It’s hard for me to write this post because it brings a lot of pain, emotional, physical, and otherwise. I want to tell you I have been working on a new studio production or that I created a site-specific piece or that I got invited to do an international collaboration. But I can’t. Or at least, I can tell you I started most of these projects, but I stopped halfway through because dance and therapy have changed for me in the past two years.
I have been on a non-linear recovery path since September 2017. I suffered a near-death experience in Mexico during the turbulent week of September during which catastrophic earthquakes left hundreds dead. As a dancer, I always expected I would experience some type of an injury, but I never imagined it would be something so significant as re-learning to walk, shower, and eat. Neither did I imagine I would be learning how to dance with PTSD. I have yet to process the entirety of the experience but I am starting to put words or questions to this past year. One of the central concerns is examining how I dance after a near-death experience that left me with new disabilities and sensibilities.
I have been asking myself this question every day for the 18 months as my abilities have changed. I’ve danced on the bed. I’ve danced in a wheelchair. I’ve danced with crutches. I have danced with a limp. I have danced on the verge of an anxiety attack. Now, I dance with chronic pain. I avoid sitting too long because my muscles get stiff. I avoid standing too long because my bones ache. My life is dictated by a constant list of actions and movements to avoid, or positions that need constant modification.
My journey has been long and it has never been linear. I was evacuated out of Mexico and spent four months bed-bound to recover from complex fractures sustained on the right-side leg, hip, and elbow. After I was cleared to put weight on my foot in early January 2018, I started to work on my physical therapy regime. I was bed bound for most of the day and would use a wheelchair when I got up to the bathroom. Though I was patient with myself, I was determined to walk as soon as possible. I had the double challenge of having the entire right side of my body injured, which prevented me from being able to use a walker because I could not put weight on my elbow until it healed. This situation delayed the time I could put weight on my leg. Physical and occupational therapists would visit my house at least four times a week as part of home health care. At one point in time, I had twelve specialists. They facilitated rigorous exercises to get my range of motion back and to make sure that my muscles were not atrophying. The aim was to increase the muscle mass on my legs and glutes so I could hold myself up when I walked. Yet my wounds were still healing so the experience of putting weight on any muscles was painful. I can still feel the time I sat on the side of my bed and put weight on my swollen right foot for the first time after months of being unable to feel the bottom side.
Throughout this process, I had to learn to talk to my muscles and encourage them in order to continue my healing. In January of 2018, my right elbow stopped recovering its range of motion. The muscles were stiffing up. One day, as I massaged my biceps and the elbow to prevent the build-up of scar tissue, I felt my muscles wanting to cry. I began to listen to them as their whimpers expressed they still were traumatized from my fall from the third story building. They were having a hard time relaxing in the new environment, being unsure if it was time to relax. They were in crisis mode. The adrenaline had crystallized between the muscles’ fibers. My bicep wanted to hear from me that it was time to heal. So I said, “Thank you for all you did to protect me during the fall. You did a fabulous job contracting and helping the elbow bone take the impact. I am so grateful for you. You protected the vital organs. You are vital too. It is okay to ease up now. You don’t have to be scared anymore. You have done your job.” At that moment, my bicep muscle and I cried together. Fue un desahogo total. I felt it release some tension and I was able to increase my elbow’s range of motion. More important than seeing the increased range of motion, I was thankful to hear my muscle speak. No doctor instructed me to talk to my muscle. No doctor talked to me about dance and therapy. In fact, the doctors asked me if I was talking to a mental therapist when I mentioned to them I was talking to my muscles. My muscle advocated for itself. I regretted not having listened to it any sooner than that moment.
The past year and a half I have been learning to listen to my muscles. My body has become the studio. My body has become a site-specific location. My body has become an international collaborator. I have been at the gym or physical therapy five to six time a week for the past 18 months. The weight machines are my companions. The same playlist has been on repeat for 18 months. I’ve learned to talk to my muscles and we are creating a language of our own.
My muscles and I have come to call this process of learning to listen to each other rephabulous. The word rehab is hidden inside of this motivational phrase because this rehabilitation process is about acknowledging the fabulousness of my muscles, seeing them in all of their glory and all of their struggles. And so I am relearning to dance after this near-death experience with a new sensibility that hears my muscles and the way they speak, love, and care for me. We are taking care of each other anew.
On Friday, three of us met in Oakland to resume the ideas that we started to develop during the FRESH Festival. I facilitated a movement and writing workshop focused on the kidney.
We explored movement initiation from the kidney. Then, we used this movement to investigate the images and mapping that arises when we focus on the kidney.
During the workshop, we drove to the East Side Arts Alliance in east Okaland to participate in a community screening of films that explain the rights that people can exercise when they interact with immigration and customs agents.
From January 22-26, 2018, I’m co-facilitating a workshop with Jose Navarrete at the Joe Goode Annex as part of a FRESH Festival workshop series.
“This workshop is an exploration of documented and undocumented bodies in motion across borders. We will center our time together on the complexities and residualities of the foreign body, considering exodus, memory, culture, and belonging. We will take a disembodied approach to foreground the felt conditions that force the body to immigrate and experience the multi dimensionalities of shapeshifting in new environments. We will consider the following concerns: How do the political, social, and economic conditions of immigrant bodies impact feelings of moving and dying across imaginary and real borders? What is the physical capacity of the body when it is blocked, obstructed, removed or impeded? How are these border-realities manifested through relationships, architecture, and public spaces? An inquiry of motion, memory, and borders facilitated by Juan Manuel Aldape and Jose Navarrete.”
January 21, 2018, we met at the cafe on Alcatraz and San Pablo to finalize our preparation for the workshop. My goal for this week to scaffold up the workshop from self to social justice, using performance to help us challenge the current anti-immigrant sentiments. The first day will be about preparing our bodies and our minds to treat other people’s stories and testimonies about immigration. The second day we will focus on other people’s stories. The subsequent days we will spend time preparing for direct action or to prepare a kit for dealing with anti-immigrant sentiments.
Here are a few images and reflections from the workshop:
I facilitated a warmup exercise that focused on the first chakra or energy center, the root chakra. This energy center is where we hold our connection to our roots and our ancestors, but it is also an energy center that can be unbalanced. When it is unbalanced it leads to fear of one’s safety. After I facilitated this part, Jose asked the participants to find a place of pain in their body and to explore the pain that can arise from that center. He wanted the examine how pain can be a source of movement and performance. He laid out images about the body that he collected from Mexico. We did this exercise for 25 minutes. The participants were able to use these for their inspiration. Then, we debriefed for 15 minutes.
On Tuesday, January 23, 2018, I wanted to focus on the second energy chakra and give attention to what can happen when this energy center is off-balance. l asked the participants to begin standing if they are able to. They held their right hand just below their belly button and their left hand on their back, asking them to explore this energy center for ten minutes, giving it different forms of attention, gentle, sped up, and pulsating. Our desire was to receive this energy center and to allow it to drive our movement as we moved through the studio and as we interact with the physical space.
On Wednesday and Thursday, I thought a lot about the aesthetics of cultural memory in performance and embodied dance practices related to social justice. I was thinking about these elements because I was captured by a couple of striking images that occurred during the structured score. At one point in time, I was looking around the room and I looked over and saw three bodies standing in front of the projection that featured the three armadillos. José was one of the people and he was trying to feed the armadillo. I knew that he could not feed the armadillo because it was just the screen projection. Also, I knew that the moment would pass when he would step away from the video. Likewise, in another moment as the score ended, a couple of the participants were on the floor and they had created different shrines or different installations that curated their experience that they had just developed. Several people had put lemons on one of the participant’s head with the lemon peel. These two moments stood out to me because they challenged me to think about how healing happens and what is the role of the aesthetics in helping us frame that trauma that we feel needs healing. Also, I was thinking about how those specific instances made me question what was part of cultural memory. Those specific instances were developed using contemporary modern dance and performance practices and they were drawing upon knowledge about energy flow and ancestral knowledge about the armadillo, as well as drawing upon information about the voice.
Cinco Palmas is a bilingual dance-theater performance that addresses child migration from Honduras to Los Angeles, written from the perspective of a circumstantial trafficker. The movement and text move across a range of emotions, from laughter to child-like curiosity to anger with corrupt governments. The script for this performance is based on actual accounts and is written in Spanish (the language of the original testimony), accompanied by an experiment of mistranslation in the form of English supertitles. The project is a collaboration between TDPS Ph.D. students Juan Manuel Aldape and Martha Herrera-Lasso. Read the review by Kumars Salehi>
Feature Image: Students of Color Solidarity Coalition and Performance Colectiva at the University of California Berkeley. Image courtesy of Natalie Sanchez.
Bubbles are meant to burst. Enter Natalie Sanchez and her collaborators of Performance Colectiva, a group composed of current students as well as recently-graduated students from the University of California at Berkeley (CAL). Natalie and the troupe’s collaborators successfully graduated from the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) with the mission to connect and bridge communities in the San Francisco Bay Area through performance. Performance Colectiva’s story is one of an exciting theatrical beginning in a class that catapulted outside the campus. Natalie recently sat down with me at CAL’s Free Speech Movement Cafe to talk about her experience and the development of Performance Colectiva.
Performance Colectiva formed out of a desire to continue the work started in a class. Natalie registered in Performance Studies Professor Angela Marino’s Teatro Lab class, created by Marino in 2013 to give CAL students an opportunity to learn about theatre in Latin America. Teatro Project is a group of Latinas/os in the Theater and Performance Studies Department advocating diversity across the campus and the local community. Working rigorously throughout the Spring semester, the lessons culminated in a community performance Bodies, Buildings, Borders: An Experimental Showcase. The student performance addressed themes directly impacting students of color by weaving personal reflections on the experience of higher education with perceptions of community struggles and political challenges. Moved by the rewarding experience of the class and the reception of the production by the community attendees, the students felt compelled to continue working after the semester ended. Thus, Performance Colectiva was born. Natalie, in the final semester of senior year, felt the determination to enroll in one more semester to minor in Theater and Performance Studies.
Natalie’s decision to stay an additional semester proved invigorating, but also critical in crystallizing the reason for Performance Colectiva. Following the initial performance, the students organized other performances and community interventions to confront and burst the “Berkeley Bubble”. According to Sanchez, the “Bubble” is the resulting effect of students from CAL closing off ties with the communities in non-campus Berkeley and the greater East Bay. In the process of bursting the bubble, she has cultivated new relationships with the graduating students and with Marino, as well as found enriching opportunities to work with distinguished Bay Area Latino playwrights.
In Spring 2014, they helped bring Octavio Solis to CAL. As special guests to the Association for Theater in Higher Education annual conference, they, alongside the Teatro Project, adapted, directed and performed Luiz Valdez’s Zoot Suit. What is more, both the Teatro Project and Performance Colectiva are assisting TDPS with bringing eminent playwright Luiz Valdez to the UC Berkeley Campus. On November 18, Valdez will give the Keynote Lecture “The Power of Zero.” The lecture is opened to both the campus and community at large.
Ultimately, Sanchez remarks, Performance Colectiva’s goal is to be a “performance pipeline so folks that don’t identify with the [TDPS] department can go in and learn about their identity and find strategies and inspiration through taking classes.” They seek to provide a dual process for community engagement: CAL students connecting to the community and the community engaging with the department. Hence, while Performance Colectiva uses performance as their practice to speak in educational spheres about issues affecting students of color, they are equally involved in the community advocating migrant justice, fair wages and political enfranchisement.
On Sunday, I am traveling to Morelia, Mexico for a performance collaboration at the Mexican Centre for Music and Sonic Arts (CMMAS). This performance project occurs October 10, 2014. My performance will be a collaboration with Carol Borja, Morelia-based Performance Artist and resident fellow at CMMAS. Carol invited me to collaborate and perform her adaption of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. Kane’s brutal text deals with clinical depression and suicide. Borja adapted the original text and produced an accompanying sound score. I am developing original choreography to be performed in tandem with the sound score inside a unique set design, informed by Borja’s ethnographic field-work in mental institutions. According to Borja, the focus of the performance is to advocate the visibility of the mentally ill minority in Mexico. The performance intentionally coincides with International Mental Health Day.
Also, I will be co-facilitating a three-day movement and dance workshop at the Alfredo Zalce Museum of Contemporary Art (MACAZ). During the workshops, we will guide participants through the choreographic process used to develop my movement for Borja’s adaption. Also, I will concentrate on teaching performance methods that I have utilized for recent site-specific productions in Cloneen, Ireland and Belgrade, Serbia.
I have had the great pleasure of working with Carol Borja for over two years. She generously joined me in Guanajuato to document the performance Los Tres Peligros (2012). In addition to her literary and performance art skills, Carol possesses a poignant graphic and photographic eye. Though we met in Mexico, we were already linked based on our mutual education at the University of Warwick. While not part of the same cohort, we both received an MA in International Performance Research.
Ishmael Houston-Jones is a long-recognized movement improviser, writer and choreographer. Additionally, he holds positions as curator for organizations located in New York City and Salt Lake City( UT). His involvement in both dance and curation is an appreciable opportunity to investigate the relationships between the shifting fields. He made some time for my questions even while teaching at the American Dance Festival summer school. Thank you Ishmael!
You curate Salt Lake City’s Daughters of Mudson from New York City. What elements go into your decision-making? Do you think you are afforded a level of ‘objectivity’ from such a distance?
I think Ashley Anderson asked me to curate the DoM programs, specifically because I was not from the SLC dance scene and had some, but not much, knowledge of local dance histories and politics. On that level I possessed certain objectivity. From reading the learning to loveDANCEmore journal and speaking with Ashley I received a view of the SLC dance ecology and what seemed to be missing, or at least missing support. I’m not sure I can name what those things were. I’ll try: for a relatively small dance population Salt Lake was dominated by 2 large and well supported modern dance companies and the ballet. The U of U graduated many talented dancers but if they were not going to leave town or try to join one of the existing companies there seemed to be few opportunities for (young) independent choreographers to develop and show their work. So, one of my foci was independent choreographers who could use support (mainly through visibility and production). I chose artists via video from the Mudson works-in-progress series that seemed to be most probable of being able to complete a work. Personal taste always is a factor, but not a deciding one. As curator I used my standard of what constituted “good” work and computed that with the viability of the w-i-p becoming a fully formed piece and I intuited the niche these artists works might fill in the local dance ecology.
2) What is the role of the curator, be at dance festivals or monthly showings, within the dance sphere? How have you observed this role change over time?
I’m going to cc the email I sent to you previously distinguishing the roles of programmer, presenter, producer, and curator as they relate to dance performance.
Like the term “postmodern” the word “curator” experienced some subtle and some not so subtle shifts of meaning as it moved from the visual art domain to common usage in the performing arts, most specifically dance. The term “curator” has become conflated with “programmer,” “presenter” and “producer.” I feel that sometimes this is because the word “curator” has a more highfaluting or pseudo-sophisticated connotation in the view of some people. I spoke two summers ago at Wesleyan University at ICPP, the Institute for Curatorial Practices in Performances (yes, there is such a thing). Unfortunately, I can’t locate my notes, so I’ll try to recreate them with the help of my online dictionary and Wikipedia.
From Wikipedia’s entry on “Curator:” A curator (from Latin: curare meaning “take care”) is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library or archive) is a content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.
So a curator, in the common sense, is someone who cares for art objects, preserves them and places them into a historical context for a greater public. This is definitely how I saw my role as the chief curator of PLATFORM 2012: Parallels at Danspace Project. I chose the works to be preserved, either through performance, archival video screenings, panel discussions, or perhaps most importantly, a catalog. I sifted through archives to find original footage, photographs, press clips and programs/flyers/press releases/letters from the 1982 series. I chose writers for the catalog. I chose sub-curators for special events. I chose the artists who would be showing new work on most of the mixed bill programs. I tried to show connections. For example, screening excerpts of a recently released documentary film on the1980s-90s New York Vogueing/House scene on the same evening that I showed work by young choreographers whose work is informed by the “the streets, the clubs, the houses.” Or presenting work by Zimbabwe-born contemporary choreographer Nora Chipaumire on the same evening as work by Okwui Okpokwasili, a New Yorker, born to Nigerian immigrant parents to illustrate a link between work that is coming out of Africa today with work by an American artist who is one generation away from the homeland. This is to say that a lot of thought and care went into the curating of this platform.
On the other hand, I am loath to call myself a curator of the DraftWork series. Though I do put thought into my choices, there is little consideration to contextualization when organizing the shared bills of works-in-progress. It usually comes down to which artist is available on which Saturday afternoons that Danspace has access to Saint Mark’s Church. Sometimes there are happy accidents when the work of two choreographers seems to mesh or dovetail. Other times, during the discussion with the audience after the showings, I’m forced to speak to the two choreographers separately because they have nothing in common. In this regard I would say that I am a programmer. I choose choreographers who I think will have interesting work to show and fit them into available dates. The discussion with the public is a small attempt at contextualization but mainly it serves as audience building and artist feedback. Danspace Project is the presenter of the series.
I think what I do for Daughters of Mudson falls somewhere between these roles. Taking a step back, I believe that Ashley Anderson asked me to be the “curator” of these shows because the dance scene in Salt Lake City is small and insular and rife with histories and politics of which I am mostly ignorant. I think having someone from outside of that world is probably beneficial for the integrity of the selections. Of course I am at a disadvantage because I have never seen the works live in development at Mudson and I do not know most of the artists as artists (or at all). Also, not being from the SLC scene might make me unbiased, but it also leaves me to use my intuition in choosing a roster of choreography that will add something positive to the SLC dance ecology. Some of my concerns when selecting work are aesthetic and cultural diversity, work that doesn’t derive directly from the established local canon, (RW, RDT), work that is saying something fresh or saying something in an original way. Since I don’t write program notes, the shows lack a certain contextualization. This was evidenced by Karin Fenn’s rather confusing review of the 2014 edition in SLUG in which she faulted the programming for not being avant-garde. I didn’t see the shows, so she may have been completely correct in her assessment of the work; it was just that her lens was not the lens with which I selected the work.
I would call the role of loveDANCEmore with respect to the Mudson series is as a presenter. Their primary raison d’être is to offer artists opportunities to show their work. Plus they also give a small stipend and some free documentation and PR.
There are very few dance producers currently operating in our world. A producer is someone who supports the creation and/or subsequent performances of that work with, well, money. Other things (rehearsal time and places, commissioning fees, public relations and touring support) may be given as well. But a producer makes a financial commitment to the artists and their work and carries through to the completion of the project.
Most of the small to medium sized venues in New York with which I interface (Danspace Project, PS 122, The Kitchen, NYLA) exist in a situation somewhere between presenter and producer. While the executive/artistic directors at most of these spaces cannot offer full support toward the creation of new work, they all offer some form of backing beyond a fixed artist’s fee or split of the house. Sometimes they receive and disperse commissioning grants; sometimes they can offer a week or two of technical residency or a long rehearsal period in the space. Danspace Project even produces catalogs for their platforms (to which they assign a curator). But it is rare that these organizations are able to fully produce the creation of a new work. Larger arts organizations, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York or the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are able to do this with some of their programming and thus they become producers
1.5) How does your decision-making change when you curate for the works-in-progress showing Draftwork at Danspace?
Since I am part of the NYC dance environment I have seem much of the work from the artists who apply. However, there are always several who are unknown to me. Artists become a part of DraftWork either through application, in which they make a proposal to show a work in development; or they are someone whose work I have seen live and I ask if they are working on anything new that they would like to show in progress. Again chance and available schedules play a big part in who is selected. There is always this baroque quartet dance among St. Mark’s Church, Danspace Project, the artists and me to fit the program into the dates when the church is free.
My decision making for DraftWork is similar to how I curate DoM, except I am more likely to be familiar with previous work of the artists. I look for potential at any stage of development. I also consider how articulate an artist is when discussing their work, since the audience engagement is an important part of the DraftWork program.
3) How is dance curation different from curating for theatre or the visual arts?
Dance differs from the visual arts primarily in that with painting, sculpture, etc. there is a physical object that has a monetary value and can be bought and sold. With dance you are curating an ephemeral live art experience. Also there is a much longer history of visual art curation so its meaning in that context is more codified. In the early 21st century we, in dance, are still making it up and trying to define what it means. I actually have not heard “curator” used regarding theater. Back to the visual arts, I think that perhaps installation art, film and video curation may have much in common with both dance and visual arts.
6) Are dance practitioners better dance curators? What changes in the curation when a practitioner curates dance?
I’m not sure if I have a definitive answer to that question. Intuitively I think practitioners would have a specialized knowledge of what to look for and a historical view to where certain works fit with one another. But as a dance practitioner I am almost completely unqualified to organize for example a program of New South Indian Dance or even of experimental ballet. A critic, a scholar, a dance historian with knowledge of those specific fields would be infinitely more qualified than I. Also, the question of objectivity emerges. If the practitioner is currently making pieces of their own, can they be impartial when choosing work. How will their own practice color their selections? Of course critics, scholars, and historians have their prejudices also, but those are not directly related to their own practice. As someone who is still making work, when I curated Platform 2012: Parallels at Danspace, I was careful to assign five sub-curators for special events over the two months. I did this to diffuse my own voice and bias and to add different points of view to the Platform.
5) What was your experience curating Platform 2012:Parallels? There was an interval of three decades between the original showing and the 2012 iteration! Did the two-month event capture the conversations you were aiming to highlight?
The primary questions that acted as theses for the 2012 platform were: “Does “Black Dance” exist?” “If it does exist, what is ‘mainstream’ Black Dance?” “If there is such a thing as mainstream Black Dance, who is making work today that pushes beyond that mainstream?” I think the Platform did what I thought it might do; it presented more questions than it answered. It provoked discussions. It presented a wide array of possibilities. The temporal distance between 1982 and 2012 was somewhat taken care of by having me as chief curator and three others from the 1980s as sub-curators (Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar). They as well as Gus Solomons wrote pieces for the catalog. Wend Perron wrote a memorial to Harry Sheppard, one of the 1982 artists, who died in the 1990s. We also published the original program, poster, review, and letters of inquiry from 1982 in the catalog. Along with many photographs. We also had essays concerning the current climate written by Thomas Defrantz and a young choreographer, Will Rawls, curated two programs. One where original video footage from the 1982 series was shown followed by a panel discussion by some of us who were present at the time. Will also screened excerpts from a heated debate between Bill T. Jones and Steve Paxton to illustrate what the thinking about Black Dance and Postmodernism was in the 1980s. The other program Will curated studied 21st century media for the presentation of dance (by Black folks). This meant mostly looking at an assortment of clips from YouTube and other internet sources. I think I did a good job of bridging the 30 years between the platform and the original series.
4) What lens does curation add to dance and what does it take away? Should curation be a required module within dance studies?
The most important thing the lens of the curator offers when she or he uses it well is context. Rather than simply programming a series of dance performances based solely on the taste and predilections of the programmer combined with desire to have “butts in the seats,” curation is a way of looking at specific niches in a very broad field and to put them within a historical and/or critical frame. I think curation, when done correctly, elevates the art form by treating it seriously as art worth studying, debating, analyzing, etc. I am loath to pronounce “shoulds,” but for the all the reasons given above, I think the study of dance curation could definitely enhance the study of dance.