SPEAK: Wax Poet(s) Explores the Body in Resistance

By Garth Grimball

Two dancers reaching with the back of their hands
Two dancers reaching with the back of their hands
Heather Stockton and Garth Grimball / Photo by Yvonne Portra

Let’s talk about rage. Are you numb?

Did it ever seem possible to be afraid of your phone? Dread checking the daily news; feel compelled to remain abreast of current events in the aspiration of being an active citizen; feel guilty for not doing more; fearful of effects whose ripples and repercussions can’t be fathomed; angry at the fear itself as much as the cause of the fear; rage towards the ache of voicelessness and the endless consumption of information the keeps you from being the active citizen you aspire to be?

So began a conversation Heather Stockton and I held with our collaborating dancers in a recent rehearsal for our upcoming show, Swivel:Hinge:Return. It’s a necessary conversation. A conversation we planned on, anticipated, and were hedging to articulate. At this writing, we are at the halfway point between the start of rehearsals and opening night. We are speaking not only to our dancers and collaborators but our friends. Their stories, experiences, and bodies are our show. The line between choreographer and collaborator, friend and associate, is blurred, complicated, and challenged in the safest of environments. Creating dance work to explore how the body processes current events and how we embody our emotional and physical responses requires a trust equal in empathy and equity.

Our first choreographic charge to the dancers was to create a solo as guidebook. Instruct us on a self-care practice through embodied movement. Each creates “info-solos”, and the seven of us share our body pamphlets, which evolve into a choreographic throughline in the work.

Discussing and embodying rage necessitates its own choreographic process separate and unique from our solos. Asking the same process and outcome of each diminishes both. Our conversation on rage begins with all eyes taking stock of non-verbal responses to the subject. Is everyone feeling up to it? One dancer expresses an inability to engage verbally on rage in this moment. As artistic director, Heather acknowledges this conversation does not have a desired outcome, a pre-set path, nor an expiration date. Opinions and anecdotes emerge dissecting the origins of rage; rage as groupthink or mob mentality; what follows rage; the usefulness of rage; how we can embody rage choreographically through continual movement investigations. The word “rage” creates a constellation of responses central to the enigma of our concept: how does a body perform resistance? And what effect does the performance have?

“Common to all people of this age is the fact that more is weighing on them than they can bear; no one is equal to his or her burden. Never before has life been so heavy for people; just to exist, they muster an effort that goes beyond their strength.”

Austrian writer and critic, Hermann Bahr’s proclamation of life in 1900 echoes into the collective anxiety of our current social climate. The upheavals, conflicts, and injustices of today all have precedent in the past. Yet, each has never been more visible, debate has never been more public, “sharing” is no longer the reciprocity we teach children. How does the body respond to the barrage of “breaking news” updates and calls to show up, to protest, to contact legislators, to donate? How does the body weather this deluge that at best galvanize us to unified action and at worst feeds the cycle of “couch protests” or passive resistance in this social media era?

How is a body most effective at performing resistance in this time?  

And is garnering an audience a good way to change minds and hearts or the best way to build unity?

And what is a “body” anyway? Myriad classifications of the body exist and each can be radicalized: a body of people showing up in solidarity; a body of work being exalted or destroyed; a political body versus a social body; the body politic; a body becoming a political landscape on which ideological lines are drawn.

These questions and concepts drive the practice and conversation forming Swivel:Hinge:Return. The stories of our bodies are not unique. They are singular. Our resisting is part of a tradition of movements, of populations that extend across time and geography. Art as a tool for dissent and catharsis exists in every artistic medium. We are not providing answers. We are not claiming new ground or dictating values. We are creating a container to process.

“The practice of having words mean nothing.”  

This is activist Masha Gessen’s description of rhetorical tactics used by leaders to obfuscate democratic processes. In our processing, can we queer it to our advantage? If the virtue of dancing, of choreography, is being apart from verbal language, can we create without the threat of our words being turned into nothing? In processing our physical responses to current events, in weighing the best use of our time to be part of effective change, in cataloging breakdowns of civility, in feeling our heartbeats accelerate each time we let the outside in, perhaps the strength lies not in language but in our bodies.

Rage can be useful; it can be a salve. Rage can also rob us of our individual freedom to care for others. In our “processing container” we care for each other verbally and non verbally. Verbal and nonverbal practices enhance our rehearsal process beyond creating movement and constructing choreography. From the designated physical warm-up and verbal check-ins on the state of our bodies to collective ceremonies. Each collaborating artist is given space to investigate and time to respond. It is exhausting and fruitful. We end each rehearsal in a circle commemorating three things we accomplished and honoring our accomplishments with one unison clap.

We started Wax Poet(s) five years ago as a laboratory. Since our first performance in November, 2013, our mission remains to invite artists from different mediums to collaborate, to create new work, and to be uncomfortable with one definition of who we are and how we create. Our intent is empowering bodies and creating space for artists. Comparable to the relationship between collaborators, our container is amorphous. Every body processes in its own way. A person is a process. Rage is just one of the emotions we are exploring, and our container, like our bodies, will support us in our creation.

This article appeared in the March 2018 edition of In Dance.

Wax Poet(s)’ Executive Director Garth Grimball is a native of North Carolina where he received his BA in Anthropology and Dance at UNC Asheville. He danced with Asheville Ballet for five seasons performing new and repertory works. He received his MFA in choreography and performance from Mills College where he was the recipient of the Liatis Foundation Dance Scholarship award and performed in works by Merce Cunningham, Mel Wong, Sonya Delwaide, Sheldon Smith, Katie Faulkner and Molissa Fenley. His choreography has been featured in ODC's 2016 and 2017 Pilot Program and the 2015 SpectorDance Choreographer's Showcase. In addition to Wax Poet(s) he performs with Dana Lawton Dances and Oakland Ballet.