Are We Saturated With Killing? Provoking the Limitations of Performance

By Mary Carbonara


What can dance do? I’ve always thought it can do everything and anything. As I’ve embarked on making a new work, What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone? I’ve questioned that assumption a few times, wondering if I’ve chosen a subject that is too big, perhaps, or too elusive to be rendered solely by movement.

It started with an interview on the radio. A Vietnam veteran cum author was talking about his several books on his experiences in war. There’s lots of killing in these books, some of it by him. The interviewer asked him if he is frequently asked what does it feel like to kill someone. He responded with annoyance and evasion. He seemed to think it was a bad question, the obviousness of which irritated him. It seemed to me to be the most important question of all. And with that I began to imagine making a work.

I wondered not what a person thinks and feels before committing a horrible act, but before deciding to intervene or ignore it. I guess I take for granted that there are murderers and criminal sociopaths in the world. What I realized is that those who scare me more are the witnesses who do nothing, myself among them as I sit in front of my computer screen or watch TV. That became the springboard-how close to an act of violence must a person be before they bear some responsibility for it and how far away do you have to get to become innocent?

I began to make movement that felt bound and harsh, movement that tangled around itself. I asked the dancers to increase their muscular tension even while they did simple things. I was coming from the perspective that to do nothing is twisted, and in conflict with a better nature. We created duets and trios that circled and stalked, fragmented couplings and strained solos.

The treacherousness of the subject had me in abeyance. I hadn’t dealt with the issue. I hadn’t asked of myself or the dancers their true feelings or experiences with violence. I was reticent to showcase their personal lives or mine, but it was becoming all too clear that without our personal investment the piece would only be a collection of cliched bullet points: anger: check; fear: check; tension: check; more anger: check…

Meanwhile, the revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East and the assassination of Osama bin Laden have been pouring out of the media. Television and the newspapers are saturated with killing, real and fictionalized. The dance was feeling like just another artifact to heap on the pile.

Sara Shelton Mann blew me open during a recent conversation when she said simply, “I would assume that you want to deal with the poetics of the human spirit.” Of course, I knew the premise of the piece was huge and weighty and multi-faceted. To contemplate the poetics, the beauty, the lyricism and abstractions of the subject threw me into another strata. I was thrilled.

Then very terrified.

Making this work has had me on edge from the start. To be thinking and reading about, looking at and even looking for violence for the last several months has upped my anxiety level in palpable and subtle ways. I feel a nervous giddiness when something works in rehearsal, uneasy to be glad that something so uncomfortable can be satisfying. Announcing the project to friends and critics elicits silly responses, quips about how angry and dark I must be. I’m told even the panel who in part funded the project first met my proposal with nervous laughter. I’m not the only one who is uneasy about this.

I’ve often entered the studio to make a dance earnestly wanting to make an audience feel a certain way. I want them to feel the impact of my subject and the subtly and grace of its more abstracted parts. And with each immersion into the process, I come up against the reality that I cannot make anyone feel a certain way. I can only put things in front of an audience and hope they see things that interest them, move them, make them wonder.

How to do that is another story entirely. Margaret Jenkins conceded despite the challenges of crafting work, how she decides what to put in front of an audience is simple.

“Whether or not I want to see it,” she said. “One of the reasons I make work is to go somewhere I haven’t gone before,” she explained. “I discover things, I don’t find answers.”

Sara offered, “The moment my attention wanders I know that I need to stop and start again or re-edit.”

And so we began again. The dancers and I began discussing our perspectives on, and fears of violence, and despite the unease that came into the room, I felt a door open. I saw a different physicality and pitch even as the dancers simply sat and spoke. One of us broke down just imagining what kinds of violence could happen, how she feared being hurt in certain ways. As we moved again, it was clear things had shifted. Taking a suggestion from Sara we began honing in on certain things like how the dancers use their hands or the breath patterns in a phrase. A different arc began to bend. Somehow grace began sidling up against all the harshness.

How long does it take to decide whether or not to intervene on a threatening situation? There’s the assessment of relative dangers and the evaluation of whether or not it’s “worth it,” whether or not the victim deserves rescue and how one might fight or attempt to defend someone. That moment between choosing to fight or flee can be a split second decision that seems to go on forever. In collaboration with composer Peter V. Swendsen, we are imaging how the duration of the piece is that moment in extended exposure, with cacophony the sound of high impact, danger, and the visceral heightening of the senses that comes both with fear and aggression, and silence the space of indecision, peace, and memory.

The environment of the dance is KUNST-STOFF arts, a space walled by windows, with exposed brick and terra cotta beams creating intersections, corners and frames. The very room is one of many compartments, choices and perspectives. As with all of my work, where the action takes place directly informs what can happen. Our containers impose boundaries and barriers on us. Action from inside a box is of a different nature than action on a mountaintop. One breathes differently inside a cell than on the seashore.

I’m still so eager to “see” the work in my head, to know what it will look like and to have a sense of its momentum. Meanwhile, I’ve realized that the uncertainty and edginess that I’ve been feeling are the substantive elements of the source. It’s a hazardous subject, for sure. There’s a fluttery feeling in my solar plexus, a jaggedness, when we work. It has been difficult to stay in that discomfort and in spite of it find the movement, to find the breath, to notice our hands or the way someone reclaims their legs after a lift, how a touch is retracted, let go, why a wall stops you and when it can’t.

While I wrestle with the complexities of bringing What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone? to the stage, I still maintain that dance can do anything. I don’t think there are subjects that are categorically impossible to dance or choreograph. As both Margy and Sara express in different ways, remaining present to the process and attentive to what interests me and where my questions lead is the only way to proceed. And, of course, the dancers and their contributions to the work are of paramount importance. To meet a person through the stage, to encounter a person in that state of being and doing, to care what they are doing and to look for their impulses and responses-these are the reasons I watch dance. It’s what makes me look harder when I sit in a theater, and it’s what I continue to look for when mining the stuff of my own work.

Mary Carbonara Dances performs the world premiere of  What Does It Feel Like to Kill Someone? June 8-11 at KUNST-STOFF arts. For more tickets and more information, go to

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of In Dance.

Mary Carbonara is a teacher and choreographer based in San Francisco since 1991. She teaches absolute beginners through professionals at Alonzo King LINES Ballet Center, dance pedagogy through the LINES Ballet Training Program, and creative movement for children age 3-11 in public schools as well as through her own independent program, Hamster Dance Academy. She was recently hired as the Outreach and Teen Program Manager at Alonzo King LINES Dance Center where she is thrilled to be introducing a new Teen Program this fall. She can be reached at