Author Archive | Sima Belmar

In Practice: Book Review: Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora by Joanna Dee Das

The first time I met dance historian Joanna Dee Das was either at an event she curated when she was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies at Stanford or in a dance class at Shawl Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Das is a dance scholar and a dancer. Her academic credentials hail from Columbia University and NYU, and her dance pedigree traces back to classes in the Dunham technique beginning at age 12. She is currently Assistant Professor of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis and is certified in the Dunham technique. This is all to say that readers of Das’ book, Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford University Press 2017), can trust that Dunham’s story is told from a multimodal, deeply personal, massively archival, and blessedly embodied point of view. Das offers a balanced and loving account of a complex person living and dancing across complex times (nearly a century, 1909-2006). She presents Dunham’s history as a deft and daring navigation of a uniquely American tangle of racial, gender, and class norms.

Das is trained as an historian so the book, though academic, is not laden with impenetrable theory. The concept of diaspora, more specifically, “a politics of diaspora” (2), is Das’ theoretical, historical, and analytical framework as performed, taught, and lived by Dunham. Das writes, “While many theorists have invoked long-standing, historical, or even blood-memory cultural connections to Africa as the foundation for diaspora, a politics of diaspora also involves the conscious refashioning of existing cultural forms and even the creation of new ones” (3). In other words, the concept of a politics of diaspora allows us to witness how Dunham negotiated the suffocating binaries of her era—high/low, traditional/contemporary, popular/artistic, authentic/theatrical, pure/hybrid, black/white, body/mind, dance/academia—as well as reckon with the ways hierarchical relations between these oppositional categories continue to hold sway today despite the daily unmasking of their instability and insufficiency.

Das demonstrates how Dunham worked to legitimize dance as an embodied intellectual pursuit, simultaneously reinforcing associations between black people and bodily skill and challenging the notion that bodily knowledge constitutes something anti-intellectual.

Dunham emerges as an expert navigator of the choppy seas of her identity as a black feminist anthropologist-dancer-choreographer, one who brought “dance into the conversation about how to build a sustainable cultural foundation for political activism” (2). Though Das is unflinching in her exposition of the less heroic aspects of Dunham’s actions and belief systems, we nevertheless encounter Dunham as a force to be reckoned with, a human being, flawed and fantastic all at once, and an incontrovertible matriarch of modern dance.

Das does not merely analyze Dunham’s choreographic output. Rather, she investigates her performances, her institutional legacy, and her personal life as “interrelated spheres of action” (4). In doing so, she charts Dunham’s social and aesthetic compromises and sacrifices, naming her successful strategy for surviving and thriving “aesthetics as politics” (4). Das’ close analysis of Dunham’s choreographic strategies—the dancers she worked with, the movement vocabulary, spatial relations, music—serves as a model for dance writers of all stripes: the movement is the method and the message. Being able to see those choices and understand them in the context of broader choreographic, kinesthetic, social, cultural, and political histories is what makes Das such a deft “reader” of Dunham’s work.

The book offers a clear chronological account of Dunham’s personal and professional history. We learn that Dunham was an academic, a writer, a memoirist, and an activist in addition to being a dancer, choreographer, film star, and director. Das explains that Dunham’s memoir A Touch of Innocence, written in 1958, “reveals how dance became one of Dunham’s tools for survival, a personal narrative that she would then theorize and apply to people of African descent more broadly” (13). Readers travel along an artistic journey marked by a collision of black vaudeville and Hollywood, European ballet and American modern dance, with the addition of a rigorous and rich experience with dances of the African diaspora. But even this isn’t quite the way to put it because the point Das drives home is that all of Dunham’s aesthetic choices constitute and reflect a diasporic consciousness.

Das’ patient exploration of the ways critics received Dunham’s work teaches us a valuable lesson in witnessing dance today. In her discussion of minstrelsy, she explains that “the shows often contained ‘hidden transcripts’ that powerfully critiqued existing social structures, but they still overwhelmingly signified ‘racist humiliation and self-denigration’ in the public imagination of both black and white Americans” (21). I take this as a reminder to always ask myself when I watch any performance, do I really know what I’m looking at? Do I really know how to see this? To answer these questions does not necessarily require deep powers of analysis; in fact, those powers are always culturally specific and when wielded, often sink dance criticism further into the abyss of ignorance.

Overall, Das highlights the ways Dunham’s artistic production both conformed to and challenged ethnic, racial, and gender narratives in the US in the 20th century. She points out the scholarly “point of contention” around “the question of authenticity and its relationship to theatrical presentation” (30). She explains the ways Dunham and other artists of color in the 1920s and 1930s “used the discourse of primitivism to critique US empire and neocolonialism, even as, contradictorily, they ended up reinforcing problematic categories and romanticized notions of primitive life” (31). And she explains the Janus-faced nature of “structural functionalism,” the anthropological approach Dunham used in her study of diasporic African dance: “By turning to dance, Dunham had arguably chosen the most difficult path for reframing primitivism. From another vantage point, she can be said to have audaciously struck at the heart of primitivist discourse, challenging its most fundamental precepts about black women’s bodies in motion” (32). In other words, Dunham problematically sought to “elevate” African rhythms and movements through Western concert dance structures while holding the belief that those rhythms and movements were the truest forms of expression.

Das takes us through Dunham’s process of transforming the dances she learned in the Caribbean into choreographic works for the concert dance stage. Prior to Dunham’s 10-month research trip to the Caribbean in 1935-1936, Dunham, not unlike Ruth St. Denis, “adopt[ed] exotic foreign identities” (16)—a form of cultural appropriation—in her early choreography, a practice that she transformed through her training in anthropology and participant-observer work in the Caribbean. Das writes, “For both black and white women of the early twentieth century, exotic performance was a means of liberation from restrictive gender and racial identities” (16). Das places these forays into cultural appropriation in the context of a real tension between racial and gender uplift, a tension we’re still living today.

It’s easy to condemn Dunham for choreographing an “Oriental” dance until Das reframes the move in the context of finding ways out of stereotypes of black women that came out of minstrelsy. Das reminds us that for a black woman to focus on dance in any part of the twentieth century “was an audacious move at a time when the body, especially the black female body, was considered to have little capacity for intellectual expression” (20). Dunham’s work in the Caribbean reveals how choreographers locate content and choreographic approaches among their “subjects.” “Instead of serving as raw material to insert into a ballet or modern dance, Caribbean dance could offer its own aesthetic principles, both in terms of philosophical foundation and formal movement structure” (36).

Dunham’s choreographic practice moved from “pre-Caribbean interpretive dance” to “fairly direct translations of the dances she had seen in the Caribbean,” to anti-fascist agit prop works, to “’fusion’: a blending of her ballet and modern dance training with Afro-Caribbean forms” (56). Das describes this last approach as the moment when “Dunham’s aesthetics became her politics” (56). And she attributes her success to the way Dunham blended narrative structures, program notes, and choreography that displayed “that elusive blend of high art, social value, and popular appeal” (57).

Dunham was a black female intellectual whose life work focused on the dancing body; a dancer and choreographer who understood that dance constitutes knowledge that extends beyond knowing how to move. As a scholar, she was surprisingly transparent about the limits of her objectivity during her research in the Caribbean—as a dancer who took part in the performances and rituals she studied, she recognized the gap between embodied response and intellectual recording of experience. She knew that she was both a foreigner (as an American) and an heir (as a black person) to the cultural forms she witnessed and participated in. “In essence, Dunham proffered contradictory opinions. […] This back-and-forth revealed a central tension of diaspora that Dunham would wrestle with throughout her career—namely, the debate over how best to ensure the continuity of Africanist cultural practices in new settings” (38).

Das offers us a detailed picture of Dunham’s pedagogical philosophy and practice. The Dunham School operated from 1944 to 1954, long enough to sediment Dunham’s influence on everything from the development of jazz dance pedagogy to the integration of dance training spaces. This got me wondering about the particular personal, social, and political forces that shape the development and dissemination of dance techniques in general. For example, according to Das, Dunham’s signature blend of ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance was a function of her personal experience with these forms, of course; but her technique is also an effect of her political drive to dismantle racial stereotypes about black dancers. Taking her diverse dance experiences and codifying them into a technique constitutes a political move, one that “struck a blow to all three stereotypes” (64) of black bodies dancing—that black people were natural dancers, that black people “could not dance genres that required technical training,” and “that perfecting dances derived from black culture required natural abilities, not dedicated practice” (65). I could feel the deeply American nature of Dunham’s training history in my bones—the Laban and Dalcroze, the ballet and musical theater, the black social dances, the random encounters with Eastern European folk forms—a polyvocality of forms colliding. We can see how Dunham’s bodily experience of multiple dance forms are archived as the Dunham technique, a form of “kinesthetic memory” (40).

Both Das and Dunham emerge in this book as women who believe in the social and political power of dance. Das illustrates how Dunham’s experiences in the Caribbean helped her “articulate[] a thesis about embodied knowledge and its relationship to politics” (52), which in turns helps Das articulate her own thesis about how a politics of diaspora is embodied through dance. Das explains that “Dunham repeated a consistent message: training in the performing arts and humanities prepared students to face life’s problems” (108). This line alone convinced me to put Das’ book on my syllabus—that and the fact that if a student searches for “Beyoncé” in Google Scholar, Das’ book will come up. Das closes Katherine Dunham with an epilogue that clearly articulates Dunham’s relevance today and the challenge she continues to pose for us—how to “embrac[e] interculturalism without reproducing cultural hierarchies” (201). Whether we identify as activists, artists, educators, administrators, scholars, or all of the above, we can meet that challenge if we’re willing to learn, act, and, above all, change. Dunham, the great strategist, not only “choreographed the change she wished to see in the world” (201); she also appears to have let the world choreograph change in herself, demonstrating that dance, as a dialectic of stillness and movement, of listening and responding, is the perfect medium for political movement.

Das is not the first white dance scholar to write about a black dancer, and she is aware that this can prove an awkward position. In the preface, she writes, “And while Dunham always proclaimed that her technique was for everyone, I see myself as a guest in an African diasporic cultural practice” (x). This line is quintessential Das. Throughout the book, Das holds every tension and contradiction, whether in Dunham’s rhetoric or her own, with honesty and care. And this is what makes her book not just smart but brilliant. Das reminds us that it’s always a risk to dance—and to write. And Dunham teaches us that these are risks worth taking.

In Practice: Tonya Marie Amos

In a 1993 interview, Toni Morrison said, “The people who practice racism are bereft. […] It feels crazy. It is crazy. […] If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”[1] I thought about Morrison’s words as I sat in the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts theater on June 25, 2017, witnessing Grown Women Dance Collective’s annual Juneteenth celebration, Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars.

The performance combines concert dance and a multimedia presentation to honor the Black musical artists we’ve lost since 2000. When I saw that much talent on display in a society that works hard to vilify the bearers of that talent, combined with that much loss, the cognitive dissonance of anti-Black racism was laid bare. I realized I was listening to the sound of social life in social death, the sound of uplift, the sonic landscape of Black joy— and the soundtrack of my life, to this American life. In the face of the sheer dominance of these voices, I could sense in my bones the crazy Morrison describes, the pathology and supreme waste of time of white supremacy—to work that hard to build yourself up by shooting down what so clearly soars.

My generation’s K-12 history books never mentioned Juneteenth, so Tonya Amos, Grown Women Dance Collectives’s artistic director, had to educate me.[2] In sum, on June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Texas to read the proclamation and make official that which slave owners had sought to keep secret: slaves were now free. Jubilation among former slaves ensued, followed, unsurprisingly, by a tenaciously adhered to revisionist history. So, white folks get to honor Lincoln, the white man who freed the slaves without any muddy chronology to contend with. On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday, and there appears to be a steady rise in consciousness and celebrations nationwide.

 

In the spirit of In Practice, this interview focuses on the labor of Amos’ dance journey, and the love that established and maintains GWDC’s Juneteenth project. It’s about Amos’ dance training history and how it reflects the racializing and racist history of American concert dance. GWDC is comprised of concert dancers, currently between the ages of 48 and 54, who come out of retirement each year for Fallen Heroes—from my point of view, they only get better with age.

Amos, like so many dancers, was hesitant to talk to me, afraid to expose things about elite concert dance company culture. Many, many dancers grin and bear it for the chance to dance. Amos and I spoke at Peet’s coffee on College Avenue on August 22, 2017.

In Dance is publishing our interview now to coincide with the 9th Annual Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars Juneteenth performance at the Malonga Center, June 23-24.

 

Sima Belmar: You’re a Bay Area native. Tell us about your early dance life here.

Tonya Amos: I grew up in San Francisco, Sunnydale neighborhood — no running water, no electricity, no food. My parents put all of their money towards our education. I went to fancy schmancy schools, and I took ballet classes, acting classes, and all this stuff that kids in the projects didn’t do.

SB: Where did you take these classes?

TA: When I was a kid I was at ACT. For dance, I was at San Francisco Ballet. We’re talking about the 1970s. I was literally the only child of color in the studio. Every other kid in the school got to be in The Nutcracker, but I was never allowed on stage. So, after three years my dad went and spoke with the director of SFB and they were like, Yeah, Blacks can’t be on stage. I remember my dad saying something not very nice, and then, “We’re going elsewhere.”

SB: Where did you go after your dad took you out of SFB?

TA: So this was pre-BART and there was tons of traffic in northern California, unlike now [laughs]. My parents were in the car all the time trying to make sure we had access and to minimize the racial trauma of being a Black kid in the 70’s. I ended up at Diablo Gymnastics in Walnut Creek (the kids were horrific to me there). A woman who was watching practice said to my mother, “Why isn’t she dancing?” This was Lareen Fender of The Ballet School. Lareen approached me with my mom’s permission and said, “You’re beautiful. You should be dancing.” And I said, “I don’t want to dance anymore.” And she asked, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, Blacks can’t be on stage.” I was 9. And she said, “Nonsense. You can be on stage with me.” So Lareen trained the hell out of me for a couple of years. She was wonderful to me and made sure to never let the racial undertones that were thrown out by kids and their parents become overtones.

At the same time, I was going to school at Nueva Day in Hillsborough with people who had 18 burners in their kitchen and horses. Anybody like me was cleaning someone’s house. Meanwhile, in my house it’s pouring rain and my whole family is in my bedroom because it’s the only room that doesn’t have water pouring through the ceiling—mom, dad, two sisters, two dogs, and the cat.

When my mom got pregnant with my third sister, she couldn’t drive me to Walnut Creek anymore. So I went back to train in the city, bouncing around between pretty major academies. One of them is gone, a boarding school for ballerinas, LaNova Academy [Ballet Celeste International of San Francisco].[3] I didn’t live there, but ballerinas came from all over the country to study there. I remember there was a Nutcracker audition. I was about to go home when people asked why I wasn’t auditioning. I was like, Well, Blacks can’t be on stage, and they were like, “Oh, that’s right. Ok! See you next week!” They were kind of glad—the little girl with the leg behind the head and the three pirouettes en pointe at age 11! But on my way out, one of the moms said, “I hear what you’re saying, but Ms. LaNova is very open-minded. You should go talk to her.” So this old Russian woman looks at me and says, “Nonsense, dear. Blacks can be on stage. There’s a black snowflake in Nutcracker. But we already have our Black this year, dear. You should come back next year.” And “that Black” was Eurydice [Ross], one of the original members of GWDC. She was the only Black concert dancer I’d ever seen in my actual conscious memory.

solo african american female dancer in purple flowing dress

 

SB: What happened after you missed your chance to be the single Black snowflake?

TA: I went to Janet Sassoon’s Academy of Ballet. Richard Gibson had just come from the Joffrey. I walked in, this little 12-year-old with flawless turns and arabesques behind my head, 42 pounds in the 7th grade. I was skin and bones, which is why my ballet teachers loved me…

SB: …because they could see the lines…

TA: …right. American teachers often had been really mean to me. But Richard, who was really nice to me, jumps me to the 15-17 year old girls, until Janet comes in and says I’m in the wrong class and puts me back with the 12-year-olds—and I was thrown to the wolves. Then, one day Janet looks at me and says, “Dear, your hair is very ethnic.” At that point I was 13 and starting to notice what I looked like in the world. I never went back. I couldn’t enter another dance studio for 7 years.

 

SB: So you just stopped dancing?

TA: Yes, until 1986 when I left for UCLA. I was the first person in my lineage since slavery to go to college. I went to UCLA because in that time period all of my friends were being murdered and locked up under Three Strikes for a joint in their pocket. The depression and survivor’s guilt is really bad when you come from an environment where people are actually being targeted to not make it.

When I transferred to Cal in 1989, I bought $5 rush tickets to Cal Performances—Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garth Fagan, and Bill T. Jones with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m one of the only brown folks in the theater and just crying. In that moment I realized you can create social change with the arts.

In my junior year there was a company called Voice the Movement, a project put together by Anne Reeb, daughter of the white minister [James Reeb] who was killed during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1989, she made a piece about Medgar Evers. Reggie Savage was Medgar and I was his wife, Myrlie. During this process, I figured out that people can actually do this as a job. So my senior year, instead of scooping ice cream on campus, my job was dancing.

SB: Did you dance with the Graham folks at Cal?

TA: I did not. I was an Anthropology major. I was studying African American history and taking Egyptian hieroglyphics. I was like, we need Black people who can read primary documentation, so I did three years of glyphs, which when I moved to NY in 1991, two weeks after I finished college, kept me out of trouble because I had like $200 and had no place to live, no job, no food. I would go to the Met and pay 24 cents to get in and I would spend 8 hours and just translate stuff off the walls.
When I graduated from Cal in 1991, people kept telling me to take [class] with Alonzo [King]. And I was like, Who is this Alonzo? Finally, someone dragged me in there and I was like, He’s Black! Why didn’t anyone say he was Black! None of the Black folks in his class had done any ballet but they were just so happy to be in his presence. And he treated everyone with loving respect. He encouraged me rather than flattening my already low self-esteem.

 

SB: But you chose NY over SF, and you went to NY to dance, not to be a museum docent, right?

TA: I went to New York to dance. My first Ailey audition was for the company, at Zellerbach [Berkeley]. I made it through a cut and then Ms. [Denise] Jefferson, who was the head of the Ailey school at the time, pulled me aside and asked me to come to the audition for the Ailey school’s Summer Intensive in NY. She saw my really good ballet foundation from years before. Years later, I worked for Ms. Jefferson—I was her student assistant, her house sitter, her friend. She was the one who built that school. She was my mentor and I loved her so much, my NY dance mom. Several women were accepted into the summer program, but—two of us, myself and Phyllis Byers—were asked to attend the scholarship audition in New York. This moment changed the entire course of my life. There were 600 girls at the Ailey school audition. They give 35 scholarships a quarter, and they try hard to make sure that African American dancers are represented in that group. I auditioned for the scholarship and got it.

SB: So what was it like at the Ailey school for you?

TA: I would not have danced without Ailey. I owe Ailey a lot. But back then, Black women couldn’t have braids, locks, twists—the same reason I was ousted from ballet was happening there. My generation got that changed. Ms. Jefferson went to the International Blacks In Dance conference where somebody talked about self-hatred, and she came back and changed the policy. All the higher level ballet classes were mostly white. I’d be put in the back line, told by a (non-Black) teacher, “You’re fat, you’re lazy, you’re never going to dance.” It wasn’t always like that but even in a Black organization, that European body type is preferred, that ballet line. I defended my scholarship for 9 semesters. After a year and a half I looked around and everyone else was gone. And I kept defending it. They make you audition every single semester.

SB: Talk about precarity.

TA: If your lines and turns don’t keep getting better, you’re gone.

SB: So who did you dance with during the New York years?

TA: During the New York years, I danced with Cleo Parker Robinson (in Denver), one of the Black rep companies. Basically all the repertory gets shared between Cleo, Dayton Contemporary Dance, Philadanco, and Ailey—we all did Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, Katherine Dunham. For example, I was a soloist in McKayle’s Nocturne, which was Sylvia Waters’ role at Ailey, but during a different time period.

SB: Was this supporting you?

TA: Oh yeah. Once I went to New York all I did was dance professionally. When I was at Ailey I did three hours of answering phones in the morning. But I was at Ailey 12 hours a day. I was off on weekends. I taught some gymnastics on the weekends just to make some extra money. Once I was in New York, I was a dancer. I never got a “real job” ever again. I danced with Cleo in Colorado from 1994-1996. Back in New York, I danced with Footprints, an Ailey spin-off, and Amy Pivar, a Bill T. spin-off. It was all concert dance, until the last four years. I had a career-altering abdominal surgery, I’d say career-ending, but it wasn’t really career-ending, I just couldn’t do concert dance anymore because it was 12 hours a day of hard core physical work and partnering. I couldn’t support weight on my pelvis anymore. I didn’t trust my body at that point. I’d be okay for two weeks and then I’d be doubled over in pain, I didn’t realize that for years I was working with scar tissue and internal bleeding. I was just in pain all the time. So my last four years in New York I turned to musical theater, because I could be a dancer but not be a dancer. So I did the international tour of West Side Story and some other Broadway tours and reviews, including playing Ernie in a ginormous, hot costume in the national tour of Sesame Street. I did a lot of fitness modeling, so when you see someone flying through the air in a business suit, that was me.

an african american couple leaping in the air

SB: So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back?

TA: After 9/11, my husband and I backpacked through Latin America for a year. When we came back to New York, my apartment was sublet, so I stayed in California after visiting my parents. I’d been trying to retire for 10 years. At that point I had convinced myself that dancing was the only thing I was good at. I couldn’t start over. I [didn’t] have any real skills. The dance career is really bad for the self-esteem—you’re yelled at non-stop, people are throwing chairs at you and cussing at you, with the occasional getting swatted on the butt by a choreographer. That abuse over a long time, that’s in your nervous system at that point. There was one other choreographer that I still wanted to work with and then I found out he was doing the same thing to his dancers so I was like, Yeah, done.

I was using my return to the Bay Area as an excuse to do something new. At this point I’m 35 years old. After two years trying actively to teach, I opened a Pilates studio in Concord. I opened in 2006 with no business experience.

From concept to opening day was six weeks. I wasn’t supposed to make it out of the projects. I definitely wasn’t supposed to have a 15-year dance career after not dancing for seven years. I wasn’t supposed to have a really successful concert dance career as a Black dancer, period. Luckily I had people around me saying do it. I’ve won five business awards—Small Business of the Year, Best Woman-Owned business of the year, Female Entrepreneur the Year, 100 influential women of Pleasant Hill, and Best Pilates Studio.

SB: No one had related to you that being a dancer involves a whole range of skill sets…

TA: …I had no idea! I went from a ballerina to the Ailey institution, and whether you like it or not, when you’re part of the incredible Ailey institution, you don’t know anything else is out there, that’s the only thing that’s legitimate. You go out into the world and you can dance circles around everyone else but if you stand next to Desmond [Richardson] every day in class, of course you think you suck!

 

SB: So what drew you back to dance and the formation of GWDC?

TA: After opening my studio, I started getting really itchy artistically. At the turn of the millennium, we were losing some really kick-ass people in the African American community—Ossie Davis, Gregory Hines, Nina Simone, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King. Michelle Ned, who I danced with in Voice the Movement, and I thought, someone has got to do something to honor these people. We decided to make a show, just bring our friends and family to see it. I called Eurydice and Marisa Castillo. My husband, who’s a computer geek, put together a multimedia to tie the dances together and holy shit, we have a show!

Our first year was at Laney College in 2009. We had 150 people in the audience. They were mostly all my clients. So we moved it closer to my studio to leverage my clientele. For the next six years we did [it at] Pleasant Hill and Concord, we sold out our shows, 600 people, lines down the street. In 2015 we moved the show to a new theater in Pittsburg to try to reach the Black community there. But folks didn’t know concert dance and because we don’t have funding, the tickets were too expensive. We always sponsor 100-150 kids, but I couldn’t get the tickets cheaper than $28. Then, most of my clients wouldn’t come to Pittsburg because there were too many Black people. Y’all want a dance history concert but you don’t want to be around black people! Black people were afraid to come to Pleasant Hill for fear of being pulled over. White people were afraid of Black people. So I moved the show to Impact HUB in Oakland 2016, and this year [2017] to Malonga. I think it will stay there. My dream is to get it in a bigger space and make the tickets $5.

 

SB: For those who’ve never seen Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars, the multimedia presentation of images and songs by Black musical artists alternates with dances choreographed by GWDC. And the dancing is amazing.

TA: I only work with people who are kick-ass dancers who I trust intimately because I’ve worked with them in companies.

SB: I feel like your story demonstrates that dancing is not about ability, but about a commitment to changing approaches over time. Aging dancers teach audiences that it’s not about being in shape…

TA: …it’s about sharing wisdom. The power you have in your little finger, the experience you have in your body. If you can walk onto the stage and snatch the air out of the theater, then I trust you.

Tonya closed her Pilates studio this past March to focus on GWDC and expanding Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars to create a robust Civil Rights program. “As a dancer I didn’t have voice. Now, I know: I started something from nothing. There’s a part of me that needs to go back to dancing, not for the sake of dancing, but to use dance as a modality for social impact and civil rights work. We are grown-ass women, carrying on the Black tradition of protest, agency, and providing access. We can do anything we put our brains to. It might be hard, but we’ll figure it out.”

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.”

***

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.”

*

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

*

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.”

*

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).

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