SPEAK: Risk and Triumph: Bellwether Dance Project’s Let Slip the Witches

By Amy Foley

Four dancers; Three are standing with arms reaching for the one in the center. The fourth is leaning on the floor.

I want to tell you about a show. A show I’ve had in my dreams for years. It is a show that is full of heart and a little drama and lots of kick-ass dancing and a bit of hell raising too.

It is a show that attempts to distill my 20+ years in this Bay Area dance community into something engaging and relevant; a show that features newer faces as well as older ones; a show that tries fresh approaches and pays homage to the past. And although it might not appear dangerous from the outside — a dance concert in a relatively traditional format and setting, in two acts with intermission — for me, the show is full of risk.

The show:

Let Slip the Witches is the inaugural home season of Bellwether Dance Project, a concert made up of four works: three world premieres including one by Robert Moses, plus Thighs and Wages, my piece from 2016. The works are distinct but the throughline of the show is one of empowerment – empowerment through connection, rage, resistance, and by simply being here, asking to be seen and heard. Is that cliché? Sorry! (Also, it’s not, or shouldn’t be). It is about staying in the game – not for the competition but for the conversation. To not just go away quietly because of lack of influence or power, children, or age. 

Let Slip the Witches

What started as an exploration of choreographic ideas around women’s bodies and the portrayal of othered women as witches or hags came to a temporary screeching halt when I learned about a well-known choreographer on the other coast currently in process on a work around the same concept, even drawing inspiration from the same exhibition and book (social media you are terrible/wonderful). As I took a pause from rehearsing while I questioned my creative originality, my eyes were tuned to all the witchy images and concepts around me: the title of a women’s playwriting festival, on social media, woven through popular culture in books, movies, television shows, and yes, in the descriptions of numerous contemporary dance works. I started to wonder about the seemingly intensified and very feminist fascination and association with the Witch. Therein exists a strong sense of sisterhood and a return to the elemental, to the female, to nature, as well as implications of cunning and intuition. I began to wonder, are women embracing the symbol of a witch as a form of resistance?

Five dancers standing in various poses in a crooked line.

I have been asked if Let Slip the Witches is political. My answer is yes. The title refers to the line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which Marc Antony calls out, “Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!” as he incites the people against Caesar’s assassins. Here, I imply a bursting forth of witches, a groundswell of female power. I can’t help but wonder if the renewed popularity of witches has less to do with spells and more to do with dissent. Considering that the people in positions of power in our country, mainly men, make decisions about women’s bodies and rights; considering that our culture apparently accepts sexual violence as the norm and misuse of power as acceptable, there is little wonder that women are turning to the archetype of the magical woman as a place of rebellion, quiet or loud. The witch has long stood as a symbol of oppression and freedom, of the othered and of power. In Let Slip the Witches, the four performers create a rhythmic world of ritual and self-resilience helped along by visual artist Julie Chang’s set design and a score by composer Ben Juodvalkis.

Meantime, Nol Simonse, Tanya Bello and I are having way too much fun creating First Love, in 3 Parts. It is a genuine pleasure to work with two people who are dear friends, massively talented performers, and dance-makers I deeply admire. Three performers, three musical selections, three long careers, three intertwined yet divergent paths, one first love: dance. It is, in some ways, a recognition of a life spent as an artist and offers a balm to the considerable joys and pitfalls inherent in art-making. The piece may also be experienced as a statement about age, with the rare vision of three dancers in their 40s performing together on stage.

Choreographer Robert Moses is giving me the ultimate gift of a solo choreographed on me. I danced with Robert Moses’ Kin for a decade and he has had a profound influence on me as a dancer and choreographer. The process with Robert is as mind-bending and inspiring as ever – with a little more talking this time around. The piece is structured as part improvisation score, part set material, based off of our writings and conversations about presence, parenthood, personhood, and identity.

A dancer stepping forward in a deep plié with fingertips curving inwards to the chest.Thighs and Wages (2016) addresses the experience of being a woman in the world. The title alludes to the terms “thigh gap” and “wage gap,” two concepts whose definitions shine a light on an accepted cultural paradigm of objectification and undervaluing of women and girls. Thighs and Wages considers the ways in which women are placed under a ceaseless scrutiny that is at best, exacting; at worst, sinister. From this point of view we considered violence, culpability, fear, and strength. The performers explore these ideas on a theatrical journey through gesture, duets, and expansive, intentionally exhausting dancing. I am thrilled to revisit this work, which feels more relevant than ever.

It all feels a bit risky to me, as the risk-averse person that I am: artistically, emotionally, physically, financially! I wonder if I have taken on more than I can handle and I continually question my decisions and am certainly not sleeping very much. But I also know that I revel in the creating and the dreaming and scheming and that I am immensely privileged to do this work at all. I am nervous, I am terrified, I am thrilled beyond measure to share what we have worked so very hard to create. Mainly, I know that after 22 years in this dance community, the time is now.

Risk shmisk.

This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of In Dance.

AMY FOLEY is a long-time, active member of the San Francisco Bay Area dance community. A dancer with Robert Moses' KIN for over a decade, Amy also has performed locally and nationally as a member of ODC/Dance, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Project Agora, Shift Physical Theater, RAWdance, Project B., KAMBARA+DANCERS, and more. She has enjoyed teaching technique to all ages and levels around the Bay Area and through master classes across the the country, currently on faculty at ODC and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts High School. She is the co-creator of SEAM (support and elevate artist mothers), a concert and programming in support of women’s leadership in the dance field. She was a 2017 Lead Artist at SAFEhouse and a 2018 recipient of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company’s CHIME award.