Last Saturday I went to see “3, 4, 5, 6, 1”, the newest work by dance collective Stranger Lover Dreamer (aka SLD aka Andrew Merrell, Elizebeth Randall Rains, and Shaunna Vella). In both the show and post-show discussion, their full-bodied and open-hearted commitment to inquiry and dialogue struck me deeply. I offer these reflections with the hope that the inquiry and dialogue they invited will continue.
7. The Post-Show Discussion
We’re sitting in a large circle. It’s the post-show discussion and a sizeable crowd has stuck around to talk about equity in dance. Facilitator Melecio Estrella has already skillfully led us through a series of exercises to engage our bodies, remove assumptions, and invite our most generous and receptive presence. As we transition into full-group dialogue, he asks the show’s three creators to share how their questions around equity in dance shaped the evening’s work.
Shaunna begins with her drive to build a model that doesn’t exploit performers on the basis of their social identities, and her interest in building equitable collaborative processes. “Before making this piece,” she continues, “I had been wondering a lot if I should even be making art. I mean, does the world need my voice right now?”
From my silent spot in the circle I want to yell, “DON’T! Don’t stop making art!” But I don’t yell, because 1) that feels inappropriate in the context of this large quiet circle, and 2) I am unclear to what extent the force of my response has to do with my own white identity and the privilege that comes with it.
When a white artist stops making work on the basis of political convictions, how do we parse out how that makes space for other (underrepresented or oppressed) artists, and the ways in which it acts as another form of white silence, inaction, or unnecessary/antithetical self-censorship? Sitting here in the wake of such a beautiful show, I have a very strong suspicion that silence is not the act of listening we often equate it with. It will not create space, nor will it change structures. Only action will do that. And art - dance - holds the unique capacity to feed us, teach us, sustain us, and make us known to one another along the way.
#3 Modern Dance Things (by Stranger Lover Dreamer)
The dance begins before I realize that’s what’s happened. One moment the full cast of dancers - 20 in total - are stretching on stage in their sweats and workout gear, and the next, they’re assembling as a herd of loose-clothed limbs with an air of easy intention. I realize that just moments before, when Andrew, Elizebeth, and Shaunna emerged from the smattering of bodies to welcome us and introduce the show - these are intense political times, the show is born of deep questions around the role of dance and art in our current world - even then the show had already started.
Onstage, flocks of dancers interlock in offtime rhythms to sweet melodic sounds. The movement appears directly sourced from modern dance class - Bartenieff fundamentals, tondues, plies, and codified forms that travel across the floor. Far from feeling contrived or self-conscious, the dancers embody each movement with such deep familiarity and presence that this infinitely unoriginal movement vocabulary reveals itself as a fully-fledged language before my eyes, capable of deep expression and intimacy. The choreography uses the simplest of spatial structures, supporting rather than attempting to obscure the vocabulary’s native grammar. Hugs, physical contact, touch and shared weight - in light of the introduction, this tenderness between bodies feels like a radical act.
A whole culture emerges through the ritual of shared physical practice, and I am suddenly immensely grateful to be invited as a witness. I release myself from the pressure of “getting” what I am about to see, or using my interpretations to judge its value. Instead, I feel like a guest invited into the homes of the dancers’ corporeal, spiritual, emotional, and political practice of dance. Let us speak to you in our native tongue, I hear as they move.
As simply as that, SLD lays to rest any doubts I had from their intro (art predicated on existential questions about art...?), inviting us to slip through the exquisitely permeable membrane between the ordinary and the sacred, from just living to the practice of being alive.
#4 Remembering, Becoming (by Elizebeth Randall Rains in collaboration with the dancers, past and present)
A moment of transition leaves eight dancers on stage (including Elizebeth, the choreographer). They face one another in a circle as if arriving, and begin slapping themselves as if waking up their senses. With a collective physical agreement, the circle breaks, and they transition from practice to performance. As the movement changes from the-things-we-do-in-dance-class to a self-derived gestural vernacular, I feel like we’re touching down in a land where the words we learned in Modern Dance 101 form the most basic building blocks of the native language.
Elizebeth stands slightly downstage with the other dancers in a line across the stage behind her. She moves with simple, full-bodied gestures. Behind her, the ensemble echoes her movements, amplifying her physical scale. The soft pink and blue tones bathing them from above lends a meta- feel to the whole experience, and I write poetically in my notebook: we stand under it, but we don’t understand it.
There is a lightness and a looseness to the unison that maintains the intimacy established by the first piece - an individuality permitted even in their togetherness. Could this be a cultural signature of their creative process? The dancers reach for something to hold onto, bathe in the world, fight, engage the external alone together and flow in and out of unison. I’m struck by how fluently the piece engages both physical and spatial classical structures, with a sense of full ownership and broadness in expression. The dancers dance as if all the movement were their own. And it is, I realize, after I attempt and fail to decipher from the program notes exactly who “created” it. The piece finishes in silence with a poetic solo by dancer Kaveri Seth that feels to me like an entreaty to pay attention; Look. Feel. Do you understand?
#5 Kiss Me While I Sleep (by Andrew Merrell in collaboration with the dancers)
A door opens stage-left. Three dancers enter. Dulcet tones, pink light, smooth music, absurd props. The faces of the dancers are impassive, nonreactive, though their bodies engage intimately. I find myself mentally scrambling as the piece moves from one seemingly undeveloped idea to the next. I notice a strong interest in apathy. I sense that I am not alone in savoring the irony of “Sweet Emotion” playing over a stage of characters who never seem to quite land with one another.
I am struck by how sensation-based the physical movement appears - it looks like it should feel really good - and yet the dancers seem remote from any physical pleasure. They are slippery, blunt lovers, impassive dreamers, brainwashed by a disenchanted flirtation with the material world. Ideas seem to bounce around with the music; just as I am beginning to rue the piece’s inability to develop any of it’s immensely enjoyable elements completely, it occurs to me that just like the characters on stage, I am craving a depth of feeling that keeps skittering away just as it comes within sight. I almost chuckle at the brilliance of the piece’s construction.
From there, I feel like my heart has peeled open. I see reflections of our deep cultural absorption in things other than real life and our inability to find presence even in silence (Sarah Chenoweth’s solo). We are happy and sad like smiley faces while our bodies continue a torturously beautiful dance devoid of sensation. I see a deep disillusionment with impulse and its failure to deliver the liberation that we crave (Tara McArthur’s and her water-splashing solo). I see a weariness in the continual search for connection (Danny Nguyen, Lexi Whaley, and two towels) .
The piece ends with a bittersweet solo by Mechelle Tunstall that reads like a letter to our modern world: You done me wrong. The dancers exit out the same gaping door they came in through. I am left feeling the everyday heartbreak from a world that doesn’t care as much as our tender human hearts deserve.
#6 Living Swans (by Shaunna Vella in collaboration with the dancers, past and present)
Dancers flood the empty stage. They peel back shutters from the windows covering the back wall. The night skyline feels like a visual gasp of fresh air. A processional sets a leafy branch and rock upstage-right. They unfurl a red ribbon from the rock in half a rectangle across the floor. No longer in dreamland, I am acutely aware of the riot of internal-external dimensions onstage: the city outside and us in here; the red ribbon carving the space; the groups of dancers in colorful pedestrian clothing that conjures both individual and group identities, and the corresponding in-group/out-group dynamics; the pendulum-like swing between internal and external focus in each dancer’s movement.
The dancers relate to one another explicitly and intuitively. They navigate space as if one organism - I see cells grouping and regrouping, flocks of birds, a collective gravity that unfolds with an appealing balance of pattern and randomness. The music’s powerful beat, rhythmic bass, and chimeric piano support the mix. For the first time this evening, I realize I feel as if I’m watching from the outside.
At one point, the music loses its rhythm and the structure of the dance seems to stray. My attention wanders. And yet, even this serves the piece; I rejoin the thread when dancer Rogelio Lopez recites a poem by Federico García Lorca, first in Spanish, then in English. The connection between the words and the dancing is not immediately clear to me, but feels true nonetheless. By this point, I am willing to simply believe. The dance continues to expand and contract with a smooth, pulsing groove, always anchored to the rock; the world beyond loses its form, the edges of reality blur to make way for the logic of collective movement. We are swimming in a sea, a primordial soup.
#1 Wishbone Home, The Remix (2014) (by Rogelio Lopez, Andrew Merrell, Elizebeth Randall Rains, and Shaunna Vella)
The dancers swim offstage and Shaunna reemerges in an enormous, ridiculous skirt. Andrew, Rogelio and Elizebeth join her in their own enormous, ridiculous skirts. They wear band shirts that give the sense of deep emotional value. They lip sync to a stunning opera with ardent, pained earnesty. My mind is a glorious triumphant confusion as I attempt to make sense of the scene before me and bask in the glory of its absurdity.
The piece mostly lives up to its stunning opening, with a deliciously absurd and symmetrical series of balletic movements. It feels like everything the artists have always wanted to do in enormous skirts, a delightful game of what if? that continues to reach new heights. I am thrilled to vicariously indulge in their surrender to imagination. It all reaches a crescendo as the soundtrack changes to a posh British man praising a cat, and all 20 performers crawl back on stage like cats to make a purring, heaving pile in the middle. As the audience erupts in happy applause, I feel grateful for the art that asks questions without pretending to find answers, and the artists generous enough to share what they find along the way.
9. The Review
I sit down to write this piece. From the gentle night-time hum of the city and quiet rustle of my many pages of notes floats the question I find every time I write: why? What value might I offer the world in reflecting on this work? What role might my writing play in lifting up the dialogue begun/continued by SLD? How might I amplify the generosity of their richly-inquisitive work with my words?
Words. There’s a start? In reflecting on “3, 4, 5, 6, 1”, something that struck me so clearly was the power of shared language - to build ritual, community, culture, and deeply-resourced collective movement. In that spirit, I offer some common language that may help to frame our continued discussions around equity and justice in the field of dance:
Equity - equity means that people get what they need in order to thrive. This is different from equality (everyone gets the same) because when we’re talking about equity, those who have been historically oppressed and disenfranchised are entitled to more because they need more in order to be equal.
Equity is not a metaphor (neither, for that matter, is decolonization). When we’re talking about equity in dance, we’re talking about power structures, not feelings. Example: Equity IS providing studio space, rehearsal time, and performance opportunities at free or reduced cost to dancers from marginalized groups. Equity IS NOT hiring dancers from marginalized groups to dance in your piece and facilitating a radically-inclusive group process. This could still be a very good thing, but it is not necessarily equity because it does not functionally provide the dancers with the resources and opportunities they need to thrive in their own right.
Equity is not the only end-goal (is it even a goal, or more of a practice?). What does justice look like in the context of dance? Liberation?
White silence - maintains the status quo by failing to name or challenge white supremacy (this term is specific to racism, but the concept may be applied to all forms of privilege/oppression). This can be complicated, because listening is also important, and it impossible to listen if you’re always talking. But the two are not mutually-exclusive and part of the work white people (or people with privilege) can do to dismantle oppressive systems is to work on navigating the difference between the two in their own lives. This requires personal work.
Community/healing - a place to start? What does community mean to us? Who are “we”? Who do we want to be? And how do we find our way there? I propose that community, like justice, equity, and dance, is a practice.
And finally, some questions I still have: In what ways might our art - in practice, process and product - change the world? How might the way we talk about this potential (responsibility?) for our art to radically shape the world limit or support the impact it is able to have?
If the world DID need your voice right now, what would you say?
Read this post on Life As A Modern Dancer at http://blog.lifeasamoderndancer.com/2018/03/molly-rose-williams-reflects-on-stranger-lover-dreamer.html