Author Archive | Sima Belmar

In Practice: Borderlines

dancer bends forward while walking on a line

Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz / photo by Yvonne Portra

Every day my inbox receives announcements for interdisciplinary conferences on migration, conferences that investigate “the performative role of the document in controlling the movement of bodies across borders” or the ways “artistic interventions show that borders can become sites of resistance and gestures of solidarity especially for those whose bodies are arbitrarily made ‘illegal.’” Poised to write an article about borders, migration, and dance, I realized I was woefully ignorant of what the basic terms of the immigration debate mean.

Luckily, I know a geographer who specializes in borders. Adam Levy, Associate Professor of Geography at Ohlone College, agreed to give me a crash course in political/physical/social geography. Our conversation began happily thinking about borders and border crossing in conceptual and choreographic ways (see footnote #1). He explained how in the past, geographers drew on the language of fluvial geomorphology (river science) to study border patterns, and how contemporary geographers “focus on three different types of spaces and the processes that produce them: borders as the limit, as the outer zone of contact, and as separate, hybrid space.” He defined a “borderland”—e.g. Tijuana/ San Diego, Juarez/El Paso—as places that “create a third space,” and pointed out that borders are not necessarily contiguous spaces as in the case of diasporic communities. But before I could settle into a reverie about the fluvial geomorphology of dancers, shit started to get real.

To explain the difference between a refugee and a migrant, Adam pulled up a 2014 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) presentation used as part of global border guard training plans “designed to help local government agents learn how to perform, that is, to better manage risky populations, as part of their gatekeeping role.” According to Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” is outside their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return. A refugee may also be someone whose life is at risk due to “generalized violence or events seriously disturbing the public order.”

Scrolling through the presentation, I saw how the press uses the terms interchangeably. Indeed, the point is to show that refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, economic migrants, victims of trafficking, and others are all in the same boat, always discursively, often literally. They come from the same countries, they take the same modes of transport across the same bodies of land and water, and they face the same dangers along the way. They are subject to traumatizing Refugee Status Determination (RSD) processes—“credible fear hearings”—since they are all perceived as threats to state sovereignty and security. So even though an economic migrant is classified as someone who is leaving their country of origin by choice to improve their socioeconomic status, they are often subject to the same risks to life and limb as those fleeing state-sponsored persecution. “It’s a biopolitical issue,” Adam says, “Modern humanitarianism qualifies which lives are worth saving.”

I plunked my head on the table in despair. The situation is so dire and complex with countries paying other countries to create safe havens in their own countries in order to stop people from crossing the border, and credible fear hearings that are poorly administered, not to mention the very structure of RSD—“a neoliberal, actuarial model, trying to calculate precise dangers; a damage control model,” Adam explains, with significant collateral damage.

So what do those of us who spend our lives attending and attuning to choreographic structures and the materiality of embodiment have to offer in terms of developing understanding of what it means to move across borders and within borderlands in the context of gatekeeping?

Luckily, I know a choreographer-dance scholar who specializes in borders. Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz is a movement artist and Ph.D. student in performance studies at UC Berkeley, whose research explores borders and migration as choreographic systems that involve both the human and the non-human (objects, ephemera, documents), “the way objects move things.”

As a formerly undocumented immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, Juan Manuel entered California “without inspection” (EWI) in 1990 at the age of six, just as the state was gearing up to pass Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant, “Save Our State” (rhymes with “Make America Great”) initiative. It took him two attempts to cross the border, first through a fence, then across the desert: “It was very cinematic: running, helicopters overhead. So already at an early age I was exposed to the physical dimensions of what it means to have a precarious life. (Though it felt like an adventure to me at the time!)”

After moving around southern California, Juan Manuel settled in Salt Lake City
in 1996. Juan Manuel grew up dancing cumbia, salsa, merengue, and bolero, and started taking modern dance classes with his sister in high school. The way modern dance thematized space, time, and energy offered him tools to express his “anxieties and uncertainties about what it was like to be undocumented and Mexican in Utah. Dance theater became a site and process to work out those things.”

In 2011, a year before DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) went into effect, Juan Manuel left the US for Mexico in order to regularize his status, unsure if he would be allowed to return. Speaking about his first interview in Ciudad Juárez, he says, “I had to let them know I was a credible US resident. This person starts asking about this form that I had sent in years ago, and I’m sweating. I have the document that says the US received it. I can’t lose it, the document or my composure. At that moment there’s this vetting of your sweat and your gesture. On the one hand, I’m looking at the dramaturgies of the border in the interview center. And yet, I am scared because my family’s on the other side” (see footnote#2).

Juan Manuel draws on his experience with the material realities of border crossing to put pressure on theories of migration that fail to address the material conditions and kinesthetic-affective experiences of crossing a national border or trying to order a hamburger in a language that isn’t yours. One way he does this is by facilitating “Curated Moves” workshops, where participants “work through origin stories and produce as much sweat as possible,” changing out of their sweaty clothes and examining them as artifacts of the experience. These workshops activate what Juan Manuel has termed “sweat citizenships,” ways that movement leaves traces of and beyond the person who moves. “A lot of mobility is about the production of sweat for work, or the lack thereof to make sure you don’t look guilty. When I think I sweat, when I move I sweat—it’s a way of knowing and relating. When I go see performances, I look to see who cleans up the space. If at some point in time, after the creative practice encounter, our sweat can meet, there’s some point of connection between me and the people who work in the space.”

From his experience crossing the border into the US from Mexico, to living as an undocumented person of color in Utah on the “wrong side of town,” to making cross-disciplinary dance theater works about his immigrant and undocumented status, to working in Minnesota at the Latino Economic Development Center, to his research on migration in an interdisciplinary PhD program, Juan Manuel learned “saber cómo mover, knowing how to move in a very practical sense, always in conjunction with the materiality of life.” Drawing connections between these diverse movement processes, he realized that “all are practices of movement and that relationships are inherently mobile. Performing my anxieties on stage became a process to work through the messy uncertainty of fear that would come with my eventual departure. I always assumed this departure would be accompanied with an irremediable loss. However, I learned from other immigrants and migrants, my parents included, that leaving and moving across countries, or towns, is a practice of learning how to move in unknown situations. I stopped being afraid of not being able to return when I realized that my liberation and freedom was not dependent on the United States’ immigration system. I had the capacity to improvise and learn how to move dynamically across borders, be they national or personal, to form new relationships.”

Juan Manuel’s consciousness-body is a borderland, a hybrid, third space made up of multiple artistic genres, aesthetic modalities, geographic landscapes, and cultural affiliations. For him, dancers have the potential to attune consciously to this viscous, “kinopolitical” (see footnote #3) (corpo)reality: “I think dancers and dance studies can contribute to border migration policy by attuning to different qualities of movement, vibrations, stopping and starting, repetition, circulation, to the different types of movement people do, and how those different types of movement respond to different forces, rather than thinking about in the way that it’s conceived in migration, from point A to point B.”

We all learn how to move in formal and informal ways, but we are not all required to be conscious of that knowing. We move through separate and unequal choreographic scores of living. Social, economic, and political policies direct the ways bodies move as matter through the world, inside, outside, and across national borders. As dancers, we have the potential to see the choreographic in everything we do, like Juan Manuel observing the ways buildings, guards, waiting rooms, and documents structured his movement towards and within his visa interview in Ciudad Juárez. As dancers, we can also attend to the sweat we leave behind as material traces of the past acting in the present towards potentially resistant futures. As dancers sweating bullets, we have the potential to engage in conscious trespass. Practice attunement to moments of trespass— physical, social, affective, political—to the moments when we choose or are forced to cross rather than walk the line, to our sense of being borderlands.


1. Adam introduced me to Glenn Weyant’s The Anta Project, Banksy’s Walledo Hotel project in Palestine, and Milan-based Multiplicity Lab’s Border Device(s) project.

2. Juan Manuel documented his path to documented status on his blog, juanmaldape.com.

3. Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.

For The Love of Dance: A Community Remembers Victor Anderson (Aug 10, 1928-Feb 7, 2017)

It is a delicate task to write about a private person. And Victor Anderson, co-founder of the Shawl Anderson Dance Center, who died on February 7 at the age of 88, was a very private person. When I heard about his death, I knew there would be wonderful obituaries that would honor Victor’s accomplishments and his legacy (in particular, see Victor’s story on the Shawl Anderson website, shawl-anderson.org). These narratives are crucial to making sure that Victor is remembered for his role in modern dance history. But as a long-time member of the SADC community—22 years and counting!—I wanted to find a way to pay homage to Victor’s whole person, with a special emphasis on his relationship to the Bay Area and the legions of dancers who have passed through the heavy door at 2704 Alcatraz Avenue.

I didn’t see Victor much during the last years of his life—he had stopped coming to the studio in the early morning to clean the space and give himself a ballet barre in 2011—but I can still see him behind the desk, standing stalwart, a serene sentinel lovingly watching over the studio. And I feel him every time I come to take class in the quiet undercurrent that runs beneath the center’s hustle and bustle. Victor had a fire in him, make no mistake, but it is his calm, quiet presence that continues to look after the house that dance built.

About six years ago, when Victor’s health declined, the SADC community galvanized to help care for him and maintain his independence. So, in lieu of the traditional biographical obituary, I asked SADC community members to share memories of Victor as a dancer, teacher, and friend. Because Victor and Frank Shawl created a community in the little house in Berkeley, it seemed fitting to allow the community to remember Victor in their own words. Below is, of course, but a fraction of Victor’s friends and fans who have been gathering together in person and virtually to honor his life and work. You can find more or leave your own reflection at shawlanderson.org/victor.


It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but, as I said to Victor the day before he died, we would never have done it alone. I wouldn’t have done it alone, and you wouldn’t have done it alone. It took the two of us to start this place and it’s such a marvelous school, it’s developed so many people as teachers, choreographers, administrators. And just the joy of dancing, all ages, preschool to seniors. It’s part of the community. What more can you ask for? Frank Shawl

Victor told me that he thought about quitting dance when he was on tour with Call Me Madam [cast by Jerome Robbins in 1950] because when he would stop in places on tour and take local classes, he saw a competitive attitude that he didn’t like. And then he found May O’Donnell through a burlesque dancer with whom he was taking ballet class. Victor was in awe of the loving community spirit that May created. He would reflect on how May’s co-teacher, Getrude Sherr, would say, “Victor, the people that want the competition and the backstab- bing, they don’t stay here because they don’t nd that here.” This kind of supportive community changed Victor’s dance life and is, to me, what Victor and Frank implicitly built into SADC, and what we’re trying to make explicit and cultivate each day. — Rebecca Johnson, SADC Executive Director

Victor took so much pride in really good teaching. Even in the last few months of his life, he would like to hear about whose class I took and how they crafted the class. He was so proud of SADC’s commitment to the craft of teaching. And he was so humble! When we were getting ready for the SADC 50th anniversary, I found the program where he performed with Ruth St. Denis at Carnegie Hall. I was amazed at the thought of him touching history, but he just said, “Oh there it is! Yes, I performed with Ruth St. Denis.” — Jill Randall, SADC Artistic Director

Victor was accomplished enough when he was 18 to decide to become a pianist or a dancer. That was a pivotal time for him and I’m so glad he went towards dance. He loved living in the apartment on Florio Street [built from lumber from the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, which Victor attended] and looking down on the garden. I have the most abiding tender memories of him. — Ruth Bossieux, Friend and Dancer

SADC is located on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley in a house that used to be a private home. But it started above the liquor store across the street. Victor once told me about how he would look out the window and see a little boy playing the harp in the living room, what is now studio 4. The boy would wave at Victor and Victor would wave back. Years later, that little boy came back to the studio and said, “I used to live in this house. I heard that the people who moved in here were from across the street.” When I was working on a site-specific piece at SADC about how the center had been a private home, I set up studio 4 as a living room. This is what Victor wanted me to know about the building. — Nina Haft, SADC Faculty

There is so much to say and acknowledge about Victor—how he fully embraced life’s offerings, never taking one moment of visits with friends for granted, while completely giving his entire attention to every word spoken, as though it might be the last time. I always found his attention and engagement astonishing and quenching. It was at once simple and profoundly generous. — Ann DiFruscia, SADC Board Vice President

Victor was a great beginning ballet teacher because his combinations were spare and simple, accompanied only by the sound of a beating drum. But he also had an unusually deep capacity for feeling music and being moved by it. He would listen to the Met opera broadcast every Saturday, though he had no tolerance for contemporary takes on classic operas. About one Rigoletto telecast, he told me, “It was set in Las Vegas…in a casino! I just turned the picture off and listened to the music.” — Steve Siegelman, SADC Board President

Victor used to split a bar of soap and put one half in the upstairs bathroom and one in the downstairs bathroom. He did this to make sure we didn’t go over budget. And that frugality is in part why SADC is still here. Whenever I think of Victor, I think of that half bar of soap upstairs. — Katie Kruger, SADC Youth Program Director

I love the story about Country Joe [McDonald, of Country Joe and the Fish], who lived next door to the studio. He was famous for his super long curly hair. Victor had always had really short, cropped hair, but at some point he had decided to grow it out. Meanwhile, Country Joe got a haircut. One day, they passed each other in the street. They nodded at each other in acknowledgment of the fact that they had switched haircuts. — Abigail Hosein, SADC Administrative Director

Victor seemed to always have such a strong sense of self and never let this be compromised. He had recently told me about auditioning for, I believe, Agnes De Mille’s company, and finding her so pompous that during the audition he decided he didn’t want the job. I’m so impressed by his strong moral compass. It seems like he always stayed true to what felt supportive and right for him. I can’t imagine living like that and wish I had an ounce of his courage to do so. — Juliana Monin, SADC Faculty

I first started coming to SADC in 1972. Victor used a modern approach to ballet technique. He always offered a calming presence and that’s important for the frenetic energy that can be in a dance studio. As a teacher he wanted us to get rid of the grunting, to not force it, and the energy was good in the room so you didn’t have to force it. He gave me perspective on why we’re doing all this training: there’s a life flow, a love, an energy, a beauty in it, as opposed to how high is my extension, how high can I jump. — Claire Sheridan, Founder of the LEAP Program at St. Mary’s College

Taking his class as a teenager: his beginning Ballet class was the hardest ballet class I’d ever taken because it was soooo daaaamnnn sloooow — with his round, soft voice and his round, strong drum keeping time as he wandered around the class, “and- a-one, and-a-two, and-a-three, and-a-four….” The slow developes were torture, made you so strong and deeply focused and were, now that I think about it, transcendent. Once he stopped teaching: seeing him at the studio behind the desk every morning after his own solo ballet barre, chatting with him on my way to class about things like Buddhism, the importance of quiet, walks in nature. His warm, impish smile, hands clasped behind his back, like he knew the joyous secret to solitude and peaceful reflection. — Kimiko Guthrie, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director, Dandelion Dancetheater

Today [the day after Victor died] the house was open, to love and to grief, to memory and always, always to dancing. All of us who gathered, in body and in spirit, by email and phone call and text message, working to share our love and our art, dancing today in the midst of our grief, expressing our gratitude for him and for each other, embodied Victor’s legacy. Victor and Frank taught us to be rigorous with that love, to be open-hearted with ourselves in our work, to see ourselves — teachers, students, artists — as part of an interconnected, loving, laboring, and loving-to-labor system of dance, and of artistic inquiry. — Valerie Gutwirth, SADC Faculty


Please consider donating to the Victor V. Anderson Scholarship Fund at Shawl Anderson Dance Center to help continue Victor’s project to share the joy of dance with future generations.

In Practice: Mix’d Ingrdnts Performing Resistance

Early in the introduction to What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research, Ben Spatz writes, “Supposedly people join theatre and dance companies to perform in front of paying audiences, but practitioners know that this is an inadequate explanation of the phenomena” (6; emphasis in the original). This is the first in a series of articles that looks to provide a more adequate explanation of what performing artists, specifically dancers, know about their practice.

To be perfectly honest, this series is mostly about my unceasing, possibly obsessive desire to find practical applications of the critical theory (of dance, of writing) I love so much. “Applied theory” is a dirty term in the “high” theory zones of academia, as if our practices—which most surely spark our theories to begin with—are somehow less than. Spatz is just one of many performance scholar-practitioners who are still writing books about the second-class citizenship of practice in the academy. Well, Dancers’ Group and In Dance have long honored embodied knowledge and “epistemologies of practice,” in particular by having so many dance artists speak and write for themselves. My aim, then, is to ask the Bay Area’s brilliant movement artists the sort of questions I know only they can illuminate. These questions about movement—as a performative, expressive, communicative act—challenge us to verbally articulate our knowledge, to translate that “deep and inchoate impulse to a task that could be directly attempted” (Spatz 10), so that we may attempt to understand what a mind-body, emotional body, spiritual body, political body, material body, virtual body, dancer body, spectator body, protest body can do.

To launch our series, I talked with Jenay “ShinobiJaxx” Anolin and Samara Atkins, co-founders of the multiethnic, multi-genre, and multimodal feminist dance collective, Mix’d Ingrdnts(1). I came to know Jenay and Samara in two contexts, one performance, the other pedagogical:

The crowd that gathered on November 17, 2016 at The Uptown in Oakland for Paufve Dance’s 8x8x8 was shell-shocked. Just nine days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, it was hard not to despair and/or panic. But despite being under the influence of the worst kind of “shock and awe,” I joined upwards of 160 dance lovers, to have a beer, shed a tear, and find solace in community. All of the performances that night brought uplift to the Uptown. But it was Mix’d Ingrdnts that activated a combination of joy and power through a timely and highly combustible performance of resistance.

I missed the Women’s March in Oakland so I could bring my 10-year-old daughter to Destiny Arts Center for her Hip Hop class with Samara. While I sat outside the studio watching live footage of the Women’s March on Washington, I became more and more convinced that having my daughter spend an hour in her body and in Samara’s presence was a parallel act of resistance. (Samara and the rest of Mix’d went to the march later that day, where they initiated a cypher, a freestyling circle; for more on Cypher Theory as a “multi-perspectival, trans-methodological” mode of critical inquiry, see Naomi Bragin’s groundbreaking research.) Coming off a week at school, with all the usual tweenager posing and pouting, one-upping and shaming, an hour with Samara cleans the slate, allowing my daughter to embody Samara’s maxim, “There’s no one who can do what you can do how you can do it.” In other words, although my daughter might think she’s just there to learn cool Hip Hop moves, she’s also learning how to “cope, communicate, and connect” (Samara), to feel her power as an embodied reality. My daughter is electrified by Samara. She thinks Samara is magical. And she is. But I want my daughter to understand what goes into becoming magical. I want her to understand Mix’d Ingrdnts’ daily grind.

So, I asked Jenay and Samara, What do you wish your audiences, critics, and funders could see that is obscured by the spectacle of live performance? What do you wish we knew that you know? What’s your grind?

Jenay and Samara work seven days a week. Samara teaches 14 youth classes a week, running from Destiny Arts Center, LIFE academy, and St. Elizabeth’s High School in Oakland to Montera Middle School in Montclair to the Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro; teaches adult classes at Destiny, Shawl Anderson Dance Center, and In the Groove Studios; is a columnist for Dance Studio Life; co-runs Mix’d Ingrdnts; and rehearses and performs with Mix’d and other choreographers.

Jenay teaches dance at ODC, Destiny, and the JCC; works part-time as the dance content manager for a new app; co-runs Mix’d; runs Mini Mix’d (the Mix’d Ingrdnts youth company) and GroovLings Hip Hop + Health (a one of a kind youth class that teaches Hip Hop history and supports the “habits of a healthy dancer”); rehearses and performs with Mix’d and others (including Rennie Harris and Amy O’Neal); and enters dance battles. And she just got into USF’s dual Master’s program in public and behavioral health. Unsurprisingly, she sleeps 4-5 hours a night.

I’m exhausted just recounting what these women accomplish in a week. But they assured me it’s worth it. For all the economic and bodily precarity (Jenay has Medi-Cal health insurance, Samara has none), they’re living the dream.

Mix’d Ingrdnts’ tag line is “Empowering women to express themselves.” Expression is a tricky word that runs the risk of essentializing behaviors that may have little to do with who one feels oneself to be. But expression here is used in opposition to the sort of folding into oneself in the face of persecution that Mahershala Ali describes when talking about his Academy Award winning performance in Moonlight.(2) It is the coming out with what is socially, culturally, historically commanded to remain inside, out of view, out of earshot. Samara says, “We create these pieces out of necessity. We are women of color every day, and our work gives us somewhere to release our experiences, to talk about how they affect our everyday life, to show how they influence our movement.” Mix’d is a third wave feminist dance company “awaken[ed] to the fact that all lives do not, in fact, matter” (Alicia Garza).(3)

So even as a second wave feminist approach to women’s rights and solidarity is present in Mix’d’s self-understanding, I believe that when they talk about expression they are not talking only about expression of identity—though identity politics still matter—but rather something closer to an expression of force. Expression and empowerment as force and mattering, Samara and Jenay are contributing to the movement by transmitting embodied technique as a form of knowledge.

Part of that knowledge is self-knowledge produced in performance. Jenay says, “For me, performance is a time for reflection. As we rework a piece, our own personal accounts of what we’ve been going through begin to resurface. Performing awakens me to explore what’s really going on in my life. I’m able to channel stuff that’s happened to me as a woman growing up.” Samara adds, “Performance helps us reflect with ourselves and with our community. I don’t feel the same way coming out as I did going in.”

Jenay made it clear that the heart and soul of her work is Mini Mix’d, the youth company comprised of 11 girls aged 11-18. Mini Mix’d recently performed as part of the Lauryn Hill Tribute at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Jenay gets a bit teary when she talks about it: “It was their first big performance in a nice venue. They took this opportunity and went from scared to professional. They took control. I’d like to see youth have the biggest voices in the world.” After the performance, D. Sabela Grimes, interdisciplinary performance artist and Assistant Professor of Practice in the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, told Jenay, “That just gave me life.”

Dance as social practice. Affording young girls a brave space to choose how to represent themselves. Performance as a space of expression and a time of reflection. Dance as an expression of force and a synesthetic vocalization. None of this feels like work to Samara and Jenay. Often, when your work doesn’t feel like work, it’s easy to invisibilize the labor put into the work. And that process can make it difficult for dancers to receive recognition and remuneration. When Mix’d Ingrdnts takes to the stage, the studio, or the street, they make magic, of course, but their material body-minds work a daily grind. The goal of learning about the ins and outs of a dancer’s labor is not to inspire, but to activate. So take a class, go to a show, donate to the cause. Because this is about more than artistry, it’s about art as political praxis; it’s about dance saving the world.


Please visit mixdingrdnts.com for information about classes, workshops, and performances.

(1.) Current Mix’d dancers, “The Ladies,” include Cassey Dela Pena, Ashley Gayle, Esme Kundanis-Grow, Gladys Liu, Marjorie Ortiz, and Nina Wu.
(2.) youtube.com/watch?v=e59q6jsWS6Q
(3.) mic.com/articles/166720/blm-co-founder-protesting- isnt-about-who-can-be-the-most-radical-its-about-winning#. TWvEKAy5o

Out of Order: Disobedient Dance Criticism

“The review, the most common form of dance writing, is weak as much for how it attempts to describe the object of that performed event as for what it leaves out.”
— Randy Martin, Critical Moves: dance studies in theory and politics, 34

Choreographer Randee Paufve presented her latest work That Obscure Subject of Desire at the end of July at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. I feel ridiculous writing “Choreographer Randee Paufve” since she’s one of my closest friends. Randee told me that there were no critics available to review her show, so I offered to do so myself. “Can you do that?” she asked.

On Friday night I chose a seat in one of the last rows of the theater. But I am close, very close. The house is packed with familiar faces, and I feel heat in my cheeks left over from all the hugging and waving and smiling. We’re still chitchatting when Jill comes onto the stage. The house lights are up and it takes a moment for the talk to settle to a murmur, to silence. Jill quietly draws our attention, taking steps to the side, walking, stopping. Randee’s voice comes over the PA. We turn off our cell phones. The house lights dim and then, nothing happens. That Obscure Subject of Desire begins when we’re not paying attention as if, radically, riskily, we are invited not to pay attention at all or, rather, to pay attention to how we pay attention and to what.

In the collection of essays and interviews Knowledge in Motion: Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance, German dance writer Constanze Klementz argues for a critic who writes neither as an authority nor a representative, but rather as an accomplice to the work: “As an alternative to critique I therefore plead the case…not for no critique at all, but for critique that is prepared to declare itself out of order” (256). Her essay is about criticism-as-practice, one that takes its cue from contemporary choreography that declares “its position and the system from which it comes, not from a distance, which is always reserved for ‘other people,’ but from right in the heart of its practice” (256).

Though writing in the context of contemporary German choreographic and critical practice, Klementz’s plea reaches across borders, geographical and ideological. What does it mean to write dance criticism from a position of proximity to and intimacy with the work, the dancing, the dancer, and the choreographer?

Is it possible to write dance criticism without special authority (though it will probably be actively granted or denied the writer), but rather with an eye (ear, fingertip, tongue) toward multiple knowledge bases, projects, and structures that position dance, writ large in the larger fabric of society? And if we accept that the dance review is the story of a performance, if the critic is somehow speaking for the work or for the artist, does this seal off the voice of the work, of the artist? What is the critic’s responsibility to the artist as she double-speaks for herself and for the artist? (I am borrowing heavily here from Amy Shuman’s Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy, in case you were wondering).

I am writing this weeks after the performance, which I saw twice. I am writing after the post-performance conversations and emails. There was the visual artist who was confused over whether the piece was to be taken in earnest or ironically. There was the dancer/choreographer/scholar who was struck by how different Randee’s movement read compared to how it felt in class. There were musings about Bay Area insularity and provincialism. I can’t forget the moment, in Randee’s first solo, when, facing stage right, she stumbles to her knees. Both times I saw the piece, I caught my breath as she caught herself, her face unworried, a person walking through life cut off at the knees.

The dance critic is granted authority predicated on distance (mostly by lay people who value journalistic objectivity and merciless judgment), but also on proximity (mostly by dancers and choreographers who value “insider” knowledge; authority as authenticity). Since it is impossible to be wholly inside or outside, to be fixed in relation to the object of reflection, the question becomes: How does the critic position herself with respect to the dance? What perspectives are at my disposal? Can I write from the wings? From backstage? From on stage? From the rehearsal space? From the choreographer’s living room floor? (See Susan Leigh Foster’s Choreography & Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire for some scholarship that experiments with positionality.) Periodically, these issues erupt between artists and critics (the 2005 debate between Joan Acocella and Tere O’Connor), between artists and scholars (Shelley Senter in reaction to some of the papers presented at the 2009 Society of Dance History Scholars conference), and between critics and scholars (inside my very head). And there are a lot of hard feelings. But hard can be good.

Randee’s body casts shadows on the floor in three directions. These shadows move toward and away from her, gather her in communal embrace, break from her without looking back. It is a cycle of abandonment and return. I have lost all sense of my peripheral vision and it is not until later in the dance, much later, during the section that parodies and celebrates jazz dance, kick-ball-changes and multiple pirouettes in parallel, that I become aware of the audience, laughing, relieved. That Obscure Subject of Desire has a seriousness to it. Randee is taking two things seriously in this piece, in her work: technique, the power of the deep plié, spatial orientation, choreographic structure, focus play; along with love, middle age, sex, friendship, romance. The mechanics and the metaphor do not always come together in a way that “makes sense.” In dances where these elements do come together, I often feel myself locked in a hermetically sealed world, ruled by a leader who, during my visit there, insists on holding my hand and explaining the architecture, the urban planning, the landscape, never leading me off the beaten path.

Most dance writing focuses on either the artist or the work. What would a dance review that focuses on the practice of dancing that subtends the dance look like? That Obscure Subject of Desire is but a tiny tick on the tape of Randee’s life work. All the hours teaching technique classes, rehearsing, taking notes, warming up, cooling down (I won’t even touch making phone calls, driving, eating, loving, crying): where is the space for those hours? Those years? And how would attention to them change the story of the work?

The men and women who dance for Randee love her movement. She offers a space for them in which the pleasure principle can have extended moments of free reign. The movement is big, luscious, rhythmically complex. But there are reality principles in Randee’s work: spatial orientation, relationality, and a thematization of seeing. Randee asks the women and men who work with her to investigate the boundary between a projected faciality and disappearing behind “modern dance face.” It is a struggle to break down habits of visual focus. Try to remember something without looking up or looking down or closing your eyes, whatever it is you do to remember. Try to see while you’re thinking, to see who’s dancing beside you, behind you. This is the work it takes to bring highly technical dancers out of their comfort zones and into risk. It is about learning how to cope with seeing and being seen. And the dancers, the work, Randee herself, I’ve seen them shift. Weight shifts. Shifts of attention. Out of extreme solipsism. A multimodal approach.

Writing about the practice of dance rips it from the melancholic clutch of ephemerality. Dance is durable matter, neural pathways, memory space. A dance exists before, during, and after it is performed. The dancers go out for beers after the show and the dance enjoys the kick of the alcohol, the relaxation. With every iteration, the dance etches itself more deeply. Dance may be perceived as constantly disappearing when regarded from a position of distance. But up close, inside, next to, it is a solid thing. So, as dance artist Keith Hennessey and dance critic Rita Felciano both mentioned during a recent Dance Discourse Project discussion on dance criticism, dance does not need writing to survive. Nor can writing about dance kill dance. Dance writes its own stories; dances inscribe themselves in the bodies that dance them and in the eyes that watch them. Scholar Randy Martin calls for the end to scarcity thinking in dance. Indeed, there’s only ever more of it to go around.

Katie strikes a lunge and then looks back over her shoulder at us. I can see Randee in that movement. And I can feel myself in that movement. The lactic acid built up in my legs watching the performance because I’ve danced that dance, I’ve danced in that space, I’ve danced with those people. As one obscure subject of desire, I am “remembering kinesthesia,” to borrow a term from Deirdre Sklar.

I enjoy a proximal position to dance practice and theory, and my account, though always inevitably approximate, counts for something. At least it will be an incomplete record for others who may want to know something about dance in the Bay Area in the early 2000s.

And for the record: the dancers were Stephanie Ballas, Rebecca Johnson, Katie Kruger, Diane McKallip, Randee Paufve, Jill Randall, Brian Runstrom, Frank Shawl, Jane Schnorrenberg, and Christy L. Thomas; lighting design by Gabe Maxson; costumes by Rachel Stone with alterations by Katie Kruger; sound by Heather Heise with music by Bjork, Marianne Faithful, Chas Smith, David Mahler, Milton DeLugg, and Willie Stein.

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