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Reflections on "divisions the empire has sown"

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Part I: One Reflection On “divisions the empire has sown”

I get to the show early. Or at least I think I have. When I walk into the Finnish Hall basement I’m met with an aromatic wash of freshly-brewed chai tea and fried dough, and I immediately doubt that I’ve come to the right place. These are smells of home, not a dance show. I have a moment’s regret that I won’t be able to stay.

“Are you here for the show?” A woman emerges from behind a counter to my right wearing an apron. She’s carrying a tray of steaming flatbreads. “I’ll check you in.”

It turns out the food is free. The flatbreads are parathas stuffed with blue cheese and they flake on my tongue like craggy layers of moist, doughy heaven. There are two kinds of chai, both homemade and magnetically sippable--spiced esophageal hugs. By the time it’s 7:30pm, the rest of the audience has arrived and we’re all happily sipping chai, nibbling parathas, and blowing on screaming-hot samosas fresh from the fryer.

It strikes me that of all the ways to enter a show exploring the long history of colonization and the Partition of India, this positively jovial scene is not the one I would have imagined. The single sobering note among the merriment lies in papers spread among the tables where we sit. They are newspaper clippings and infographics describing historical details of colonization and the Partition. As I read, I realize some of the details have been cleverly changed--they read more like withering satire than real news. It can be very hard to tell these days.

A few plaintive notes on the piano, and the soulful crooning of sonic composer Rachel Austin transitions the babbling scene from prologue to show. “Where were you when it all came down?” she warbles as chatter dies to murmurs, softens to silence. “Where were you looking and what were you looking for?” A single dancer emerges from the crowd to paint her body through the space. Five more performers, dressed in salwar kameezes pour in, rolling one on top of the other. The mass of bodies oozes across the floor towards the piano.

I swallow my final bite as the performers assemble in a line with their backs to the room. They begin marching in slow motion as Austin continues to sing: “A menagerie of grief...Oh sweet heart of mine, where have you gone?” Back and forth, back and forth they go. And one by one, bodies fall. The fallen lie where they land. The march continues. The marchers hold one another close to fill the gaps left by those who have fallen.

The scene dissolves into a slow, shifting duet between two dancers on a bench, while the remaining four crawl to the staircase beyond. Out of sight of the audience, they climb the stairs, then tumble down. Over and over, we hear their bodies’ muffled thumps. My sides ache in empathy.

Finally, the performers emerge from their hauntingly insistent stair phrase, and en masse, we migrate to the main performance space upstairs. The cavernous Finnish Hall is lit with soft lighting; large white screens rigged off of 10-foot PVC frames circle the center of the space. Over the next hour and a half, the audience is invited, ordered, and physically compelled to move around the space, always at the direction of the dancers or Director Patel herself. We are split in half, quartered, and separated into ones, twos, and threes to witness different dance events unfold in all corners. An impressively rich, varied, and at times overwhelmingly insistent soundscore textures the entire experience with ambient nature sounds, children playing, street scenes both quotidian and raucous, a recurring transit station, a single woman singing, silence, and always the sense of movement--movement of some scale everywhere.

The physicality unfolds primarily in two timbres--quiet and monotonous, or rough and insistent. I see a waiting score, time stretching interminably as two dancers sit on the long bench and rub their faces in their hands; a plaintive attempt to escape, as one dancer scales the wall to pour half her body out an open window, before slithering back in to resume a pendular pacing; and a cringe-inducing thrashing score between a wall and a table in which three dancers bang into one another and their surroundings, flinging their legs onto the table again and again while my heels ache in my shoes. Mostly the dancers appear alienated from one another and from themselves, and in general, the movement language appears only partially intentional, as if pulled from a wide variety of improvisation scores and finalized under a general umbrella of discomfort, constriction, and disconnection.

Perhaps the most evocative element of the work for me is the fact that I never land. I am herded from place to place, never settling for long before being shepherded to the next nebulous experience. The work exists in pockets of bound displacement. The entire time, the large white screens circle the center of the hall, and just beyond, I see a beautiful table set with white linen, china, and white branches adorned with tiny sparkling lights. The scene evokes for me the compelling promise of something better but always out of reach.

I’m both relieved and disappointed when the partitions are finally removed and we are ushered towards a sea of chairs facing the table of white. Though I’m relieved to arrive at a legible destination for the first time all evening, I’m disappointed that the irresolution and placelessness I’ve experienced so powerfully thus far should resolve all of a sudden. Was there something I was to understand about what unfolded in the previous hour that suddenly allowed us to arrive at this previously unreachable place? The performers exit the space and we are left for a few long minutes in absolute silence--the first lasting silence of the piece--during which I transition from relief at the respite from constant noise, to amusement at such a long silence, to impatience at a dance that seems to have no end. And then the performers return for a finale of cup-sipping, table-banging, and dish-breaking.

When the final teapot hits the floor with a crash, I understand that this is the end. I feel full, but incompletely sated. The structure, production, and soundscore of the work were stunning and impressively cohesive towards fleshing out such a complex and nuanced theme as colonialism and Partition. But I’m craving greater specificity and intentionality from the physicality. I wanted to see the violence of the macro themes not just referenced, but finding some form of specific physical voice through the bodies of the dancers on stage. How might the physicality go beyond echoing broad themes to make clear choices that reflect how the specific artists creating the work view, understand, or experience them? I wonder if it was the intention of the artists to produce an unquenched craving for a physically-specific point of view.

We leave the same way we came in. The parathas are all gone, as are the samosas and chai. But the warm smells remain, mingling in a complex wash of flavor and memory that follows me as I walk out the door and into the cool fresh air of another November evening in Berkeley.

Part II: A Reflection on the Reflection

In the days that follow, I keep returning to the question of why I so deeply craved a greater sense of physical clarity in this work. I see physical language on stage all the time that seems anywhere from partially-researched to completely arbitrary. In many cases, I don’t feel the thirst for specificity so acutely. I also struggle to put more precise language to the question of what I mean by “clarity” in this case. What struck me as “unclear”? What might greater physical clarity have looked like?

For me, physical clarity is when movement communicates as a language of its own. It is found in movement that exists because it communicates in ways that no other languages--written, spoken or otherwise--do or can. Through physicality itself, it prompts the felt experiences that serve as prerequisites and conduits to meaning-making. Like language, physical clarity can look (sound) many different ways. There is no form or style of movement that is innately clear or unclear. Its component parts, like the sounds that form any spoken language, can be composed into myriad different meanings. So it involves aesthetics but is not in itself an aesthetic concern.

I try to imagine what I might have seen or experienced had I witnessed only the movement of the piece, without any of the production elements of set, props, sound, or forced migration. A handful of physical moments immediately stick out: the opening tableau of a line of people marching, while one by one they fall; the sound of bodies falling down stairs; a person slithering halfway out a window before sliding down to the bench below; three people writhing and thrashing while they slam their heels on top of a table; a duet with delicate, precise hand movements between two dancers sitting back-to-back on the floor; all six dancers standing on a bench, shaking and leaning forward in anger while they yelled at imagined demons of their past. Each of these moments evoked a feeling, sensation, image, or sense of something--in many cases, some form of empathetic pain in my own body--through the physicality itself. The experiences they evoked were often beyond words, but they were tangible and immediate. For me, this makes them excellent examples of moments of “physical clarity”.

Overall, however, the movement in the work never coalesced into the solid language I craved. Beyond the moments above, I have a hard time remembering the other movement choices in the work. When I put together the physical impressions that lasted for me, they feel like isolated experiences operating side-by-side as opposed to words, fragments or phrases that combine towards building larger sentences or paragraphs of meaning. To be clear, I am not suggesting that clarity only exists in a work when it can be neatly expressed with words, or that “meaning” in a work of art is fixed, objective, or even necessary for the work to hold immense value and power. I am reflecting though, that in this work in particular, I craved a sense of the physicality expressing something that developed over time, built on itself towards something that couldn’t be communicated with the other elements of the work.

From the moment I walked into the Finnish Hall, I felt swept in an aromatic embrace of the sense that someone had considered my experience deeply. The depth of welcome I felt intensified the emotion I opened myself to while I read the newspapers and infographics on the tables. It heightened the empathetic resonance I felt as the dancers punished their bodies on stairs, tables, and with their own thrashing movements. The sense of displacement and disorientation of constantly moving through the space felt like a satisfying doorway into deepening my understanding of the larger themes of violence and senselessness.

But the lack of clarity in the movement displaced me in a different way. It prevented the work from landing in my body and served as a barrier to locating myself in relation to the much larger dynamics that served as an inspiration for the piece. These were dynamics I wanted very much to understand. As much as I wanted the piece to land inside of me, it slid off my back the moment the applause ended. The dancers bodies moved to a tune that felt parallel, but not integral, to the larger container of the show, and so my own body remained impermeable to the realities it referenced.

I realize my depth of craving for physical clarity is in response to the work, but also reflects my thirst for resolution to the cognitive dissonance that my privilege seeds in me on a daily basis. As I left the theater that night, I was hungry to feel that perhaps I might have a new way to make sense of how such a placid November evening in Berkeley might coexist with such a violent and unjust history/reality halfway across the world. I was thirsting to feel the places in which these paradoxical realities already intersect inside of me, and perhaps have a new lens with which to make sense of their friction. I was hoping that if I could find a new way of orienting within, I might be one step closer to finding the next step without. It’s a tall order to place on a dance piece I see. But when you arrive at a dance show and feel at once you have been welcomed into a strangers’ home, the possibility of finding new ways of healing wounds sown for so long by alienation and oppression feels distinctly, humanly possible.


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