Dance, Protest and Identities: A Book Review

By Ann Murphy


Embodied Politics: Dance, Protest and Identities
Stacey Prickett
Published by Dance Books, 2013

Embodied cover (In Dance)IN THE LAST DECADES, we have begun to feel a seismic shift in western understanding of the body from that of a machine with drives as predictable as the laws of motion to the body as an ever- emergent organism inseparable from and in ceaseless and dynamic conversation with the world around it. For generations dance has been in the vanguard of this transformation as it pursued complex ideas of corporeality, embodied consciousness and communication, often in concert with philosophy and psychology.

Embodiment, for instance, was one of the vital ideas in the postmodern experiments of such choreographers as Anna Halprin, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. It was a vital part of the experiments in consciousness and physical expression that took place at Dartington Hall, when the members of Jooss company practiced meditation under the trees of the Devon estate. Earlier still, Isadora Duncan searched for and built a counterforce to the growing idea in the late 19th and early 20th century of the industrialized body through her use of breath and flow in structured improvisation.

Embodied Politics: Dance, Protest and Identities, sounds like it might feed from this same stream, but author Stacey Prickett, a Principal Lecturer at Roehampton University in England and former Bay Area resident, is foremost interested in the body as the launch pad of protest and dances as “weapons” or “tools” of social and economic struggle. In her extensively researched study, dance content and its context dominate; how the body shaped those politics is largely implied.

As Prickett makes clear in her introduction, embodiment can mean everything from concretizing the abstract, expressing an act in an organization, uniting, or incorporating something into something else. She starts with tangibles, which mirror her interest in Marxist or neo-Marxist politics physicalized through dance. There is something refreshing in her focus on dance as a tool in political struggle, which she takes up with the determination of an early 20th century Wobbly. But anyone picking up the book hoping for a philosophical discourse about the communicative possibilities of the 21st century dancing body will be disappointed. The theme of her study is not the politics of embodiment per se or the shifts in embodied meaning and identity from era to era, but the forgotten or as yet unanalyzed dance of pageants, marches and abandoned sites that has militated against the status quo, whether in affiliation with leftist parties or in unaffiliated protest against global capitalism, injustice and oppression. To that end she has undertaken a limited but detailed investigation of political grassroots dance in New York, San Francisco and England across the 20th and into the 21st century.

It is the sort of history some have lamented is too seldom written—thick with data about the valiant efforts by little-known choreographers—in this case, artists out to show, to protest, to celebrate the plight of the downtrodden. The difficulty of such an approach is that the trees can overtake the forest, and the reader can get lost in myriad and sometimes tangential details. The chapters often read like long articles rather than pieces of a larger argument, and within the chapters the facts can overrun thematic points articulated in the introduction: that alternative or marginal dance exists in taut relation to the status quo and power; that the protesting body as a rebellious social body can alter the perception of the possible; that larger narratives are embedded in many of these dances; and that participatory dances that are fueled by a collective ethos can give rise to personal transformation. These organizing ideas are often subsumed by waves of particulars, making it hard in the absence of those conceptual containers to organize the information into more meaningful wholes.

In the tradition of scholars like Mark Franko and Linda Tomko who have studied political dance in the early 20th century, Prickett opens by shining light on little-known Edith Segal, a New York Communist Party-affiliated dancer who launched the Red Dancers. Here the author offers a highly detailed account of Segal’s history, some of which she was able to get through interviews with the activist. Segal, who came up through the Henry Street Settlement and Neighborhood Playhouse, stuck close to Communist Party pageants, workers’ clubs, leftist summer camps and impromptu performances rather than to the emerging modern dance scene. She was, in the end, redder than most.

More fascinating than Segal’s own exploits to me, however, is Prickett’s depiction of the cross-pollination that went on, how widely someone like Segal traveled, and the shared influences of artists and activists across continents. She studied with “socialist actor and theatre director Senda Koreya,” the brother of the Michio Ito, visited Russia where she grappled with the resurrection of imperial-style ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow after the revolution. She also lived, worked and agitated in Detroit as a “field organizer” for the New Dance Group where, for $5 a week, she choreographed dances like Anti-war cycle: Industrialism, war, Fraternization for 18 dancers at the Dance Festival for the Cause of Peace. Whether she was directing the Ukranian American Pioneer Dance Group or the Freheit Jubilee pageant, Segal was a die-hard Communist who borrowed from avant-garde theater to blur the lines between protest and art to express her radical politics.

Prickett’s final chapter presents the South Asian dance advances in London, including the 2012 opening ceremony spectacle for the British summer Olympic Games that presented a performance by Akram Khan and 50-plus dancers. Detailing the powerful role of South Asian arts in community centers and the codification of non-western dance in the schools, Prickett conveys with some of the same verve as she brings to her portrait of the Bay Area a grassroots scene thriving, morphing, and reflecting the larger cultural changes of the country.

Her liveliest and most acutely shaped chapter is the one devoted to the Bay Area. This is not merely bias raising its head, though I was overjoyed to discover a scholar finally giving local artists the broad attention they deserve. It’s that nowhere else in the volume does Prickett zero in on particular companies and artists and vividly describe and contextualize work as she does here. With access to video documentation, emails with artists, interviews and direct involvement, Prickett makes Bay Area activist dance especially juicy; its link to larger issues of place, identity and injustice striking and clear. What’s more, some of you will find you and your work discussed or trip over fragments of your own thoughts.

The title of the chapter is “Politics, Dance and the Persona: Redefining Performance in the San Francisco Bay Area” and pays homage to Peters Wright, the Bennington summer sessions at Mills College, Gloria Unti’s work with marginalized youth and Ruth Beckford in the community centers in the East Bay. Although she misstates that Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer et al “travelled west” to dance with Halprin—Brown, Rainer, Robert Morris and Simone Forti were already on this coast, though soon to leave—Prickett captures the spirit of early troupes like Welland-Lathrop, Mangrove, the Moving Men and, more generally, the ferment from the 70s on which both drew upon and inspired a climate of political activism and visionary quest.

She examines some of Margaret Jenkins’ political threads and defines Jenkins’ role as the force that professionalized the scene, although I would argue that Jenkins created a magnet for dance that then generated new activity at new heights. Included was the dance of Joe Goode, who left the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company to start his own dance/theater troupe and contend with gender, identity, the status quo and AIDS. She pays lovely tribute to Joanna Haigood’s efforts to reclaim history, space and meaning through her site-specific work. She also gives Contraband, Keith Hennessey, Krissy Keefer and the Dance Brigade, and dance space per se, attention that is much-deserved.

Prickett’s study is only a beginning. She acknowledges that she has just touched upon the subject of the Bay Area, that artists are left out or merely mentioned. Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson’s pivotal role in the East Bay (Shawl/Anderson) is never mentioned, nor Lucas Hoving’s Performance Group, where he kept his radical past alive in Songs to Chile and other works. But Prickett has opened the path. Now other writers and scholars can further her examination of the body politics of grassroots dance here and elsewhere, and delve not only into the content and the context of political embodiment but its deep physical rhetoric and its role at each juncture of our history.

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of In Dance.

Ann Murphy, a long-time Bay Area dance critic, is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland.