Thursday, December 21, 2017

Give Me More... of what?

As both an avid reader and dancer, I am always thinking about how new concepts and ideas that I stumble across in my research might inform movement.

My current work, Give Me More, first emerged as a meditation on fascia or connective tissue. In the last few years, my teaching of anatomy and somatic practices has led me to dig deeply into this amazing part of our bodies. Fascia not only connects our bones, muscles, and tendons, it also plays a significant role in our nervous system. While I am excited by the versatile material itself, I’m also a fan of fascia because it dismantles mechanistic views of the body that have been at the forefront of anatomy teaching for many decades. I tend to get excited about all kinds of things that ask us to unlearn outmoded concepts, as we are presented with new ones.

The many scientists and somatic practitioners who are advocating for a more holistic view of the body are doing so at the same time that intersectional feminism has come to the fore of socio-political conversations. The current US administration has an impressively wide-reaching ability to hurt people, places, and things that I, and many in my community, care about. It occurred to me in the wake of the 2016 election, that shifting our perspective on our bodies from being a collection of disparate parts, to being a whole composed of diverse yet interrelated movements, could shed light on a helpful way to look at our society in general, and the Resistance in particular.

At the Woman’s March early in 2017, people held signs and shouted slogans for a vast range of causes. It was a moment of beautiful realization to see that our love of the environment, our need for access to healthcare, the fact that Black Lives Matter, and that immigrants make our culture richer, are ideas that connect many of us. Give Me More grew out of my meditations on connectivity both within the body and in our society.

I imagined dancers connected by a huge piece of fabric as big as the stage. Of course, I have no budget for such things. But as I toyed with the image and ways to create it, I ran across several headlines that talked about waste in the fashion industry and I realized that I could very likely get all the fabric I needed for free… I sent ONE email to the faculty, staff, and students at Marymount Manhattan College asking for donations and, in less than a month, people brought me over 200 lbs of clothing!

The epic net/quilt that is being constructed out of these clothes reflects the concept of interconnectivity, not only because of its origin in community donations and the fact that it is sewn together, but also because clothing carries so much meaning. The donated items are rich in stories of gender, size, class, age… and as the dancers interact with them, these meanings are accented and subverted in a variety of ways. I was particularly struck by the highly fashionable women’s clothing I was given that still had the tags on it – purchases that were undoubtedly made in order to make the buyer feel well adorned, but then discarded as fashions changed even faster than one can remove a price tag. This led to me to contemplate the role gender plays in our conditioned need to consume. The costumes and props that we purchase to declare our masculinity, femininity, or disregard for binaries, become invaluable aspects of our identity… right before they become landfill.

All of this contemplation on clothing led me to think a lot about drag. Drag performance has been an interest of mine since graduate school (2007-09), when I made a study of it, and even more since 2011 when I began to practice it. Drag performance reveals the fluid, performative nature of gender expression as a whole. When one begins playing with gender in our society, one is playing with power. For me as a woman, to dress as a man, I am freed from concerns of beauty and kindness. I am invited into a world where my dominance is assumed. No one stares, no one cat calls, and people stop asking me why I have not had children. As a female choreographer, my work is judged by how "good" I look performing in it, while as a male artist I am free to express, debate, and discuss ideas.

Gender inequality in the dance world has always seems to me to reflect the culture in which it is produced. As demonstrated by the #MeToo movement, our culture has some serious work to do in this arena. The fact that the dance field is primarily female while the power structure that choreographs, presents, and curates festivals is primarily male, is increasing being recognized and critiqued. Shifting this oppressive hierarchy however, means taking on a level of gender inequality that is so prevalent as to be almost invisible to many members of the dance community and its audience. The time seemed right to create a new drag character, a male choreographer in particular, who is making a piece about the “Power of Woman.” Every time in the last year, that I have mentioned this concept to a fellow dancer, their response is inevitably to roll their eyes and say, "Oh, yeah. I've been in that piece." I collected specific stories about the painful misunderstanding and misrepresentation of femininity and power from 14 dancers and wrote the male choreographer's monolog as a composite of these stories. It is an aggressively ironic and cathartic scene.

So… a piece about gender, consumption, and environmental destruction has emerged from a meditation on fascia.

Connective tissue also feels key to Give Me More because it has been supported so generously by people in my community who, despite the frustration of these trying times, still believe in the power of art to uplift the human spirit. I am incredibly thankful to all of the people who supported my successful Kickstarter campaign in order to be able to pay my collaborating artists.

When the Kickstarter launched I was attending a Dance Scholars Association conference in Ohio. It was a wonderful event, not only because it reconnected me to people from my Bill T Jones dance family, my Graham dance family, and my Seattle/Graduate School dance family, but also because I was reunited with so many folks from my family of fellow makers. In the past, academic dance conferences have drawn strict lines between makers and scholars, but it is clear that these boundaries are now breaking down. Makers are scholars, who are able to present their own research and create their own contexts. At the same time, the rich creativity of scholarship is being recognized; interconnectivity once again.

So, it seems that the ways to think about connectivity are limitless; the body, our communities, what we fight for, who we know ourselves to be, all this is a web. I look forward to sharing Give Me More, and to spinning many more connective threads with all of you.

Give Me More premieres at Theater for the New City Jan 25-27, 2018.
For Tickets... www.smarttix

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Southern Discomfort

I was so moved by Southern Discomfort, performed and created by Aimee Rials and Trebien Pollard at Dixon Place June 4th 2017, that days later I am still being nourished by my reflections. The work was impactful, not only in the content expressed, but also because of the aesthetic ingenuity employed by both artists.

Aimee and Trebien are both remarkably seductive performers, but not in the way we usually consider that word. They are seductive because they are completely self-possessed. Whole and complete in and of themselves, they invite the audience to join them on very personal journeys. As viewers, we are willing and able to be carried along with them because the weight of their performative presence makes it easy to trust them. As an audience member, I often feel that I am being sold something, but in this performance, I felt honored to be witness to the profound sense of generosity, that flowed from every turn of Aimee Rials and Trebien Pollard’s wrists.

Rials is a remarkable mover. She conducts energy through her body in a way that is both grounded and fantastically fluid. Her movement vocabulary demonstrates deep movement research, as powerful in its subtlety as it is in its considered use of attack. Her solo, Modifi(her), was deeply moving, both because of the strength of her performance and because of its refined compositional craftsmanship.  She used repetition effectively, as the repetitive movement allowed the audience to experience the emotional evolution within the work. Repetition also created a trancelike quality that enabled the dance to exist in the space between memory and presence. The space between the longing, regret, desire, and hope that we felt in the past and that which we feel in the present, blur. The body is always caught between past and present, scars and postures being tangible manifestations of memory, yet every breath is potentially attuned to the now. Rials milks this temporal indeterminacy as the dance orbits a single chair, beautifully designed by Emanuelle Schaer, a symbol of all of the, “should haves,” and, “could haves,” that haunt us. Rials dances circular memories, familiar to many of us. She embodies roles both accomplished and resented, as well as those that we cold not fulfill; yet we are still bound to as they define our defiance. In the final section, her liberation from this web of reflection is wildly open hearted. She gives back to the audience all that she has gained in her processing, facing us unapologetically, radiant, and whole.

It is also important to mention that Rials offers the audience a gender expression rarely seen in New York dance. Most theatrical gender play consists of the juxtaposition of culturally defined extremes. Drag, in its many iterations, plays on the gender based social expectation and subversion of dress, make-up, posture, hair, etc.... Drag creates an expansive space to define gender through beating against the edges of the binary spectrum. The flashiness of this tug of war makes for excellent theater. However, the quiet, yet fierce embodiment of androgyny I saw in Rials, is much less common on stage.  It speaks truth to power in a very different way than drag does. It does not use cultural codes to flip audience expectation, but rather exists as a whole alternative, an expression of completeness that is not ruled by indoctrination, but by a hard won honoring of the individual self.  It threatens the status quo, not by revealing and manipulating the game, but by decidedly refusing to play. On a personal note, it was incredibly validating for me to watch Rials in performance because in my life I am relatively androgynous, but in my dance career I have mostly been asked to perform (for both male and female choreographers) as a hyper-femme, and hence dishonest, version of myself.

Trebien Pollard’s work is a wonderful pairing with Rials. The works are equally powerful, yet they utilized very different means of aesthetic expression. As a dancer, Pollard’s satiny movement quality is unparalleled. His whole body moves in a way that is simultaneously deeply considered and at the same time open to the wild pulls of his vast heart. Like water deep in the ocean, Pollard moves in response to unseen currents, made visible through an on-going commitment to multifaceted articulation.  As an artist Pollard is interested in visual density, effectively incorporating a set, projections, and multiple costume changes into his solo performance of Seeing the Unspeakable/An Eye on Struggle (work in progress).

His costume design incorporates numerous layers of black cloth that play with varied gender expressions, but perhaps more importantly, extend the movement of his body. The shifts in costume transform him from terrifying creature, to rooted tree, to wise yet questioning human, to swirling vortex. In coordination with original spoken poetry, a relentless projected slide show of gut-wrenching visuals by artists such as Kara Walker and Barkley Hendricks as well as photos of Ruby Bridges on the steps of her formerly all white elementary school, and a cloth set that lists the names of some of the POC who died at the hands of police in just the last few years, the performance presses the audience right up against the history of racism in America that conditions and affects us all.

It is a heart breaking, overwhelming reality, well expressed through Pollard’s use of different media. It is so easy to feel helpless in the oversaturation of human rights violations that constantly threaten POC in contemporary culture. As a light in this darkness, Pollard’s work was a balm, which did not sugar coat a thing, but did remind us that life, in all its complexity, does go on, and that we are all in this together. Pollard’s strong voice allowed the audience to experience a wide range of emotions; anger and disgust, but also the respect for community, history, and progress, and the potential ecstasy of spiritual beauty that transcends cultural and religious views. His spoken poetry is as captivating as his movement quality, evoking a multiplicity of meanings that leaves the audience’s mind swirling with possibility. It is through this vivid ambiguity that we are able to thread together the personal and the political, the past and the present, and to entertain the possibility of hope.

I look forward to seeing future work by both of these artists, and I thank them with all of my heart for their courage and their work.