Photo by Robbie Sweeny
I am a storyteller, a translator, an everyperson, trying to ‘get’ life’s inexplicable moments. I make work to try and understand difficult life experiences, like the death of a parent, a near-fatal accident, passing as something one is not, the unspoken language of relationships, and impending environmental crises. It is my hope that the particular kaleidoscope of questions and modalities my company engages casts fresh light on the topics we address. I am drawn to things that challenge the dancers. And by grappling with the challenge, we have courage to go forward. We believe that art is a tool that can explore, re-contextualize, and reframe difficult life experiences.
I have come to appreciate that live performance, especially about shared life experiences, helps break a sense of isolation, gives hope and sometimes clarity. We need to be taken out of ourselves and art does that for us, for a second, a minute or a lifetime.
I don’t ‘think’ my way through a difficult experience, I understand it as we wrestle with the ideas in rehearsal. It’s in the conversations, the physical struggle. We get to have a dialogue. We see facial expressions, hear tones of voice, note body language in the flesh, not on a screen. Collaborators come in and bring music, sets and all the things that make a creative process. We engage together instead of playing separately. That is as critical a context as I can imagine in this time of incivility.
Which brings me to this piece. I first heard Elizabeth Warren say, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu!” I kept hearing the phrase over and over in every current event context. Ideas for a new piece started to percolate. What if we started with a table that was rectangular, where there’s a ‘head’, a power seat? And what if the table breaks apart and everybody gets to tell/move their stories about how they got there? Or didn’t get there. Then they come back together and the table is re-assembled as round, and everyone is co-equal. Does being at the round table mean equity?
It has become evident as we are working that what we can attempt to address in our small-ish group, without tokenizing, is ‘power’—who has it and who doesn’t. As I frequently do when developing a new work, I began interviewing others for their points of view. It was important to interview a range of people to get perspectives other than our own because I understand how limited one’s own point of view can be. I started with people I knew and through them was introduced to more people to interview who identify as gay, transgender, people of color, people who have different religious beliefs, people with disabilities and people who are combinations of all those things.
The interview process has been compelling and turned up unexpected answers. Respondents have talked about all the amazing events in their lives and how they are more focused on what they have as opposed to what they don’t have. For example, one gay dancer talked about the luck he felt as a man in the dance field. I assumed he might have struggled both with being a gay man and/or a dancer. He cited getting into a dance program on a scholarship. None of the women, who he felt could dance circles around him, got one. During roundtables at my studio (not at roundtables;)), some people said, “I don’t want to be at the table,” or “I’ll bring my own table,” or “Who needs a table at all?”
What these interviews brought up for the company are more questions: “What sort of table am I creating? What are people willing to tell me, versus someone in their identified community? What is left unsaid? Is what they are willing to share influenced by the possibility that their story may be used to help create a piece that they are not creating? How candid are they willing to be? How much pressure did they feel internally to tell a good/positive story about themselves and represent others like them in a favorable way?” I can’t answer for anyone, but it makes me think when interpreting their responses.
In this way, the interviews serve to keep us grounded. None of us see the world the same way. Because of where we’re born, what we look like, how much money we have, we don’t have the same opportunities or life experiences. Institutional sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. play a part. And yet…there are so many things that cross over and push us towards each other…as well as push us away.
As movers, as members of the ensemble, the company understands the vastness of these different experiences and the challenge of how to approach them as movers. Our focus in working with the table is on making ideas physically visible. What has developed are characters, scenes, emotional connections and disconnections because of relationships begun or ended at the table.
This piece is the perfect finale to the 30th anniversary of my company, Deborah Slater Dance Theater (DSDT). The fact that we have endured is remarkable because there just aren’t a lot of dance entities that sustain themselves this long. Stubbornness helps. Creating something from nothing is how everyone in my generation began, and when the money goes away, we know we can create something from nothing again. It’s just a lot harder. In the old days there was cheap space, everyone could work together without complex contracts and my shows often garnered 6 reviews (reporters even came up from San Jose). Not now.
A small pitch here—it is harder and harder to live in the Bay Area due to high rental rates and low wages. Our rent has increased fivefold since we first opened the studio and the renters on either side of us (who are much newer to the building) pay twice as much as we do. So moving to a larger space is out of the question. I have done my best to compensate company members at least equivalent to minimum wage, but this does not cover health insurance or unemployment and is not enough to live on. I worked in restaurants in the old days to pay the rent and could keep my schedule very flexible. Now performers need full-time jobs, or a complicated patchwork of teaching, to cover their bills. Rehearsal time has decreased and the stress to keep a greater number of balls in the air has exponentially increased. I feel strongly that the work that DSDT is doing is important (a statement that can be made for most small companies), in that we deal with serious issues and that our work can offer perspective and techniques for coping and solace. Any sense of community we can create, just the act of sitting in a theater together, is a rebuttal to the cruel, ignorant environment we currently find ourselves in. Donate, participate, advocate. This is what we all can do.
Special thanks to my performers Rachel Garcia, Anna Greenberg, Derek Harris, Meegan Hertensteiner, Evan Johnson and Kyle Limin for their commitment, honesty and guts. To Sean Riley for doing the impossible and making a rectangle transform into a circle. To Octavia Hingle for making us visible. And to Jessica Judd, John B. Hill and Wayne Hazzard for editing brilliance.
inCIVILITY, P2 Outrage Machine & P3 A Seat at the Table, ODC Theater, Th-Sun, Feb 27-Mar 1, 2020. Tickets: http://odc.dance/incivility, deborahslater.org
This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of In Dance.