First Things First

By Rowena Richie

June 11, 2020, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Northwest Arkansas and Benton County roller derby leaguers at the Meet the Momentary festival in Bentonville, Arkansas

Northwest Arkansas and Benton County roller derby leaguers at the Meet the Momentary festival in Bentonville, Arkansas
Photo by Erika Chong Shuch

First things first: how are you? Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, how can we begin anything, even an essay in a dance publication, without asking this fundamental question?

I hope you are Ok. If you’re anything like me, a mover and someone who thrives on physical connection with others, this period of sheltering in place can be excruciating. Even when we’re lucky enough, as I have been so far, to be physically and financially healthy.

I have a story to tell about a recent performance that may lift your spirits. I know it continues to lift mine.

It’s a story about a performance called First Things First. It’s the last performance I co-created before the coronavirus crisis. And while this tale of travel, of touch, of togetherness can seem so far away as to be a fairy tale or mythic fable, it’s helping me imagine a hopeful real-world future.

***

First Things First was a world premier performance at the grand opening of a new contemporary arts venue in Bentonville, Arkansas on February 22, 2020.

The Momentary, a former cheese processing plant, is now a culture center of a different kind.

We were there. We gathered with groups large and small. We touched others, literally and metaphorically, and they touched us.

We are Rowena Richie, Erika Chong Shuch and Ryan Tacata, a project of the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project. We call ourselves For You. Our work brings strangers together for shared, intimate encounters.

In 2017 we created two day-long adventures inspired by and presented exclusively for twelve audience-collaborators. In 2018 we designed a roving audio-guided folk dance that has been performed by groups of twelve participants, ranging from parishioners at a Presbyterian coffee hour, to patrons at a gay bar.

This led to the Momentary commissioning us to present a new performance work for their opening.

In conceiving the project, Erika wanted to do something to help the community of Northwest Arkansas (NWA) claim the Momentary. A ceremony through which they would define it as their space. A ritual, as Erika put it, “where you spit on the ground and make it your own.” Can you imagine even thinking about spitting in public spaces now? In the spirit of ribbon-cuttings, ground-breakings and opening day parades we devised First Things First, an episodic inauguration ceremony for and with the Momentary and the NWA community.

***

This was our first time working in another state; our first time making work for the general public to attend, and it ended up being the first time we called ourselves For You. The programmers at the Momentary just started calling us For You, and so it shifted from the name of our productions, to the name of our company.

That simple transformation freed us up to think more expansively about the scope of our work. What surfaced as important was not the number of people involved in each performance but the quality of relationships built with all sorts of people, from participants to collaborators, producers to neighbors. I am especially aware of the lasting effects of those encounters now that we are physically apart from our newfound NWA friends, and I’m still being buoyed by them.

In the beginning we dreamt of working with cheerleaders, a marching band, the mayor. We knew nothing about the region. Literally. “I didn’t even know where Arkansas was on the map,” I declared to a room full of Arkansasians. I regret that I said that. I didn’t mean to offend anyone, I only meant to say we never expected to fall in love.

Did you know NWA boasts Geena Davis’ annual Bentonville Film Festival, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and the first and only School of Art in the state at UArk? Or that NWA is the Walmart headquarters of the world? In NWA you’re shopping locally when you shop at Walmart.

The Momentary is just south of, and a satellite of, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Crystal Bridges was founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. The Momentary was spearheaded by other Walton heirs. Many of us have complicated feelings about Walmart, but I came away from this project with a more positive view. I didn’t know the Walton Family Foundation is a generous art ambassador. Crystal Bridges and the Momentary have free general admission. And the names of the gallery and performance spaces at the Momentary honor not their financiers but their former uses. First Things First premiered in Fermentation Hall.

***

Northwest Arkansasians participate in First Rehearsal at the Meet the Momentary festival in Bentonville
Northwest Arkansasians participate in First Rehearsal at the Meet the Momentary festival in Bentonville, Photo by Erica Chong Shuch

Developing a new commission at the Momentary while it too was establishing its beginnings meant things kept changing. At first we were just slated to premier First Things First on opening day. But then more opportunities arose. A sneak preview of the Momentary was announced. The Meet the Momentary Festival took place in October, 2019, and we were invited. Then we were given an artist residency in January, 2020. We ended up visiting NWA three times, culminating in a weekend of performances at the grand opening in February. During the three visits we engaged Northwest Arkansasians in an extended greeting, a series of inaugural acts.

When we arrived in October, for our first visit, the building was still an active construction site, so the Meet the Momentary festival took place outside on a sprawling picnic lawn. A severe storm was forecast, but the day started out sunny and hot. We set up shop cordoning off our spot with a red fringe banner and yard signs that said, FIRST STEPS, FIRST PLACE, FIRST KISS.

Two at a time, we invited people to participate in an audio-guided duet, inspired by the song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” made famous by Roberta Flack. We delivered scissors and a ribbon to the pairs. They were instructed to, “Cut! Cut! Cut!” to usher in that ribbon-cutting moment: the arrival of the Momentary, their participation in the festival, and the first time ever they saw each other’s faces. We waved streamers like fireworks in the background.

Leading up to Meet the Momentary we hired a local (NWA) producer to generate a list of potential collaborators, and to act as a liaison between us and them. Two communities we discovered in NWA were a roller derby league and a group of Marshallese dancers, whose roots are in the Marshall Islands, a tiny country in the Pacific Ocean. The local producer’s scouting paid off. But we learned we really needed to connect directly with folks ourselves. So, during the Meet the Momentary festival, we also held First Rehearsal, an open rehearsal, to get a feel for working with individuals and community groups.

Drummer Collin Harris and members of the Bentonville West High School Marching Band rehearsing for First Things First
Drummer Collin Harris and members of the Bentonville West High School Marching Band rehearsing for First Things First, Photo by Sarah Wells

At First Rehearsal, the Marshallese dance students and their teacher John Kure Calep drew a crowd with their polyrhythmic virtuosity. As did members of the NWA and Benton County Roller Derby League, who thrilled us with a blocking drill they pulled off without dropping their popsicles. Just when dozens of folks we recruited through an online call-for-participants showed up it started to rain. In addition to the sudden downpour, an 8-piece brass band was playing on the main stage. Total chaos = Erika’s sweet spot. She used call-and-response to direct over the storm and horns. Part line-dance, part soul-train, part Horah, with cameos by the Marshallese dancers and roller derby crew, First Rehearsal ended with a double rainbow.

***

Erika’s brother Andrew, Erika’s mom, Suk, and Wakes, Erika’s 6 year-old son, traveled with us for Meet the Momentary. Suk holds your hand in both of hers when she meets you for the first time. Wakes, the son of a lighting designer (Allen Willner) and a choreographer-director (Erika), knows how to focus. This family has become part of our artistic family. And I have become part of their family. Erika and I have been working together on and off for almost two decades. Our collaboration is homebase. Deep roots undergird our work, work that steers others towards vulnerability and intimacy.

During this time of the pandemic and physical distancing, visceral memories from our time in Arkansas are helping me feel alive, centered and connected. Here are a few that have been surfacing:

Our new friend John Kure Calep, the organizer, dancer and teacher within North West Arkansas’ Marshallese Community, came to a dinner party we hosted during our artist residency in January. He brought Melisa Laelan, founder of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese. We learned from them that Springdale, Arkansas, part of the Northwest region, has the largest concentration of Marshallese people in the U.S. John gave an impromptu Marshallese dance lesson in the middle of the party. His hips shimmied sublimely. Melisa was in hysterics watching the rest of us try to shimmy like John.

I called my husband before bed to report how much fun we’d had. He mentioned an article from the latest New Yorker about the Marshallese population in NWA. Melisa, who had just been laughing in our living room, was right there on the page in an article that featured her and her Coalition to help Marshallese thrive. Melisa and John, generous and open, captured the richness of NWA, and made us feel at home. And I think by extending a welcome into the art-making world we inhabit, and into the Momentary itself, we made them feel at home, too.

Audience at the Momentary grand opening, Photo by Sarah Wells

Albert Ortiz and his fiancee, a couple in their 20s, also were at our dinner party. Albert is the Director of Bands at Bentonville West High School. Our dreams were coming true: Albert and the Bentonville West Marching Band were on board for bringing some fanfare to First Things First.

Deborah Culmer and David Van Brink are another couple we connected with for the project. Deb grew up in NWA. She and David are retired and live half the year in Santa Cruz, California, the other half across the street from the Momentary near Deb’s childhood stomping grounds. Over the phone we asked them questions about their relationship. The interview became the heart of First Things First, a section in which Deb and David performed their authentic selves.

Despite being with each other for 18 years, they told us they never really danced together as a couple. “Please stand and welcome Deb and David to the dance floor for their first dance,” I announced to the audience at the February grand opening. Everyone stood and erupted into applause, energy that we rode as we instructed the audience to take part in their own “first dances.”

During this “first dance” section, I paid close attention to a particular teenage boy. I wondered how he was going to engage with this moment of intimacy with a stranger. Earlier in the show, he was a little defensive when I asked him to introduce himself to the whole group. “Cole,” he replied coolly. But Cole was anything but cold when we instructed everyone to “place your forehead against the forehead of the person standing across from you.” He swung the bill of his baseball cap around to the back and gently placed his forehead against the forehead of the man standing in front of him. Then, along with everybody else, they swayed to the chorus of “(Love Lifts Us) Up Where We Belong” by Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker.

Cole warmed to the moment and went with the flow. When we then instructed everyone to “make a tunnel” for us to go through–a segue to the surprise entrance of the roller derby crew–I danced through the tunnel and shouted “Cole!” as I passed by him. My way of saying, “We didn’t spit on the ground, but Cole, you left an indelible mark on me.”

***

The Momentary commission has us thinking about our For You evolution and this moment in time. We spent so many hours in a Berkeley rehearsal studio on emails, spreadsheets, and video-conferences that we dubbed rehearsal, “WeWork.” We’re continuing in this electronic, remote fashion for now as we shelter in place pandemic-style and move on to other projects.

The First Things First finale at the Momentary grand opening, Photo by Sarah Wells

In response to COVID-19 we’ve just launched Artists & Elders, a project that virtually brings together artists and elders for conversation and creative stimulation. In the wings: the Pilot Project. Conceived last year during an Atlantic Fellowship I spent at the Global Brain Health Institute, we’re working on customized performances for dementia care partners and their loved ones living with dementia. Given the coronavirus crisis, we’re brainstorming about how to virtually adapt For You for them.

But First Things First drove home the fact that while digital is a great supplemental tool, it is no substitute for in-the-flesh. We had a few rehearsals with the Bentonville West marching band on Skype. It was helpful, if a bit removed. When we went to the high school for the first time and heard them play live, we exploded with goosebumps.

During the First Things First finale we opened the doors of Fermentation Hall. Forty-six kids in full marching band regalia filed in and surrounded the audience. They played a fanfare and a pep version of the 90s Eurodance hit “What is Love” by Haddaway. The audience broke out dancing, carried away by the band’s exuberance.

“We celebrate these minor notes, that when strung together in this way become something major,” Ryan said in his closing remarks. After the performance a band mom pulled us aside and told us what a gift this experience had been to the kids. “It gives them an opportunity to see there is a whole world of possibility to explore.” First Things First had the same impact on Erika, Ryan and me. Getting to know the people of NWA has us wondering who’s next? We’re already seeking other commissions in other regions, eager to meet with strangers and make new friends.

It’s painful not knowing when we’ll be able to do this next given the pandemic. But it’s a pain I can endure. I’m experiencing such a balm of care and goodwill from people, including family members, old pals and our new friends in Arkansas. We’re all connecting with calls, texts and videoconferences. I joke to my husband that we’ve become “Zoom-an beings.” We know to reach out in these new, digital ways because we know–in our skin, bones and blood–the ancient ways. The deeply human instinct to gather close. During difficult times, yes, but also easier days. To ask, how are you? As well as, who are you? What experiences have defined you? What can we create together?

Such compassion and connection–which I experienced during First Things First and that is happening in response to the coronavirus–will get us from sheltering in place to a return to face-to-face. I’m itching to go wherever else in the world this project might take us. But I trust we’ll get there.

And when we return to being with one another in the flesh, those moments will be heightened by the experience of having lived without them. They will be charged with rich magic. There will be a renewed inner wisdom. One that trusts the essential goodness of touching foreheads, of shimmying hips, of performing with old friends, of welcoming strangers, of being together.

First Things First highlights filmed by For You collaborator and filmmaker Sarah Wells. The start of the video through 0:45 features the Bentonville West High School Marching Band rehearsal; 0:45-1:25 features Erika, in the For You pink jumpsuit, Ryan and me; 1:25-2:15 features “first dances”; 2:23-2:50 features organizer, dancer and teacher within North West Arkansas’ Marshallese Community, John Kure Calep; and 2:53 to the end features the finale.


This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of In Dance.


Rowena Richie has been a dance theater-maker and performer in San Francisco for 25 years. For 19 of them she has been collaborating with Erika Chong Shuch. Rowena also writes essays about dance, and leads senior fitness classes. She recently completed an Atlantic Fellowship for Equity in Brain Health, and is working on a series of projects that promote positive aging.

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