Author Archive | Sima Belmar

In Practice: Claudia La Rocco: Distance and Intimacy

The internet threatens to ruin every radio voice for me. Terry Gross, Marco Werman, Ray Suarez, Rose Aguilar—none of them looks like they’re supposed to! But then again, when I think about what faces I expect to match these voices, I can only see vaguely gendered avatars in silhouette. In other words, I expect no sort of face at all, so any face would be surprising and somehow wrong.

Same thing with bylines. Here it’s the literary voice that meets with a shadow image, looking like no one and everyone at the same time. Take Claudia La Rocco for example. Many a theater usher experienced cognitive dissonance when the curly-haired, bright-eyed, twenty-something sought to take the seat with her name on it: “I would routinely sit in seats reserved for The Times and ushers would say, ‘No, that’s reserved for Claudia La Rocco.’ I think they expected a 60-year-old. I don’t know if that was because I was writing like a 60-year-old or if The Times just ages a gal. I think it might be the latter. I hope it’s the latter.”

La Rocco, now 40, and neither looking nor writing like a 60-year-old (but with 60 being the new 40, who’s to say?), became the Editor-in-Chief of SFMOMA’s online and live interdisciplinary platform Open Space in 2016. From January through April of this year, Open Space organized Limited Edition, a performance programming/arts writing collaboration between CounterPulse, The Lab, ODC Theater, Performance at SFMOMA, and Z Space. The program encapsulates La Rocco’s commitment to understanding all art practice—whether Palestinian Dabke or a Keith Hennessey/Gerald Casel collaboration on Ocean Beach—as community-based. Community members make performances and community members witness performances—why shouldn’t community members write about them as well? “We’re just trying to get more smart context around contemporary performance and to look a bit at the ecosystem of these spaces.”

La Rocco and I spoke over coffee at Alchemy in Oakland. I wanted to know the whole story of how she became a dance writer. And I got it. And it’s great. And all you need to know is:

  • Just because you major in English, and choose to study “super lucrative” genres like contemporary poetry and Middle English, doesn’t mean you’ll never make a living
  • If you get hired to write about, say, biotech for a tech publication, don’t be afraid to ask if you can write a book review column instead (yes, she did that, and they let her)
  • Writers learn on the job, so forgive them their trespasses, i.e. being dicks in their early reviews (how gratifying to learn that I am not the only critic “horrified” to look back at old reviews)
  • Even New York Times dance critics can feel like frauds

La Rocco is an accidental dance critic, who began writing about dance for the Arts Desk at the Associated Press. While at AP, she wrote for various arts publication including Art on Paper and Art News, mostly about visual art and books: “Dance wasn’t in my experience. My best friend growing up was a committed ballet dancer and I saw her perform a few times. But mostly I played tennis. I read books.” Her first foray into dance writing was to cover Baryshnikov in Eliot Feld’s work at the Joyce: “It was terrifying. I went with a very good friend of mine who is a dancer, Kathryn Enright; she was my security blanket. It was a good deal: she would get free tickets and I would get somebody to be like, you can do this.”

La Rocco says she got her start because of a lack of value and literacy around dance: “You can say well here’s a smart young kid who has no experience, we’ll throw her in, whereas you wouldn’t say, you don’t know about politics, but hey you’re twenty, let’s have you be the political correspondent.” This lack of cultural literacy around dance also allowed her to get to know and own her personal tastes: “At first I was going to the more traditional houses: City Center, Lincoln Center, The Joyce, the usual circuit. I just thought I don’t like dance, or I must not understand it because if I understood it I would like these shows. Then I stumbled into DTW one night, and that was a game changer. I started writing more and more about ‘weird’ stuff that to me didn’t seem weird. It seemed smart and layered and akin to how I think about the world.”

La Rocco became a stringer for The New York Times in 2005, where she wrote about dance until 2013, leaving the newspaper for good two years later: “I stopped writing for The Times about dance because at that point I had been doing it for 10 years as a daily critic, in that treadmill of you see 5-7 shows a week, you write about 2-5 shows a week. I began to feel like I was overly intimate with and exhausted by the form of the 300- to 900-word overnight review. And I just didn’t think I could say something else within that form about Sleeping Beauty or about Revelations. If you’re a Times critic you have to survey the field and it’s no good to walk into something and be bored. It’s not good for the readers, it’s not good for the writers, it’s certainly not good for the art form.”

But burnout was only half the story. La Rocco is a poet and a performer, who in 2008 founded The Performance Club as a “real-time and web-based” space for “criticism that is also, or at least aspires to be, art”. Interviews and conversations with dance artists led to friendships and artistic collaborations, which led to an ever-expanding list of artists she could no longer “feel comfortable writing with honesty about in The Times from the position of The Times and its conflict of interest policy”: “In many ways in our culture we value intimacy: If you don’t know it how can you write about it? If you don’t know this person, if you can’t empathize with her, how can you put yourself in her shoes? But journalism really wants this separation. So when we think about daily journalism faltering as a vehicle for criticism, perhaps a silver lining is that we can finally abandon this idea of the critic as objective, thumbs up thumbs down, non-implicated witness.”

From what I’ve seen, Open Space with La Rocco at the helm initiates from this question of intimacy in relation to performance criticism, and it is this always questioning, ever experimental approach that reveals criticism, history, reporting, and documentation as aesthetic practices in their own right. Asked to describe her writing and editorial practices, La Rocco says she tries to follow in the footsteps of exemplars of the poet-critic tradition like Frank O’Hara, and Bill Berkson, who wrote “as a way of marking one’s consciousness through time”; radical, political experimenters like Jill Johnston; dance artists like Simone Forti, “whose movement and writing and drawing and speaking improvisations are all mixed up”; and editors like Artforum’s David Velasco, “who has that magical blend of structure, sensitivity, and intelligence, who pushes me to experiment but also tells me ‘Hey, you think you’re being experimental but you’re actually writing self-centered drivel that I can’t understand.’ Not that he would ever say it that meanly. But I can send something that I think might be a mess and I trust him to save me from myself or to say, ‘This works.’ He’s a collaborator in the best way.”

La Rocco met her partner, Oakland-based musician Phillip Greenlief, in 2013 at a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, where she assembled her book, The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands 2014). An “embedded writer” position with the Hatchery Project, a partnership between Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, Vermont Performance Lab, The Chocolate Factory, and Philadelphia’s RED Arts Project, supported by major grants from the Mellon Foundation and the NEA, enabled La Rocco to leave The Times against the advice of “several colleagues who told me I was an idiot.” Free from daily journalism’s grind, “restless and itchy,” she moved to the Bay Area, and took the position at Open Space.

As Editor-in-Chief at Open Space, La Rocco isn’t writing as much criticism as she used to. Rather, she is out “identifying the people that I think should write.” Along with Managing Editor and poet Gordon Faylor, and in line with the vision of Open Space founder Suzanne Stein (another poet), La Rocco seeks to produce an artist-centric publication with strong voices that represent aesthetic, geographic, and sociocultural diversity. This is not hard to come by in the Bay Area, but locating diversity of political viewpoint presents a challenge: “The public discourse is so hardened right now. We don’t know how to have good disagreements in public. I’m trying to figure out how to have contrarian viewpoints not for the sake of them but to find smart gray areas. I’m really interested in Open Space being a balance of art, art criticism, and arts reporting. And I want it to be a place where people can really play with different types of writing, where they can take a risk on something that could be a total failure.”

This sort of rigorous openness means you’ll find criticism, performance, poetry, and all manner of digitally supported cultural production at Open Space, all subject to La Rocco and Faylor’s deft editorial eyes. And you will find dance there too: “I’ve always thought of criticism as a triangle between a work of art, an individual experience, and the surrounding culture. It would drive me crazy when people would say, ‘Balanchine works are timeless’ No, they’re not. He created in a very particular time. If a work of art is timeless and its creator a genius and everybody should just bow down before it, then by that logic if the art work isn’t ‘succeeding’ in any one moment, it has to be the fault of the people performing it or the people perceiving it. It can’t be that a thing that was created 70 years ago might no longer be legible in a contemporary context. Performance has to move. So does the writing and thinking that seeks to converse with it.”

To write dancing from a position of intimacy with dancers and with critical distance from the form is a delicate, difficult, and delicious balance to strike. When I awkwardly told Claudia that I would be interested writing for Open Space, she said, “No awkwardness. Everything in life is hopelessly intertwined.”

In Practice: Christy Funsch

Five women holding an historic photograph

Laura Elaine Ellis, Courtney Moreno, Chinchin Hsu, Chris Black , Aura Fischbeck in Mother Sister, Daughter, Marvel / Photo by Christy Funsch

Last December, I took a one-and-a-half-hour “Choreographic Tools” workshop with Christy Funsch at Shawl Anderson Dance Center. One and a half hours is not a lot of time to make work, but Christy is very good at time management.

We began with an exercise Christy called “Building” (influence: Julie Mayo), 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-minute improvisations that are “maybe towards making a phrase.” Christy admits to being very cautious about the word “phrase,” noting that it can be a “structure that gets in the way,” making her panic about beginnings, middles, and ends, about the trajectory of a piece: “It’s too early for that.” In fact, she tries not to do phrase material in her choreography: “If I see it in technique class, it shouldn’t be in my choreography. There are phrases but they are not organic, not concerned with conventional pathways of momentum or tried and true pathways of movement efficiency.” Christy suggested we use one minute to arrive, 3 minutes to ask what’s happening in the body, 5 minutes to explore what is interesting about what is happening in the body, and 10 minutes investigating one of those tiny interesting things. I got very interested in digging my elbows into the floor and then shouting “Timber!” in my head as I let my forearms fall; the palm makes a nice slapping sound on marley, in case you were wondering.

Christy started performing and making work in the Bay Area right about when I started writing here, so my eyes watching her perform have grown up with her performing. She has long matched an understated, anti-spectacular performance personality with breathtaking precision and subtle wit. These qualities bear out in her teaching as well. During the workshop she offered a poetics of movement exploration, a process of “disclosing a state, quality, body part, mood, memory, functional basic body action,” that felt accessible in no small measure due to the way she awkwardly (her word) inhabits her position of “power in the working room.” She told us, “I have a practice but no authority. I’m following and challenging my own interests in making work.”  Like Ann Patchett’s essay “The Getaway Car,” Christy’s workshop was not “an instruction booklet,” but rather “an account of what I did and what has worked for me” (Patchett). Not a manual but a way of holding our hands nonetheless.

Like her performance persona, Christy balances her sharp intelligence with a genuine humility. There is a fierceness that accompanies her shyness, which made me trust her in the vulnerable space of dance making. We learned that she never starts with an idea that she wants to make manifest in movement, something she finds “patriarchal, belittling.” She finds the idea in the movement—“What’s in the body right now?” We wrote together (influence: Tere O’Connor), showed each other excerpts of our (non-)phrases, danced together, meditated together (influence: Daniel Nagrin). Christy’s got tools and she knows how to use them.

Recently, we’ve seen a lot of Christy on stage with Nol Simonse—“17 years working together; I consider him a brother and soulmate.” Their duets are a demonstration of the gorgeous ways opposing movement qualities can work together as rituals of intimate interaction. This April, Christy and her company Funsch Dance Experience will celebrate 15 years of dance making in the Bay Area with a full-length work entitled Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel (MSDM), co-produced by ODC Theater. At the time of this writing (January 2018), Christy wasn’t sure Nol would physically appear on stage, devoted as it the piece is to “10 women dancers and pillars of the current Bay Area dance ecology.” But she assures us that he is present in the work: “All the work I’ve made has been in conversation with Nol, directly or indirectly. It’s been really hard for me to make work without him in it and yet I feel like I must do it sometimes. It’s my effort to grow. But maybe that’s some kind of capitalist default. Maybe instead of growing it’s to do the deeper thing and stay with this movement partnership we have and ride it for all its worth, for as many years as we have left together.”

Christy was not only unsure about Nol’s role in MSDM—she wasn’t even clear about her own: “I just wrote myself a note in my notebook, ‘Christy maybe you’ll actually choreograph some material for this piece.’ For this new work, I haven’t come in with a lot of made, sequenced movement material that’s come from my body. I’m asking, Where am I in this?” I asked if she was experiencing a mini existential crisis around the work: “I wouldn’t call it mini. I started in the fall with the new work to generate the material, and I was doing an all-consuming project with Nol, so I was having dancers generate a lot of material. I feel good with the situational choreographic moments we have and the interrelatedness of the figures within the piece. But the vocabulary and risk to myself and my phsyiological intimacy with the new work isn’t really there yet. So in the past couple weeks I’ve come up with a plan to address that.” And what’s the plan? “I can’t say what the plan is! I’ll say what it is knowing that the whole thing will collapse at any moment.” And yet, there’s a plan: “It’s a structural pathway. Stuck with where I am in the work, it’s easier to think of myself as a structural rather than content component, if I work in some interstitial way, in and out of the piece, constructing 20 moments, maybe I’ll use six or something. I’m in out, it’s a blip and then gone, I’ll talk about something, have an experience, draw from my own child movement experience as I have asked the performers to do. I trust that there is a relationship between my body and the work. It’s there, but I have to unearth it. I’m just worried it’s January and I haven’t seen it” (laughter).

Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel is constructed out of two types of bodily archives: embodied memories drawn from a cast of Bay Area dance artists over the age of 40 (Chris Black, Laura Elaine Ellis, Aura Fischbeck, and Nina Haft), and photographs of the California Dancing Girls, an early 20th-century San Francisco dance troupe directed by Anita Peters Wright. When Christy encountered the California Dancing Girls archive in the San Francisco Museum of Performance + Design, she felt as though she had come face to face with the women who “made possible what we’re doing.” The “we” here refers to Bay Area women choreographers from Judy Job, Anita Peters Wright’s niece (and Christy’s Tai Chi teacher) to Margaret Jenkins, who studied at the Peters Wright School of Dance to her current collaborators: “I’m interested in the personal histories and early movement memories from a cast of women who are mostly over 40, who identify as mothers, teachers, administrators, producers, dancers. In my estimation, they’re the connective tissue of the Bay Area dance ecology.”

Although Christy and the dancers occasionally take shapes from the photographs to choreograph the work in rehearsal, the project is more about a “way of being with these women, conjuring a connection to our maternal past. How am I reaching back into history to access and pay homage to this particular group of women and how am I making a contemporary piece? Where is my own physicality, my own body, my history situated in the piece?” To answer these questions, Christy has asked her guest collaborators to remember, reenact, and reinvent movement histories, real and imagined. Nina explored early memories of improvisation and flamenco guitar music, while Chris was asked to write a fictionalized account of one of the women in the photographs: “We’re not using the text. I don’t want to read it. I wanted her to have a private thing, to find ways for her as a performer to inhabit the material with this text that was personal and lodged in language.”

Also involved in the work are two longtime Funsch Dance Experience collaborators, Chinchin Hsu and Courtney Moreno, who “serve a different function in the work”: “What’s driving me in the room are Chinchin and Courtney and the relationship we have built over the past few years. We can go to places physically that I find exiting. Conceptually, they’re this river of time, they’re not themselves, more this embodiment of ongoingness. This is the connection to Funsch Dance history, not just the superstars coming in for this work. They’re the meat and potatoes of my choreography.”

It wouldn’t be a conversation with a Bay Area artist if the issue of space and cost of living didn’t come up. “What’s heartbreaking is, in production, all the money is going to space. I’ve been on the cusp of leaving San Francisco for 20 years. It’s healthy to constantly reexamine and challenge the parameters that you’re making work in. There’s a crisis of space here, and it would be great to take some power back there. I can see not producing, but I can’t foresee not making dance. It’s the way I reorganize space, take power from constructs that are made without my permission; the way I investigate power, gender, momentum, physics, humanity. If I didn’t have any money and I had to do that kind of investigation with my own body and with whatever limitations of space, I still would. If it came to not being able to make work here anymore, I would leave.”

Happily for us, for now, Christy is staying: “I am feeling fierce, I am shedding, I am pushing on.”

In Practice: Body Nerds: Judith Butler and Monique Jenkinson

Two performers standing talking

Monique Jenkinson, left, and Judith Butler in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

On November 3, 2017, philosopher Judith Butler took to the CounterPulse stage and, be still my beating heart, danced. Joined in mutual illustriousness by Monique Jenkinson in a tempered version of her drag persona, Fauxnique, the duo of theory queens performed Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body[1], what will go down in my personal history as the greatest lec-dem of all time.

Picture it: two queer icons alone together on the dance floor, step-touching their way through theories of gender, embodied identity, and precarity. Their dancing demonstrated that the philosopher has a body and the dancer has a mind—in other words, everyone is a bodymind—and the toll dancing and scholarly labor takes on the body was made visible by their talk about it. For years I’ve been arguing that talking and dancing are never mutually exclusive enterprises, and both talking and dancing flesh out theory. Are we understanding something different about the same thing when we investigate that thing through non-verbal movement vs. through words? Can we arrive at the same understanding of the same thing from different sensory and cognitive approaches? Is that even a desirable goal? What do we want when we say we want to bridge the gap? Butler and Jenkinson chose to perform the gap, to wade in, swim, tread water, float, and play chicken in the gap—though there wasn’t a spirit of knocking opponents off shoulders.

Dance is a popular metaphor among philosophers, including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but there was nothing metaphorical about these two dancing bodies theorizing. When Jenkinson mentioned the pelvic clock, she was referring to a somatic practice, not some idea about waning fertility; when Butler, discussing the body as a set of interrelationships, said, “Oh fascia, who knew? Fascia is the center of the universe!” she was locating the web of connections in her body as a source and a source of healing for her chronic joint pain.

And yet, of course, Jenkinson and Butler were also illustrating the webs of the social through this bodily discourse. But before I turn to those connections, allow me to linger a bit longer on the subject of the philosopher’s body.

When French critical theorist Evelyne Grossman visited UC Berkeley in 2010, she gave a seminar entitled, “An Authentical Body of Sensibility,” in which she discussed the drawings of theater director Antonin Artaud. In it, a student asked, “Why do you think Artaud drew pictures of teeth falling out?” And Grossman replied, “Because he had so much electroshock therapy—all his teeth fell out.” Later that same year, I took a seminar with Ramona Nadaff (whom I’d first met in dance class at Shawl Anderson—dancing scholars unite!) and discovered that Marx suffered terribly from carbuncles.

Learning that Butler suffers from her own “systemic joint disease,” and hearing about her embodied practices—yoga, meditation, walking, swimming, getting up from the computer every 20-40 minutes to move—brought me back to her 2009 Hegel seminar. I got into the seminar on the basis of a proposal to study the relationship between the Alexander Technique discourse and practice of “non-doing” and Western philosophies of the Self. Somatic practice meets critical theory.

Bookended by a little bit of Kant and a little bit of Marx, the course focused on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which we read very slowly and very carefully. Despite this loving approach to the text, I took very little away in the way of Hegel’s philosophy (or Kant’s, or Marx’s). In fact, it’s a good thing there are no final exams based on content in graduate seminars because what I remember most from the course are Butler’s gestures. I often wouldn’t hear a word she was saying, so fixated was I on the symmetry of her hand gestures and the way that symmetry would break down as she held an idea in one hand and used the other hand to demonstrate its complexity. Any gesture studies scholar will tell you that the gestures of a philosopher have much to tell us about their thinking. We get to know something else or something more, even if that knowledge escapes verbal articulation—we enter the phenomenological feeling space of being together. But attending to the philosopher’s body does something else as well: it reminds us they have a body in the first place, and that they’re vulnerable, and that they give and require care.

So, even before witnessing her James Brownesque shuffles and a move I’ll call “schlumpy chicken does the Hollywood hula,” Butler was already, for me, a species of dancer. And just like my experience in her seminar, my notes from her performance with Jenkinson are largely incomprehensible and my memory deeply selective. Here’s a selection:

  • Butler’s left fingers twitch as she lies on the stage, the seemingly involuntary gesture revealing layers of movement inscription—all the writing, all the typing, all the touching.
  • Butler erupts into a lasso maneuver amidst her rhythmic step-touches and says, “Well, some of us didn’t really want to dance but here I am.”
  • Jenkinson matches Butler’s step-touches and remembers the many conversations she has had “in this state, over the music, queering the conversation.”

Butler and Jenkinson’s discussion revealed biographies that overlapped in ways that might have been surprising had the two not been performing with such synergy. Both are best known for pioneering work from decades ago (Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990, Jenkinson won the Miss Trannyshack Pageant in 2003; I think Jenkinson spoke for them both when she said, “I’ve done a lot since then!”). Both went to Bennington College. And both have a long-standing and always evolving relationship to drag—Butler remembering the “gorgeous, fabulous, perfect freedom of expression” of the drag performers upstairs at Partners Bar in New Haven, Connecticut in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the lesbians were “dancing, debating separatism, and breaking up” downstairs, Jenkinson noting that ballet is also drag, “a codified way of being feminine.”

Two performers leaning against the floor or wall

Monique Jenkinson, left, and Judith Butler in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

Turning now to the social body, Butler told the story of how she and dance writer Wendy Perron, during their Bennington days, used to walk around Greenwich Village, “body slamming” into and sliding down the windows of fancy restaurants: “We would lose our balance, we would die, and wait to see if the good bourgeois people were alarmed—no one ran out.” These “choreographies of collapse” (Jenkinson quoting Perron) drew the discussion away from gender performativity and towards Butler’s theories of “precarious life,” “bodies that matter,” and “performative assembly.” This hilarious section (see photo) rubbed against the most somber of subjects, of “who might catch you, where you might land.” Jenkinson and Butler stumble walked together and fell together in an exploration of ground. “No one stands on their own,“ Butler said, and everyone requires ground on which to move—a floor, insurance, shoes, well-funded infrastructure: “The ground is part of the living that lets us live.”

Lying on the floor in the somatic X, the two performers discussed the ordinary practices of the radical body and ways to find the radical in the ordinary, “How we help each other persist” (Butler). Jenkinson tried to explain the Feldenkrais Method, which she practices with Augusta Moore, saying, “It’s kind of this,” what we’re doing,” i.e. lying on the ground barely moving. “And then Augusta would say, ‘All right, now rest, that was a lot.’” Jenkinson’s Feldenkrais humor issued peals of recognition-laughter from the audience, and she called us all “body nerds.” I’ve never felt more understood in all my life.

One performer holding another's head

Judith Butler, left, and Monique Jenkinson in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

After Jenkinson reflected on the wonder of the pubic bone being not a bone but two processes and a symphysis, the dynamically attuning duo got up to share some weight, took a minute of silent stillness each, inviting themselves to be seen[2], and took turns holding each other’s heads (see photo). This last precious exchange quieted the room—the intimacy of it, the performance of care. As Butler cradled Jenkinson skull, she wondered whether anyone would “speak with invective” if they were holding a head. Reflections on what constitutes a grievable life, a loseable life followed. And then, Butler asked Jenkinson, “How heavy was my head,” to which Jenkinson responded dramatically, “Unbearably heavy.”

It is not my intention to make naturalizing associations between the body of the theorist and the theories she produces, but to remember that the theorist has a body and that the body of the theorist theorizes. As we age, we are forced to practice, to move, to think differently, finding our sensory capacities limited and expanded, in other words, changed. We change and the world changes for us. As I watched Butler and Jenkinson attend to their changing bodies in real time, physically and verbally, it seemed clear to me that their new attunements would undoubtedly affect their cultural products.

But the ground of it all is life, liveable and grievable life. Just days after her performance with Jenkinson, on a visit to São Paolo, Brazil, Butler was met by a mob of violent, far right Christian protestors who burned her in effigy[3]. A deeply frightening experience and yet, Butler is confident that “this contemporary sexual conservatism or what we might understand as a reactionary sexual politics is an effort to take us back to a world that will never come back. […] So we shouldn’t be worried that all of our steps will be reversed. They’re trying but they will not win because our side is on the side of greater acceptance, greater understanding, it offers more recognition to more people, and people want to live with freedom, they want to live with joy, they don’t want to live with shame and they don’t want to live with censorship, so we have joy and freedom on our side and that is why we will eventually win.”[4]

Bearing witness to Monique and Judith, cradling each others’ heads, caring for and protecting the body of the dancing philosopher and the body of the philosopher dancer, it seems we have already won.

That was a lot. Now rest.

 

[1] “Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body” was the opening night performance of Hope Mohr’s 2017 Bridge Project: Radical Movement: Gender and Politics in Performance, which was inspired by the question, “What does it mean to have a radical body?” and which deserves way more than a footnote. (Hope and I are in the midst of finding a time to talk so stay tuned.)
[2] “What if every cell in our bodies (100 trillion) at once has the potential to invite being seen choosing to surrender the pattern of facing a single direction while perceiving all of the space in which I am performing (and time is my music…all of my movement is music).” (Deborah Hay, quoted on the PICA blog, http://pica.org/2006/09/20/i_still_ask_because_its_intere/).
[3] See Scott Jaschik’s “Judith Butler on Being Attacked in Brazil” on Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/11/13/judith-butler-discusses-being-burned-effigy-and-protested-brazil.
[4] “Judith Butler no Brasil | Quem tem medo de falar sobre gênero? [legendado],” TV Boitempo, published November 8, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=350&v=cozmjJpMakM.

In Practice: Sue Li Jue

Selfie of Sue Li Jue

Sue Li Jue Photo courtesy of artist

When I was writing dance reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and other local and national publications in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I thought I was one of the more dancer-/choreographer-friendly critics. But looking back through those reviews, I did not find a dancer’s dance critic there. I found neither an open mind, nor a diplomatic pen, nor a generous heart. Instead, I found a voice performing its authority. And I rue many of those journalistic performances.

One of the reviews I regret the most was of Sue Li -Jue’s Facing East Dance & Music (FEDM) performance of The Nature of Nature (2001). I won’t go into detail about the ways I would write that review if I could turn back time. I was mean. I didn’t understand. I was mean because I didn’t understand.

When my review of The Nature of Nature came out, Sue called me right away. “Why do you hate me so much?” she asked. Hate her?! Well, revisiting the review I can see why she felt that way. So we met for coffee. I was humbled by her willingness to confront bad press head on and face to face. I still wasn’t totally convinced critics and choreographers should be having those sorts of conversations, but my grasp on the relationship between these two historical adversaries had begun to slip.

Fifteen years later, I contacted Sue to process again. (She was over it. I was not.) I wanted to let her know that I’d thought about that review and our conversation numerous times during my graduate training—in fact, it was while writing my dissertation that I came upon Yutian Wong’s critique of my review in her excellent book Choreographing Asian America, sparking an extended reflection on my dance critical career and the role of the dance writer. As she had fifteen years prior, Sue met me with generosity and openness. She’s rather badass that way.

During our conversation this past May, I learned that after 32 years, Sue is retiring from the Physical Education Department at UC Berkeley. So this article now has a dual purpose: to offer readers insight how The Nature of Nature came to be—giving it the attention I now believe every work deserves, attention to process—and to pay tribute to Sue’s service, her unwavering commitment to dance in higher education, and her enduring love of dance.  

The Nature of Nature: Backstory

The Nature of Nature was born out of an encounter with a San Francisco Examiner article about fashion designer Colleen Quen and her husband, furniture designer Rick Lee. Quen, who has designed costumes for several of Alonzo King LINES Ballet works, was discussing a 2000 collaboration between her and Lee around the theme of the five Chinese elements—metal, wood, earth, water, and fire. Sue said, “She made gowns and he made furniture. My husband, Richard, read the article and said, ‘You have to read this. It sounds like a mirror image of us!” (Richard, an optometrist by day, had been making sets for Sue since the founding of Facing East Dance & MusicFEDM in 1999.) Inspired by Quen’s story, Sue gave her a call: “We talked for 45 minutes. I had been considering a piece about the five elements—how they relate to nature, personality, physicality—so I asked her if she wanted to do the costumes. And she did.” Quen also made the costumes for FEDM’s 2003 Held So Close, a piece about Angel Island, which Sue worked on for two years in collaboration with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

With Asian American scenic collaborators, Sue also came into contact with Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble—“At the time, it was like, Wow! Taiko! Who does that? Now, everyone!”—and decided to hire only Asian American dancers. But she got significant pushback from presenters, granters, donors, dancers, and both artistic and academic mentors: “A lot of people were saying, ‘You’re not making Asian American dance, you’re just making modern dance.’ And some people were like, ‘You really ought to get off the Asian thing.’ And I thought, Wow! You don’t think it’s necessary that I explore this?” I asked Sue what she makes of this response with 20/20 hindsight: “I’m not really sure what they meant, but it was very important to me to have all Asian dancers, yes, for a visual look, but it was also an understanding. I mean, I’ve never picked rice in a rice field, I’ve never lived in China, but there’s some kind of a thread there, through your parents, through your genealogy. I’d say my more successful years were those beginning years when I was hot and heavy to do that. When I loosened my grip on the importance of an all Asian company and doing every work about Asian Americaness, I felt less urgency and focus for making dances.”

Despite ramping down her choreographic practice, Sue continues to face East to keep herself grounded and inspired.

Physical Education at Berkeley

Sue started ballet and tap when she was six, and took her first modern dance class at Mills College with June Watanabe, whose company she joined in 1982. While dancing for June, company member Aida Pisciotta, who had been teaching in the Physical Education department at UC Berkeley, declared that she would be moving to New York “to seek her dance fortune.” The department hired Sue for one semester to teach jazz and modern. Aida stayed in New York; Sue stayed at Cal.

Sue spent her first two years at Berkeley as a Visiting Lecturer, becoming a Continuing Lecturer after the campus changed their policy: “They said that they were losing too many good lecturers with the two-year cap. I had to reapply through a search and I’ve been there ever since.” Once Sue completed six years as a Lecturer, she was given a renewable three-year contract, and considers herself “fortunate” to have had her contract renewed over and over again

Within the context of adjunct precarity, Sue and her colleagues also carry heavy course loads. When she began, PE dance lecturers taught 10 two-hour classes a week. Then it went up to 11. Then 12. “When it got to 13 we were all dying and injured, so they brought it back to 12. Jason Brittoen [PE Lecturer] rallied through the union to get us down to 11. So that’s where we sit now. That’s a lot of dancing.” Plus, those are 11 different classes, e.g. modern dance levels 1-4, jazz levels 1-4, etc., taught to as many as 40 students at a time.

When she first came to PE, it was a degree-conferring department with graduate student instructors (GSIs, also known as TAs), comprised of lectures, labs, and activity sections. At the time, you could get a Bachelor of Science degree in PE with a specialty in dance. But then the tenured faculty, who were teaching science-based movement classes, moved out of PE into Integrative Biology/Molecular and Cell Biology, taking their lectures and labs with them. PE was left with the activity sections— tennis, swimming, dance, etc.—and these courses became “merely” recreational, offering elective credit towards graduation. The disestablishment from department to program meant the remaining faculty “had no leg to stand on.”

When PE director Kathy Scott, the program’s last tenured faculty member, stepped down as director two years ago, Sue stepped up—unwillingly. Having no aspirations to becoming director, Sue put her name forward under the assumption that she would be co-directing with another colleague. When that colleague neglected to put her own name forward, Sue was hired. “I’d always said there’s no way I’m ever going to direct this department. But I said, all right, I’ll do it for a year.” A year became two, and although the pay raise is nice and teaching 4 rather than 11 classes a week a relief, Sue finds herself “administrating like crazy. It’s not really me.”

When Sue decided to step down as director she realized she’d have to retire because she couldn’t imagine going back to teaching 11 classes per week. But Sue is hardly done moving and shaking. She is recently certified in Kinesiological Stretching Techniques and feels like she has a second career in her: “Maybe I can share this work with students who, these days, are so out of their bodies.”

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When I encountered The Nature of Nature in 2001, I had neglected to consider the concept of hybridity. I was looking for a certain authenticity, which now is the dirtiest word in the book, because what the hell is it and who the hell gets to decide? Further, back in the day, I didn’t think backstory should be part of a critical view. Now I have the exact opposite opinion. Pretending a work exists in a modernist vacuum is ridiculous. By reaching out to me to discuss my review, Sue became the first catalyst for my turn away from writing dance criticism from a position of authority to writing dancing as a conversation with dance makers and thinkers. And for that, I am forever grateful.

In Practice: Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts’ Six Degrees of Freedom

Three dancers looking at one performer with an eagle head

Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts Photo by Stephen Texeira

First of all, full disclosure: the Wymore of Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts is kind of my boss—Lisa Wymore, Chair of the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, where I work as a Lecturer. The Smith is Sheldon Smith, Wymore’s partner in life and art. Six Degrees of Freedom is the duo’s latest choreographic adventure, which premieres at the end of this month at ODC Theater, the culmination of their ODC Artist Residency.

Two years in the making, Six Degrees is driven by an elaborate conceit: If an intelligent computer awoke from a dream compelled to make a work of contemporary dance theater, what sort of dance theater work would it make? For those of us who have known Smith and Wymore for their dance theater experiments with digital technologies, it comes as a surprise to discover that they do not engage the services of an actual computer for Six Degrees. Unlike earlier works that have been “directed” by computer algorithms (imagine the algorithm as the dice in a chance procedure), Six Degrees is, rather, a thought experiment.

Unsurprisingly, as a married couple that is also in artistic partnership, Lisa and Sheldon finish each other’s sentences. There’s a rhythm to their conversation—Sheldon’s slow, stretchy speech punctuated by Lisa’s staccato interjections—that I found mesmerizing. But what I’d like you to imagine while reading this interview are the little breathy laughs and delighted pauses that threaded through our conversation because, for Lisa and Sheldon, Six Degrees remains a mystery. Interviewing them was like watching a pair of lighthearted but mildly dystopian elves break apart the toys they had made, scattering their insides like runes to read for guidance on how to understand the impact of technology on our lives.

Two performers looking into a camera that is projecting the feed behind them

Smith/Wymore Photo by Stephen Texeira

Sima Belmar: Talk about Six Degrees of Freedom in relation to how you’ve used technology in the past.

Sheldon Smith: In the past we’ve used a number of random number generating systems, although very finely tuned and attuned to the needs of the work…

Lisa Wymore: …telling us how long the sections are, when to come in and out…

Sheldon: …it doesn’t work very well to deal with pure chance. If you’re purely dealing with chance there might be a version of the piece where the computer interacts with us once and we’re just milling around for forty minutes. So there are certainly artistic choices that we make along the way to Goldilocks the thing.

Lisa: We’re always playing with control, command, and agency.

Sheldon: This piece was an evolution through an ongoing interest in the relationship between technology and dance, technology and the human body, technology and our lives. We wanted to think more about the computer’s creativity. In other pieces, the computer is directing us, telling us what to do…

Lisa: …but we know it really doesn’t have the creativity…it’s almost like it’s programming us…

Sheldon: …we programmed it to program us. But in this piece we’re imagining that the computer really has its own creative agency. If you fed enough fragments and YouTube clips of dance theater works into neural nets, what would the output look like? To some degree you can do that now—people have explored this a lot with text…

Lisa: …the computer can take a whole book or script and pull it through its algorithm to create a new script. There’s this film…[1]

Sheldon: …in a sense the computer is trying to figure out what a script is, what a relationship between people is, but it’s always getting it wrong.

Sima: So if you put War and Peace into the computer…

Sheldon: …you would put everything written by Tolstoy into it and then see if it could write something like Tolstoy from what it’s digested from it. The computer looks for patterns. In Six Degrees, we are trying to build something with the aesthetic of computer-created work. But dance theater is so complex to begin with…

Lisa: …dance theater is already so esoteric and strange that if you were to plug in a bunch of postmodern dance theater works would it really look any different from the real ones?

Sheldon: The central question as we’re working is still, if we were a computer, what choices would we be making…

Lisa: …we’re pretending to be the sentient computer…

Sheldon: …we’re asking, if I fed everything I’ve ever done into a computer, how would I fuck that up and spit it out in a way that’s different from how I normally work? Where does it go wrong? And in looking at those places where it goes wrong, what do we learn about how close computers are to really understanding us at all?

Sima: Take me into a rehearsal, into the practice.

Lisa: We looked back at our older works and just went into the studio with these ideas based on past pieces. We knew we wanted to play with the randomization of text so we’ve been using what appears to be computer generated text but it’s not. It’s really odd and makes no sense to say, but we’re trying to make it [the text] make sense and then put movement to it—very grid-like movements that a computer might understand and command a body to do.

Sima: So it’s a combination of movement that you think a computer might understand and what a computer might do with a bunch of movement data.

Lisa: Yes, it’s playing with both sides of the coin.

Sima: But not playing much with the computer.

Sheldon: Not very much with the computer itself. We know the computer could look at the data and then spit out some variation on that, but the question is, what is the computer actually thinking aesthetically? Does it? Well it doesn’t, but if the computer were having some sort of aesthetic awareness in what it’s doing, what is that and at what point would it start to own its aesthetic choice-making and start to self-identify as an artist and have its own signature style. So in the case of Six Degrees, the computer has not gotten there, it’s fumbling around.

Lisa: The piece is inhibiting our own organic choices of what we’d normally make in a piece. We’re stumbling ourselves, challenging ourselves, juxtaposing what we never thought should or could go together. We haven’t chosen to say put all of our work in it. Well, we don’t know how! We don’t have the computer programs to do that. We would need a giant grant. It’s a provocation.

Sheldon: It’s a provocation. One of the things that has become interesting to me in working on this is how it’s coming full circle to Dadaism and neo-futurism and all these things that happened 100 years ago when people were exploring structure and language, chance juxtapositions of things, and the context of that, post-WWI, fascism. With Trump, we have the desire to make even less sensical work than we might otherwise make.

Sima: There’s a threat to sense that’s different now from prior threats to sense because it’s an explicit attack on the very notion of sense. Fake news, no truth. But in terms of political cycles, if artists have long been playing with language in order to break down habitual modes of sense-making and sense-perceiving, it seems to me that those interested in AI are interested in training computers, which currently make non-sense out of something that makes sense, to make sense of whatever logic of the world that you’re putting in it. But then you two come along and seem to be trying to make non-sense in relation to a project that would normally be trying to teach sense-making. Ok, now I’m lost.

Lisa: I think a lot of folks in technology think we’re getting close to getting computers to do a lot more for us, that the computer can be trained to understand our logic, to make ethical choices. But I think this piece is saying that we know that it can’t really, that part of why we’ve lost sense, and I don’t know if we’ll get this through the piece, is because the computers have been programmed to do all these things and we don’t understand what’s algorithmically coming at us.

Sima: Like we can’t tell the difference between a bot and a person?

Lisa: Right, and so the computer, for all that we’ve invested in it, is infiltrating our world and it will never be all that we are. So in a way this piece has a grimmer futuristic vision. We’re risking failing because we know it can never be right.

Sheldon: In the process of doing this we’re almost dehumanizing our artistic process…

Lisa: …or reprogramming it.

Sima: But if a human can align with computers, then that’s a human capacity, it’s not dehumanizing or less human necessarily. So I’m wondering about the language of the project.

Lisa: It’s more about the truth seeking stuff, what gets perpetuated, what gets put in front of our screens as we search. Small things, like why do I always see bras on my Facebook page, I don’t want to see any more bras on my page, but it’s telling me, it’s changing how I look, how I search, what I can even get access to, it will put stuff first, it will block things. I can’t get down into things because of these small iterative patterns that are constantly eroding away at us. I know its changed my art practice, how I go into the studio…

Sima: …but it’s so productive to get out of habits.

Sheldon: It’s incredibly productive. The biggest impact of our overarching concept, in practice, is forcing us out of habitual ways of working and taking away certain levels of responsibility about the outcome.

Sima: Will the piece have anything to do with Kevin Bacon?[2]

Sheldon: There may be some Kevin Bacon…

Lisa: The “six degrees” are all the different joint angles in robotics—flexion, extension, rotation, lateral side bending, etc. and if you put them together you get all the movement. It’s a system used in programming that affects us as humans. It relates to the Laban system of how we see our bodies in space. And in a way it’s limiting but at the same time it’s functional. It’s kind of the thing of the piece. Limitations are both creative and control your freedom.

Sima: Clearly you both feel that dance is a privileged site for exploring these questions and also, maybe, helping us make different choices about how we use and are used by our devices. Do you have hopes for the piece?

Lisa: Just to realize the power. Are we losing our freedom? Like our son gets some screen time every day. His sense of creativity is so different. Is he freer? I don’t know. In some way he can see all the movie references he wants to, go down some deep path, but in another sense he doesn’t get to wait to see the movie or read a book about the references or talk to a neighbor. What are we losing and what are we gaining?

Sima: I’ve never interviewed the two of you, so you may always be like this for all I know, but you do seem to be in a kind of mixed state of low level anxiety and delighted maybeness about this piece, which maybe you don’t always feel…

Sheldon: …that’s pretty accurate…

Sima: …which as an interviewer kind of makes me more interested in the work because, if they don’t know what they’re thinking, that takes the burden off the viewer to “get it.” It’s about doing, making and witnessing. And if you have a rigorous path, any kind, it’s very freeing. I feel like I’ve been put in a little bit of a freed up space just talking with you.

Sheldon: I would say in almost every case we don’t know what the piece is trying to say until we’ve actually got it complete and put it in front of people and heard from people. To some degree what we’re telling you right now is a construct of several grant processes we’ve been through which have been helpful in the sense that they’ve shaped our process and put us on this rigorous path to make this work and it’s created some ideas that we’re following. At the same time, between now and November, I still hold open the possibility that what we think this thing is could be completely different.

Sima: Well it’s been a pleasure dancing around with you in your thought experiment.

[1] You can find the film, Sunspring, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LY7x2Ihqjmc.

[2] For those too young to remember, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is the movie buff mutation of the “six degrees of separation” concept.

 

In Practice: Kate Weare

Two groups of three dancers holding each other.

Kate Weare Marksman / photo by Grant Halverson

I don’t know anything about the inner workings of my car. And I don’t care to learn. I just want it to run. This attitude puts me at the mercy of mechanics who have a stake in my ignorance. Maybe a mechanic could easily explain to me what’s wrong with my car, teach me how to fix it, and send me on my merry way. But why would they want to do that? Surefire way to go out of business.

Many folks don’t know anything about the inner workings of a dance. And many don’t care. They just want to be entertained or inspired. I suppose one could argue that choreographers benefit from the obfuscation of their labor and craft. It makes dances and dancing look magical, unattainably virtuosic, a result of superhuman talent — special. But most of the time, in my experience, choreographers and dancers, rather than keeping the tools of their trade close to their chests in an act of professional boundary maintenance, often take the position of being verbally inarticulate about their creative processes and performance experiences—the old, “If I could talk about it or write about I wouldn’t have made a dance about it.”

Kate Weare is not one of those choreographers.

I met Kate in the late 1990s. We were performing together at ODC in the work of Kersti Grunditz. In the dressing room, Kate walked up to me and said something along the lines of, “Nice boobs.” As you can imagine, it was the beginning of a lasting friendship. Kate and I performed together a few more times after that, but mostly I’ve been following her career from her early works in the Bay Area to her illustrious career in New York, through knee injuries, marriage, and the birth of her daughter. Whenever Kate comes to town with her company or as a guest choreographer for ODC, it’s treated as a homecoming. Oakland born and raised, Weare remains a California girl even after 18 years in NYC. What does that mean? Well, for one thing, it means she body slams into jasmine bushes on our walks around the East Bay.

I would describe Kate, person and artist, as a sensualist, not in the mere pleasure-seeking sense—though pleasure is part of it—but in terms of her movement research methodology. She engages all six senses in the studio, privileging the “lower” ones, touch and kinesthesia. And along with her keen choreographic and directorial eye, she brings to her artistic practice the sense and sensibility of a dancer—her embodied knowledge of marley and wood floors, black box and proscenium theaters, contact with sweaty bodies, injury, and rehabilitation. As a dancer she’s got that big cat quality; she looks like she thinks with her four paws. As a choreographer she asks her dancers to slap, tickle, slide, rebound, melt, grind together, a seeming effort to exhaust the body’s limitless capacity for action and interaction. As dancer Nicole Diaz says, Kate’s “kinesthesia has a thick yet swift groundedness, a feral strength, and slicing precision.”

Kate and her New York-based Kate Weare Company (KWCo), are bringing Marksman to ODC Theater this month (October 5-7). We engaged in a lengthy email exchange for this article because her August days were filled with dance-making as DANCEworks Santa Barbara 2017 Choreographer-in-Residence, where she collaborated on Sin Salida/In Love I Broke Beyond with Esteban Moreno and Union Tanguera (France). This was our first “formal” conversation about her work, so I was interested in how she currently thinks about her trajectory as an artist, how her creative process has shifted over time, and why the PR for Marksman emphasize the work’s “abstraction.”

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Sima Belmar: Marksman is called an “abstract work.” How does the idea of abstraction manifest in your process, in how you relate to the dancers that work with you?

Kate Weare: In the case of Marksman, I suppose it’s abstract in the sense that I tried to find feeling from within form…exploring states of energy and energy transfer between dancers rather than thinking about them directly as human beings (as I normally do). I tried to follow the energy in passing, in flux, rather than how it manifests or settles within an individual, though of course there is some of that too. I tried to think of the dancers as manifestations of energies and forces that fascinate me: sea jellies underwater, giant steel beams moving in air on a crane, objects intersecting and redirecting each other like dominoes, electricity and sludge, anchors and bouncing beans, sometimes sharks. Consequently, this is the most genderless work I think I’ve ever made.

Perhaps this is because Marksman was an exploration born from my experience of pregnancy and birth, a period during which I felt like my personhood and individuality were also not the issue. Nature worked through me inexorably. I’ve never in my life felt more clearly aimed at a purpose and yet not in control of it. It made me question all my willfulness up to that point, which suddenly seemed silly! It also struck a kind of awe in me, and a need to explore the way I instinctively fight to remain in control when outside forces shape me (and others) so powerfully from all directions in any case. I started thinking about “aim” as a metaphor for the nature/form of this work. I read about some teachings in archery (from various cultures, but especially Japanese) and how in order to aim with increasing accuracy you need to practice a release of control. True of many physical actions, including dancing…and probably life.

SB: This shift you’re describing, from working with your dancers “as human beings” to attending to energy, reminds me of other contemporary choreographers like Tere O’Connor and Bill T. Jones, who have talked about moving from work that is concerned with identity categories to more “abstract” or “formal” concerns, always with the understanding that unless you’re covered head to toe in stretchy Nikolais/Louis material, it’s hard for audiences to see it that way. Then you have someone like Ralph Lemon, whose work went in the other direction, from “abstraction” to a concern with identity. Of course, it’s more complicated than a mere binary or dialectic, but I wonder how you think about this sort of shifting discourse and practice.

KW: I think it may be a result of a very human issue in the dance world, which is that choreographers and small companies tend to start in the hothouse environment of families in a sense…friends and lovers (often only in the artistic sense) and then we grow slowly to professionalize and separate. When my first family turned over (and at the moment—by no coincidence, I can now see in retrospect—my biological family came into being) I needed breathing space, and also the space to privilege my inward experience over my responsibility to “see” others. This may or may not exactly be Tere’s reason, or Bill’s, but underneath it all I expect we all go through similar human struggles about connection and creation, cohesion and expansion, relationship and autonomy.

Two dancers bent sideways at waist being held by their partner

Kate Weare Marksman / photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

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I corresponded with two dancers currently working with Kate, Thryn Saxon and Nicole Diaz.[1] Both corroborated Kate’s story of Marksman—“Marksman is abstract, more about space and time and energy than anything else” (Saxon), “It’s colder and focused on the inherent intelligence of pure energetic exchanges outside of human manipulation” (Diaz). But what stands out is the satisfaction these dancers feel in the studio, a sense of empowerment and deep physical research.

Saxon, who is in her first season with KWCo, said, “Her movement is about sensing, reacting and creating change, change in one’s own body, in the other dancers, in the room, in the world. The movement sensation is grounded, powerful and absolutely a full body experience. There is a readiness in the body that is required. This readiness produces an extremely high level of both sensitivity and power. It is incredibly physical, detailed, and precise.” For Diaz, in her third season with the company, “Kate stood apart from other choreographers in the way that she cut the gratuitousness out of my dancing. Her aim was not to tell me how to feel, but to question my intent and help facilitate how I expressed what I found important. She’s candid without being cruel. Open without being aimless. And passionate without being selfish. Her work makes me feel powerful.”

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Marksman was born, in part, of a reflection on giving birth as a process of taking aim before a moving target. Talking and writing about dance seem to call for a similar approach. We can aim our words for the dance candidly, openly, passionately, and without thought of hitting the bullseye.

[1] You can get to know Diaz, Saxon, Julian De Leon, Kayla Farrish, Douglas Gillespie, Ryan Rouland Smith in the project through the company’s “Meet the Dancers of Marksman” reel at https://vimeo.com/189979878.

In Practice: Colleague-Criticism

In 2009, I published an essay in this publication (In Dance) about a work by choreographer Randee Paufve, a dear friend of mine. I didn’t know it at the time, but in that same year, performance studies scholars Jill Dolan, Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, and Jaclyn Pryor published the essay “Colleague-Criticism: Performance, Writing, and Queer Collegiality.”[1] The writers define colleague-criticism as “a type of critical engagement in which the critic acknowledges his or her personal relationship with the artist and/or familiarity with the artists’ work and, in so doing, allows the reader to consider the context of the artist’s production as well as the critic’s response” (1). I wish I had known about this essay at the time; I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my endeavor to write about dance from a position of passionate proximity.

Colleague-criticism doesn’t seem to have gained much traction. Google Scholar reveals a mere four citations of the Dolan et al. article, and dance critics still largely write from what choreographer Tere O’Connor calls an “oracular place with the wrong information.” But something wonderful and unexpected has breathed new life into this endeavor, encouraging me to recommit to colleague-criticism: the Low-Res Dance Writers Laboratory at the new National Center for Choreography in Akron, Ohio (NCCAkron). I found the call for dance writers on Facebook (thanks for tagging me, Jill Randall), applied, and was accepted as one of five dance writers to spend a year writing together about, for, and with dance.[2]

At the helm of this endeavor is Christy Bolingbroke, former Deputy Director for Advancement at ODC, and Dance Magazine’s “One of the Most Influential People in Dance Today.” As outlined on giant post-it notes on the walls of NCCAkron’s conference room (Christy loves giant post-it notes), the organization’s mission involves supporting geographic equity, cultivating artists of “creative genius,” advocating for dance as a central part of US culture, investing longitudinally (which means long-term residencies that allow for ongoing conversations with an artist to track their growth and invest in more than just the making of a work—process over product), and fostering R&D through dialogue and proximity.

Christy kicked off our discussions, which took place over the course of four late July days in the University of Akron dance department’s gorgeous new building (every nook and cranny of which was designed with attention to time, space, body, and language). We talked about the state of dance writing today and what we could do to move dance discourse closer to the center of US culture. We generated lots of questions and few answers—What is the role of the dance writer in the dance ecosystem? What is the purpose of a program note? What does it mean to remember a dance? But as Christy said, NCCAkron is about “creating space for rigorous play and positive failure.” Her commitment to developing infrastructure for dance writing in direct engagement with dance making — writers, choreographers, and dancers are in residence together — and without the pressure to create “outputs” feels like the greatest of gifts.

And who should be the first artist-in-residence? None other than the aforementioned Tere O’Connor. Tere is famous both for his dances and for his bold stance against conventional dance criticism. Indeed, his 2005 debate with The New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella, discussed in the Dolan et al. article, is only slightly less well-known than Bill T. Jones’ battle with Arlene Croce. So although Tere’s artistic process was meant to be used as a launchpad for our discussions, he was wary, and chose instead to plunge us into philosophical questions, the spiky abyss where aesthetics and politics do their spiral dance.

This was at turns freeing and frustrating. We were privileged to view Tere’s latest work Long Run in process, but Tere wasn’t keen on using the work as a site for our analysis. I get it; mid-process is a vulnerable place to be. But the material offered so much—gestures in inorganic rhythms, mundane interactions made strange through repetition, low, smearing fourth positions that made it look like, nay, feel like someone’s crotch was going to fall out. And the dancers! Marc Crousillat, Eleanor Hullihan, Emma Judkins, Joey Loto, Silas Riener, Lee Serle, and JinJu Song-Begin—they made me wistful for a dancing past I never had, and happy, and cranky, all the things, all the feelings.

So we watched a video Merce Cunningham’s CRWDSPCR (1993) and tried to talk about that instead. And Tere told us a bit about how he began writing, starting, as it does for so many artists, with grant writing, then becoming a mode of “amplifying the thoughts around what I was making and an early detachment from the denotative aspects of language.” He’s a very quotable guy. (Here are my top three favorite phrases uttered by Tere during our discussion: “You can bite ephemera,” “Certitude will always be undone,” and, on what accounts for his mode of thought, “The erosive quality of the aqueous nature of dance on my brain.”)

Tere said that, in his experience with audiences around the world, he hasn’t found a racial, gender, or class determinant for how people see the work; it comes down to whether or not a person is able to “lean into ambiguity.” Some of us shifted uneasily in our swivel seats in response to this, but it does present a provocation: Can dance writing help viewers cultivate that openness, so that audiences begin to move away from the anxiety of “getting it”[3] and towards the pleasure of wading through the unknown?

Dance is under so much pressure to speak for itself even though nothing speaks for itself, not even speaking. Many dance artists feel like they have to make scrutable the inscrutable through verbal language, and granting bodies certainly rely heavily on verbal description and explanation to help them make decisions about whom to fund. Does description take away from the potential of dance to spark thought? What seems at first glance (or second, or third) inscrutable or inaccessible isn’t really. Just like anything new-to-you, it takes practice seeing it, time to access it.

The power of dance often lies in its ability to intervene into normative ways of moving and thinking. In doing so it risks entering into the inscrutable. Dance writing, rather than, or in addition to, helping us witness the dance with its multiple and often contradictory perspectives, and “amplify the world’s thinking about dance” (Tere), may do well to join the dance in its interruption of the so-called natural. Together, dancing and writing can focus our attention on our methodologies for being in the world rather than reflecting realities that are limited by what we already think we know.

***

Christy presented us with a mission: to connect with our respective local dance artists (including dancers who do not identify as choreographers) and dance writers over the next twelve months to create a knowledge base about dance. So this article is a call to Bay Area choreographers, dancers, and dance writers of all stripes to engage in friendly, feisty conversation with me about the infinite variations of a life in dance. Somewhat like Rachel Howard’s former Critical Dialogues column, which was also published in In Dance, I’d like to co-think and co-write dance as much as possible. The focus will continue to be on the practical details, on process, on doing rather than meaning, though meaning inevitably hops, skips, and jumps over and around all that we do.

Since starting the In Practice column, several choreographers have contacted me about seeing their work and reviewing it. Though I won’t be writing reviews here, I am interested in the work in an investigative reporting kind of way. I want to gather the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the work in advance of, during, or after a performance run. It doesn’t matter much when in the process we start; writing and dancing in dialectical relation knows no beginning, middle, or end.

So far, I think In Practice has been about this. But I only know so many artists. So, Bay Area dance artists—reach out. Our conversation probably will not be published in time to serve as a preview of your show (but it might). Contact me and we’ll talk about your daily grind, about how can we talk about dancing without killing it, about who you’re reading these days. (My bedside table hosts Maggie Nelson, Thich Nhat Hahn, André Lepecki, Tara Brach, and Sophie Kinsella. Full disclosure, TMI: I’ve read all Kinsella’s Shopaholic novels).

I know, it’s hard to reach out. It’s like when I invite my students to share their writing with the class and they try every technique in the book to avoid doing so—suddenly nodding off to sleep or becoming very interested in their cuticles. Sometimes I have to call on them, like this: Hey, Liv Schaffer! I want to talk about kinesthetic tools for academic courses. Robert Moses and Mary Carbonara! Let’s talk about being a two-choreographer household. Antoine Hunter! Let’s continue our conversation about the relationship between ASL and dance. Dance book club anyone?

Dance making, dance viewing, and dancing are relational propositions/activities. There is no unidirectional movement from choreographer to dance to performance to audience to critic to writing. All of this lives and breathes in interaction, intersection, criss-crossing vectors. Rather than taking this to mean that there is nothing inherent to a dance, nothing to read or understand or glean from the surface to the depths, I propose we imagine that there is everything in the dance, a site of potential, activated through doing, viewing, writing. As I wrote in my application to the writing lab, “My goal as a member of the cohort of dance writers would be to circulate writing through a creative process that includes choreographers, dancers, scholars, journalists, and audiences, co-creating the work of dance and redefining the role of the critic in dialogue and motion.”

Tere said he would prefer to hear “bad or intelligible words from the artist to dismantle hierarchies” rather than have writers speaking for artists. Let’s talk badly and unintelligibly together.

Please find me @simabelmar or simabelmar@gmail.com or on Facebook.

[1] Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Jill Dolan, and Jaclyn Pryor. “Colleague-Criticism: Performance, Writing, and Queer Collegiality.” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, Vol. 5 No. 1, April 2009.

[2] The inaugural dance writers are Betsy Brandt, dance dramaturg and professor; Katy Dammers, Assistant Curator and Archive Manager at The Kitchen; Benedict Nguyen, administrator for Donna Uchizono Company; Lauren Warnecke, dance critic at The Chicago Tribune; and myself. (We’re all dancers too.)

[3] Deborah Jowitt, “Getting It,” The Village Voice, February 21, 2006. https://www.villagevoice.com/2006/02/21/getting-it/

In Practice: Ramon Ramos Alayo and John Santos

dancer in orange poses next to dancer in white smiling and lifting a knee & handkerchief

Alayo Dance Company / photo by RJ Muna

This year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (SFEDF) takes place for the first time at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. It is also the first year that the festival will present the work of Cuban choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo and the Alayo Dance Company. Festejos Caribeños, a collaboration between Alayo and renowned Afro-Latin percussionist John Santos and his sextet, and commissioned by the SFEDF, is an enactment of a Cuban street party in three parts, each dominated by a different dance form: Modern Dance, Rumba, and Conga. Each form bleeds into the other, laced with a fourth form, Cuban Salsa. The work begins with a New Orleans-style funeral procession and ends with an invitation to join the Conga line. (NB: This is not the “one-and-two-and-three, kick!” of your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.)­­­

Alayo has been working in the Bay Area as a choreographer for nearly two decades—he founded Alayo Dance Company in 2002—and has organized the successful Cuban dance festival, Cuba Caribe, for the past 13 years. So it surprised me to hear that this was the first year his work was to be featured at the SFEDF. But Alayo explained that the way his choreography combines dances from Africa, Latin America, the US, and Europe has, in the past, been somewhat illegible to presenters looking for cultural forms that appear to have been spawned within clearly defined national borders: “Once I auditioned and brought a modern piece. They didn’t accept me. But this time they want to bring some modern into it.” In other words, dances from Cuba needed to look Cuban in the eyes of the presenters; traces of petit allegro or fall and recovery didn’t seem to go with percussive, polyrhythmic pelvic movement.

Thankfully, the SFEDF currently understands that “ethnic” dances are dynamic, hybrid practices rather than static, monocultural forms; they develop in non-linear time and multidirectional space. The audition guidelines call for “dances that reflect all aspects of culture, including sacred or spiritual dances, social dance, secular or vernacular dance, dances from life cycle events, and innovative work based in traditional dance forms.” Ethnic dance festivals, in their effort to showcase diversity under the banner of multiculturalism, risk conceiving of and promoting dance forms that are “recognizably” Other, perpetuating simplistic binaries such as traditional/contemporary and ethnic/art. But the SFEDF’s panel review criteria includes a section on the “Relationship to Cultural Origins – Authenticity and/or Genre Growth,” asking whether a work of “hybrid genre or fusion […] successfully integrates the disparate movement vocabularies as well as demonstrate technical and cultural understanding of its disparate roots.”

Alayo explained that since the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cuban dance has been a mixture of modern dance, ballet, and folkloric forms. To complete his Master of Arts at the National School of Art in Havana, Alayo trained for eight years in multiple dance forms including Cuban dance, folkloric dances from other Latin American countries (Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela), Yoruban dance, Haitian dance, modern dance (Horton, Limón, and Graham), and ballet: “All my life I have been mixing genres and styles.” To account for this complexity the festival is calling his work “Cuban Contemporary Folkloric,” “because I’m not doing a pure folklore. I’m modifying the Rumba a little bit, like with lifting [one person lifting another] from modern dance. They call it contemporary because it’s not a traditional Rumba or Salsa.” Since Alayo trained in Cuba at a school where contemporary and folkloric forms occupy a level playing field characterized by cross-pollination, it seems to me that “Cuban dance” would have been the more appropriate and accurate moniker.

Despite efforts by dance scholars to challenge aesthetic hierarchies that place “traditional” or “folkloric” dance forms below “concert” or “art” dances alleged to have universal reach and a capacity for transcendence, these hierarchies remain. [see footnote 1]  “Not for Cuba,” Alayo said.

“When you start choreographing, you can mix all those dances, there’s a lot of connection.” This interaction and exchange of forms that began after the revolution continues to change: “Cuban modern is changing because now they are bringing companies from Europe, who don’t know what Cuban dance is.”

musician holds drum

John Santos Sextet / photo by RJ Muna

Santos, who was born and raised in San Francisco to Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean parents, further discussed how we misunderstand the term traditional: “The forms that we are using here in this instance are super traditional dance forms but even in that context, even saying they’re traditional, they have to be understood as all about improvisation and creativity. It’s not a staid, under-glass, museum tradition. It’s a living tradition that has always evolved.”

In terms of labels like “Afro-Latin music,” Santos said, “They mean nothing. They’re commercial labels, made mainly for the industry, so the people selling the music know what bin to put it in.” Nevertheless, certain commercial labels often have complex histories, particularly among the musicians who find themselves under their jurisdiction. Santos explained, “To call music Afro-Latin, for example, does have a certain connotation and it means different things to different people. We’re dealing with Afro-Cuban music in this case, but we don’t call the music I play in general Afro-Cuban anymore. Afro-Cuban is the strongest root, but it would be limiting to call it that since we put in all our collective lines—jazz, funk, rock, classical, Puerto Rican, Brazilian. In Dizzy Gillepsie’s time, the 40s and 50s, it was Afro-Cuban jazz, not Afro-Latin. But as years went on, the Caribbean adopted it all, so now you can’t just say Afro-Cuban.” Afro-Latin Jazz works to account for that hybridity, but tensions among artists around labels continue: “There was a time not long ago when Cubans hated the term Salsa because it was a Puerto Rican term. We know it has mostly Cuban roots—it’s rumba, it’s son, it’s mambo—but the Puerto Ricans promoted it in New York. Now many Cubans say Cuban Salsa.”

Santos’ recordings provided the point of departure for Alayo’s choreography: “Ramón listened to several of my pieces and identified the ones that spoke to him. Then we took two separate pieces and made one new piece. Ramón gravitated towards the pieces that were most danceable.” Alayo worked with the dancers to the recordings and then showed Santos the choreography. I asked Santos how working with a choreographer and dancers affects his practice: “Whenever there is choreography we have to pay close attention for cuing, for the vibe and spirit of the piece. That’s what makes it special.”

Although working with choreography may be a special circumstance for Santos, working with dance in mind is not: “In order to play traditional Cuban music you have to learn it in the context of dance. I’ve been around that type of dance my whole life. When performing, composing, and recording music that is based on traditional forms, like rumba and conga, I visualize the dancing. The dancing is part of my process, even when there’s no dancing involved directly; the music is made for dancing. Most of our music is based on dance forms. So it’s a natural fit.”

When I told Santos about Alayo’s past illegibility in the eyes of the SFEDF audition panelists (and surely there were more variables in the decision than can be accounted for here), he was surprised: “What he was presenting should have fit all along. It’s what’s going on in Cuba. You now see modern, hip hop, Michael Jackson, boxing, baseball, in traditional rumbero dancing. It’s open to everything, so it’s logical to a dancer who studies modern and ballet, and who sees rumberos in the street.”

As the festival continues in our post-/neo-colonial, globalized world, it is important, perhaps now more than ever, that it presents artists like Alayo, whose artistic practices embody the tensions that challenge the concept of “ethnic dance” as it developed in the context of colonialism. As anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku argued in her groundbreaking 1969 essay, “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance,” all dances are ethnic dances, even ballet. [see footnote 2] And all dances are hybrid forms developed in the context of global flows of human capital, even ballet (Italian, French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban). Despite the fact that hybridity, creativity, and a notion of the contemporary characterizes all dances of modernity, the label “ethnic” continues to operate as a euphemism for “other,” for world dances that are somehow not of this world.

Ballet, with its high level of infrastructural and financial support, doesn’t need a platform like the SFEDF. Even if he isn’t fond of the pressure to be “the representative of tradition” (and the concomitant critiques for being not authentic enough), Alayo appreciates how the SFEDF offers a forum for the rich Bay Area dancescape. Both he and Santos feel that the festival is particularly important right now. Santos said, “It has a special significance to be in that environment where there’s music from around the world; it frames current political discourse and divisiveness differently by demonstrating unity and solidarity across all real and perceived borders.”


SF Ethnic Dance Festival presents Alayo Dance Company and John Santos’ Festejos Caribeños: Jul 8-9 (full festival runs Jul 8-9 & 15-16), War Memorial Opera House, SF, sfethnicdancefestival.org


[1] For an excellent discussion of the discursive history of “ethnic dance,” see the edited collection Worlding Dance, edited by Susan Leigh Foster.

[2] In her chapter in Worlding Dance, “Race-ing Choreographic Copyright,” Anthea Kraut makes a crucial point about Kealiinohomoku’s groundbreaking 1969 essay, “Despite her efforts, the constructed opposition between the solitary, creative genius of the West and the collectively created dance cultures of the Rest continues to hold sway” (78).

In Practice: DWP, Dancing While Pregnant

In 2012, I saw Patricia West dance pregnant in Joe Goode’s When We Fall Apart. I was pregnant myself at the time and thought, Damn! I can barely get out of my car! When I put out the call for stories about dancing pregnant, I expected to hear about the task of modifying movement (floor work in particular), the audible gasps from audience members (like me) when they realize this is not a Cunningham-Kawakubo collaboration, running off stage to barf, and splitting costumes on stage. What follows is what I didn’t expect.

Even modern dancers hide pregnancies

Dance critic Arlene Croce called ballet a world of “signs and designs,” a world in which “[t]he arabesque is real, the leg is not” (see footnote 1). It’s rather difficult to be a sign and design when things start getting bumpy, and there’s nothing like pregnancy to make a belly real. Former Oakland Ballet dancer Milissa Payne Bradley writes, “Once I found out I was pregnant, it only made sense to hide it as long as possible. Being ‘fat’ felt like a death sentence concerning my dance career and stability as a working dance professional.”

I liked to think that modern dance would be more forgiving. But many modern dancers talked about hiding their pregnancies from choreographers for fear that they would be asked to modify movement or, worse, postpone performing. Lisa Bush Finn worked with a choreographer in New York on a piece that was set to premiere when she was 18 weeks: “I decided not to tell my colleagues and to keep doing all the inversions and floor work and leave the well-being of the creature inside me to fate.”

Dana Lawton describes hiding her pregnancy from her mentor, Janice Garrett: “I was afraid that if I told her, she would cut some of my stuff. I was in every single piece, I had solos in every piece, and there were a lot of lifts and a lot of running around. I told Janice after the run. I didn’t start dancing until I was 18 and was basically told I was wasting my time, so to be with her and feel like, wow, I’m actually really doing it, I didn’t want to jeopardize it.”

Dancing pregnant gives dancers a sense of control over a body out of control

Given their close relationship, I asked Lawton why she assumed Garrett would have that reaction: “I think I was just nervous that all of sudden she would have to worry about me. And there was the young ego—I can handle it, I’m fine, I’m in charge of my body all the time, I have mastered all of these things. I’m in total control!”

Lawton’s words resonated with several dancers. Still, several dancers found that dancing pregnant gave them back a sense of control. Mira-Lisa Katz, editor of Moving Ideas, a book on embodied learning, writes, “What stands out to me is that dancing is still, to some extent, an experience on one’s own terms. Pregnancy might slow you down or make you move in different ways, but you are still more in control of your own experience then you might be, say, doing things in public. When I was about six months pregnant, a middle-aged man looked down at my protruding stomach, and said, ‘Well we all know what you’ve been doing!’ What I realized during my pregnancy was that being in public, your body was no longer your own.

I was grateful during my pregnancy to have dance as a safe haven where I could continue to experience myself more or less on my own terms, and continue to be my own body’s friend through the dance.”

Toni Melaas, a New York-based dancer who is currently touring with Faye Driscoll, writes, “The way I handled the out of control nature of pregnancy was almost always through moving to remind myself that I still had the control to connect to myself and express through this body that has always been my happy/safe place.”

Dancing pregnant helps reframe the dancer’s relationship to her dancing body

Rebecca Chun, founding member of Mid to West Dance Collective (who wrote to me at 41 weeks!), claims dancing pregnant as a corrective for the fragile dancer ego: “As my mobility and balance decreased with the increasing size of my belly, my perspective on imperfections changed. Instead of seeing inabilities as deficiencies, instead of changing, fixing, improving, I enjoyed the acceptance of doing exactly what I could. I finally reached a respite from this thinking and saw my abilities as a matter of fact. This, in turn, allowed me to see my dancing effort as a beautiful offering to myself, the health of my baby, and an opportunity to be in community.”

Performing pregnant also affords the aspiring dancers in the audience a chance to rethink the “ideal dancing body” and imagine a dance career that doesn’t preclude motherhood. Carol Kueffer-Moore and Peggy Peloquin were pregnant at the same time on tour with David Dorfman Dance. Kueffer-Moore remembers being asked questions in post-show talks at colleges about what it was like to dance pregnant: “Young college students seemed to want to be reassured that one could be a professional dancer and still have children. It was unusual to see pregnant dancers and I think both of us wanted to make a strong point that, yes, it was all possible.”

The Bay Area is full of choreographers who embrace rather than tolerate the pregnant dancing body!

When Jill Randall became pregnant with her second child, choreographer Nina Haft asked to work with her on a solo with the express purpose of investigating how her movement changed as her pregnancy progressed. Moved by Nina’s interest in her morphing embodiment, Jill said, “It was this really special opportunity to fully embrace being pregnant. I remember things about heat, slowness, anticipation, breathing. That solo, The Wake of Your Dive, only existed during that point of time, nobody else has ever done it. I danced it eight months pregnant, which was incredibly hard. We made the piece over four months—how drastically my body changed!”

Like Haft, Joe Goode worked with instead of against Damara Ganley’s pregnancy, weaving the pregnancy “into the ‘character’ and movement development.” Ganley (who wrote to me at 35 weeks!) says, “I performed throughout my first pregnancy including a six-week performance run of Poetics of Space with Joe Goode well into my third trimester. I began the rehearsal process at 7 weeks pregnant and was in my 36th week when the show closed. Joe was open and supportive of adjustments made along the way when I found my body had shifted in ways that didn’t accommodate a particular movement sequence. I am fortunate to work with a choreographer that I can offer different things to—not just the capacity to perform high velocity or technically impressive sequences.”

Choreographer and Interim Chair of Dance in the Department of Physical Education at UC Berkeley, Sue Li-Jue, danced pregnant with June Watanabe, a mother herself who supported Li-Jue’s endeavor. She also danced “fully pregnant” with Dance Brigade: “It was total girl power the whole time and I loved it.” Whereas dancers used to just “disappear when pregnant and then come back well after the baby was older,” Krissy Keefer begged her to bring the baby on tour.

Pregnant dancers have mixed feelings about watching pregnant dancers

Ganley remembers seeing Yayoi Kambara dancing pregnant with ODC and “just being in awe. It made a big impact on me visually and emotionally and has stayed with me for years. I remember being struck by her freedom and full out dancing.” Still, she is aware that the pregnant body “carries with it such potent cultural narratives” and admits that she is not particularly “drawn to choreography that is just about being pregnant or being a mother. In some works I felt that there was a drive to universalize and idealize the experience in a way that I found unappealing artistically.”

Li-Jue had a similar response: “Well, maybe I am old school, but unless there is a reason for the dancer being pregnant on stage (like the piece is about that or related to motherhood), I don’t need to see that. It would be distracting to the piece. However, if I knew and liked the dancer, I would probably be, Oh, that is so sweet…”

Chun expressed a newfound respect for the pregnant dancer: “I’ve always enjoyed it as a gift from the pregnant mother. But now as a pregnant woman and knowing how depleted energy levels can be, how difficult it is to fit in work, sleep, self-care, AND dancing, I look at pregnant dancers performing as super heroes and/or a touch crazy.”


This article focused on performing while pregnant. But Ganley reminded me that we should consider the “other elements of the reproductive cycle/reality” for dancers. Miscarriage, abortion, fertility treatments, birth, motherhood, losing a child—we dance through all of these experiences. In fact, the female dancer’s first crisis often comes with puberty. As Dawn Holtan recounts, “I did RAD [Royal Academy of Dance] ballet from six to 16 until I got the little, ‘We want you to keep a diary of everything you eat’ talk. I took advanced modern at UC Berkeley with David Wood, and he gave me his version of the talk, ‘Your joint health will be greatly improved if you never go above a certain weight. You better stay light.’”

Also, in large part due to my own dance history, my inquiry wound up centered around Western dance practices that are positioned in relation to theatrical performance. My questions posed to pregnant dancers engaged in non-Western practices, or global traditions that are not built for the stage, most likely would have elicited different stories and raised other concerns.

And then there are intersectional issues that further complicate how pregnant dancers navigate their dancing identities. LaWanda Raines, former dancer with the Latin Ballet of Virginia, writes, “Being a dancer and pregnant added to the mountain of challenges I already face at the many intersections of life: African American, female, single. It was expected that I would drop out of the program and then college and only one professor supported my return as foregone conclusion. Dance life did not stop, but it added new logistical and emotional challenges.”

Dancing while pregnant affords artists and audiences an opportunity to reframe not only the image of the dancing body, but the entire concept of mastery. Many forms of dance collaborate with the view that the dancer can no longer be the master of her body once she becomes the incubator for another life. But pregnant dancing exposes our mortality, the reality of change, the fluidity, and the fluids that none of us are exempt from. We can only master so much for so long. And so, pregnant dancing invites us to let go of mastery and focus on practice in the present— this is my body now, it moves this way, I will tend to it, and let it teach me what it knows. As step-dancer Evie Ladin puts it, “The body is amazing how it can produce a child and never be the same again. Makes it hard to think about the stereotypical dancer’s body after that, as it seems unattainable again. And yet, the dancing continues.”


1. Croce, Arlene. “The Two Trockaderos,” The New Yorker, 10/14/1974. In Writing in the Dark, 67.

In Practice: Stephan Koplowitz on Making Site Work

AXIS Dance Company (with additional cast) rehearses Stephan Koplowitz’s new work / photos by Robbie Sweeny

When I was living in Naples, Italy, I produced a dance series called Site-Specific at Rising South, a cavernous bar in the city’s historic center. I was able to call the series Site-Specific without having to parse the concept of site-specificity in part because nobody cared: English words arranged in meaning-less combinations adorn all sorts of Italian spaces—t-shirts, retail stores, menus. (A case in point: my daughter has an Italian t-shirt that says, “XXX-Best Color-Smell Like the Spirits.”) But I also thought that producing a dance series in a bar rather than in a theater constituted site-specificity. It turns out, I was sort of right: according to Stephan Koplowitz’s taxonomy of site-specific performance, my series, which invited choreographers from Naples and beyond to present works that had been made for the stage in the bar, constituted a “Category Three” site work, “placing an already created work in a new space” (see footnote 1).

Since the 1980s, Koplowitz, an award-winning international site artist and former Dean of Dance at CalArts, has dedicated himself “for the most part to making what I call ‘Category One’ site-specific work, which is when no creative material is made or decided upon prior to going through a process where the site generates as many creative decisions as possible.” He has made work on/ for the steps of the New York Public Library, in the halls of London’s Natural History Museum, in a German factory, and in the windows of Grand Central Station. On July 1 and 2, Bay Area audiences will be treated to Occupy, a new work Koplowitz created in collaboration with AXIS Dance Company and Pamela Z for the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. Koplowitz and I talked about the logistical and ethical considerations of making site work via Skype on April 17.

Sima Belmar: How did you become a site artist?
Stephan Koplowitz: My professional career started thanks to Elise Bernhardt when she invited me to make a work in the windows of Grand Central Station as a part of a huge event she was organizing in 1987 (see footnote 2) Prior to that year, Elise had seen an exhibition of my photographs in the gallery of Dance Theater Workshop. They reminded her of the windows, and she gave me the gig! I had no idea what I was doing. I was so naive I thought, When I’m a grown up artist I’m going to have my dancers on the stage! Little did I know what was actually happening. That piece taught me 65% of everything I know about making site work.

SB: How do you approach a new site?
SK: There are four filters that I think about when I’m approaching a site. The first one is the physical site itself: the design, the architecture, the contour, the physical space and what’s in it and how it looks. The physical site is where I always begin with a technique I call site inventory. It’s a very simple idea: you go to a site and take inventory of everything you can see. You write down and you take pictures. You physically walk through the site and measure it yourself if you can, or you look at the plans. You do so in a dispassionate manner, without any regard for aesthetics or any notion of what you want to do. You try to count as many different details of a site.

The second one is the history of the site, going back as far as one can go, and discovering how the site came to be what it is.

The third is the current use of the site: how do people who interface with the site use the site? How do they perceive the site? How do they feel about it?

The fourth filter takes a step back from the site to look at the community that surrounds it. I enter a place via the community to decide whether or not a particular site is the one to engage. Working with a community means spending time getting to know what people value in their community and how their environment influences or contributes to their values. From there you will find sites that have meaning that you may not have discovered had you just used your eyeballs and your prejudices. Because the thing is, in my career as a site artist, I’ve done more work outside of where I live, places I’m not a part of.

SB: How long does a site project typically take?
SK: It depends on the project. I will take as much time as I’m given. This piece [with AXIS] actually took four years to come about. Judy [Smith] invited me to come to Oakland in the spring of 2013. I ew up [from LA] early in the morning, and we spent like 10 hours looking for a site in Oakland. Judy originally wanted me to work in Oakland since the company is based there. But we did not find a site for what we wanted to do in part due to issues of access and issues of scale. Then we went to Yerba Buena, which I had researched in 1998 for a project at the center and the gardens, but funding didn’t come through. I knew the site came about through displacement. When we got to the gardens we could see that they are so beautifully designed for access. We got there and I said to her, “I think this is the place.” I spent 3 full days in different weeks this fall to do my site inventory because I had no real plan. I make my plan from my research. I also spent time at Yerba Buena just communing with nature without doing inventory, just observing, just being.

SB: Which helps you with filter number three, I presume.
SK: Yes, exactly right. I had lunch with the fine folks who run the gardens and talked to them about their experience of managing the park and producing art. Their experiences plus my knowledge of the history of the site, and the fact that I was working with a mixed ability company, and the idea of access to space, and the fact that we’re living in a time when two of the most significant cultural cities in America—New York City and San Francisco—are being completely decimated by space being priced out of people’s ability to live in, all came into how I came up with the theme of how bodies occupy space. I’m not using wide open spaces. I’m looking at very small and specific locations inside the park and putting lots of people in them. People occupy spaces in particular ways hence the title, Occupy, which has many different meanings. Because I think of myself as a public artist, I’ve chosen to engage in the dialogue of a community or a city about who gets to occupy space, who gets to access public space, who gets to manage it, who gets to make deci- sions about it. Whether I get access, how I use it, how I bring audiences to it—it all becomes a negotiation. And more and more I feel that this issue of public space is under siege; the idea that we’re abandoning real spaces for virtual space is not fake news.

SB: So how have you been working with AXIS?
SK: I’ve worked with a lot of different types of performers in my life. I had a reputation of working in NYC with non-dancers, with dancers of different ages. I’ve taught for 33 years all different types of folks, but I’ve never worked with a mixed ability company. So I insisted, and Judy of course agreed without batting an eyelash, that I would have a time period where I’m not working on the piece, I’m just in the studio with the company, and allowing them to teach me. After my initial session with AXIS Dance Company, then I had one week in March when I worked on site and in the studio with 11 folks, the company and 4 invited artists. I had lunch during that time with Marc Brew and Judy, and I asked them what they get out of work- ing with artists like myself who they had never worked with, and they chuckled and said sometimes we think it’s the artist that is getting more out of it than their dancers.

SB: Any last thoughts?
SK: I don’t believe that site-specific work anywhere can exist in a vacuum. It is a political act, it is a social act, whether you want it to be or not. I try to keep my ego, prejudices, and priorities as an artist at bay as much as I can when I start a work. Of course, what I’m saying is impossible, but I try to be as disciplined as possible by putting myself in certain modes of thought and certain processes to help me be more of an open vessel to a site. I am a big proponent of going with your gut, but I do think there has to be a conscious going with your gut. It takes a lot of work to stay open to the four filters and the processes that support them. I always say, Why do I put myself through this? For me, it’s exciting to discover something outside of my own experience.


1. Stephan Koplowitz, “Still Learning, Doing, and Relearning: Thoughts on Making and Defining Site-Specific Performance,” in Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik, Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces (Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 2011), 74. Koplowitz’s four categories of site work are: [4] Reframing the Known, [3] Reframing from Studio to Site, [2] Site-Adaptive, [1] Site-Specific.

2. Grand Central Dances (1987) featured works by Lucinda Childs, Merce Cunningham, and Philippe Petit.


For more about Stephan Koplowitz go to stephankoplowitz.com & youtube.com/c/StephanKoplowitz

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