social practice: choreography with trauma survivors

Dance has always been my calling, but as I came to political consciousness, I carved out a parallel path of activism on behalf of women’s issues. To unify these passions, I’ve created many dances about women dealing with trauma. I’ve become increasingly interested in involving non-professional dancers in my creative process, which has led to work with breast cancer patients and military veterans. Through these projects, I’ve learned that having non-professionals on stage offers a cathartic opportunity, but poses significant choreographic challenges.  If the non-professionals are genuinely integrated into the choreography, such a mixed ensemble will limit group vocabulary to simple pedestrian gestures.  On the other hand, if more choreographic complexity is desired, the non-professionals are marginalized (standing, sitting or watching the action). Of course, powerful moments can be found by juxtaposing simple gesture and complex dancing.  But often, the choice is between a limited vocabulary and a fractured ensemble. Furthermore, although the choreographic journey with such a mixed ensemble is transformative for all involved, much energy is spent on goals other than artistic excellence. Much time in the creative process is spent on the simple rules of performance (for example, don’t scratch an itch onstage). For victims of trauma, performance can be a powerful trigger. Mediating trauma, supporting mental health and processing intense group dynamics consume energy that would otherwise be focused on the creative process. Thus, in some ways, inviting veterans or other survivors of trauma to share the stage can diminish the power of the art itself.

The key lies in the intention behind the creative process. Is it intended to serve the participants’ journey of healing or the vision of the choreographer?  When do those goals intersect, and when do they diverge?

Another key lies in how the process is framed. Will it result in a full-production public performance? Is it a confidential workshop not intended for public consumption? How important is public performance to the goal of healing from trauma?

Here is an excerpt from the program notes from The Unsayable (2009), which explored personal story with a mixed cast of professional dancers and military veterans:

In the words of Joyce Carol Oates (writing in response to Arlene Croce’s refusal to review Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here, his 1994 dance about people with HIV/AIDS), “there is a long and honorable tradition of art that ‘bears witness’ to human suffering.”  Cognizant of this lineage, and having facilitated a similar project in 2007 with breast cancer survivors, I entered the year-long process of The Unsayable: six months of development and outreach, three months of workshop, and a mere two months of rehearsal.  What you see tonight is first and foremost the culmination of a group emotional process honoring veteran’s voices.  Second, it is a work of choreography.  Balancing the two has been a fascinating challenge.  The project’s fundamental premise has been to engage veterans not as mere source material, but as artistic collaborators in conversation with dancers.  I hope the work imparts a deeper understanding of what it means to bear witness and what it means to be a citizen.  The veterans were not selected for the content of their stories.  This is the first time they have ever performed professionally on stage.

See also this article in the N.Y. Times on “social practice” as art.