such methods as optimistic refusal, aesthetic geometry, awkward affect, and time-based discovery?
What matters to (each of) us?
What is my role with or for each artist? Do these interactions constitute community-building?
Practice in Performance: a.u.l.e.
Nine months into their year together, Tolentino, with artists Maurya Kerr, Amara Tabor Smith, Xandra Ibarra, and Larry Arrington, presented a.u.l.e., a practice in performance that also featured Tolentino's long-term colleagues Debra Levine and Scot Nakagawa as writers embedded in the installation. This event took place on November 12, 2017 at the Joe Goode Annex as part of HMD’s 2017 Bridge Project, Radical Movements: Gender and Politics in Performance.
Here is Tolentino’s description of the event:
-an un-named lived experience*
& being with another seems to go by very fast. so much information. so much to tend to think about and the how of time talking thru how we resist, breakaway then give away. sensing bringing forward slinking back. why and what? stutter gasp. wait. what i wanted to say (because some fumbly dimming) and what that is: to be interested in. drop narrative like how there can be a split in the because. so description does not have a together & becomes again. the title perspectives. thin lines might be imagining the experts - leaning, convening and reverie and skins and what’s missing and all those rising - break - to see the small axis as axes. rushing to get it right. hard corps proposition stained and streaming. herbal opaque judge and unrecognizable currents and cruelty with utopia’s little edges. the separate conversations radiate dark root bodies & instead an aural portal, a vibe. or two or three or four or five or seven of us with each other’s other/s. All together. All a part of this.
*from eve kosofsky-sedgwick
a.u.l.e. was a group durational event that took place in low light over a period of three hours. Elements of the installation included Kerr, Arrington, Ibarra and Tabor-Smith activating an interlocking set of movement scores developed both individually and in groups through the preceding months of studio work with Tolentino. The performers arranged and operated rolling lights on dimmers and experimented with improvising with each other using body, sound, text, movement, and materials that included, in the words of Debra Levine, dozens of inanimate objects “not directed toward capital consumption”: (p)leather, thread, dead plants, herbs, scents, a light box with hundreds of slides of the artists taken from their studio work and sound by Patrick Murch and Tolentino. The audience was free to move, stand or sit anywhere in the space. Tolentino facilitated the entire experience and intervened in the installation by reading text, layering sound. and composing the space. She was both inside and outside of the work, participating from the margins and listening to the work from its embodied insides.
Writers Scot Nakagawa and Debra Levine, embedded in the installation, wrote in response to the action and in conversation with each other. Their writings were projected on the walls of the space in real time. Their conversation situated the performance in San Francisco’s history, referenced their shared history in ACT UP and brought other voices into the room, including citations from Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, Adam Smith, and their own parents.
Some excerpts from Debra Levine ("DL") and Scot Nakagawa’s ("SN") writings from inside the installation follow. These excerpts are from a much longer conversation that occurred over several hours; the below excerpts appear in a different sequence than in the original installation.
SN: This room is like a cave. The light casts shadows. I see and feel this space in that way. The text on the wall feels to me like pictures of what we’re thinking here in our corner, me and Deb. We two sitting here in the corner, trying to not make sense of what we’re seeing.
DL: Is this pace claustrophobic? Because the space feels pretty good. But the pace – how can we continue with this tension and repetition? I mean, we have been tightening our sphincters, mouths, thighs, knees feet toes to hold in these bloody messes forever. That pace is an endless meditation that never allows release. Is there an aesthetic form that tells us this and and and something else? Making a body of with an escape valve that also emits steam that vanquishes those little and large experiences of diminishment of debility of crackle and splinter?
SN: My work for the last few decades has involved being in constant contact with broken people, or at least people who acknowledge their brokenness, speak to it, sometimes even revel in it. They feel to me like shards of glass, pieces of a broken mirror, with edges so sharp that few would try to put the pieces back together. I find myself struggling to make them whole, and then, over and over, find that the whole is not greater than the sum of these parts. Maybe the pieces don’t need to be put back together, maybe they need to be rearranged.
DL: Can we regroup into a large movement? What are the relationships between these movements that transfix us and political or social movements? Can we extract a new form of social organization from these engagements with objects, with our partial, obstructed and distracted viewings? Or maybe we just decide to fuck it all, watch as one, stop reading.
SN: I swing from adrenaline inducing clashes with the world to hope to despair to…I sometimes think I live this way in order to avoid the unfriendly ghosts that haunt my life, that haunt every life, though I’m only familiar with my own.
DL: I think of Julie as mapping out an entire environment so that everyone is aware of their terms of engagement. But she also creates environments where you might risk something different happening to you.
SN: Where does the audience fit in performance? Doesn’t that seem to be a big, looming question here in this space of improvisation, with an audience that is part of the process, set pieces, dark and light surfaces.
DL: Julie arranges a space of performance to approach the ways in which radical empathy is an act. An act with consequences.
Tolentino was interested in “how performance and writing might be relieved of the need to 'narrate' the other and instead how text interplays with all bodies as they draft, collide, impose and deeply engage in each other's efforts.”
Below is video footage from a.u.l.e.:
a.u.l.e. was a provocative, shifting landscape of metaphors about engagement, exchange, leading, following, and being seen. Interdependence and communication among the artists emerged in layers across the space. Throughout the process of bringing the group’s studio practices into a performance context, Tolentino balanced her own aesthetic desires and the performer’s choices.
There was a lot going on in a.u.l.e. Tolentino says, "I am clearly interested in the excess." After the event, Tolentino reflected:
There IS incredible dance (i.e. somatic choices, writings with bodies, interactions, decisions, movement and feeling) even when it doesn’t “look” like dance. This project is not to demonstrate what we traditionally know/expect as excellence in performance. We propose our width and the potential generosity of our labor. Work including its own detritus, the hidden, the missed, the rambling or the things that may ultimately destruct, the things unsustainable. Like The Body. Like Each Other’s Presence. The writing’s rambling and the spaces between the video edits and the things that only the performers and the people who received those moments experienced at the moment – that is where the work actually lives. This is the “live” of live performance. This is the “lived experience” that we are pointing to through the title.
I am very pleased with how the artists worked within the space and time within the form we used, the mess, their bodies, our voices. We are all so porous. Evocative collisions happened in the room. I am truly interested in the spaces of these dependencies, losses, misses, offerings, surprises. I truly hope that was palpable in the live work.
Reflections from The Hard Corps
Amara Tabor Smith
Wood floor sunlightFake fur covers me/weLike dead cloakFallingPush pullMauryaBonesWe roll down slowlyMissing partsFormNo formFallingTogetherXandraCatchingLegsLipsShouldersAssesWhispers,“she..she..she…”LarryCatchingWe fallingBack ward wallSpittingSpittingSlow motionclub dance in shadowsForget the cardsDisco upside downcast a light on a bitchEvery slideIlluminates fleshTraced in black“and I ask myself, and I ask myself…”Hide meAnd we write our namesWith eyeballs
To the beat
In her response, Ibarra attempted to free herself from language by expressing only structure in various arrangements. In keeping with this intention, she diagrammed phrases, sentences, and lost words.
standing outside + above my body being dragged to the river to die, to be left, to leavea woman dragged to the rivera girl always a girlcan see leaves + sky + earthcan feel air + dirt, nakedness, hair collecting twigs and clods like a dragnetcould dragging ever be love —full bodied get me bodied lungful gulping cold air like it’s gold screaming glittery fuck me hopeful love?I used to judge my hopefulness by how much I would fight the (always white) man coming to abduct me:fight equaled hope, surrender — no hoperevealing the thing to itself (is love)+this flickering thing (hope) as my rhythmhow to be dragged:by limbby hairby socketby viscera (with hook)— I am hook, can be hooked ® liquid, unfurling, becoming beam particle ball, circling into, curling unto, crossing bonesbreak open or bloom:hook + hoof + heftheft is such a beautiful word — the heft of my heart becomes you, me becominglight seeping out of my cunt like stinky stars, out of my nose (bloodybattle), from my mouth (frothing,foaming at the teeth oh rabid dog), from my ears (boredwith holes, scabby deaf), between my skeleton ribs (beautifullybony)witness spark meet gasoline (sucha love story)going down with larry — insistence, argument, conversation, love, fuck, missing each otherI find her by her smell[my love, I could share that weighted intimacy with you for hours, days, years, lives]our hard corpsslips into support, space, time, touch, unknowingnessexists away from the white gaze to turn our black brown gazes in (to each other)interrogates self + communityis dependency, need, generosity (but community always disappoints)(I was number five)this is number three:territory is that which is mine. belonging to of within without. mark it, cut.*and the world goes on.Icarus flew + died andthe world went along with itsdoggy ways and horse sashays.love is a body. has a body. I am we are.because the curvature reveals the straight. the loud the soft. the hard the groove.[*the beauty is in the cut: what was one is now two: more edge, fray, surface, jag]one big slow beat ® constrained fasttwo big slow eyes close exaggerated xthree ® constrained fast looking forward¯(mouth letters [of me])(M is a palindrome: line curve curve line)three big slow eyes open adding fingers of an otherI shape-make when in doubt[remember, she is simply feeding me back my own desires, awakening in me the mischievous, contentious, under-accessed]I am the whore under a blanketREMEMBER TO CHANGE MIND AND INTERUPT SELFallow permission + NOknown ® unknownforgetting > reflectionmaple, yarrow, violet, mimosa — (don’t absorb) (nourish yourself) (remember this) (root down)I remember low darkness, unknowing, generous room, whispering to and needing her.[baby baby, whisper to me I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE WAY YOU TREAT ME]
End of Residency project: .bury.me.fiercely., 2018
Following a.u.l.e., Tolentino had a solo working period in which she returned to her own work. This period culminated in .bury.me.fiercely, presented at The Lab on February 18, 2018, in partnership with HMD's Bridge Project and SFMOMA’s Open Space / Limited Edition, with Tolentino and fellow performers Stosh Fila aka Pigpen, Cirilo Domine, and Marc Manning, live sound.
Through this final public event in her residency, Tolentino integrated months of group work with her longstanding solo performance practices. .bury.me.fiercely. implemented several of Tolentino’s “signature methods: durational performance, movement, exploration of abstraction and minimalism with aims to seduce the project into its barest presentational form.” (Tolentino). Materials from Tolentino’s archive were present: plants, boiling herbs, thread, micro-environments built from fabric, text projected on the walls, the obscured body, the activation of non-visual senses, and the interplay of action and rest. The work was also derived from the inner workings of The Hard Corps. .bury.me.fiercely. featured video using the names of the artists from The Hard Corps and light box images that lit not only the slides of the individual artists, but also some of the more ephemeral material from the group’s process, including artist writings and scents created from the group’s collaboration with herbalist Jennie Patterson. The work offered the body as “a landscape, a container of record, and a living archive through the lens of raced, illegible, and tethered lives.” (Tolentino)
In .bury.me.fiercely., Tolentino began moving alone in conversation with projected video of the names of The Hard Corps artists. Ghosts swirled through her body. A huge wig obscured her face. As I imagined her “catching” the remembered bodies of Kerr, Arrington, Tabor-Smith and Ibarra, I remembered Tolentino's words from rehearsal earlier in the year:
what it means to go through a body
and to re-connect back to the source
In the event’s next section, bathed in red light, Tolentino and Pigpen/Stosh pierced each other’s faces with needles around which they wound a web of thread. They gently pulled away from each other, still entangled. They began to bleed. Here, connection to another person was acute, intimate and painful. Again, Tolentino's words from rehearsal:
lots of entanglement
As they removed the needles and Tolentino took time to wipe the blood from her face, I remembered more of Tolentino's words from The Hard Corps studio practice earlier in the year:
let the thing settle off of you
let the thing absorb into you
Tolentino moved to a nest made from black plastic and covered her skin in coconut oil. The blood and the oil mixed together. She then walked to a different part of the room and entered into a black pleather sac. Only her edges were occasionally visible. She moved in that space for a long time, unseen, surfacing on the other side of something deeply felt.
Thank you to the many individuals who made Julie Tolentino’s Community Engagement Residency meaningful, including Larry Arrington, Xandra Ibarra, Maurya Kerr, Amara Tabor-Smith, Debra Levine, Scot Nakagawa, Stosh Fila aka Pigpen, Marcela Pardo Ariza Jennye Patterson, Bill Basquin, Cirilo Domine, Marc Manning, Dena Beard, Claudia La Rocco, Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa and Bhumi Patel. Thank you to The Lab, Joe Goode Annex, Open Space, Limited Edition, and ODC Theater for supporting the work. HMD’s 2017 Community Engagement Residency was made possible in part by a grant from the California Arts Council’s Artists Activating Communities grant.
Debra Levine, Queer Pleasures: A True Story About Two People, Hemispheric Institute
Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movements, Abingdon and New York: Routledge 2006
Tara Hart, How Do You Map the Sky?, New Museum, November 2013
Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, Entangled Vulnerabilities, SFMOMA's Open Space, March 2018
Julie Tolentino's .bury.me.fiercely., The Lab, February 18, 2018
Hentyle Yapp, To Punk, Yield and Flail: Julie Tolentino’s Etiolations and the Strong Performative Impulse, GLQ, A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, January 2018
Performance Art World, Interview with Alejandro Segade, June 2010
.bury.me.fiercely., The Lab, February 2018
This conversation is re-printed from Liam Everett: Without an Audience.
Published by Altman Siegel, San Francisco and kamel mennour, Paris/London, 2018.
Designed by Colpa Press. Full color, 12 x 9 inches, Softcover, 156 pages. Texts by
Jenny Gheith, Jonathan Griffin, Hope Mohr and Liam Everett.
As part of his San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibition Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape, Liam Everett invited San Francisco-based choreographer Hope Mohr to hold weekly open rehearsals within the exhibition space as a way to consider questions regarding the nature of practice. Over the course of the show, Everett and Mohr corresponded via email. The following is an edited version of their conversation.
Hope Mohr: I hesitate to call the marks that constitute your paintings marks because they are more like shadows or memories of action. They are not representational. Likewise, I want to push dancers away from line. A question I constantly pose to myself is: How can I be rigorous and specific without shaping material? In your paintings I sense some kindred refusals: refusal of line, of legibility, of shape.
Liam Everett: For me it’s not necessarily a refusal of line and representation, so much as a confrontation with what is directly in front of me: the actual space and its immediate content. In your notes from the first rehearsal at the museum, you list directives to the dancers, one of which states: “Put the space into your body.” This “putting the space into the body” is something I practice in the literal sense in the studio. For example, I’ll take a tool or some other random object, soak it in ink and then place it directly on to the surface of the painting as way to produce a stain or a crude monoprint. The question for me is, How can this contact between myself and the painting be developed and continue to occur in order to expose the nature of practice within the studio? What kind of actions set up the conduit for this to happen?
In both representation and abstraction there is a certain level of concealment I want to remain aware of. The practice of painting has a way of revealing what is concealed and this allows for an intimacy with that which is present. On the other hand, I am often puzzled by the way this intimacy is jeopardized or even lost completely when the work is shown in the context of a public exhibition. It seems to me that at the very base of presentation lives the groundwork for deception, and what is the opposite of intimacy: artificiality. In other words, to show the work can result in a situation that not only deceives the viewer but also undermines both the work and the practice as it does not share the practicing; instead only the product of the excercise is visible. I’m wondering, Hope, if you share this overtly dramatic and perhaps somewhat tragicomic view of presentation versus practice?
HM: Perhaps what I call refusal (of idea/form — e.g., line), you call engagement (with what is happening in the room). You have said that out of engagement, not out of an a priori conceptual refusal, legibility and shape are eclipsed, by energy.
As a choreographer, I toggle back and forth between different modes of engagement with the material — the mind/body that responds to the present moment, and the compositional mind that evaluates and edits material. Do you experience compositional mind as a mode that comes and goes, as something that happens separate from your engagement with materials, or as an omnipresent layer of awareness that is impossible to isolate from your response to the present moment? How do you relate to your own compositional impulses? You’ve said that you try to avoid any relationship between elements in your work. When I visited your studio, you said, “I know a painting is finished when it rejects me.” Are you trying to undermine compositional mind through raw engagement/response? Don’t you think composition is unavoidable?
You say, “In both representation and abstraction there is a certain level of concealment.” Later you say that presentation is “the opposite of intimacy: artificiality.” This is exactly the question I have been poking at for years, asking, How does process become performance? Even in “finished” dances, I’m interested in avoiding a feeling of presentation. Where does the presentational feeling come from? The audience? The art itself? Within the body it can sometimes come from the nature of the artist’s thought — how clearly and decisively choices are made. When a dancer performs as if they know exactly what’s next — that feels like (looks like) performance. And yet, skilled improvisers can make decisions as if they are set choreography. A feeling of performance can also be a function of muscle tone. How hard the skin is to the outside world. Or a function of the performer’s gaze: How translucent is it? I’m fascinated by ambiguous combinations of these variables. Specific set forms, for example, combined with an open quality of seeing on the part of the performer. A lot is determined by how the performer sees while performing. If their gaze is hard and closed off, this reinforces a (sense of, or actual) distance. It’s this (sense of) distance that contributes to a sense of performance. A feeling of performance can also come from form itself. How hard-edged is the form? How much unison or difference is there? Does it feel “made” or does it feel porous? Are these qualities of form functions of shape? Tempo? Texture? Does the quality of performance originate in form itself, or in the way a dancer activates the form?
I’m not sure I can say, like you, that a work of mine is finished when it rejects me. I will reject a dance before it rejects me (and then it isn’t finished). I admit: A dance of mine isn’t finished until I recognize it as satisfying a set of private aesthetic criteria. Aren’t you saying something similar, when you are on the lookout for the moment, the tipping point, when a painting rejects you? As I am nearing a performance, I become more willful, more compositional. It’s impossible to escape the context of performance, unless I go into the studio and say nothing will be made here and nothing will be seen, which is a different kind of artificial, not that interesting, and I dare say, pointless. Perhaps we’re using performance as a foil not because we’re ambivalent about performance (I’m not), but because we’re interested in that nebulous tipping point where practice becomes performance. What happens in that instant? If you resist product so much, why be a painter? How do you reconcile with the inexorable end point of painting, which is an object on a wall? How does this end point inform your engagement and enter your awareness?
LE: I should clarify that in the studio I am not interested in outright denying the possibility of completion or resolution. Nor I am refusing the exercise of making something that can or will eventually be recognized as a painting. The question for me is, How can a painting be brought forth or presented in such a way and within a certain condition/context that it is “always painting?” To broaden the question: What are the ways in which things can be allowed to demonstrate their animate qualities? By allowing this kind of questioning to be the basis of my studio practice, I have discovered that completion is not a relevant goal or even a possibility. On the contrary the notion of the end only becomes a refuge for concealment and distraction. In other words if an end point arrives in my process I view it as stagnation and my first instinct is therefore to prod the condition back into process or to somehow stimulate its static form. Perhaps the ideal condition for me is when practice not only floods into the final performance but also into the gap that has been created between the viewer and maker and similarly between the studio and exhibition space.
The other question or problem that I am always faced with is: Once the painting arrives at the gallery or museum is it not automatically a product?
I’d like to consider the practice of painting as a stand-in for being, or one way in which to allow being to appear and/or be exposed. Surely dance, music, drama, or writing can do this as well. For me the question of painting as product comes down to one’s own perspective. Subjectively and objectively I see the paintings as animate objects existing within a flexible compendium that could be simply one experience in a bottomless pool of experiences.
Maybe I can correlate this perspective I’m talking about to your concern regarding the performer’s gaze. It is within the realm of the gaze that we encounter the work, the exhibition space, the viewer, the performer, etc. We also experience other levels of gaze through the body, via touch, sound, and taste. But ultimately what I feel needs to be articulated within any practice is not the type of gaze one is projecting but instead what system or condition is supporting this perspective (this gaze), and in what ways can this gaze be revealed? Furthermore, can the practice be shared in such way that it invites the viewer to not only see the work but also to be seen by the work itself, or even more ideally, the working of the work?
HM: I want to talk more about your methods for presenting your work “in such a way and within a certain condition/context that it is ‘always painting.’” What specific techniques do you use to prod a static form back into the realm of process? How do you use materials to produce unpredictable variations? Can you describe an example of how you might interact with a stick or piece of wire that you find around the studio?
In the world of dance, some of the methods I use to try and keep material more porous include the avoidance or sabotage of unison, the cross-fading of forms into each other (avoiding hard shifts), improvising in extreme slowness so as to find material “in between” known places in the body, using falling, forcing movement to occur at high speed, or imposing unexpected, muscular stops inside “known” material. The idea is to shift actions quickly enough so that the brain does not have time to plan or edit.
Also, when dancers have an obligation to listen to or wait for each other, forms tend to harden. Obligations or relationships among dancers impact how form reads. This reminds me of your comment that you try to avoid relationships among forms in your work. Do you think composition can exist without relationship? Do you use any techniques to subvert compositional mind? If you find yourself composing in the middle of action, how do you respond to that impulse? I think talking about techniques is important because so much traditional technique is used to harden artists to the environment. What techniques are available to us to open and respond to it instead?
I think we’re both working toward that elusive place where method, process, and practice are present in the finished work. In Lawrence Weschsler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Conversations with Robert Irwin, Irwin says:
The finished canvas at one level is only an incidental relic, a fossil of that original process of discovery: not only do you have to be present before these paintings in order to experience them, it may be that you have to have made them as well . . . the process was intimate to the solution. I sometimes wonder if anyone in the world has seen those paintings but me.
LE: The question of how to prod a static form back into the realm of process is always at play for me, as it presents both a form of resistance and also a kind of friction. In order to allow this to happen in the studio as well as in the exhibition space my method is to abandon the narrative. In other words I think it is absolutely necessary to avoid any kind of linear path in the way of working, thus dissolving any relationship between means and end, therefore allowing my process to repeat itself or to “return.” With this way of practicing the question of whether or not a work is “good” or “bad” also becomes irrelevant.
The techniques I use in the studio in order to support a space of flux are so crude and primitive that I will refrain from explaining them in detail. Think of a cat half-awake, swatting at a fly or a dog chasing its tail — round and round, back and forth: intentional actions that appear futile, games that have no possible outcome in terms of win or loss. The objective is to move and be moved in such a way that there is not even the question of where to begin.
Composition always shows up when we look at the work, regardless of its true content. As soon as we point in the direction of the work we begin to make order of its appearance. I prefer to think of my paintings and performances as seeing-things instead of things that are made to be seen. They are literally porous and therefore allow light and air to move through them. Or they can harden and sag or collapse and fade. Their temperature is in flux as well, always responding to the immediate environment.
If I recognize a gesture or a form in my painting, I erase it. If the residue of that erasure shows something familiar, I erase it. I disturb everything that appears known or familiar. This is repeated until a threshold arrives.
With painting there is always an element of concealment at play, as the surface hides the system of support that allows the image(s) to be present. My hunch is that if one investigates the ontology of dance there is a similar level of deception, perhaps even more elaborate. Is the dancing revealed or is it veiled, diluted by its own means of presentation?
HM: In our conversations, you have talked a lot about your interest in the structures that support the work. We’ve talked about “finding the tremor,” for example, meaning a practice of pushing the painting, as an object and an action, to the edge of its support system. You are interested in challenging and revealing the limits of supporting structures. In dance, the primary system of support is the ground. So I want to talk about the significance of the floor in your exhibition.
You not only painted the floor, but built and installed a special floor for the show at SFMOMA — literally and metaphorically raising the floor up. This grand gesture — sorry, I know you said nothing in the show was made by gesture, but the floor itself is a macro gesture of significance — this grand gesture draws attention to the ground and places value in it, thereby honoring the body, the horizontal, and the dancer. The vocabulary emerging in my process with the dancers inside your exhibition is intensely floor-bound and in explicit relationship to gravity (we’re always in relationship to gravity, but some actions make this more obvious than others). The floor is a continuation of the picture plane, painted with the same methods as the canvases hanging on the walls. Can you talk more about your decision to create a floor for the show?
LE: I would say that it is the inverse: the floor was made first and the “picture plane” is a continuation of this surface or system of support. The presence of the floor for me also renders the room in flux, as its primary purpose is to hold the rehearsals and I mean this quite literally. The floor therefore is permanently in process or always being made, as it does not just hold gestures, prints, and stains but also the ongoing accumulation of light, air, dust, and of course moving bodies. The floor is often viewed as being beneath us but in essence it is always rising and/or raising what the viewer can potentially experience in the form of appearance(s). Up and out of this system are the walls and then the ceiling and inside it all our being. This is one of the things that is so compelling to me about dance: the invisible friction that is produced between the moving body weighted or falling via gravity and the rising surface-floor that is holding it. What kind of energy, either physical or metaphysical, is produced out of this condition in which one form is always falling and the other always rising?
The floor for me also raises questions about what constitutes aesthetic “finish” as well as the problem of composition. For example, if the floor is considered a stage or even a pedestal, the viewer is then immediately implicated as an element of that which is on display, albeit involuntarily. In this context the exhibition must be viewed as a work in progress — it is changing both formally and aesthetically with every body that comes and goes within it. Perhaps this is another crude ploy of mine to avoid the finished work. What is certain is that the inclusion of the floor refuses to give me a sense of familiarity. I have no true idea how the moving bodies will affect the exhibition space, each accompanied by their individual moods and experience.
HM: In your studio practice do you move between being inside the work physically and being outside the work as an observer? I have found in dancemaking that this movement in and out of the work is essential to staying connected with both a physical and a visual understanding of the nature of the material.
In rehearsals at SFMOMA alongside your work, I have been exploring how sensuality can shatter abstraction. When does the body become form and form become the body? When I look at your work I see both the body (its traces) and abstraction. I also think that physical effort or sensation is one key to making work that is more trace than sign.
“I prefer to think of my paintings and performances as seeing-things instead of things that are made to be seen.” Do you want audiences to have any particular kind of experience when they interact with your work? You’ve said that you know a painting is done when it rejects you. Do you want your work to also reject its audience in some way?
In more traditional dance (ballet for example), the dancer is supposed to make the dance look effortless. Even in more contemporary work, a performance comes only after hours and hours of rehearsal, behind-the-scenes effort leading up to a culminating performance. There’s a traditional modernist value of mastery and virtuosity. Of course Yvonne Rainer’s famous, “No to virtuosity” launched a thousand postmodern ships. But even in postmodern work, certain rehearsal ethos prevail. By inviting me into your exhibit to rehearse with dancers in front of the public, we are in a sense saying no to expectations of mastery. And yet it’s hard for me to get past my own expectation that I am rehearsing toward something else, toward some future goal or presentation that will be more perfect than the present. It is a powerful statement to say that the rehearsal is the end itself. The practice is the product. Many visitors to the museum ask me, “When will you be performing this work?” I should respond, “now.”
By Hope Mohr
Program Note for the 2017 Bridge Project, “Radical Movements: Gender and Politics in Performance.” Comments welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
"Definition is both the problem and the lifeboat in the storm." -Ariel Goldberg
the dancing body the horizontal body
Can part of the body be radical if other parts are not?
Can you transmit your radical body to someone else?
the body in transition the joyful body
“What does not belong in this world is the only thing worth making.” - Paul Chan
The radical body is unfinished.
Churning. Spinning. Dreaming.
From the Latin radicalis "of or having roots."
U.S. youth slang use is from 1983, from 1970s surfer slang meaning "at the limits of control."
Just because something is new doesn't mean it's radical.
Just because you have radical aesthetics doesn't mean you have radical politics. And vice versa.
the outraged bodies in public assembly
Radical movement can come from the left or the right.
If there is no unified we, what does that mean for movement building?
the exhausted body the homeless body
Sometimes I need you to imagine what I’m capable of being.
Improvising. Shaking shit up.
Radical is context-dependent.
What is radical to me might be ordinary to you.
the body that acts before the mind is ready
the body that insists on pleasure
Is my body radical if I think it is?
Does radical need an audience to be radical?
the ambiguous body
“What are the categories through which one sees?” –Judith Butler
Abstraction can feel radical if you’re expecting narrative.
the body that refuses to go numb
the body that is not a market niche
Radical bodies leave potential in their wake.
the aging body
Radical movement forces us to ask: what next?
the body that is not afraid
Special thanks to the artists and changemakers on the Radical Movements program and the HMD Advisory Board.
Comments introducing In the Steps of Trisha Brown
In April 2017, I was invited to introduce screenings of the film In the Steps of Trisha Brown at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Below is a transcript of my comments.
Hi, my name is Hope Mohr. I’m the Artistic Director of Hope Mohr Dance here in SF. I’m going to speak for a few minutes to provide a frame for your viewing in the form of some personal reflections on entering the world of Trisha Brown.
The film In the Steps of Trisha Brown chronicles the transmission of Trisha’s Glacial Decoy to the Paris Opera Ballet. This screening is very timely given Trisha’s recent passing. Her death, like that of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, raises anew questions about the meaning of legacy in the dance world, questions about the process and the limits of passing knowledge from body to body.
Trisha made Glacial Decoy in 1979, as part of a group of works that she characterized by “s” words: Silky, sensuous, slippery, sequential. (Her most famous work, Set/Reset, was made right after Glacial Decoy.) This is a different cluster of work than Trisha’s later Valiant series, which valued athleticism, and included pieces like Newark and Astral Convertible.
I danced with the Trisha Brown Dance Company from 2000 to 2005. I learned parts of Glacial Decoy when I auditioned and I learned and performed the piece in 2004,and 2005. I learned it from Diane Madden, the current co-artistic director, and received additional glosses on the material over the years from Lisa Kraus and Shelley Senter.
Prior to my entering the world of Trisha Brown or rather it entering me, I had trained almost exclusively in ballet and at the Merce Cunningham studio, both resolutely vertical realms of muscle and will. The first time I took a class at TBDC, I had to leave halfway through because I was so frustrated. The class began with half an hour of laying on the floor, releasing muscular tension. I wasn’t used to equating dance with such little effort. But soon I went back—my curiosity had been provoked. And so began a long investigation into the question of how to achieve the right balance of control and release. How to engage just enough to have clarity and support, but not so much as to over-effort.
Just 6 months ago, Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project, in association with YBCA, presented a project here called Ten Artists Respond to Locus. Locus was a dance that Trisha made in 1975; you’ll hear Lisa Kraus refer to it in the film. The Locus project here commissioned 10 Bay Area artists from different disciplines to learn Trisha’s Locus and respond to it by making new work. As part of that process, Diane Madden led both a public weekend workshop and a two-week private workshop for the commissioned artists.
For the non-dancer artists in the Locus project—people from music, visual art, and poetry—there were the expected challenges of jumping into a body-based process. Trisha’s work has roots in the so-called pedestrian body and in a democratic body, meaning that, in her words, “any body part is fair game”---all parts of the body must be available to initiate movement. However, Trisha's vocabulary is not simple. Even for artists from sophisticated dance backgrounds, embodying Trisha’s movement was a challenge. Greg Dawson was one of the Locus project’s commissioned artists. Greg, Artistic Director of Dawson Dance, is an accomplished choreographer with a ballet background, a former Lines Ballet dancer. He said, of learning Locus, that it was: “Different and uncomfortable: the complication for myself was comprehending the intent of the locomotion, where each passage transitioned to the other.” Indeed, in the film, you will see the Paris Opera dancers—some of the best dancers in the world—looking awkward and flummoxed as they wrestle with initiation and sequencing in the body.
So what is so elusive about Trisha’s movement?
1. Dance as action not shape
Trisha, like others involved in the Judson Church cohort in NYC in the mid 1960s, (re)conceived of dance as a series of ACTIONS not shapes: the arms must toss or fling, not mimic a predetermined port a bras.
Sidebar--Interestingly, despite Trisha’s focus on generating movement based on improvisation, tasks, and games, the culture of the company over the years has become increasingly devoted to reconstructing movement off video—a visual, not somatic source. You’ll see these twin focii in the film: the pursuit of real-time physicality on the one hand, and the meticulous reconstruction of the past on the other. TBDC is a company where the desired physicality is anchored in one revered body. This is an interesting contrast with many other contemporary companies, where movement is democratically sourced among many bodies or the movement comes from a score that is open to dancer interpretation. The task in reconstructing repertory for current TBDC dancers is to pay allegiance to the specificity of the choreography, while also resurrecting and embodying the original question behind the action—for example, what happens when you throw your arm one way and your pelvis in the other? On the interesting tension between the authority of sensation and video archives, see the Critical Correspondence Interview with (now former) TBDC dancer Neal Beasley.
A second challenge for classically trained dancers engaging with Trisha’s movement is:
2. Distal Initiation
How to initiate movement from the edges of the body—the fingers, toes, knees, elbows—distal points, rather than proximal—
In ballet, movement is usually initiated in the core, and organizes back, defaults back, to midline. Whereas in Trisha Brown's movement, the goal is, in the words of Shelley Senter, to go "out into space" to enter the movement. To let your edges spill you out into space.
In the film you are about to see, Lisa Kraus summons the image of a hurricane to rouse the dancers out of their tendency to produce a tidy sequence of shapes. You can see this same abandon in archival footage of Trisha.
3. Authentic weight
The third major challenge in embodying Trisha’s work, coming from a classically trained background, is accessing authentic weight in the body. Not holding your weight up out of the floor, nor bracing yourself against gravity, but yielding weight, “finding the down.” Not just in the pelvis, but in the hands, the head, every bone.
Another way of saying all this is that to do Trisha’s work, you need to know how to fall. Not how to perform a fall, but how to really fall. Ballet dancers train to be “on their leg.” To do Trisha’s work, you have to train to be off your leg, how to free up your weight so it is not fixed, but constantly available to spill in any direction. In her essay about teaching Glacial Decoy published in CQ, Lisa Kraus writes that “It’s not like executing something; it is more like getting on a roller coaster and going for a great ride.” (Lisa Kraus, "Decoy Among the Swans," Contact Quarterly, Volumne 29, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2004).
A final way of understanding the paradigm shift presented to the POB dancers is to speak in terms of dancing from the bones, not the muscles. Trisha Brown technique, if there is one, prizes skeletal initiation over muscular effort. This approach has the potential to fundamentally change a dancer’s approach to everything.
This is a profound shift of awareness, which for me took years. The POB dancers had only two weeks to learn the dance---certainly not enough time to alter one’s habitual response to gravity.
Indeed, in an essay for Contact Quarterly, Lisa Kraus acknowledged the impossibility of her task, and said: “the mind shift of welcoming a hybrid may be what’s called for in a situation like this where time is limited….the underlying aspiration…must not be to make the dancers just like [Trisha Brown dancers].” (Lisa Kraus, "Decoy Among the Swans," Contact Quarterly, Volumne 29, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2004).
What makes Trisha’s work so strong is its combination of physical release, rooted in somatics, and compositional rigor, rooted in visual art. Trisha would create phrase material, rooted in somatic experience, not in the visual. The company does not use mirrors. But after she made the phrase material, she would shift into the world of visual art to compose it into form. And so, to dance her dances, you have to be able not only to fall, but to fall into extremely specific shapes. You have to learn balance freedom with constraint.
With that, I invite you to enjoy the film. I’ll be around afterwards if anyone wants to talk.
Lisa Kraus, Beauty and Genius-In the Steps of Trisha Brown, thINKingdance.net
Lisa Kraus, Posts from Paris: How We Teach Trisha's Dance, thINKingdance.net
Questions from Hope Mohr for Laura Elaine Ellis and Julia Adam in preparation for a Pre-Show Panel for S.E.A.M. (Support and Elevate Artist Mothers), Saturday September 30 at Dance Mission Theater.
How old are your children?
How long had you been making dances when you had children?
Interruption is part of parenting. Deep focus is important for creative flow.
As an artist parent, what strategies have you developed to deal with interruption?
How do you manage your time to safeguard the kind of attention that artmaking requires?
Has your personal or choreographic relationship to fragmentation changed since having kids?
“The fragment is the whole” –Brenda Hillman
How do you make time for your art? (e.g., Do you use grant money to pay for childcare? Rely on a partner or family member? Work when kids are asleep?)
Did parenthood change the rhythm of your art practice? You could think about this question in terms of logistics or in terms of how you work in the studio.
Some artists aim to blur the line between art and life; other artists need to keep daily life out of the studio.
How has parenting challenged your ability or desire to quarantine parts of your life/self from other parts of your life/self?
Has parenting affected the divide between your public/private self?
How have the emotional highs and lows of parenting affected your art?
How does context impact how you present your artist parent identity?
Have you experienced bias against you as an artist parent?
Do you ever feel the need to avoid talking about your kids in professional situations?
Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? -Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Is there anything else you’d like to share about how has motherhood affected you and your work?
Come see the panel and the performances of S.E.A.M. (Support and Elevate Artist Mothers), a new collective making featuring the work of Tanya Bello, Kristen Daley, Amy Foley and Yayoi Kambara. Fri-Sat, Sep 29-30, 8p & Sun, Oct 1, 7p, at Dance Mission Theater.
Precarious, a movement poem inspired by the Klockar's Blacksmith Shop in San Francisco, premieres June 1-3 at CounterPulse. Below is the text score for the dance.
originally originally originally
originally originally originally
originally originally originally
a lost object
a lost building
a lost river
a lost sensation
a lost eye
a lost alphabet
a lost quality of light
a lost tool
the last industrial blacksmith shop in San Francisco
originally originally this originally was going to be about or based on or inspired by or of a place or a space other than an idea a real place with a real address, which is 443 Folsom
Ghost stories are stories of places that progress has discarded
a lost building a lost machine
Ghost stories always end unresolved
pieces of the past return to disrupt order
the door will not close
who is here who is not here who is here who is not here
how do you keep talking to a place that is no longer there?
what I have been trying to remember could appear anywhere anytime
It’s all junk, Tony says, loosely gesturing around the shop,
I’m tired. I’m going to Colma.
Do you get that joke? He asks me.
Colma? I say.
You know, the city
full of dead people south of here.
I own this crap, he says, pointing at the anvils, the parts for machines that no longer exist,
the old Victrola covered in blankets.
Tony would ask us what the fuck we were doing there and I would tell him we were improvising and he would say bullshit in Italian
the day after the election we learned that Tony’s grandson was turning the place into a pot dispensary or cannabis start-up and Tracy the painter upstairs was going to be evicted and Tony the blacksmith downstairs was going to retire he said I’m tired
littered, cluttered, hundreds of rusty tools,
even in bright morning the whole place is grey, smelling of rats
2 big trip hammers
3 or 4 post vices
a medium sized anvil and a big anvil it’s gotta be close to 400 pounds
he’s got 3 different forges a coal forge and 2 gas forges
hundreds of hammers
tongs hung under his work table
2 12 ft lengths of 3/8 inch round stock
piles of discarded bits - not a useful amount of material
Klockar’s had a dirt floor
and when we laid down
some memorials are vertical, hard materials
some are holes in the ground open to the sky
like any lost place—
the pile of discarded bits
the heat signatures under the dirt
the weight of the tool in the hand—
our time there is not on any map
real places never are
To pass through a portal,
lay down in the dirt
The forge has gone quiet.
The door will not close.
-H.M. May 2017
Thank you to the cast of Precarious, blacksmith Tony Rossellini and painter Tracy Taylor Grubbs.
Text credits: Laszlo Krasznahorkai ("How do you keep talking to a place that is no longer there?); Herman Melville ("It is not down on any map; true places never are.")
Photo by Margo Moritz
I am emerging
I am mid-career
this is the last dance I will ever make
there are too many people in the room
I can’t do this alone
I need to be alone
I know too much
I don’t know enough
there is no dancing left in me
moving I think in a way I can't think any other way
I should do something else
I should be making money
I need to attract people with money to come see my work
there is too much time in this creative process
there is not enough time
there is a dancer in the room whom I will never work with again
do painters dream about shades of pigment?
carry fragments of my psyche
I need their opinions
I reject their opinions without explanation
no one in the room understands what the work is about, least of all me, until years later
that was it
a string of mis-starts and discarded ideas
where it began is irrelevant
beginnings are crucial
the fragment the whole the beautiful etcetera
desire is embarrassing
(a famous director says)
embarrassment might mean I'm doing something right
it might also mean the work is bad
anything can be made interesting once you deconstruct it
some movements are inherently boring
clichés can be avoided if inserted into the right frame
the joy in flow
the joy in stillness
slow down the dance needs more space
people who come to rehearsal say the work has no logic
thing needs to be interrupted
other thing needs to last forever
the material has become too fixed too quickly
too shape-based too legible
but that one moment--
it is not legible enough
-H.M. May 2017
Photo by Margo Moritz
Below musician Cheryl Leonard reflects on her process of creating an instrument and a new piece of music, Asterisms, in response to Trisha Brown's Locus as part of Hope Mohr Dance's 2016 Bridge Project, "Ten Artists Respond to Locus."
I began by defining the space within which I would work, and I knew this would take the form of a large musical instrument/sculpture that my "Locus"-inspired composition would be played upon. Trisha's use of a 3-tiered cube interested me but was a bit too square for my tastes, which have been tempered by years of studying circular and spiraling movements in aikido. I wanted to use a spherical space, but that posed too many logistical difficulties so I went with a cylinder.
In order to explore performing with no "front" to my stage setup, I decided to build a 360-degree instrument I could sit inside and play, a little like the tabla tarang (in Indian classical music, a set of tuned drums arranged in arc around the performer), but completely encircling me. I also toyed with the idea of breaking free from this space at some point during my piece and either playing the outside of the instrument or leaving it behind completely and striking out into the audience, suddenly exploding and expanding my conception of the space. These ideas didn't make it into the first version of my piece "Asterisms," mainly because of time constraints, but I'd still like to explore them in future iterations.
As for what exactly my instrument would be comprised of, I wanted to continue using natural materials, both because that's my preferred instrumentation these days, and as a nod to John Cage's piece "Child of Tree," in which the performers play plant materials as instruments and improvise within a randomly-generated time-based framework. I performed this piece once back in the mid-90s at a John Cage Festival at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. Not only was Cage an important contemporary of Trisha Brown, but his work has had a huge influence on my musical development. Incidentally, "Child of Tree" and "Locus" were both composed in 1975.
I chose to have three strata in my instrument: dirt, tree branches, and autumn leaves. The base of the instrument is a donut-shaped container, 5-feet in overall diameter, which is made out of cardboard, lined with plastic, and filled with potting soil. Experimentation revealed that cactus mix is the best sounding potting soil, so that's what I employed. This inadvertently created another connection to "Child of Tree," as amplified cactus is one of the instruments specifically called for in Cage's score. Mounted into the dirt donut base are four tree branches, each approximately 4' tall, and positioned equidistant from each other. Red, yellow, orange, and brown autumn leaves from a variety of trees are attached to the ends of twigs on each branch. In the spirit of haiku, I thought it would be fun to include a seasonal reference in my piece. Thus the leaves are required to be autumn leaves. The instrument is named DD, which is both an abbreviation for "dirt donut," and a reference to "didi," the Nepali word for older sister. DD is amplified via hydrophones buried in the potting soil and contact microphones taped onto each of the four tree branches. Two open-air microphones are used to pick up the sounds of bowing additional loose leaves.
Although I have studied music made through aleatoric processes, especially many of Cage's compositions, I have never really used a randomized system to generate or organize my own music. I admit, I'm rather attached to my aesthetic sense governing my compositional process, and so I'm reluctant to leave too much up to chance. However, I am intrigued by the idea that a randomized structural system can be a vehicle for innovation, a concept that fueled Trisha's creation of "Locus" and many of her other works. Beyond just incorporating a random organizational structure, "Locus's" structure specifies where to move in space, something which is not often addressed directly in music. I was interested to see what new directions (please excuse the unavoidable pun!) a random, spatially-based external structure might push me in.
Like Trisha did for "Locus," I began my compositional process by translating a few sentences of text into locations in space. Instead of a 3-dimensional cube I chose to work with 2-dimensional compass directions, a navigational system I am very comfortable with from extensive experience hiking and climbing. I wanted the text to connect to my instrument and also to the concept of artistic lineage, so I chose the first two sentences from Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree. They read:
"Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest."
I mapped each letter of the alphabet to one of eight compass directions: north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest. I considered dividing the compass into 26 bearings and mapping each letter to one of those bearings, but that seemed unnecessarily complex and very difficult to realize in live performance. Therefore each of the eight compass directions corresponds to more than one letter. I wrote out my sequence of spatial directions as text abbreviations (N, NE, S, etc.), but soon realized this would be impossible to interpret quickly on stage. A more intuitive way of notating the compass directions was needed. I toyed with a few possibilities and landed on the notion of working with one word at a time, mapping its points onto a circle, and then drawing vectors between them. I was delighted to discover that the resulting diagrams resembled a star chart full of mini-constellations. This is how my piece got its title, "Asterisms" (an asterism is a pattern of stars recognized in the Earth's night sky). I also color-coded the score based on the number of vectors in each individual word/asterism as a way to quickly locate simple or more complex patterns.
Because the spatialization of sounds is central to both the instrument and my composition, a quadraphonic sound system is used for "Asterisms" and each microphone on DD is mapped to an octant in the performance space. The four hydrophones in the dirt are located at N, S, E, W. The four contact mics on tree branches are at NE, SE, SW, NW. The two open-air condenser microphones are at E and W. Given this setup, it is possible to play grand gestures that literally move the sound around the entire venue, to generate smaller localized voices, or to sample the myriad other options which lie between these two extremes of scale.
I knew I wanted to play the three strata (dirt, branches, leaves) one after another, from bottom to top, to parallel the idea of lineages growing, branching out, and blossoming, and also in reference to the fact that Trisha used the same sequence of numbered points three times in "Locus." But how exactly I would translate my star-chart score into music remained to be determined.
Drawing on concepts from physical exercises in our workshop while experimenting with how to interpret a page full of mysterious diagrams, I brainstormed techniques for playing DD. I took rounded granite stones and, in large sweeping motions, literally traced the vectors of each asterism around the whole instrument. I played with smaller motions of tilting, tipping, stacking, un-stacking, redirecting, and rotating stones in the dirt. On the tree branches I bowed limbs and twigs with a child-sized violin bow, and wove and pulled string through the branches like a giant game of cat's cradle. Again, the asterisms could be interpreted with large-scale movements which spanned all the branches encircling me, by using more modest motions like rotating the bow around a single branch, or even on a microscopic scale by subtly shifting the direction and amount of pressure placed on the bow while leaving it essentially in the same spot. With leaves, I tried brushing, shaking, swishing against, and bowing them, both using ones attached to the branches and free leaves that I played while moving them around in front of the open air mics. As I explored these diverse techniques I considered how movement qualities such as lengthening, redirecting, inhaling and exhaling, the pull of gravity, counterthrust to gravity, and equilibrium might affect the sounds I was generating.
From my favorite DD sound discoveries I assembled a loose plan for my improvisational composition and created a tape part that I could play on top of live. The tape part is entirely comprised of recordings me playing DD (plus some extra autumn leaves) and all the sounds are interpretations of asterisms from the score. Given more arms I would have loved to have played all the sounds live but, being limited to only two upper limbs, a tape part was necessary to generate a compelling density of sound.
The piece begins with the first 10 or so asterisms played in order using rocks in the dirt. After this I largely abandoned the sequence of asterisms and gave myself license to jump around freely between them while progressing through a lexicon of playing techniques and journeying from dirt to branches to leaves. Throughout the piece I continued to use the asterisms to generate shapes for my musical gestures and tried to express each one as a sonic phrase. Still playing with scale, some phrases stretched out leisurely over time, while others were fleeting. Sometimes I really struggled to unearth some kind of musicality while remaining true to the dictates of the asterism. Although this could be quite frustrating, it did succeed in forcing me to seek out new approaches and techniques, and I have the asterisms to thank for a few precious eureka moments (including the strings-woven-through-branches cat's cradle section). The piece ends with a return to the formal sequence and original sounds, as the last four asterisms ("king of the forest") are played in the dirt. For me, this return to the roots, as it were, is an acknowledgement of and wink at my artistic forebears.
In this first version of "Asterisms" I have only begun to scratch the surface. I am certain DD contains more unique voices just waiting to be unleashed, and that those little star-patterns can lead me to a lot of other sonic worlds. I'm looking forward to realizing a much longer version of "Asterisms" in the future and exploring some more unforeseen possibilities.
Cheryl E. Leonard is a composer, performer, and instrument builder whose works investigate sounds, structures, and objects from the natural world. Her projects reveal and highlight unique sounds and often feature amplified natural-object instruments and field recordings from remote locales. Leonard has received grants from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, American Music Center, American Composers Forum, ASCAP, Meet the Composer, and the Eric Stokes Fund. Her commissions include works for Kronos Quartet, and Illuminated Corridor. She has been awarded residencies at Djerassi, the Arctic Circle, Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus, Villa Montalvo, the Paul Dresher Ensemble Studio, and Engine 27.
Gerald Casel was one of ten artists commissioned to respond to Trisha Brown’s Locus as part of HMD’s 2016 Bridge Project, “Ten Artists Respond to Locus.”
My response to Locus.
The two weeks with Diane Madden learning Trisha Brown’s Locus were incredibly illuminating, reminding me of my lineage and connection to Brown’s work. I have known Diane since the 90s, living in New York and taking classes at Susan Klein and Barbara Mahler’s school in TriBeCa, but most notably when we both were working with The Scottish Ballet in Glasgow. Along with Stanford Makishi, she was reconstructing Trisha’s For MG: The Movie while I was assisting Stephen Petronio with a new dance set to Radiohead called Ride The Beast. It was thrilling to watch the same dancers attune their highly technical skills within and beyond the realms of their classical training.
I recall the way those classical ballet dancers walked and ran. This primal yet revelatory act contained physical traits that conveyed histories of training, philosophies of verticality in the spine, where the gaze began and traveled, and the use of weight and negotiation with gravity. More closely, it represented the multi-layered strata of culture and power that were invoked within the very act of moving through space with velocity and force. As I looked even closer, and through Brown’s extraordinary choreography, I saw gender, sexual orientation, age and experience, ability, class, citizenship status, access and privilege, race, aesthetics, and of course, the opposites or the absence of the very thing it aimed to conceal.
Through dance, I look at power closely especially when there are assumptions embedded within notions of identity that perpetuate misunderstandings or (mis)readings of the body. This came up when the ten artists, selected by Hope Mohr and guest curators, started to learn about Trisha’s work through movement workshops and discussions. I noticed that all of us were coming from very different places and trying to get someplace where we can speak about our experience with Locus with a modicum of certitude about ourselves, our histories and lineages, and ultimately about our identity as we learned about and created a context for this seminal dance within our work. Diane would often begin our sessions by sensing the space with walking and with simple exercises that addressed our relationship to gravity. Speaking for myself, I arrived with assumptions about Brown and noticed that I placed the meaning of Locus within a very complex stew of postmodernist philosophy. I began to feel conflict as I unraveled what this meant, since in effect and through the years, I have embodied movement affinities and adopted compositional vocabularies that inextricably link me to Brown.
I danced with Stephen Petronio from 1991-1998 and 2001-2005. Petronio danced with Brown for seven; he was the first male dancer in her company. When I joined Petronio, I learned and performed Middlesex Gorge, Simulacrum Reels, and Full Half Wrong Plus Laytext Complete, a reimagined version of The Rite of Spring, pulled apart from a collaboration with Michael Clark. During this time, I also saw the company perform Surrender II, a duet with Jeremy Nelson and Petronio and Petronio’s solo, #3, a dance that effectively conjured multiple famous personae that forced him to stand stationary downstage, front and center. Similar to Locus and through a rigorous structure, he was able to find expressivity and freedom inside imposed restrictions.
These formative years created a foundation of my understanding of choreography and the power it can have as a force of rebellion. In a way, Trisha Brown, by way of the Judson Dance Theater – a group that revolutionized the way dance was being created and perceived during the late 1960s and into the 1970s – has a lot to do with this instinct to rebel. They were reclaiming the body from the way it had been treated by ballet and modern dance to represent itself and nothing more. By extension, Brown’s investigations inside the cube in Locus, were reaffirming the body as complete – just as it is – without subscribing to narrative, meaning, or metaphor. Through her work, Brown wanted to learn more about herself and how the choices she made within a structure formulated the ultimate freedom of expression. By imposing spatial constraints, Brown found a way to rebel against her own proclivities and habits. These constraints also enabled her to articulate a movement vocabulary that was formally pure and suggested the infinite possibilities for generating dancemaking.
Formal constraints have the capacity to invigorate creativity, however, they do not function equally for all bodies. More precisely, there is no such thing as pure movement for dancers of color. In my view, it is difficult to separate structural and systemic power from race. Among other intersectional factors (such as age, gender, class, etc.), dancing by brown and black bodies is read differently than dancing by white bodies.
One of the assumptions that postmodern formalism arouses is that any body has the potential to be read as neutral – that there is such a thing as a universally unmarked body. As a dancer and choreographer of color, my body cannot be perceived as pure. My brown body cannot be read the same way as a white body, particularly in a white cube. This conflicted state rose to the surface during the workshops conducted around our learning the methodology of Locus. How was I to respond to this work without commenting on this tension that I felt? How could I highlight the differences my body represented rather than ignoring or erasing them?
In recent days, I have been reflecting on the hierarchical structures that are present in the dance studio and on performance spaces and how choreography can be viewed as a colonizing force. I turn to colonization as a way to map the invisible power structures inherent within dance. Looking at a laboring/performing body is a way to understand how these powers lead to a re-inscription of assumptions, or worse, an egregious erasure of the body’s power to represent culture and identity. One of the faulty assumptions I had about postmodern dance is that it appoints essentially ambiguous conventions about the body – that the body is always free from narrative or metaphor. As I began to develop my response to Locus, I wanted to underscore that which was unambiguous. I wanted to highlight my ‘brown-ness’, the cultural markers that identify me as Filipino, and my queerness. So, with my collaborators, I turned to these elements as the source to generate this piece, Taglish.
Taglish is slang for Tagalog and English collided together. Growing up as a naturalized immigrant with both languages, I was able to communicate fluidly with fellow Filipinos and new American friends. This translates clearly through the body as maneuverability between embodied aesthetic states. As dancers, my partner (Suzette Sagisi) and I are able to slide in and out of dance forms and switch between the vernacular and the highly codified. In this response to Locus, I wanted to convey that we carried multiple dancing traditions within our bodies. To honor our lineage beyond concert dance, we both agreed that we identified with dancing that came from our experiences outside of the studio: from hip-hop culture, club and house dancing, to the voguing balls in Harlem and the piers in New York City, where queens flocked in the late 80s and early 90s to express their rebellion of gender and hetero-normativity.
Suzette and I wanted to represent these dance forms that provided us historical context and meaning. Another thing we shared was our vague knowledge of traditional Filipino folk dances: Binasuan (the candle dance) and Tinikling (the bamboo dance). As Filipino-Americans, could we appropriate traditional Filipino folk dances since we never grew up performing them? Could we collide these dance forms together to reflect the complexities contained within our dancing bodies and the way our brown bodies immediately projected ‘otherness’ within a postmodern performance gaze? These questions formed the basis of my response to Locus.
My longtime musical collaborator, Tim Russell, created a soundscape that provided a backdrop of sonic energies that allowed us to surreptitiously traverse one dance form and physical state to another. He layered rhythms of the Tinikling, with non-melodies, and sounds with silence and text – even borrowing from Alvin Lucier’s well-known sound art piece, I Am Sitting In A Room. We also turned to Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, a novel that depicted Filipino life in the 1950s and was a testament to the Filipino’s attitudes and attempts to become more Westernized. Although fictional, the book also takes a jab at the (1970s) Marcos regime especially at the way the First Lady discusses her shoe collection – referring to Imelda Marcos’ lavish collection of designer shoes. In the book was a quote from President William McKinley’s famous “Address to a Delegation of Methodist Churchmen”, where he openly talks about his opinions on how the fate of the Philippines should be determined by America’s interests. He says, “[T]here was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” We used this speech and layered it onto the sound score to illustrate the fact that here were two Filipino-American dancers performing a response to this American masterwork of postmodern dance.
In Taglish, we blended postmodern dance, hip-hop, house, voguing, historical text, and traditional Filipino folk dances to represent the intersectional elements present in our dancing bodies. It was curious to notice similarities between Trisha Brown’s clear, geometric forms and that of voguing’s adherence to geometric planes. The demarcated lines in the voguer’s arms and torso seem to connote a two-dimensional etching of the body in space to disidentify with gender norms – to ultimately seek freedom within (self)-imposed constraints.
Inside the structured improvisations of the piece, my partner and I often played with switching our performance of gender, namely in the Binasuan, where the female’s arms accented up while the male’s arms were forced and accented downward. It was also apparent that the lines between gender were very fluid and porous, especially in the voguing sections. However, the sections performed repeatedly inside the cube, signified the inconsequential nature of gender. These negotiations were difficult to execute but necessary to include.
In conclusion, I turn to one of the reviews that came out of this experience, from Allan Ulrich who writes, “What binds Gerald Casel’s 'Taglish' to Brown remains a mystery, but the choreographer and Suzette Sagisi provided some of the fleetest dancing of the evening. Casel notes that the piece represents tensions between Filipino and American culture, but his finely crafted mirror duet was satisfying in itself.” His writing misses the mark altogether, even glossing over the tension between Filipino and American culture. He instead focuses on what he deems legible and worthy of affirming: the mirror duet. The fact that he is mystified by my response is not a surprise, however, the fact that his white, male gaze cannot register any of the elements that portrayed voguing embodied in my whirling effeminate gestures, the traditional Filipino folk dance, and the blending of vernacular and postmodern dance underscores his incapacity to include other forms of dance beyond his narrow definition. Ulrich’s response sheds a light on the invisibility of colored people’s culture to mainstream dance criticism that privilege Western and Eurocentric dance forms and unfortunately perpetuates the mechanisms of coloniality. In dance criticism, words, like actions, have power. When critics use (or do not use) words to describe culture beyond white space, they basically ignore and in effect, erase, the culture they think they describe.
Program Notes for Taglish
Concept and direction: Gerald Casel
Choreography and performance: Gerald Casel and Suzette Sagisi
Live sound design: Tim Russell
Choreographic assistant: Arletta Anderson
Historical Text: President William McKinley (1899)
“Taglish (Tagalog/English) brings together Filipino and American
elements in one space to represent what our bodies have been exposed
to as dancers. Contending with the tensions between lineage,
appropriation, ‘bi-culturality’, and representation, the dance asks
whether it is possible to present the body adorned by and
simultaneously devoid of its culture and history through performance.” -Gerald Casel
GERALD CASEL is artistic director of GERALDCASELDANCE and assistant professor at University of California, Santa Cruz. He received a BFA from The Juilliard School and an MFA from the UW-Milwaukee. Casel was awarded a ‘Bessie’ (New York Dance &
Performance Award) for his dancing in the companies of Michael Clark,
Stanley Love, Lar Lubovitch, and Stephen Petronio. He has been on faculty
at CSU Long Beach, Palucca Hochschule für Tanz Dresden, and NYU where
he received the David Payne-Carter Award for Teaching Excellence. Casel is a
Resident Artist at ODC, a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Fellow, and
participated in CHIME at 10 in the Bay Area in 2014. www.geraldcasel.com
Following are the reflections and questions of dancer and choreographer Peiling Kao, one of ten artists commissioned to respond to Trisha Brown’s Locus by creating new work as part of HMD’s 2016 Bridge Project, “Ten Artists Respond to Locus.” Kao, commissioned by Dohee Lee, created per[mute]ing, which she performed October 14 and 15 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
What does it mean to be an Asian dancer trained in Eurocentric dance forms and living in the U.S.? Why is (are) lineage(s) important to dance artists? How do dancers and choreographers relate to lineage differently? What frames an audience’s interpretations of my movement?
I entered Hope Mohr Dance’s 2016 Bridge Project: “Ten Artists Response to Locus” with the admiration of Trisha Brown’s legacy and the intention to learn the entire original Locus. As a professional dancer for over 20 years, I value training, just like athletes practice everyday to keep their bodies in shape. Besides that, I must keep exposing myself to what is contemporary to discover what I need for my current creative practice. Training makes me versatile and I like it. So before I came to the two-week workshop, I planned to create my response after I inhabited Locus, or at least to get a solid grasp of Trisha Brown’s technique. However, the two-week workshop with Diane was not what I expected. Even though we had physical training every day, Diane had bigger goals that required her to pay equal attention to 10 artists in the room from different disciplines. Given these constraints, it was not possible for Diane to teach us the complete dance in the detail that I had expected. I understood and respected what had she needed to do—to share and to explore with all of us. But as a result, during the workshop, my intentions for my response to Locus shifted.
There are rules and physical discipline, or training, within each dance lineage. I think it is important to have specific approaches to training for the purpose of unifying and codifying a movement language. Through these specific physical disciplines, dancers’ movements can make them recognizable as a Graham dancer, Cunningham dancer, or Trisha Brown dancer. I have trained for years intensively in Taiwan in ballet, Graham, Limon, Cunningham, improvisation, Tai-Chi, and Taiwanese/Chinese dance. I deeply connect to these techniques in my body. I appreciate my wide-ranging movement training, which has become my own hybrid physical language. As a dancer, I am grateful for a variety of dance tools, which allow me to be versatile and to have choices. But as a choreographer, my range of training can be frustrating. With my diverse sources, how can I create movement that is original? Is it possible that I carry so many lineages that I have a hard time finding my authenticity? If lineage is important to dancers, is it as important to choreographers?
During the workshop, I was dealing with my dancer’s mind: just teach me Locus, please! Frustration and impatience hit me and made me question whether I positioned myself as a dancer or choreographer in the project. There were source materials I cared about as a dancer, but not as a choreographer, and vice versa. For example: as a dancer, I cared about the details in the Locus phrasing: what initiates the movement, how to go from point A to point B, what is the quality of the movement.
But these questions were not necessarily important to me as a choreographer tasked with creating a response to the dance. As a choreographer, I found that it was valuable to hear about the historical context of the dance and the personal stories from the time that Trisha created Locus. As a choreographer, I liked to observe Diane, the way she talked, the way she moved and the way she described the quality of the movement. I thought to myself, “She is ‘so Trisha Brown.’” Diane reminded me of the way another teacher from my past, Shelley Senter, talked. Even though Diane and Shelley are very different people, their shared training with Trisha Brown still came through. Sometimes, I was irritated during the workshop and didn’t want to follow Dianne’s directions; at these times, my choreographer’s mind was stronger than my dancer’s mind. I noticed that once I let go of wanting to learn Locus solo as a dancer, I was set free. Having let go of my dancer identity, I felt less frustration. I became careless in a good way: I could simply be there in the workshop without any intention. The workshop with Diane made me realize that I give myself more permission to be in a place of unknowing as a choreographer than as a dancer, at least in the context of relating to a set piece of choreography as opposed to improvisation.
After the workshop in San Francisco, I went back to ‘paradise’, my new home in Hawai’i (where I just moved from the Bay Area). I decided to use Trisha’s sequence of numbers from the Locus score as a tool to create my response. I knew if I tried to address a specific subject through my work, I would get too brainy in the beginning of creative process and I would fail. So I chose to simply follow the task of using Trisha’s sequence of numbers. The first few days in the studio were pretty productive, and then I got heady and tried to edit the choreography every time I started rehearsing. I got stuck at the three-minute mark for a while and hated everything. This self-doubting, over-critical eye and judgment always happen when I look at myself in rehearsal footage with a dancer’s eye. I hated looking at myself and disliked every movement I did.
In the second week in the studio, things totally changed. I started to have fun creating and dealing with numbers even though I made less than 8 minutes of movement in 25 hours of studio time. The piece was not even finished one week before the show opened. But I believed the ending of the piece would come to me when I arrived at the performance space. And it did. Reflecting on this experience, I now realize it is a privilege and a joy to create and to perform my own work, but only when my dancer and choreographer minds work well together.
The title of my piece per[mute]ing describes my creative process. Like Trisha Brown, I made movement variations to ‘indicate’, ‘touch’ or ‘go through’ the points in the imaginary cube. I repeated the Locus number sequence two-and-a-half times. Towards the end of the creative process, I found myself ignoring and skipping the “27” position (indicating the center of the cube) a lot; in doing this, I was unconsciously taking out the “self” position. per[mute]ing also relates to bigger issues of dance training and lineage. In making the piece, I incorporated the movement from all the dance forms I've encountered, adopted, rejected, and absorbed living in this Taiwanese dancing body. The dance lineages that I carry in my body via years of movement training have shaped my identity as a mover and choreographer.
I was honored and grateful to receive a lot of positive feedback after performing per[mute]ing in Ten Artists Respond to Locus. Critic Allan Ulrich said that it had “a curious serenity.” Critic David Moreno wrote:
Kao dismantled [Locus] into something soulful, breaking down sharp lines and gestures into fluid presence. She danced without the 4×4 confinement suggesting something much bigger, freer, and authentically her own. Kao’s dancing is always a pleasure to behold, always deeply genuine.
It has long been interesting to me that no one seems have a problem seeing me as an Asian dancer when I do Eurocentric dance forms. Ironically, when I did Taiwanese/Chinese movement in per[mute]ing, viewers started seeking cultural meanings. An audience asked me if I was “trying to empower my Asian identity.” But I have never thought of empowering my Taiwanese identity by using Taiwanese movement in my work. The audience’s feedback led me to several questions: How do people assume and perceive the separation between Western and Eastern dance forms? Why do I need to do anything to “empower” my Taiwanese identity? Why does the doing of Taiwanese movement or speaking Taiwanese suddenly allow people to see me as Taiwanese? From my perspective I am already a Taiwanese, and nothing can change that. There is no need for empowerment.
In conclusion, there are conceptual and cultural questions that arose through this project for me. I am interested in continuing the ongoing conversation with choreographers who carry dance lineages. I am curious about what lineage means and does to the choreographers. As a Taiwanese artist who chose to move to the U.S. in my mid-30’s, I might have different experiences from people who are American-born Asian or Asians who have involuntarily immigrated to the U.S. Despite my cultural background, what I ended up expressing in per[mute]ing (from an unconscious/creative place, not with any explicit/political purpose) was simply in my dancing body and the movement. When I entered the space, audiences saw my training; they saw my lineages, they saw who I am. per[mute]ing was abstract. What people felt I wanted to say had less to do with my intentions and more to do with their own interpretations.
Peiling's above reflections led to the interesting below exchange between us (Hope Mohr and Peiling Kao):
HM: Your words remind me that often whiteness is not perceived because it is the assumed “neutral." As soon as you stop dancing whiteness, somehow you are seen, and/or seen differently.
PK: Yes. What do you mean by dancing whiteness? It leads to the another question: What is the purpose when many dance companies try to be inclusive about dancers' races? It may look diverse when showing work on stage with people/dancers of color. But if the dancers training background are basically Eurocentric, or the dance movement is still Eurocentric technique, is that still whiteness?
HM: Laila Lalami's article on whiteness helps me articulate what I mean by dancing whiteness. She writes:
"White" is seen as a default, the absence of race..."White" is a category that has afforded [whites] an evasion from race, rather than an opportunity to confront it.
Perhaps dancing whiteness means dancing under the presumption of abstraction?
Program Notes for per[mute]ing (premiere)
Commissioned Artist: Peiling Kao
Curated by: Dohee Lee
Performers: Peiling Kao (dance) and Tracy Taylor Grubbs (visual art)
“The dance lineages that I carry in my (visually Asian) body via years of
(hybrid) movement training have shaped my identity as a mover and
choreographer. Even as I value these diverse movement vocabularies in
my practice, I delve into the assumed/perceived separations of Eastern
and Western dance through this response to Locus.” - Peiling Kao
per[mute]ing was made possible by Dean’s Travel Fund, University of
Hawai’i at Manoa, and the Lo Man-fei Dance Fund, Cloud Gate Culture
and Arts Foundation, Taiwan.
per[mute]ing featured a painting by commissioned artist Tracy Taylor
Grubbs: Lineage (Ink Scroll)
“Working with Trisha’s Brown’s combination of structure and play,
this scroll painting was created using six specific gestures and one of
three different brushes: a mop found on the street, a brush taped to a
long stick and a set of rags tied to one foot.” –Tracy Taylor Grubbs
Frances Richard wrote and performed the following poem as part of HMD's 2016 Bridge Project, "Ten Artists Respond to Locus, a multidisiplinary exchange inspired by dance pioneer Trisha Brown. In the performance, Richard marked the graphic symbol "<<>>" with a simple hand gesture, a quotation from Brown's Accumulation (1971).
Frances Richard's program notes for Locus Poem:
"Locus Poem considers several kinds of 'placedness,' including a) being
subject to gravity, like absolutely everything in the universe; b) belonging
to a lineage or parentage—or not; c) questions about differences
between saying words out loud, writing words down, making gestures
with the body, and notating gestures on paper; d) questions about
thinking and moving inside categorical systems, and how such systems
are simultaneously orderly, constraining, mysterious, imperfect, secretly
outrageous, necessary. Most of the poem comes from notes I took in
2016 Bridge Project workshops with Diane Madden, Associate Artistic
Director of the Trisha Brown Company.”
A body is always shown in fragmentation ( so ) ( we )
seek out liquidations ( you see a sound
interlocking with its own shape in the air >>>> emanata: speed or stress lines
emphasizing valence >>>> )
a ground-math, invented
entity to help you. Map the
spiral cross-touching while resisting
“We are fools in language, yes—”
We need everyone to be a person.
If I disintegrate the letters in a printed page will you
receive it in particles cathected, stray in private
flesh, a borrowed impress foisted <<>> loss projected as
disintegration—no—because the blowing letters
unadhesived from their selves, their tissue words mute honey
phrases drip, smear into yours, get heady, crystalize.
Toss and regather. Leave it alone <<>> take
the backward step. Meaning don’t
do much, just touch
the floor, the air, your bones, flesh, mind, and
others. Like, the place is there exactly
when you need to fit in it, to measure
placedness. And otherwise
it flashes, drops.
Let’s practice our
politics of the lack of
—is it knowledge <<>> drawing-trace, or the weight of
to over-cross? Because she is not
a piece of paper. Counterforce
to gravity is desire—will—momentum—
( So ) go ahead and lean on space
( it ) keeps ( us ) from flying off the planetary
surface, keeps our organs organized, affects every
object, creature, event constantly ( gravity
qua god, the given
mother << very available >> << a lineage
of speed or stress lines ) emphasizing >> valence.
You be time and I’ll be
( So ) challenge is extended
repetition like being
one unstatic place. Take agency over each orifice, resisting. Though obviously everyone
needs parents—that is, combinations
geometric, viscous, sweet, preservative, medicinal and
collectively secreted from each orifice like honey. Right now
a honey of gravity is dripping
( so ) The penultimate word is
the ground. The ultimate word
suspends above the head.
Space-between is the gut.
( Are you saying gravity secretes from the
gut of the planet—yes—are you saying
repetition is the mother, is a
valence challenge—yes—are you
tossed, regathered, flashing, private, smeared
in language? Yes. )
“It’s really kind of fun” she said, “to barely fall <<>> falling
requires you to connect, which is what I like
about a vocabulary motivated <<>> via falling”
through a little liquid zone, a shaped speed
or stress, invented
entity to help you organize. Qua secret mother written on the air who doesn’t
see my body, secret
body practicing its lack qua
piece of paper. Maybe now you’re wondering
what << qua >> is? In the condition of, deriving from a feminine
root meaning who. And ( so )
the shame of questions
is there exactly when you need to fit in it, and then it
Show me again
<<>> how my body appears <<>> falling <<>> I never
( So ) think right now <<>> whose work
makes your mind possible.
that part of my safety-shape. The
inter-given, weight of the phrase
qua semiotic of the nervous line, an empty
drip of molten space that makes
the pelvis possible <<>> in the condition of
the spiral possible
I just was thinking about this all my life.
( So ) see her moving
emanata in an over-remote
micro-past, saying viscous, thinking
ground-math, mapping secret
counterforce—fool practice >>>>
<<<< tongue of the muscle to lick the
Tracy Taylor Grubbs
Following are program notes for quarter, a work by Larry Arrington in collaboration with Oscar Tidd commissioned for HMD's 2016 Bridge Project, Ten Artists Respond to Locus. Produced in association with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
A great deal of the work I did on this project was thinking. This is an imperfect map (as if there were any other kind) of some of that thinking. I entered this project hoping to fold it into my own consuming project/work/thought/feelings of looking at western history (and in this context Eurocentric art lineages) as folk/cultural forms. In this work, I wanted to look at Trisha Brown, contemporary western dance, and classical western dance as a series of interconnected folk dances situated within very specific cultural and material contexts and supported by intersecting and overlapping ideologies. I do this not solely as critique, but as a general and personally necessary set of questions that force my own relationship to history into the same cultural/anthropological questions that western thinking often imposes on other forms. This took me on a myriad of experiments, but I kept being drawn back to:
1. The very simple formal constraint of Locus: the bordering of space/ the map. This being drawn back to the map was also greatly informed by the crisis of border/map/territory that is an ongoing social and economic cataclysm on the surface of this planet. We gather at YBCA, in a rapidly gentrifying city, in a space built on sacred Ohlone land. We gather in a nation founded through theft/exploitation. Also…. water.
2. The dancer/laborer Diane Madden has danced in Trisha Brown’s work longer than I have been alive. I was so inspired by her beautiful leadership and her spirit as a dancer. Having Diane introduce Trisha Brown’s work put a welcome spin and complication on a western approach to expertise. It has been my experience that much has been made of Judson in letters. The mediation of academia in performance can have a certain coldness of work removed from the worker. My exposure to the monolith of the Judson canon has been frustratingly void of body, heart, context, time, and relationship. Having the dancer, Diane, centered as the expert made my heart full. So in this way I was finally able to situate Judson in the very situatedness that I love about dance: how it is something that is passed from body to body.
3. The horse.
4. The circle and the square
The geometries of music.
Shape note singing Idumea, Ivey Memorial Singing
The reproducing structure In The Upper Room Dance IX, Philip Glass
Lastly, thank you for your attention. It is sincerely appreciated and respected.
by Emily Hoffman
The most pronounced difference to my eye between Trisha Brown's movement and modern or balletic forms of movement is timing, or, more specifically, the more subtle variations in timing that are allowed or produced by the availability of the body to its own weight and to gravity. I first noticed this phenomenon in X when we were teenagers and it took me a long time—until now, really—to realize what was producing it, but I did for many years find different ways of describing to myself what it looked like. I noticed it most clearly, of course, when she was dancing in unison with other people who didn’t share this same quality. Say there was a simple drop and lift of the arm—from horizontal, to vertical, to horizontal again. You’d see the arms start to come down, and it would seem X was somehow behind the count. You could feel the unit of time and see how the other arms were going to make it back, and X’s arm seemed leisurely by comparison, unconcerned. Then a surprising thing would happen. The count would arrive and suddenly there her arm was, floating into horizontal, more subtly on it than anyone else’s. But she hadn’t sped up—that was the magic of it. I used to say it was like her blood was made of time, that’s how dexterous she was with it; it seemed she could move time, making it expand or contract. The even arcs of the other arms seemed crass by comparison. It occurs to me now that what I was seeing was the subtle, organic ease and variation that comes from the play between a release into weight and a more muscular resistance to gravity. I suppose you could also call this phrasing, in another kind of dancing, and a dancer can have a gift with time separate from this particular released weight that I’m referring to. It’s what they call musicality, I think, in ballet. But perhaps it amounts to the same thing. How the dancer relates to control and release in her own body, a relation to momentum, to gravity, and to resistance. Choreography will always specify a point A and a point B, and even if these points become closer and closer together, there will always be some distance between them that the dancer must traverse in her own manner. I have a weakness for projecting aesthetics into the realm of the ethical, but it’s hard for me not to feel that something about the character of the dancer is revealed in exactly this, the body’s native relation to the structure it occupies. Whether it rushes to fulfill the structure, whether it adorns it, whether it holds itself in reserve. Why is it always that reserve and abandon seem to go hand in hand? I’m always drawn to describe Farrell’s dancing with this kind of paradox. Precisely to the extent that she gives herself to the movement her SELF is revealed to be a separate entity, out of reach. This is absolutely different from a coy restraint. By contrast, it is the absolute absorption of the dancer in the execution of the dance that gives the dancer back to herself. I see this as a kind of grace in effort, otherwise known as devotion.
Emily Hoffman is the Director of Affinity Project, one of ten artists commissioned to create new work in response to Trisha Brown's Locus (1975), as part of Hope Mohr Dance's 2016 Bridge Project, Ten Artists Respond to Locus, produced in association with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This post is one in a series that will feature ephemera from the Locus Bridge Project.
by Megan Wright
niv Acosta bills his work DISCOTROPIC as an exploration into science fiction, disco, astrophysics, and the black American experience. Acosta, a Brooklyn-based trans and queer director of black and Dominican descent, has set up a world that derails the structurally racist consumption of black bodies. It’s a pop-cultural critical intervention that rearranges the roles of critics, artists, and audiences in discourse on performance. Neon-lit in the cavernous basement of the Westbeth Artists Community in Lower Manhattan, DISCOTROPIC’s warmth and artificial forestry were a planet away from the January night outside.
Acosta was inspired in part by Diahann Carroll's role in the 1978 Star Wars holiday special. It's a bizarre cameo: Carroll, the only character of color in the special, appears as a holographic projection named Mermeia, generated to satisfy the erotic fantasies of Chewbacca's (equally hirsute) father. During DISCOTROPIC, Ashley Brockington recites Mermeia's monologue in a haughty purr, crawling above the audience with a silver cape trailing behind her: "we are excited, aren't we? I'll tell you a secret: I find you — adorable."
Justin Allen in DISCOTROPIC. Photo by Maria Baranova.
Despite heavy use of projections in DISCOTROPIC, particularly during Justin Allen's exploratory opening solo, it's flesh-and-blood bodies that Acosta pushes us to encounter and confront. The performers execute a durational twerking score in a series of cells along one wall of the room. A sharp switch from neon to blacklight reveals large white eyes painted on the performers' backsides that float and shake in the dark, suddenly pinning observer as observed. Acosta is imposing a switch in audience/performer structure that recalls Gayatri Spivak’s words in The Post-Colonial Critic: “the holders of hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other.”
The twerking continues for twenty minutes, moving steadily through and above the audience, just out of sync with a thumping beat. I'm reminded of Adrian Piper's notes on her own 1970s disco works, Aretha Franklin Catalysis and Some Reflective Surfaces I:
To succeed in dancing to disco music, and to perform the full spectrum of figures and gestures that are part of that, is to express one's sexuality, one's separateness, one's inner unity with one's own body; and in a sexually repressive, WASP-dominated culture, this is to express defiance. I think this explains why certain kinds of people become so uncomfortable around blacks and gays on the dance floor who can really strut their stuff... At the same time as you express defiance and self-containedness through disco dancing, you also open yourself to a wide range of responses from others, most of which are misinterpretations: for example, you're being seductive. you want to be picked up, and so on. As though your own pride and pleasure in your physical experiences weren't enough.
For Acosta, pride and pleasure in physical experience, particularly that shared with his three cast members, is enough. He, Brockington, Allen, and Monstah Black pace through a series of unison motions on a platform stage, organized in a neat box, and cue each other to shift between motions with a soft hiss. (Piper talks about "the political unity that can be achieved through self-consciously unifying one's self-presentation as a dance object with other such objects that are equally self-conscious.") They sing a mesmeric and melismatic version of "We Travel the Spaceways" off the Afrofuturist musician Sun Ra's 1962 album When Sun Comes Out from atop a spiral staircase. Each pulls in and out of the group for solo verses, backed always by the others and by Dion Tygapaw on electric bass. They end the work with an improvised copying score in which leadership transfers seamlessly from performer to performer.
L to R: Acosta, Allen and Brockington in DISCOTROPIC. Photo by Maria Baranova.
DISCOTROPIC is a ritualistic piece that offers precious few handholds to the audience throughout the evening. Is this a show or a meditative practice? What non-hierarchical and verdant planet are we on? Acosta deliberately presents his work as being on the edge between performance and visual art. Like Ralph Lemon, he wants to be critically situated beyond the dance field.
Acosta is rarely reviewed by white-centric mainstream publications. This failure of attention does not bode well for the evolution or continued relevance of these publications. In an interview with Vice Magazine's Creators Project, Acosta states: “I wanted to think about people who don’t get the amount of visibility that they deserve... DISCOTROPIC thinks about how that applies to the current climate of racial representation now.” This nowness is the work's most compelling element.
Kate Mattingly's recent trenchant article on BAYWATCH addresses the widespread failure of predominantly white mainstream outlets to give consideration to work like Acosta's — work whose lineage and inheritance is derived from a nonwhite canon. This work develops in alternative spaces and is often created and performed by queer and trans people of color. It prioritizes process and ritual over "the pretty, the linear, and the familiar." Mattingly notes:
Studying dance criticism in the 20th and 21st centuries in the United States I notice a tendency to sublimate experiences that are variable and esoteric to words that are accessible and clear. What happens when our experiences are not legible, when a performance highlights the obscurity, vulnerability, and uncertainty that pervade life? What happens when an artist emphasizes the systemic exclusions of people of color from comforts and opportunities?
What happens with white critical response to work that emphasizes the lived experience of people of color, I think, is what Mattingly sees in Allan Ulrich's scoffing review in the San Francisco Chronicle of Filipino-American choreographer Gerald Casel's Splinters in our Ankles: "an unwillingness to engage an artist’s work on its own terms." The terms Acosta sets forth in DISCOTROPIC are Afrofuturist, fantastic, and celebratory. Casel’s terms are anti-colonial, deeply personal, and wry. Both deserve more of what Rebecca Solnit (as quoted by Mattingly) calls counter-criticism that “seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities." I freely acknowledge that, as a white person who performs and writes about mostly “linear and familiar” dances, I'm not the best person to craft cogent counter-criticism for DISCOTROPIC. But I can encourage you to see the work for yourself.
Adrian Piper's 1982 writing Notes on Funk II describes what she'd learned in performing her disco works:
I had always assumed that any meaningful political work I did had to involve utilizing the advantages of my middle-class education and aesthetic acculturation as resources 'for the benefit of' the disadvantaged community from which I came... this view now seems to me to be laden with patronizing, elitist assumptions about who has what of value to offer to whom. The funk idiom of black working-class culture is an unbelievably rich and enriching art form… that has invaluable gifts to offer that audience, and not just the other way around.
During DISCOTROPIC, the performers gather up a wide, runway-length strip of black paper. Working together, they bundle it delicately into a huge nest and lift it above their heads. Then they slowly process through the audience. 2015 was a year of photograph after photograph after news clip after body-cam video of black and trans bodies being invaded, violated, and killed. After such a year, Acosta's engineering of an alternative and multi-faceted site of possibility where an audience stood back in deference to this procession was, as Piper says, an invaluable gift.
The cast of DISCOTROPIC and projection of 1974 Afrofuturist science-fiction film Space Is The Place featuring Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Photo by Maria Baranova.
Diahann Carroll as Mermeia in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special (start video at 2:20)
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (Routledge, 1990)
bell hooks, “Representation of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End Press, 1992)
Mayfield Brooks, "IWB = Improvising While Black", Contact Quarterly, Winter/Spring 2016.
Shelton Lindsay, "Dance Artist niv Acosta Creates a Space of His Own", Vice Magazine, February 27, 2015.
Kate Mattingly, “fresh festival: critical focus,” BAYWATCH, January 22, 2016.
Adrian Piper, “Notes on Funk II,” Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992 (MIT Press, 1996)
by Hope Mohr
Brief impressions from four shows that I saw at the 2016 American Realness Festival.