All posts by fensfeet

New Year… Same Old Job Postings

“Seeking Female dancers with strong Commercial and Contemporary technique”

“Strong, versatile contemporary dancers, male aged 18+, with strong ballet technique”

“Asian female dancer”

“Principal Male and a Principal Female dancer (ideally a couple)”

“PAID”

“paid minimum wage”

“Apprenticeship”

“…”

 

…. Oh audition season. The time when I’m reminded again just how appallingly difficult it is to get a job as a contemporary dancer.

I’ve written a bunch of different posts about professional best practices and fair employment in the dance world, but today I want to look at the kinds of job notices I see most often, specifically the kinds of information that’s given out, and the kinds of information that are a mystery.

Companies are VERY certain about who they want to hire, sometimes going even more specific than the kinds of notices I’ve listed above – I’m not even going to touch for now on how “conventionally attractive” is an implied undercurrent in WAY too many job ads.

In any other profession it would be illegal to say you were looking for an employee of a specific gender, let alone a specific race, or even appearance. The excuse given is that in the arts these dancers have to play certain characters, but in contemporary dance that’s often simply not the reality. Of course the problem with gendering the positions you’re looking to hire is that transgender and non-binary dancers are going to stay the HELL away from those positions, meaning in turn that there’s an incredibly dense glass ceiling for non-cis dancers – as a non-binary dancer, I don’t think I’ve seen one job notice in years that I could even apply for. Non-white dancers, who are used to seeing racially specific job notices, also hold back from going for non-specific jobs, and I don’t think higher-level dance companies are paying any attention to the issue of these – frankly discriminatory hiring practices.

…imagine if dance companies had to think about company diversity when they applied for their grant money….

But broader than these issues of identity is the issue demonstrated not just by the identity attributes listed in job postings, but by the technical training attributes that invariably come after: companies are hiring with an exact idea of what kind of dancer they’re looking to find, and they prescribe their requirements INCREDIBLY tightly in order to limit their auditionees. Companies are narrowing their creative potential if they don’t look at the range of dancers and then decide who they want. Frequently they make it impossible for newer dancers to get a job regardless of their talent, while almost invariably favouring those dancers most priviledged within white-dominated institutions of vocational training – white dancers, dancers wealthy enough to do unpaid work, dancers who took expensive extra-curriculars all through school and summer workshops during undergrad.

Dancers who want these jobs frequently have to sacrifice their economic stability while they wait for one. If you want to be auditioning you need a job that is incredibly flexible, and which can be dropped at any moment, and those don’t pay well. That’s not an option that’s open to very many people. If you have an ongoing medical expense, for example, and no safety net, you cannot afford to work as a dancer under these conditions.

Which brings me neatly to the things we frequently don’t know, and the first one is PAY. Simply saying that a job is or is not paid is not sufficient information to tell potential auditionees whether it is equitable, legal, or survivable. The practice of keeping pay rates secret in job postings is incredibly beneficial to employees and crippling to dancers, and needs to stop. If you’ve put aside paid work to go to an audition, got the job from a pool of tens, if not hundreds of others, and then get told that the compensation is a $100 performance fee after six months of rehearsals… do you leave? Do you leave knowing that someone else will take that job? Knowing that you need experience to get a job that will actually pay you? Knowing that if you refuse you can’t work with this company again? Companies now can essentially offer what they want, knowing that the dancers’ position is not strong enough to call them out on it.

What else don’t we know:
Generally we don’t know enough to determine whether a current audition is or is not a waste of our time. Which sucks, especially when companies often do know that they want. Vividly I remember going to Amsterdam to audition for a contemporary ballet company who for the first cut threw out everyone wearing a leotard. Yep. How could dance companies waste less of people’s time?

Well what about links to a sample of current work?
What about a summary of the audition content so that dancers can prepare?
What about the audition dress code? And what changing facilities will be available?
How about the rehearsal hours?
What about allowing dancers to agree on their own rehearsal dates if it’s pick-up work?
What about a statement of non-discriminatory practice?
What about a company mission statement?
What about requiring dancers to show their teaching if they’ll have to teach as part of their company work?
What about an explanation of how this job will or will not lead to full time employment?
What about the support given to dancers to stay trained and employed during the off season?

Dance companies, in short, should be competing for the best dancers my making themselves personally, professionally and economically appealing. They should open themselves up to multiple definitions of “the best dancers,” rather than pulling a bucket from the ocean at random and only looking in there.

People will probably argue against this post by claiming “well you need dancers with the skills to do the work,” to which I say… yep! So let’s start hiring in a way that lets you see all the dancers with the skills to do the work.

“A ballet company needs dancers with a certain look to go in the corps” …and they always will, until someone gets their act together and does something different.

“Companies need men for partnering,” … if you could find women and non-binary dancers who could do the partnering would you hire them? Or is this really about keeping couples looking straight?

I’ve heard most of the reasons for not changing these practices, and the result is a dance world that is not changing. Where excellence always looks the same, the money always goes to the same places, and a field that used to be one of the post ground-breaking and politically diverse is struggling to make the impact on culture and society that it had in the past.

If we start by recognizing the humanity of the dancers we hire, maybe we can start changing the humanity of audiences too.

 

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More than Prince Charming: Equalizing the Ballet Classroom

Good morning America, and welcome to the new semester! A few days ago the dance world woke up to the fact that *shock and horror* people still believe ignorant and harmful stereotypes about boys doing ballet…. I KNOW, right???!!!

… Of course, I’m being sarcastic, we’ve known this for a very long time. To date a lot of our work towards combatting this stigma has often been to provide isolated and safely masculine experiences for boys within ballet classes and dance classes in general. This can look like a boys-only class, it might look like all the boys going at the end of the allegro line to a slower tempo… anything to prove to boys themselves, to concerned parents, to the outside world, that these boys aren’t feminine, or doing anything to endanger their masculinity.

The problem with this approach is that firstly, it tends to reinforce male privilege within the dance world by assuring boys and men a place in the company, a solo role in the show, the scholarship funding, the professional opportunities etc. etc. in a way that’s damaging the overall culture of the profession. But secondly, it’s not really doing anything to break down the notion that ballet is specifically a feminine pursuit, because if you have to make “special ballet for boys” then you’re quietly implying that most ballet is for girls, and traditionally feminine girls at that.

So what do we do about that?

Well, I’ve loved ballet all my life, I’ve been part of a ballet company, and I’ve taught it to two year olds all the way up through to university undergraduates. I’ve supervised ballet exams, I’ve danced ballet solo roles, supervised pre-professional training programs, and been commissioned to present my own ballet choreography. In recent years I’ve done that as an openly non-binary, transgender human. I’ve actually found that ballet is one of the most open and liberating spaces to express a queer, masculine-of-center identity, so long as the balletic space is designed in a way that permits that sort of expression. And as we go into the new semester, I want to share with you ways in which ballet can be treated not as a binary space for the expression of masculinity and femininity – but a place where students of all ages can just… dance, and can chose to imbue that dancing with a wide variety of gendered energies of that’s what they want to do.

Teach ballet history in technique classes
I live and work in the social partner dance world, where teaching the history and culture of the techniques you’re dancing is a normal, if not expected part of classes. Ballet began life as a practice of social standing, and over its life has spent time being performed in ways that celebrate masculinity, femininity, cross-dressing, and queerness. The steps that Louis IVX danced as the Sun King still linger in balletic technique today, as do the innovations of Auguste Vestris, and those figures should be brought into the classroom, as should Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo: the ballerina who was first celebrated for dancing “like a man.” In the 19th century men would step into women’s parts if the dancer cast in the role was hurt and vise versa, and these situations offer a way in for students to dance the vocabulary and repertory roles across genders.

Fix your dress code
Leotards and tights are important, but their also one of the most upsetting, alienating and polarizing elements of a ballet class. Rather than simply forcing students to push through that discomfort (even when they themselves do not), teachers can require “form-fitting clothing,” a leotard and shorts, “whatever you want to wear, but I’ll only correct what I can see.” My ballet teacher for many years, and one of my most influential teachers and friends, Julia Gleich, used to have a policy of “dress-up Fridays,” where we would all come to class audition ready and LOVING our leotard looks. We’d do colour-themed days, we’d do holiday outfits, we’d do SAB day… the whole class got actively behind looking amazing in a leotard, and championed each other in way that felt empowering, rather than as a way of setting ourselves up for judgement. Ten years later and I still use that mindset to love my body in a ballet class, whatever I happen to be wearing.

Group your students
Students huddle together. They do it in friendship groups, and they do it across identity groups. On one level that’s a way of supporting each other, but if you don’t actively also break those groups down then they can calcify into rigid social and cultural divides. One of my favourite ways to do that is to put students in a group to make choreography, or with a buddy to learn material, or with someone who will challenge them as they go across the floor… anything that will get them interacting with each other, sharing the struggles of a technique class, and working together to achieve their goals. We tend to organize ballet classes into rigid and unchanging lines, and as much as I like MY spot on the floor, it’s healthy to look into the eyes of the people around you, and get miniature experiences of what it’s actually like to be in a ballet company.

Scrap “boys” and “girls” stuff
Put young men on pointe. Make young women do tours. Offer a “slow” and a “fast” tempo and talk about the difficulties and skills needed for both of them, without implying that one is harder, or belongs to a particular gender. The norms of the classical repertoire exist, I know, but this is the 21st century and we require dancers to be more versatile than that now. There are so many videos out there of young dancers killing it in a solo that’s usually danced by another gender, and if you had the choice would you hire a dancer who could do everything, or a dancer who could only do half of it? If you want to honour the classical repertoire, actively teach different kinds of gendered stylings and get everyone in your class to try both so that they understand their performative signals better.

Update your music
Dancing is supposed to resonate with who you are, but ballet dancers are consistently asked to dance to music that the have little cultural connection to. Yes, sure, they should learn how to do that… but they should also be given the change to do ballet to the music they love, and which best represents them. Traditional ballet music can give off a very feminine energy, and students should have plenty of opportunities to dance in other kinds of energetic landscapes. Other genres of music will invite a wide dynamic range, choreographic styling, and better musicality, but it will also show them that ballet is a place where they can feel at home, not a dance where they have to constantly model an alien culture in order to ear their place.

Make ballet social
Have a watch party halfway through the semester. Sit down and have a discussion with your students. Actively bring them into the decision-making process that shapes their training. Do something to build the students in your class into a community, regardless of who happens to be in the room. I know that class time is limited, but if your students come in, dance, and leave, and spend the whole class not talking to each other, then they are relying more on stereotypes and preconceived ideas than real information about the people who should be their most supportive peers, if not their friends. Bullying, sexism, racism, transphobia and homophobia arise (in part) from people not talking to each other, and not speaking up when there’s a social or structural problem. Create a space where students will stand up for each other, defend each others’ passions, and make each other feel strong and accepted.

That’s what ballet did for me.

 

 

 

If you have more suggestions about breaking down sexism and building community in a ballet class, please comment below, or send a suggestion using the “contact” links above.

 

Fusion – the Two-Branch Model

Hello the Headtail Connection!

A little while ago I wrote a post called Fusion… What is it? and let me tell you the response was HUGE. I’m glad to say that it was also overwhelmingly positive! I’ve had some cool conversations about the specifics of wording and what I mean by them, but overall people seem open to the idea of fusion as an ephemeral style rather than a codified form.

BUT

That ephemerality has to be backed up by something if we want fusion to be communicable, and over the course of a conversation with Mark Carpenter we worked out that one of the things we’re both excited about is using a two-branch model of dance teaching as a method of communication, and as a way of identifying fusion techniques. Mark has generously agreed to collaborate with me on this post – I’ve done most of the writing but Mark has worked with me to make sure this reflects both of our ideas – and I’m excited to share where we’ve landed.

First of all, I’d like to isolate the Two-Branch Model from the huge range of definitions in the last post. I’m also going to start capitalizing it, since we’re making it a “thing.”

The Two-Branch Model is a way of visualizing fusion pedagogy. One branch deals with the material content of fusion – different dance forms and techniques that people can bring to their dancing – while the other branch looks at how we put that content together.

We first generated this idea at the 2018 Mile High Fusion instructor summit, where a pool of internationally known teachers* got together to play with some of the main dance forms we see in fusion and the technical elements that identified them. Our reasoning was that Blues, Lindy, Zouk, Contact Improv, etc. have provided significant movement data to the national fusion scene, and that by isolating those elements we might get a sense of how different dancers of different backgrounds might bring their skill sets to the fusion floor.

We can make an analogy between the Two-Branch model and painting. We describe the first branch of the model as the colours an artist might put on their palette: a Blues dancer brings a sense of grounded pulse, a Contact Improv dancer brings whole-body listening, a WCS dancer brings particular step patterns, etc. etc. Someone trained in, say, Blues and Tango will be able to access at least two very different ways of engaging their weight and moving with the music, and they can combine those methods as is appropriate to a given song, partner, or context. In a fusion classroom we can teach these skills in isolation, or as part of the dance forms they emerge from – more on that later.

The other branch of this model involves techniques of negotiation and combination – or in my painting analogy, brushwork. How do we put colors together on the canvas in a way that is satisfying and sharable? I’d argue that all dance forms have elements of brushwork as dancers come together, which might include combining dance forms, communicating with a partner, musical and emotional expression, etc. While many dance forms base their partnership on the understanding of a shared movement language, fusion works on the basis that partners will have to communicate across different dance backgrounds, musical affinities, preferences, etc. to create a shared sense of how that partnership works. This branch teaches not just the combination of colors, but how to shape that combination into a clear and satisfying stylistic vision.

What are some of the skills that we should put on this second branch? Postural shifting to create changes in weight and emotional texture is a brushwork skill, as are techniques that enable both a shared point of connection and radically different movements within a partnership. A lot of switching techniques feel like they fit here, in part because switching has always been welcome in fusion, but also because the physical skills needed to flow between different ways of leading and following are the same skills that facilitate flow between partners. Other skills that fit on this second branch include the ability to recognize stylistic elements in the music, or in your partner’s dancing, and to respond to those elements in a way that furthers the dance partnership.

There are some skills that might fall onto either one of these branches, or both, depending on how they’re taught. For example, tone matching is a very necessary fusion skill for communicating across a dance partnership, but its also a very necessary skill in a number of other dance forms, and so might be taught as an element of brushwork or as a colour.

Thinking about the Two-Branch Model can help us put words around the kinds of learning we seek out and how we want to build our scenes. One of the biggest failings of fusion pedagogy is that classes, workshops, and even whole events can focus entirely on one branch to the exclusion of the other, and to the detriment of learning. Anyone hiring instructors needs to consider the individual balance between branches that one instructor or another brings to their teaching. In my scene I tend to hire a lot of people who teach on the color branch so that when I teach I can do what I love – which is brushwork.

The Two-Branch Model is also compatible, although not perfectly, with pre-existing language for talking about different kinds of fusion. The color branch of the model translates roughly into the fusion-as-fusion mindset: fusion brings in content from different dance forms and styles. A fusion-as-philosophy mindset, which the Dancing Root describes as “Dancing in a way that expresses the music using whatever capacity for dance and movement the dance partnership has at its disposal” is more attuned to the brushwork branch. Interestingly I am a brushwork instructor who would usually identify softly with the fusion-as-fusion mindset, and this vocabulary allows me to explain myself. Mark self-describes as identifying most strongly with the fusion-as-philosophy mindset but teaches both colour and brushwork classes with regularity. He’s interested in finding a base set of colours for the fusion community, and in using colour-focused classes to share historical and cultural information.

What I love about the Two-Branch Model is that it gives instructors, event planners and students a way to talk about what they want out of fusion, and to identify areas of growth for a particular scene. I’m trying to find WCS and Zouk instructors for my scene because those colours are missing from our dancing. Another nearby scene has lots and lots of colour, but tend to communicate through super-high tone – they could use some different kinds of brushwork. I also love the space that the Two-Branch Model opens up for teaching the culture and history of dance forms on our colour branch – something I think that the fusion world could really pay more attention to. I think that an instructor prioritizing colour should a) know that, and b) be able to explain how they’re taking technical elements from a known dance form, and what the stakes of that are in terms of appropriation.

Our main goal for introducing the Two-Branch Model is to give people a very practical way to start improving their fusion. We’d like to empower organizers and instructors to look at the kinds of dancing they see around them and analyze how to make that dancing better, and in the long term design the classes and curricula that can level up fusion dancing across our community.

 

 

 

 

*Joe DeMers, Emily Webb, Mark Carpenter, George Longshadow, Heriberto Perez, Nika Obrosova, Rachel Farley, Rachel Stirling, Aimee Eddins, Jeannie Lin, Katrina Rogers, Kelly Howard and myself.

Social Dancing With Pride

Hooray! It’s Pride Month! The time of year when my city gets decked out in rainbows, and the memes pages of the internet are full of people like me! Woo! Pride weekend always seems to coincide with my being at a dance event, and over the last few years I’ve seen organizers make a wide range of choices about what to do with that information – including ignoring it entirely.

If you are a LGBTQIA social dance organizer, then by all means organize your dance your way with regards to Pride. But if you are a cis, straight organizer and your dance falls over Pride weekend, here are some things to think about before you pull out the rainbows and decide you want to run a pride dance:

First: If you want to have a designated “Pride dance” then you MUST involve diverse LGBTQIA organizers and you MUST pay them for their time and you MUST listen to what they have to say. Otherwise stick to acknowledging Pride within the boundaries of your event, without calling it a Pride event.

Second: don’t assume there’s only one Pride event in your city when you’re scheduling. A LOT of queer and trans people have been frustrated by corporate sponsorship of Pride, by pinkwashing, by how events are policed, by the presentation of only a very narrow vision of queerness, by the appropriation of Pride as a party for straight people. As a result, there are now a large number of alt prides/community prides, or other Pride events that you should be on the look out for too.

Third: “celebrating” Pride at your dance will not fool ANYONE if you’re not already running an inclusive scene already.

  • Do you have LGBTQIA leadership?
  • Do you hire LGBTQIA teachers and DJs?
  • Do you have a gender-neutral bathroom?
  • Do you have an inclusivity statement on your website or facebook page?
  • Do people of all genders regularly ask each other to dance in multiple roles?
  • Do you actively seek to recruit dancers from LGBTQIA populations? Especially LGBTQIA POCs?
  • Do you know what the above acronym means and why it’s important?
  • Do you know about the LGBTQIA history and culture of your dance form?
  • Do you have a transparent and active approach to inclusive space-making?

Or

  • Do your instructors divide the room into “men” and “women”?
  • Do you have separate door prices based on role or gender?
  • Does your advertising literature feature only heterosexual couples?
  • Do men do the majority of asking people to dance?
  • Do you dismiss the concerns of LGBTQIA attendees?
  • Are some LGBTQIA people more welcome in your scene than others?

 

If you have thought about these things already and it’s genuinely important to you to acknowledge Pride… personally, I’m all for it. I really do appreciate when scenes show that they’ve realized their LGBTQIA attendees are spending time with them on a politically and historically important day. I like it when my identity, and queer liberation, is celebrated within my community. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for things you can do to acknowledge Pride as an ally organizer:

  • Frame your intentions in the event description: we know we’re on the same day as Pride, so we’re running a Pride Dance with the leadership of… / and while we’re not running a Pride dance, we do want to welcome and celebrate any members of the LGBTQIA community who want to come out and dance with us.
  • Make a special effort to hire LGBTQIA teachers and DJs. Maybe bring someone in from out of town. Pay them. Invite them to play some songs that reflect that it’s Pride. A well-meaning ally is not an LGBTQIA person.
  • Give money from the event to an LGBTQIA charity or cause.
  • Have a snowball or jam for your LGBTQIA attendees.*
  • Put up articles, songs, or videos about LGBTQIA history within your dance form.
  • Update your information and policies to make sure that they’re sexuality and gender-inclusive. Maybe pay an LGBTQIA person to look things over with you… I can be hired to do just that – get in touch.
  • Model the behavior you want to see at your event: offer your pronouns as you introduce yourself, ask someone of your gender to dance, ask which role someone prefers. Teach your attendees to do the same.
  • DON’T monetize Pride and feed that money back into your own organization if you’re not an actively LGBTQIA-led scene.

You don’t have to do ALL of these things, but if you are looking at all of them and thinking that they all sound like a lot of change and effort, then maybe you don’t care as much about Pride as you want people to think you do. At the end of the day, Pride should be a chance to celebrate the values and community that you already have, not a one-day vacation into rainbow-feel-good-land because you like our colour palette. There are a lot of really lovely, inclusive scenes out there being run by allies with whom I’d be happy to share my Pride day. I hope other scenes use Pride as an invitation to do better now, and in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

* Make sure you’re really clear about the place of allies in any spotlighting activity. I still cringe about the song explicitly “for queer attendees” that was completely DOMINATED by a straight, cis “ally” who wanted to showcase himself. On the other hand, maybe someone identifies as LGBTQIA and hasn’t told you yet. Use your good judgement, or ask someone to make that call if you can’t.

Unbound, We Howl

It is international women’s day… and I am not one.

I am frequently mistaken for a woman, in fact I have been for most of my life, and I could probably still pass for one if I chose. So what are the political stakes of deliberately choosing to step outside of the identity – in fact the political position – that is being a woman, and say: “no, I am something else?” Feminist and theorist Laurie Penny writes that she is biologically non-binary, but politically a woman because she believes that the experiences of her life in her body make it fundamentally necessary to speak to the position of women in today’s social environment. What is it, then, this political identity that is “woman” that I have never been a part of? Where does it intersect with “feminist” – which I am? How can that identity and politics and weight and necessity be communicated to those who sit outside of that identity and politics in every direction? Well, if you believe Alexandra Stilianos, and I usually do, you start with anger.

Unbound, We Howl is an unashamed polemic on the state of women in humanity. It begins with seventeen dancers – women and not – seated on the floor of the stage, facing away from the audience, watching a collage of found footage and scrolling, distorted headlines on transgender suicide and bathroom bills. Rather than setting up transwomen as the limit break case on the breath of identity, Stilianos places them right away at the center of her community, and then gets on with the serious business of exploring the heart of what being a woman actually means. In this space, what it means is these dancers, captured in life-size portrait on the backcloth of the stage. The seated cast rises to take their place in a two-dimensional pencil outline of themselves, fitting into the shapes that have been left by them in a moment of captured time, filling them out into three-dimensional reality. And then they move.

It starts very simply, with a short run and a one-handed appeal to the audience. We begin to hear fragments of text from Sylvia Plath, Jeanann Verlee, given voice by the dancers, or by electronic distortion, or even Siri – reminding us that we have consistently chosen a women’s voice to anthropomorphosise the idea of passive service. (Incidentally, while Siri, Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Google Home and Facebook M will all tell you they have no gender, they all present as female, and advertising literature refers to them interchangeably as “she” and “it.” Woman or object… why not both?!) The dancers on stage emerge, explore, trace the present materiality of their bodies, crawl towards us, all with a gradual undertone of wary tension – a coming storm.

It is Andie Altchiler who breaks the tension first, with a stumbling, tripping, whirlwind of a solo that flings her legs and arms and hair all across the stage, only brought to a halt by a shout from another dancer. The cast retreat back into their portraits, but only for a second, crawling straight back out to make tornadoes of their own. The portraits become a home-base, a space owned by the dancers inhabiting their bodies, from which they can emerge to speak out amidst the tumult of cascading voices. This play between the general torrent of opinion and the specific kinesthetic appeals of each dancer, belies an easy theorization of the piece’s thesis or driving point. Each dancer becomes a manifestation of her own identity, gathered within the collective umbrella of a shared political identity: woman. At last they run forward and stand shoulder to shoulder at the front of the stage, visible and present, ready to be seen.

But the dancers are not interested in us, yet. Instead their gaze drags ours upwards to where an additional cast of dancers marches above us in silent protest, trapped by the bars of the lighting grid and unnoticed until this moment. The unusual perspective that keeps them from us and us from them shows us the vulnerability of bodies hitting the floor, but also renders their protest partially illegible – we are not used to seeing from below, and we cannot access the complexity and completeness of what it is they are trying to say.

Back down on the stage the tornadoes continue, but now the dancers add their individual voices into the play of sound around them. Stilianos joins her cast onstage to create a live mixing of light, sound, and projection, lending a sense of authenticity and spontaneity to this impassioned moment. Kat Sprudzs cranes her “poor, female head” into the microphone as she writhes across the floor, Laura Deangelis clambers on top of another performer to say… something about sex that she can never really quite get high enough for us to hear. The thwarting of the dancer’s voices and the impossible attitudes they have to enter into in order to amplify themselves explains why some simply try to stand by themselves and shout without the microphone, trying to make their point against the noise and movement all around them. The work begins to expand into the audience, the performers linking hands in a long, anchoring line as Emily Gaffga – finally in control of the microphone but with her voice distorted, walks among the seats asking questions about make-up: “Are you selling your body?” The line breaks down and struggles within itself as dancers fight to be heard, while above us more and more of the marchers collapse to the floor and shout at each other – the text on the back wall reads: “RECKONING.”

Some kind of accommodation: the dancers run and walk around the stage, are picked up, stand above the crowd, fall, roll, return to walking and running again. They return to their portrait line and stride forward together. Chaos. Dissolution. One dancer lays down erratic taped pathways while another dancer flings herself behind to stick them to the floor. Text drops from the ceiling to be read, the back of the stage reads “FEAR.” The dancers appeal to the audience for help but the project remains unclear – we don’t know how to productively intervene. Each dancer shouts, runs, dances, implores us to understand, but most of all we are asked to bear witness to the struggle in front of us: the performance that lacks unification but which is fundamentally about unity; which is as complicated as politics and as difficult as it is to define what it means to be human. Given torches, all the audience can do is shine a wavering light on the movement or image that makes most sense to them in the moment.

Just as I am beginning to understand, the lights cut out and – for a moment – we all breathe together. Exhausted.

Links to the full work can be found at Stilianos’s website.

The Territory of Togetherness: CDA Works #2

When I moved to Columbus five years ago, I won’t lie; I despaired of how I’d managed a PhD without becoming absolutely and totally starved for art. In all fairness I’d just spent nearly a decade living in London, one of the great art centers of the world, and I had some very British misconceptions about the Midwest and what a “town with an attitude” like Columbus could offer. Well, I’m grateful to say, I was wrong.

The dance scene in Columbus was far richer than I knew, and has grown exponentially over the last five years. From the world-renowned dance degrees in the area – and especially at Ohio State – to a flourishing landscape of local companies, studios, projects, showings and pop-ups, the city is doing well. While I regret the loss of wonderful projects like the MINT collective and Feverhead, I’ve seen the rise of SEA<>BUS dance company, bringing sophisticated and intelligent improvisation-based work to the area, I’ve seen Flux and Flow build itself up from scratch and turn an empty shell of a health food store into a vibrant community class space and dance company. I have become an advocate for living, working, and dancing in Columbus, and as I look to the future and new jobs on the horizon I feel a profound sense of sadness about the community I’ll be leaving behind.

Last night those feelings became particularly poignant during the #2 showing of the Columbus Dance Alliance, a program of dance and movement, founded by generous donations and housed by the Wexner Center. The program last night demonstrated the breadth, versatility and beauty of the Columbus dance scene, and the committee should be congratulated wholeheartedly for holding such an open and proud space for dance in this city.

Lost Brotherhood by Gamal Brown opens the night – a sweetly moving work that set my own mood of fond nostalgia for times and friends gone by. Dancer DaRius FIncher brings a delicate touch to the space, gliding lightly through a complex turn series before coming to rest on the balls of his feet – poised on the fine line between present and future, self and community. Brown’s work is supported by a Columbus Dances Fellowship, and uses choreopoem and performance to tackle social justice issues of the present and past.

Inclusion by Melissa Hinchman (leader of the non-profit Cultivate Dance Project) is the second dance on the program, once again playing with individual creativity and unity. The choreography is articulate and full of refreshing, quirky details, making use of the dancers’ arresting performance dynamic. As the music breaks down, dissolves and returns, so do the dancers move from crisp unison towards a gradual dissolution of self – their attempts at partnered support gradually lost in individual isolation.

The final piece before the intermission – Michael Morris’s Elemental Rites at the End of the World – reaches out to the audience and draws us together in an urgent community of survival. Inviting us into a circle around them, Morris calls to the North, West, South and East horizons in a time of endings, invoking the elements with body and breath and ritual text. We are reminded that Earth, Water, Fire and Air are around and in and with all of us, that the spark in each cell is the wildfire that rages, is the witch burnt at stake and the women who we still do not believe. As their body strikes, flows, quakes and drifts, Morris shows us the layers of relationality between ourselves and the world, and they offer – with gentle hands – a way to hold those layers present and to care for them as we care for ourselves and each other.

Lauren Slone, choreographs and dances hot night slow drive fast car: a puzzle of a piece with a cobra in its belly, beautifully crafted and performed. Slone writhes and flicks her limbs across the stage with calm surety as the text and soundscape around her hint at profound internal struggle. hot night is a challenge to the superficial reading, and the dismissal of history and ritual trained into the body or inked on the skin. Interrupting balletic technique with a casually jutting hip, tracing pathways that are at once obscure and yet relentlessly determined, Sloane offers half of a story, and leaves us straining to see more clearly.

I have always loved the intersections of poetry and dance, and so the penultimate work: From these old pages, choreographed and danced by Megan Davis Bushway and Victoria Alesi was a treat to my eyes, ears and heart. Juxtaposing fragments of poems to shape new linguistic constellations, Bushway and Alesi invite us to consider how texts shape our humanity and response to the world. Their movement is quiet, with a responsive flow – a favourite moment is when the dancers grasp hands like a ballet bar, but instead on stasis they generate a swinging, circular, collaborative momentum, evolving and shifting until a compass line is traced around the stage. Poems become fragments become maps become the terrain we know, and how we explore it together.

On Board(hers), the final work of the night, takes us starkly from the free flow across maps and countries to the harshly linear space of customs and immigration control. Lucille Toth’s work, based on the testimonies of 15 Ohio-based immigrant women, has gathered interest and attention from all over the community, and I was justly excited to see an excerpt tonight. Amrita Dahr is flawless as the Orwellian customs agent, propelling the performers through a counter-intuitive ritual of routine subjugation. Toth and dancer Bita Bell bark at the audience in French and Farsi, in a powerful demonstration of what it’s like to be treated as a stranger in your own home. On Board(hers) makes its protest in the language of the marginalized – through empathy, and the unmistakable presentation of humanity, despite all the forces lined up to these things away. The full work will be shown on March 28th at the Beeler Gallery, and I urge all those who can to come and see it.

Thank you to the Columbus Dance Alliance for bringing these six works together, and I look forward to program #3!

The Big 5-OH – Celebrating OSU Dance

I am delighted to have been at OSU for the occasion of the department’s 50th birthday, and their Big 5-OH showing. Congratulations to whoever came up with that particular title, and the tagline: “…throwing our weight around for 50 years…”* I’ve always appreciated a really nuanced pun, and this big ten university dance department really does know how to throw it’s weight around, and how to stand up for itself, as the four dance pieces on tonight’s program demonstrate.**

The pieces are neatly tied together on the theme of Rudolf Laban’s principles of movement analysis: space, weight, time, and flow. The OSU Dance Department has been a home to Laban’s theories for many years, and when the vast repository of scores and documents previously held by the Dance Notation Bureau were orphaned, OSU’s archive reached out to shelter them under its expansive wings, turning the university into one of the foremost locations in the world for Laban-based research. Projecting scores onto the theater floor was an inspired touch – an invitation to literally get up and walk through pieces – a tool that I hope gets used with the next class of analysis students!

On my way into the theater I look through the archival display, lovingly crafted by Chris Summers. Here the department’s capacity to make art out of history and history through art is woven together in a compelling and accessible format. I pass the department chair, who pulls me in to look at a yellowing list of department alums from the year I was born. “This is so important!” She tells me, and I feel our collective pride in where we’ve come from and what we have done with dance – and what we’re going to do.

The space section of the evening is taken on by Susan Petry in her work Trace, and quite frankly I could have sat and watched its introduction all evening and still gone home satisfied. This is the first work I’ve seen in the Barnett Theater since it was reconfigured in the round, and the cast is clearly hungry for every extra inch of room the new layout affords them—they reach, roll, leap and dive through movement that stretches out to early modernism, but is still totally supported by the dancer’s conviction, and the starkly contemporary lighting design by Dave Covey. The formations of this work are its triumph: the dancers spiral in and through each other, knock each other out of place, bind and unravel, find and re-find clarity… even more astonishing is the humanity with which they achieve such calculated precision, causing me more than once to hold my breath, or double take, or even spontaneously applaud as complexity flourishes unexpectedly from chaos. I loved space. I just wanted to give it more time.

Time, thankfully, I had in abundance thanks to Daniel Robert’s work Nomadic Drift, which followed in the evening. Robert’s desert is a harsh space, but a rich one, incorporating the tectonic shift and grind of mountains wearing down, and the explosive bloom of day-flowering vegetation, the scurry and calculated mastery of survival. The dancers are at home in this landscape, and once again the virtuosity that could easily have been clinical is instead empathetic and full of life. The role-reversing foot-to-foot duet that marks time at the beginning of the work is as delicate as glass, and as certain as diamond. A later trio with the theme of diving through is gigglingly playful, while the central solo by Sydney Samson is as crisp and clear in the silence as a shadow carving through the sunrise. The Cunningham-based techniques in the piece feel at home in the atmosphere of the past, but this work is a showcase of all that the dancers in this department can do right here in the now.

Of all the choreographers commissioned for this anniversary show, it is Eddie Taketa who seems to have most fully grasped the brief that tonight is a birthday party. Kipuka is a flat out romp through jazz and funk, the dancers smiling and wheeling, and having what is clearly a wonderful time. If you weren’t looking carefully you might get caught up in the celebration and miss some of the sophistication of flow within the work, which would be a shame when this dynamic is so intelligently explored. Watch Alizé Raptou as she whips and spins across the floor, then breaks on a dime to turn back the other way, seemingly pulling momentum out of thin air. Watch a trio of dancers throw and catch each other across the space, moving with gravity but never allowing it to pull them even a hair out of rhythm with their partnership. This is not flow that pulls you on uncontrollably, this is flow taken up and mastered as a way of getting you exactly where you want to go. What is hip? This is.

It seems trite to say that a piece on theme of weight makes an impact, but that is without a doubt what Lush Departures by Crystal Perkins does: slamming a foot decisively down in the space and yelling “here we are, this is what we can do, and no-one can stop us.” Weight is a springboard that lets the dancers fly and rebound, their communal energy spiraling up and out and all through the space. Perkins has clearly made this piece with a lot of love for the department she called home as an MFA student, and which now celebrates her as a faculty member. Alumni photos hang like a benediction over the dancers, and a central section of the work uses archived sound of Vera J. Blaine coaching a past class of dancers in lightness. As we hear Blaine’s voice and see the cast embody her exploration we realize that we are seeing time: the innovation that becomes tradition that becomes innovation reworked again. It is a statement of past and future, reverence and pride, and fills me with hope as I step out and leave into the ongoing dance.

 

Happy birthday OSU Dance, here’s to many more years.

 

 

 

* I hear it was Susan Petry, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

**A fifth work Well of Pearls took place as part of the celebrations in another theater, but I was unfortunately unable to attend.