“One thing that happened,” Jo Kreiter says, “was that I had a child, and so I spent many months just sitting in a yellow rocking chair.” This hardly sounds like an inspirational artistic experience for someone whose usual creative environment is charged by politics, muscularity, and aerial motion—someone who is so affectionate about the Chinese acrobatic poles in her studio that she has named them High T, L, and Low T. However, while she was rocking her child for months in that yellow chair, an album called The Seeger Sessions came out. It includes a Bruce Springsteen cover of the old Pete Seeger song “John Henry,” which tells the story of a folk hero who bet he could lay railroad steel faster with his hammer than any mechanical steam drill could. In the end, he wins the race, but the exertion kills him. He dies with his hammer in his hand, as the song goes, and so John Henry’s woman, “by the name of Polly Ann/ She walked out to those tracks/ Picked up John Henry’s hammer/ Polly drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord/ Polly drove that steel like a man.”
Jo Kreiter’s current project, which premieres July 14th at SOMArts, is called The Ballad of Polly Ann. It is a kind of sequel to a dance she made ten years ago, performed on the last hand-operated crane still in use on the San Francisco waterfront. She knew then that someday she would create another piece about labor history, but from a woman’s perspective. The Ballad of Polly Ann is as much an emotional history as it is a political one: the piece explores the personal experiences of Bay Area women who worked on bridge-building crews, thanks to the affirmative action policies of the 1970s. With the help of labor historian Harvey Schwartz, photographer Joseph A. Blum, and an organization called Tradeswomen Inc., Kreiter has been conducting interviews with female ironworkers, pile-drivers, crane operators, and laborers. Some of these workers were among the first women to join all-male crews in the 1970s, and some of them are still out there now, working on the current reconstruction of the Bay Bridge. Jo Kreiter and her dancers listened to twenty hours of taped interviews before translating this collective oral history into a dance. The details of the construction process described by the women gave rise to specific movements: one section is about “rolling the joists,” which involves laying out the beams that become a bridge’s falsework, and another section is about laying pieces of deck for the Al Zampa bridge (the first steel orthotropic suspension bridge in the US).
By incorporating the literal motions of bridge-building, The Ballad of Polly Ann is a labor history lesson in dance form, a kinetic tribute to one group of elevated female movers from another. Sometimes using obvious bridge-making references in the piece can be a challenge—Kreiter remarks ruefully that she has to be occasionally reminded by her CHIME mentor, K.T. Nelson, that she is making a dance, not a bridge. Kreiter and her dancers feel an affinity with the risk posed by height, and view it as an affirmation of women’s physical strength and empowerment. “To walk 100 feet over water on a stringer that is 12 inches wide, with the wind blowing!” one of the bridge-builders rhapsodized, and the dancers knew what she meant—a “stage” for Flyaway Productions, can be anywhere between 2 and 100 feet off the ground.
This project has been supported by local unions and building companies, which means that Flyaway will “deliver this piece to part of the community that’s not used to seeing dance as a vehicle for their history,” Kreiter says proudly. This history, however, is not entirely composed of exhilarating heights, free-blowing winds, and the positive progress of feminist liberation. “When we started this process,” Jo Kreiter relates, “the director of Tradeswomen Inc. said to me, ‘what these women have in common is that they’ve all been hurt.’ More than one woman told stories about how the men had tried to kill them.” As she listened to the interviews, she realized how isolated the women felt—often there would be only one woman per crew on a job site—to represent this isolation the piece contains a series of intimate solos.
“When I set out to choreograph, I see first through a political lens. I locate an issue that holds immediacy. From there, I imagine a landscape, fabricated in steel, that gives visual reference to the content.” For The Ballad of Polly Ann, Kreiter’s production crew created objects that move in unpredictable ways—“some of them weigh a ton, literally!” she notes—making the solo sections seem more like concentrated duets, with dancer and object moving in synchrony. The duets between two dancers are calibrated to a delicate balance “between risk and intimacy,” between the precision of set phrases and the unknowable trajectories of objects. Kreiter has been forced to choreograph almost frame-by-frame, just to make sure that no one gets hurt.
Flyaway Productions is an all-female company through which Kreiter and her dancers create a physical language as feminists. Her work has been described as “exposing the range and power of female physicality,” and “integrating risk, spectacle, and social potency.” An example of this is The Live Billboard Project, a vertical dance that premiered in 2006 around a giant billboard on the corner of Mission and 24th Streets. “We were stripping away movement to a vocabulary that was about ownership of our own bodies,” she recalls. The Live Billboard Project suspended a quartet of female dancers lightly in the air with a movement vocabulary predicated on strength and muscularity. The piece included a duet that Kreiter feels is her best work to date: it is an intimate sequence between two women (Damara Ganley and Jessica Swanson) who float like Chagall figures over a table and chairs; the women touch and interact, and partially support each other’s weight even as they are held by harnesses. “The intimacy that two women conjure between them even when they are total strangers is beauty,” Kreiter reflects. “It’s about how intimate you could be—and still so huge and spectacular.”
The terms she uses to describe her work—beauty, intimacy, spectacle, exposure—carry the connotations of traditional femininity; however, her movement vocabulary emphasizes athleticism (she was trained as a gymnast), upper-body strength, and deliberate weightedness. “I have a lush relationship to gravity,” Kreiter declares. “Dropping my pelvis to the floor is very luxurious for me.” The idea of creating weighted dances in the air seems paradoxical, but Kreiter tries to resolve them kinetically: duets of intimacy become spectacle, exposing the body by way of self-ownership, exploring gravity while in flight. Kreiter shares the feminist ideals of early modern dance—liberating the female body from ideological constraints—but instead of putting her dancers’ bare feet solidly on the floor, she’s dangling them off the edges of buildings, strapped securely into their harnesses.
One of the things she has learned through making The Ballad of Polly Ann, is “how gendered the eyes is, watching women and men doing manual labor.” In one example, she instructed a dancer to make the motion of sanding, but as soon as the dancer bent down and began to move her hand in that circular motion, Kreiter had to stop her slightly horrified. “I said, ‘Oh, no! It looks like you’re washing the floor on your knees with a rag.’” They tried the phrase again. It still looked like the dancer was washing the floor. In the end, that phrase was eliminated, but the experience left Kreiter nervous about the way that the bridge-workers will see the performance. She is “anticipating their eyes” watching the dance that she hopes will honor their history. What if there are moments like the one in rehearsal, where the motion of sanding makes them look like they are down on their knees with wet rags?
Kreiter uses aerial dance to ground her work in the community, and sometimes it seems that the farther from the ground her dancers are, the deeper her dances are rooted. Ten years ago she created an aerial piece on a large copra crane at Islais creek channel, trying to raise awareness of its place in San Francisco labor history. In 2001, she premiered The Economics of Place, followed by Mission Wall Dances: both pieces took up the issue of displacement and socio-economic conflict in the Bay Area. How to be a Citizen, another piece she created with labor historian Harvey Schwartz and her longtime collaborator, sound designer Pamela Z, was a site-specific dance about public protest in San Francisco. It was staged in a plaza near the Ferry Building on a 74-foot-long ramp that sloped to a height of 7 feet. “In order to get a permit from the city, we had to hire an engineer,” Kreiter explained during a KQED Spark program, “who had to calculate what is called ‘the uplift quotient,’ which is: what is the weight that this [stage] has to be in order to not be uplifted during 70 mph winds?” For How to be a Citizen, the uplift quotient meant that the sandbags had to weigh 1100 pounds to prevent the ramp from uplifting.
For The Ballad of Polly Ann, with its aspiration of giving the female bridge-builders back some essence of their shared history—something that looks like courage and tenacity, and not like washing the floor—Jo Kreiter may have to go beyond the folksong that inspired her, in which Polly drives that steel just like a man. The women who built the Bay Area’s bridges have gone higher and farther, against more hostile opposition, than the mythical Polly Ann who simply picked up her man’s hammer and continued his work. In fact, Flyaway Productions hasn’t hired an engineer for this project, because the uplift quotient for The Ballad of Polly Ann is going to be calculated on opening night, by the women who have come down off the bridges to watch the dance.