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Reflections on "Drifter" by Keith Johnson & Dancers

In the talkback after his newest show, “Drifter,” Keith Johnson said he hoped the work would provoke conversation. In my experience, it has. But I don’t think they are the conversations Johnson intended to provoke when he created the work.

At the center of most of these conversations has been the question of “Why?” Why create this work? Why share it with audiences? What was Johnson hoping to get out of presenting this material publicly? Of course, these questions could be asked of any work (and, one could argue, should be as part of any creative process). But in this case, the most urgent question for me became: What responsibility do we hold to our audiences as artists when our work holds real potential to cause mental, emotional, and psychological harm?

These questions were prompted most intensely by the fourth work in the evening, a piece exploring the experiences of the “Manson Girls”—the women closest to Charles Manson who perpetrated many of the murders associated with his cult. All four pieces that made up the work explored some aspect of the 60’s—the hippie generation, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and Charles Manson—but this fourth piece so blatantly violated my expectations of what I anticipate experiencing when I come to a dance show in the Bay Area that it has largely eclipsed my impressions from the first three.

That said, in the spirit of honoring the creative labor the artists put into bringing the entire evening to life, I’ll start by reflecting on the first three works of the night. I return to the questions posed above later on.

The first piece in the evening was a lyrical quartet that read like an homage to the hippie generation. Four dancers (Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh, Rogelio Lopez, Tara McArthur, and Andrew Merrell) dressed in identifiably 60’s garb looped in and out, up and down, peeled open and spun like dandelions in the wind. The choreography was intricate, sweeping, and beautifully-danced. The music was gentle and classical-feeling, adding to the gentle nostalgia of the piece. At times the soft piano felt synergistically intertwined with the movement, and at times it felt as though the dance was beholden to the music—it’s gentle-ness, it’s length.

The second piece was a solo by Paul Matteson. The music was a meandering song by Bob Dylan laced with references to images and events around JFK’s assassination. Paul Matteson’s dancing was articulate and expressive, sometimes directly mimicking the images Dylan evoked in his lyrics—drawing his finger across his throat at “straight on into the afterlife,” creating the image of a crucifixion at “killed him like a human sacrifice,” and aping Marilyn Monroe’s coquettish airs when she was mentioned—and sometimes weaving in and out of Dylan’s words with greater abstraction.

I found myself curious why the creators (Johnson, Matteson, and Alyssa Forte, according to the program) had chosen to engage so literally with the lyrics. Was it some form of nostalgia? It felt as though it rested heavily on the assumed ability of the audience to directly reference the richness of the allusions based on personal experience. As someone who was not alive during this time period and was unfamiliar with many of the images evoked, I was most struck by how violent most of the literal movements were. The result—watching standard modern dance choreography interspersed with depictions of a hanging, someone’s throat being sliced, and a crucifixion—felt jarring, as if there were some layer of meaning I was supposed to understand, but was missing.

Andrew Merrell. Photo by Scott McArthur.

The third piece was a solo danced by Andrew Merrell. The sound score was an edited interview with a Vietnam veteran describing the atrocities of his personal experience in the war—both things he witnessed, and acts of violence he perpetrated. His voice was textured and numb, filled with emotion it seemed he was unable to express. The images he described were gruesome, specific, and upsetting. Merrell was stunning, moving like the understory to the horrific and stunted words. He flew around the space with a kind of exquisite focus, moving as though every sensation were an emotion expressed physically. His physicality felt imbued with an undeniable queerness (in his physical tone, the expressiveness of his hips, his absolute vulnerability when he looked at us…how do you quantify “queerness” in movement??), which juxtaposed the hyper-masculine culture expressed by the speaker.

Though I was blown away by Merrell’s performance, I wondered why this particular interview had been chosen and edited this way, to intentionally emphasize the gruesome acts perpetrated by this soldier (as opposed to choosing another, equally-affecting interview with less gruesome descriptions, or layering multiple narratives around the experiences of post-traumatic stress by Vietnam vets). “Bearing witness” was the phrase that most immediately came to mind—that we hold a responsibility to bear witness to the suffering and injustices of the past. That in bearing witness we both honor those who have come before us, and learn from the past in order that we might more intentionally move into the future. But if this was the frame behind the choice to include such upsetting content, I felt the piece fell short of successfully bringing me there.

Merrell’s performance offered us the opportunity to hear the speaker as fully and fallibly human, even in light of the atrocities he had committed. It also highlighted the intense trauma so many of the people affected by the war endured. But I didn’t feel that the piece overall offered me a perspective or way to digest the audio beyond that. I didn't feel it justified the labor that being “ambushed” by the gruesome images asked of me—nothing that came before it prepared me for descriptions this graphic, and nothing that came after supported me in digesting or making sense of what I had heard. Instead, it bordered on trauma porn for me. Johnson recreated the soldier’s inability to reflect on his emotional experience in his own directorial choices, asking his audience to witness the trauma and violence of the war without metabolizing it into something that could be understood in a new way.

Left to right: Haihua Chiang, Courtney Ozovek, and Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh.

If the third piece bordered on trauma porn, the fourth felt to me like it crossed that line. Moments that stood out to me: three women (Haihua Chiang, Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh, and Courtney Ozovek) running and flinging themselves at the wall over and over while sirens blared and lights flashed; detailed audio descriptions of graphically violent murder scenes; a presumed audience member (Andrew W. Palomares) jumping up from a seat in the front row a few minutes into the piece and physically threatening the audience; Charles Manson (Palomares) beating and strangling one of the women before throwing her to the ground.

It wasn’t just that it was graphic. It was that there was no frame of any kind for making sense of what we were being asked to witness, either internally to the show, or externally. For one, there was no warning that this show would be highly unusual in its depictions of violence (particularly violence against women). As someone who regularly goes to see dance in the Bay Area, I was completely unprepared to see anything this violent, and my surprise at what I was witnessing made me tense up and internally retreat. My attention became vague, and when the sirens started, my physiological recoil was so intense that I had to focus on taking deep breaths to calm my nausea, even further removing me from the work.

By the time the last part of the work came around—a simple solo to the testimony of one of the mothers of the girls killed in Manson’s cult—my attention was so far removed that I didn’t even fully process what I was seeing. I have heard from others that this ending offered some small form of relief and catharsis for the violence that had come before. But I was already tuned out. Violence on stage can be an incredibly effective and powerful artistic choice, but in this case, it removed me from the work.

Internally, the piece lacked any frame of reference to help me understand why I was being asked to watch this violence. Was there something I was meant to understand through this re-staging of trauma? What value or perspective was being offered on the story of Charles Manson? What did including a “Charles Manson” character in the piece offer beyond simply re-enacting violence that had already occurred and evoking fear in the audience members who felt physically threatened by him? And why re-stage these brutalities through a dance/theater lens specifically? Nothing in the movement or directorial choices in the work helped me understand what I was seeing as anything more than descriptive of past traumas, and so that also led me to tune out. By the end I was shaken, slightly nauseous, and angry at the emotional, mental, and psychological asks that had been made of me without a legible offering in return.

The greatest surprise for me came in the talkback after the show—learning how connected and safe the collaborating artists felt throughout the process. If this work is to continue, I recommend finding ways of bringing that forward in the work itself. It also seemed as if the process of creating the work had offered Johnson some form of catharsis, or way of processing personal trauma and its legacies in his life. In the future, I’d be interested to see how that potential for catharsis may be translated to an audience that isn’t immersed in the creation process and potentially didn’t live through the period of time the work examines.

We don’t need to relive and recreate traumas from the past. We need to find ways of processing them so that we can move forward with greater agency and intention around enacting the power we each hold for the futures we desire. Thoughtful and courageous art plays an irreplaceable role in that work. And part of that is knowing what you’ve made so you can know what you’re asking audiences to engage with.


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