New Performance: Armadillos (Little Armored Ones) Addresses Immigration, Colonization, and Climate Change
Armadillos (Little Armored Ones) marks the second part of a three-part choreographic project responding to a 17th-century painting by Cornelius Visscher called América that glorifies colonization. The painting left me uneasy since when I first saw it years ago. Visscher depicts a giant and regal warrior woman arriving in the “New World.” In the middle of the canvas, America sits on top of an animal as if she were on a throne. Behind her is a newly developed scene full of farmers tilling the land and sheep grazing the field. Ahead of her is an indigenous land with people dancing naked and in the midst of a cannibalistic bacchanalia. Oddly, she rides into this exotic land not on a horse but on an armadillo. Regio (Royal), the first part of the project, manifested as a 2021 bilingual dance theatre production that uses contemporary dance and puppetry to share stories about Latinx immigrant workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through Armadillos, I return to the painting. This picture is a glimpse of what we know full well to be a scenario of colonization, but why the armadillo as the vehicle for this process? What has changed since Visscher etched this painting over three hundred years ago, and what has become of the role of the armadillo in the hemispheric imaginary? The next iteration of my project, Armadillos (Little Armored Ones), will be a bilingual dance theater performance with stories about an undocumented migrant worker in a warehouse center, a naturalized citizen who loses her citizenship, and furry mammals popularly known as armadillos who are venturing into new northern territories because it is getting warmer in the US. These stories collide to paint a tapestry of the impacts of climate change, the increased demand of service delivery companies by consumer demands, and the fragility of citizenship. The performance explores the interconnections between what compels people and armadillos to seek out new places as the climate changes and in the face of a changing labor economy that continues to invisibilize indigenous migrant labor.
[Featued Image armadillo illustrated by collaborator Lily Gershon 2022]
Regio (Royal) employs contemporary dance, storytelling, and mojigangas, larger than life Mexican puppets, to uncover the experience of Latinx immigrant workers in meat factories impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The new production will be presented in different public parks and across Ithaca in May 2021. The performance will be a collaboration between me as choreographer/artistic director, two members of Lilypad Puppet Theatre, and three Latinx dancers from the community.
I am incorporating two mojigangas into the performance because of the puppets’ cultural relevance to the themes addressed in the performance. Mojigangas are large, 8 to 11 feet tall, figurines constructed from papier-mâché and cardboard. They are popular in Guanajuato, Mexico, a region with a high percentage of out-migration to the United States, and the applicant’s birth state. These puppets originated in Spain to represent nobles and royalty. They were introduced to the Americas during the colonization period. The mojigangas for this performance are going to represent workers from the factories. The design and garb will be fashioned after workers’ uniforms. The puppets will depict the factory workers as royalty, appropriating their original meaning of regality, and re-signifying it to working class immigrant.
The puppets will dance alongside three performers who will be dancing to accompanying narrations about the conditions of working in factories without the proper equipment. The stories emphasize stories about hardship, resilience, and hope. The dancers will express the physical labor that is required of these workers, as well as the precarity of their bodies in these factory plants and how they find inspiration for better conditions.
I was invited to show a work-in-progress version of this performance at the Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers on November 11, 2020. I will use the feedback that I receive from this performance to develop it for its premier in Ithaca on May 21 and 23, 2021.
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>
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.
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.
I’ve been privy to know about Chris Bell’s performance projects through a shared Master’s program experience in England. Upon returning to the US, I enjoyed learning about Chris’ recent work with the Minnesota Life College. He started and is currently facilitating The Community Living Program (CLP) Improv Club. The performance club is hosting a performance-based lecture June 19 at 6:15pm in the Minnesota Life College courtyard. I’ve asked Chris to take a couple of minutes to talk about his experience with the improvisation club.
-What do you do for the Minnesota Life College?
I am the out-going Program Assistant for the Community Life Program (CLP). The CLP works with alumni of the Minnesota Life College, a non-profit that provides an invaluable college experience for young adults on the autism spectrum. My main job function as the Program Assistant was to provide access to enriching community activities, both on- and off- campus.
-Why did you start a performance class?
The idea of starting a performance class first came up during my initial interview. However, it wasn’t until I started having conversations with the members that I realized how much of a demand there was for a performance-based club. From this demand, I founded the CLP Improv Club to meet once a week.
-What has been the most rewarding experience?
The most rewarding part of the experience has been watching the members develop as leaders. I took a weekend vacation in late March, and while I was away the members conducted a peer-led CLP Improv Cub. I thrive off of the moment when the student develops the confidence to make their own way.
-What has been the most challenging experience?
The most challenging part of the experience has been renegotiating my relationship with a more traditional aesthetic framework. A standard way to teach improv is to focus on keeping the actions/reactions fast and to avoid dwelling on the next move you’re going to make in the process of building a dramatic sequence. This mantra of don’t over-think and keep it fast is challenged when you’re working with individuals on the autism spectrum, but challenged in the best possible way because it redefines improvs traditional relationship to duration.
-What type of preparation goes into your classes?
At first, every class was very different. I was trying an assortment of physical/vocal warm-ups and improv games to see what was most beneficial for the group. Following two months of experimenting with approaches to the classes, I found it to be the most beneficial when I would worry less about what I was going to do and focusing more on asking the members, “What do you want to lead today?”
-Do you find that the more you lead classes the less you prepare?
Actually, I found it to be the other way around. I found myself preparing more when I was the one leading the class. Since I’ve moved to peer-led approach to the class, I’ve spent less time preparing.
-What are you up to in the coming months? Any projects?
I’ll be concluding my time at the Minnesota Life College with a performance-based lecture focusing on the similarities between co-existing within an improv classroom and within in a community. In early July I’ll be leaving Minnesota for a five month International Artist Residency with Studio Porte Bleue in Montreal, Canada. I’ll be working with performance practitioner/researcher Colin Lalonde in the development of three projects, each engaging, in different ways, with reconfiguring the traditional audience experience.