Building Accountability in the Dance Field: An Interview with Michèle Steinwald

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.


Aesthetic Perspectives Framework  

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.

Talking About Race Toolkit

People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond