Dance, Politics, and Activism
Two questions stood out at the July 2010 panel discussion on “Dance, Politics, Activism” during the Dance Critics Association’s annual conference in Manhattan: What about political dance is threatening? And what is the thin blue line that brings on censorship? DCA gathered an electric group of panelists to share their experiences with politically activist dance.
The participants were three activist artistic director-choreographers: Jane Comfort for Jane Comfort and Company, Janet Eilber for the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Myna Mukherjee for the Engendered Festival and the Nayikas Dance Theater Company. Bjorn Amelan, scenic designer for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Jones’s partner, represented the Jones/Zane company. (No contemporary or classical ballet choreographers were present.) Robert Johnson of the Newark Star-Ledger knowledgeably moderated, prompting focused discussion with relevant quotes from private conversations he recalled conducting with each of the panelists.
In addition to attending the DCA panel, I further interviewed Jane Comfort and Janet Eilber by phone and conducted phone and in-person interviews, as well, with artistic director-choreographers Liz Lerman of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Jennifer Monson of iLAND, Rulan Tangen of Dancing Earth, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women. The executive director of Doug Varone and Dancers, Tom Ward, added information about activist dance, as did a phone conversation and email exchange with Joan Acocella, dance critic for The New Yorker, and a review from The Village Voice sent by Deborah Jowitt, then the Voice’s dance critic. My own preview for KUNM-FM, my local affiliate of National Public Radio, of Anna Halprin’s new film, Breath Made Visible, and Halprin’s subsequent emailed answers to my inquiries, showed the Marin County dancer to be still a powerhouse, evocative and provocative through her eight decades in modern dance.
Varieties of Political-Activist Dance
Across the centuries and the continents, dancers and choreographers have expressed their aesthetic and emotional passions through performance. Can an artist be unconsciously political and activist without being socially concerned with his compatriots’ living and working conditions, humanity’s quality of life? In the early 20th century, a Paris audience was appalled to watch ballet dancers hunched over and stamping: Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring caused his Paris audience to riot. The Russian genius had discarded classical ballet movements. To quell the ensuing riot, the police had to be called in. His work might be considered a choreographic activism, consciously motivated. One hundred years later, many contemporary ballet companies reflect aspects of Nijinsky’s movement language.
Merce Cunningham’s conscious decision was to de-center his dances’ focus. Deborah Jowitt described Cunningham’s use of space: [F]or him, a proscenium arch isn’t a frame within which events are hierarchically arranged; it’s just a convenient boundary to define what we can see in an open field — it holds the dancing the way a microscope slide holds a lively drop of pond water…[and] creates a sense of flexible space.” Was his androgynous presentation of dancers and their roles a conscious one, and was it political in a sexual sense? Yes. Neil Greenberg had danced with Merce Cunningham. In a conversation with Ann Daly (included in her anthology Critical Gestures, Writing on Dance and Culture), Greenberg speaks of the polar concepts – purity of dance and personal values – that meet in the unconscious divide. Daly quotes Greenberg as saying, “An artist has the desire to be known…that is in Merce’s work, but in great code.”
Though Mark Morris’s work is more nuanced and reveals a more obvious gender slant—presenting same-gender partnering and cross-dressed “pants roles”—is his message more political and activist than Cunningham’s when Morris challenges cultural values and re-incorporates them more directly?
Bill T. Jones also speaks to Ann Daly of his own conflict, and that of Cunningham, between presenting pure dance and conveying who he is in his personal life. Jones says,
“[D]ance as an art form…doesn’t reveal any exterior explanation…dance itself is something primary and pure…[but] this question of purity…is in opposition to another question…the question of honesty and truth…how can I ever expect to take part in this quest for purity, because the question arises, whose definition of purity[?]…[W]e have taken what was basically an aesthetic discussion into the realm of politics and the kind of emotionalism that follows….[T]ruth was in the ambiguity.”
Artists present their values onstage both straightforwardly and with slant—by-the-back-door moves. In MiddleSex Gorge (1990), Stephen Petronio and Gino Grenek danced in corsets. Petronio and Michael Clarke had sex onstage in one of their performances. Up until this year, when she retired from the Dance Exchange, in her cross-generational company, Liz Lerman spotlighted elders in wheelchairs, another overlooked group who can be said to be emerging in a dance context. Doug Varone’s Alchemy (2008) looks at the murder of the American Jewish reporter, Daniel Pearl, by Islamist extremists.
For this essay, Janet Eigner interviewed Rulan Tangen, award-winning director and choreographer of the Dancing Earth company, pictured above. In every aspect of artistic collaboration – including dance, choreography, music, costume, lighting, video, stage managing – Dancing Earth gathers Indigenous collaborators, including Nations of Blackfoot, Metis, Coushatta, Cambiva, Yaqui, Purepecha, Shoshone, Navajo, Cherokee, Hopi, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, and Keresan of North Central and South America.
Photo courtesy Paulo T. Photography.
Indigenous choreographers are challenged with a different sort of cultural politics: Rulan Tangen shows the interplay of ancient and contemporary indigenous ritual, demonstrating how demoralized urban Indians might find and transform old rituals to their current needs.
To encompass these many types of politically activist dance, this article limits itself to the political tip of only the American modern and contemporary dance volcano. A future article might explore activist dance from other countries: Plenty of these political dances from outside the U.S.A. were presented in 2010 by the World Dance Alliance in the Bessie Schönberg Theater of Dance Theater Workshop in New York. (WDA’s 2010 conference was held in conjunction with that of the DCA.)
Definitions of “Political” on the DCA Panel and Beyond
Johnson asked Amelan, “Why do people sometimes object to political work?” Amelan considered, “Because it is so flagrantly possible.” He elaborated: “One of the great hallmarks of art is that the work opens a relevancy that transcends boundaries.” For example, he continued, “When Bill T. danced Blauvelt Mountain in Berlin with Arnie Zane, innocently, whatever that means, the dancers deconstructed a cinderblock wall that stood in the middle of the stage.” Amelan insisted that, “All artists are political; it depends on your lens; what is aesthetic is also a profoundly social matter.”
On the DCA panel, the choreographer-dancer Comfort began to wrestle with the definition of political. “Boundaries are so porous. It’s hard to say what’s political when you’re dealing completely abstractly. But a historian might see it differently.” She spoke of her earliest years, at P.S. 122, working with Merce Cunningham, hearing no movement or verbal vocabulary that considered political issues. “So we began talking among ourselves,” she continued, referring to the dancers, “creating our own vocabulary for political dances.”
Certainly, Comfort’s 2008 An American Rendition, a brutal look at military torture, is both political and ironically leavened with segments of a less ominous definition of rendition—the act of rendering or performing something, like the rendition of a song. She added TV reality shows as ironic contrast. And equally political are Janet Eilber’s restorations of early 1930’s modern dancers’ social justice commentaries, combined with contemporary versions of Martha Graham’s activist dances.
Sometimes, Jones’s work is both historical and unmistakably political, sometimes it is taken for political when he claims it is not, but in some interviews he has said he enjoys planting choreographic ambiguity: Is he making a political statement about same-sex partners when his choreography pairs males? Since he has revealed his health status in a public conversation, should the audience assume that a certain abstract dance of his is a statement about living with HIV?
For the Martha Graham Dance Company, Eilber has embarked on the “Political Dance Project”: four programs, previewed at New York’s Joyce Theater in June 2010. Each concert combined new solo commissions for Lamentations, called Lamentation Variations, with classics that Eilber selected from Graham’s oeuvre that both she and Graham considered political. The program was described in press materials as a response to the destruction on 9/11 and was given its première on that date in 2007. Appalachian Spring, chosen for inclusion in the “Political Dance Project” as “Graham’s contribution to the war effort,” had been given its première in 1944. Panorama, whose Joyce performances included 33 high school students “from all over New York City chosen…by a city-wide audition process” and described as speaking “to the power of the people to take social action,” and Sketches from ‘Chronicle,’ from the seething political and social activism of the 1930s,” completed the program. The “Political Dance Project” was prepared by the Graham company in collaboration with actors from director Ann Bogart’s avant-garde SITI theater ensemble.
Eilber described the draw of modern dance in the 1930’s. “It was a widely permitted activity for women at a time females were otherwise powerless in the wider society. Women in the 1930’s were like teens today. They didn’t have a lot of outlets; the modern dance movement was considered a nice hobby, so those women were allowed to dance rather than be the CEO’s of Fortune 500 Companies.” And many of the early modern dancers, said Eilber, though not Graham, belonged to the Communist Party.
Bogart combines elements of Graham’s 1938 American Document with, as the Graham Company’s press material states, “text from a variety of sources from Walt Whitman’s poetry to blogs from American soldiers in Iraq. The work, which includes speaking and dancing by all the performers, probes the same issues as Graham’s original: What is an American?”
One of the four Graham company “Political Dance Project” programs, “Dance is a Weapon,” includes other activist dancer-choreographers from that seminal era—Isadora Duncan (The Revolutionary), Eve Gentry (Tenant of the Street, the portrait of a homeless woman) , Sophie Maslow (Dust Bowl Ballad, depicting displaced people, bowed but determined to move on), and Jane Dudley (Time is Money, against the machine of commerce.) The works are described in the press materials as seeking to inspire social action, determination, and courage. The company goal is to tour this project countrywide, for the themes are timeless and, unfortunately, ever-relevant.
The exciting draw of the Martha Graham programs is that the dances and documents approach citizenship education from a visual and oral perspective capable of stirring all ages and economic groups. The Graham company’s project may allow for what I’ll call the most consensually-understood definition of “political,” because presenters in the communities where it’s performed can customize each program for a particular city or group interested in presenting a combination of drama and dance that enhances its own political and cultural values and goals. Eilber described how satisfying it was for her and for the 30 high school students from all over New York City who had performed in Graham’s Panorama, after practicing every Saturday for six months.
Jane Comfort’s Web site describes her work as combining compassion, wit, irony, and satire with deeply troubling social and cultural issues. Born and raised in the South, she has created a professional career of activist dances, which combine actors and dancers taking on, among other subjects: race and gender (S/He, 1995); political and religious leaders (Three Bagatelles for the Righteous, 1996); racial and sexual hatred and good manners (Deportment, 1992); religion (Faith Healing, 1993), cultural proscriptions on female appearance, as told through the lens of Barbie (Beauty, 2010); and state-sponsored torture, contrasted with the turning off of troubling thoughts about war and torture through the watching of TV reality shows (An American Rendition, 2008). Her dance-theater works integrate text with movement, acting, and song.
Mukherjee’s Web site describes her goal as taking on patriarchy in her bold and sensual South Asian/South Indian dance performances. She unearths the ancient stories of historic heroines and mythological goddesses and reintroduces these powerful characters into her all-female Nayikas company. “Engendered” is the name of an annual festival in New York of which Mukherjee is the producer—a multimedia South Asian film, lecture, and performance venue, which pushes the edges of social justice issues that exist in the South Asian/South Indian community. Gender issues relating to the terms ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ and ‘transgender’ are especially supported and explored. Mukherjee spoke of the fear of the unknown, “especially in the Asian American community. Since the World Trade Center bombings, we live in a world of paranoia and fear, and the moral censorship comes out of that—fear of the Other, fear of blaspheming.” She added that, in South Asia, economic issues have also been conflated with a fear of the Other.
Jennifer Monson, whom I interviewed separately, combines her version of experimental contemporary dance with a unique focus on promoting environmental sustainability. Her politics are fully evident in her company, iLAND (Interdisciplinary laboratory for Art, Nature, and Dance), where she encourages cross-disciplinary research among artists, scientists, environmentalists, and urban designers. For The Birdbrain Project, her dancers performed outdoors in the direction of the migratory routes of whales, ducks, geese, and osprey. During the dancers’ travels through Oregon, Montana, New York and Illinois, following these animals, iLAND organized panel discussions with scientists and meetings on the topic with environmental groups and school children. Monson said, “It gave me hope for local control…and generated a culture about how we connect rather than a righteous ‘should do’ obligation.”
Liz Lerman, also not on the panel, in a phone interview said that her definition of politics has evolved over the years. She insists that an artist’s geographical location is a political decision. “For me, to not be in New York City was important,” she said. “I felt it to be a highly hierarchical culture as to who could work, and I didn’t feel it was a place I could experiment; and, for instance, I like to work with elders. I was confused by the rewards system.” What Lerman described was a not-so-subtle kind of censorship from the New York City dance community.
Dealing with Censorship
Back to the DCA panel: Mukherjee, originally from Odissi, India, is now an American citizen who has lived in the U.S.A. for a dozen years. She described how, though “the work [produced by Engendered] is incredibly feminist,” she counts on the audience’s initial misunderstanding of what they are about see, which brings them into the theater to see it. “The very fact that we are South Asian makes them assume we will be doing classical work,” she said, adding that “the content may get lost because the surface is so sparkling and explosive.” Mukherjee explained that she’s discovered a successful formula for presenting activist art that doesn’t raise audience fears: When the dance is contextualized with traditional music, movement, and costumes, it tends to be appreciated. “The first time we presented [our program]… it was well-accepted.” But, when her group added club (Bollywood) music the second time they produced their work, “There was media criticism [that] it wasn’t authentic enough. So we created Engendered to have a space for this kind of work.” Adding to her company’s success is the reality that she can afford to self-produce and so doesn’t always have to face the censors.
Comfort related that she got the idea to create a work about torture in America’s military after a visit to Germany for a Tanzmesse. “Europeans criticized American dancers and dances,” she said, “as shallow, stupid, so pop-culture, superficial, no drama[tic] line.” But the result of An American Rendition, though a critically praised work and funded by grants, was that, outside the initial performances in New York City, she had no offers from presenters and had to finance the concerts herself. “I was 75 per cent sure I wouldn’t have a company after I self-produced,” said Comfort. “It was terrifying.” Though the work got on “Best” lists, An American Rendition has had only four productions, two of which were at colleges. Comfort says, “Nobody would touch it. I think high kicks get better reception than the other [political] stuff.”
Comfort’s Rendition ran up against fears that to question the government’s use of torture was unpatriotic. These objections to Rendition were the anxieties of university and civic presenters. In addition, presenters needed to factor in recession economics. For the first time in her many years of national and international touring, Comfort had to use her own finances to self-produce and present Rendition. Four brave and secure entities scheduled the work: SUNY Oswego, Purdue University, Cincinnati Contemporary Dance Theater, and Raritan College in New Jersey.
Referring to Graham’s 1938 American Document, whose text of quotations from many American writers Ann Bogart and SITI have updated, panel moderator Johnson asked Eilber if she would be able to tour a work that contained Jonathan Edwards’s sermons, alternating with the biblical “Song of Songs.” Eilber replied, “They are metaphoric and abstract enough that we will be able to tour it.” As for Chronicle, Graham’s dance against the rise of fascism in Germany, she added, “[It]resonates with the context of the times.”
Dancing Earth’s Tangen also puts her ear to the ground to reflect the present cultural context, though she aims to have her work accepted in indigenous society. To do so, she must strive to honor a tribe’s cultural heritage. She checks out her ideas with her tribal contacts and listens to their advice. “What is political is not my judgment alone. I have to ask in what capacity was the information given to me. Do I have the right to alter or share a story? What sort of costuming is allowed”? She learned, for instance, that in certain powwow dances, women’s arms must be covered down to the wrist. And that’s the least of it. Consequently, she continually edits the company’s work to preserve cultural and spiritual information a tribe doesn’t want revealed. “That’s why my work proceeds slowly.”
By phone, Lerman confirmed that when she created Nine Short Pieces About the Defense Budget, she didn’t get “rapped on my knuckles” about the topic. She described a very positive review in The Village Voice by Burt Supree. But other critics thought less of the work, because of her method, “dancing with talking.” She explained that “[the message was] …you must not [talk while dancing], or the critics wouldn’t engage in the subject. Now, they say they don’t have the space.” Lerman also speculated that women of color and older women of any color are hired less, a more subtle form of censorship in the form of racism and ageism, which she challenges in her performances.
Sex and Nudity
On the panel, Johnson asked Amelan to recall a conversation. “You said to me that when art crosses over from the public to the private realm is when it makes people uncomfortable.” Amelan replied, “We artists connect the physical and the metaphysical; it’s normal that we can make people uncomfortable.”
Among Comfort’s works, not only Rendition presented uncomfortable bumps.
Comfort sighed: “Inevitably I would get censored… [over a patch of nudity] in Deportment.” This work used a race and gender-role reversal to portray the Congressional hearings over whether Clarence Thomas should forfeit his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court after Anita Hill had charged him with sexual harassment. Comfort had wanted to show how Hill, the debased object of Thomas’s harassment, felt vulnerable and humiliated, so she had the harassed victim be male, and she cast a female dancer to impersonate him. When censors required the female dancer impersonating the harassed male to wear male briefs, the choreographer was pleased that the censorship started an audience conversation. But Comfort augmented the conversation by insisting that the university or civic presenter announce the program changes, pre-performance. “If you’re going to censor me,” she would tell them, invoking her First Amendment rights, “you get the credit for it.”
Censorship has been applied to the Jones/Zane company as well: The company’s Still/Here was banned by the Vatican. On a less elevated censorship note, Johnson asked, “So what if the nudity isn’t live but a sex tape?” Amelan explained that one of their works involved using a rush of videos, one a sex tape, as backdrop for the dance. Amelan described Jones’s practical approach. “There was a request from a major presenter not to show the video element. When you are faced with presenting or not presenting…we left out [the offending video section].” Amelan also made the connection between a Capitalist economy and censorship. “Our system is predicated on return on investments, not subsidy; the limitation [censorship] stems from the financial system.”
Johnson mentioned that certain works could not be danced outdoors at Lincoln Center. For instance, he detailed how Donald Byrd had to create a different outdoor piece when invited to perform at that venue because, “Parents might not appreciate floating dildos and breasts.”
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, artistic director-choreographer for Urban Bush Women, explained that, early in her career, more than 20 years ago, she felt pressure not to present dance work that was too sensual. Artists were feeling the heavy foot of censorship during the Jesse Helms era, a national mood that, Zollar said, “was a fear of the nude body by a conservative, vocal minority that…frightened presenters and funders.” On those occasions when she self-censored, she concluded that it was all right for African American women to show anger through dance, but that the dominant culture did not welcome the sensuality of hips and breasts, the African-influenced dance vocabulary that is the source of her cultural roots.
But the culture has changed, at least on the East and West coasts. Zollar: Uncensored a show that Zollar presented early in 2010, at D.T.W. the concert incorporated, “…A collage of excerpts that connect to this area of my work that I eventually abandoned or that was diminished.” Originally danced by Zollar, LifeDance II…The Papess (mirror in the waters), included an excised ritual: A woman removes her uptown clothing, then breaks and smears an egg over her breasts and torso. Zollar noted that being able to perform her political/activist dance work in art galleries has been easier than working with traditional presenters. “Gallery work tends to take more risks because of its relationship to modern and contemporary art.”
Anna Halprin created a company work, Parades and Changes, “…In reverence to my body,” she says in Ruedi Gerber’s 2010 film about Halprin’s work, Breath Made Visible. The dignity of the slow exposure of the dancers’ bodies was hailed in Sweden and Paris but was lost on the American side at its première: The audience booed. Halprin has used sensuality in her interracial dance company, exploring racial divisiveness and passions during the Watts riots in the Sixties, and has exposed her own elderly body to express the grief of loss and aging. She says that no self-censoring has dogged her work.
Critics At Work: Who…Us?
One topic not discussed on the DCA panel was censorship of dance critics by funding organizations. In a phone conversation, Joan Acocella mentioned that, in the 1980s and ’90s, “There was a great deal of implicit pressure put on critics not to speak harshly of work that dealt basically with race, gender, sexual orientation, illegal immigrants, or American Indians. The understanding was that if the work was on the right side of those issues, ipso facto it was good and deserved special consideration, and that was very clear on grant committees as well.” This pressure sounds like a kind of skewed and informal affirmative action.
During the DCA panel discussion, Jane Comfort countered with a summons to artful, well-crafted dance activism in postmodern time: “Dance responds to the time. Hopefully, we can [also] do a good job formally.”
Whether and how dance critics have dealt and should deal with current dance was a topic brought up in Apollinaire Scherr’s keynote address to the 2010 DCA conference. What she had to say could as well relate to how a dance critic writes about an activist dance performance.
She spoke of the present fragmentation of information and culture, how “[t]he myth of monolithic culture is dispelled,” and, in its place, “[a] sense of eclecticism and inclusiveness” is the norm. Now that the readership can’t be presumed to have all read the same familiar newspapers, Scherr urged dance critics to double our research about a dancer or dance company before we attend a performance and to locate our critique in the dancer’s wider cultural context: “A critic who can talk about an art form should know about the history of an individual within that art form.”
Besides that research, Scherr advised, “When there are many frames of reference, you have to decide which mode you’re going to listen to.” She cautioned that if we “[d]eal only with codified history and don’t think of the process of history and [instead] whack the present [dance] forms into submission,” we’re not giving the future of dance a chance to thrive. Watching a lot of dance will make you more articulate about what you don’t like.” She urged critics to educate our readers to “[w]ork out the process of making meaning,” to “[p]ush against the margins and the frame” of the performance, and to “[a]llow dance its post-modern self.”
In a 2009 Non Sequitur cartoon, a judge sits at his podium and addresses a stocky man in a suit, executing an exuberant arabesque on the witness stand. The judge says, “No, Mr. Hittle…there’s nothing in the Constitution about testifying through interpretive dance.”
None of the artists interviewed for this article has gone to prison over his or her political activism in dance, whether or not his or her work appeared formally coherent. They haven’t had to defend their aesthetic or political choices in a courtroom. They are more likely to defend their activism using dance.
On the other hand, there are times and places where work such as that of these artists would put the artists at risk, so, in that sense, activist dance always requires a certain bravery. And, as has been discussed, these artists have faced risks other than prison. One hopes that, if artists, dance critics, and the audience can continue to engage in a discourse about activist dance, the dance community will be able to express itself without fear.
Janet Eigner’s dance previews, reviews and features air on KUNM-FM, an NPR station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and appear in SFOne Heart and on her Web site and blog, eignerdancereviews.wordpress.com, and in Dance Magazine. In 2009, Puddinghouse Press published her first book of poetry, Cornstalk Mother. Her second book of poetry, What Lasts is the Breath, is forthcoming from Black Swan Editions. During the week of April 23rd, 2012, her poem “Isaac’s Blessing” will be posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Web site, “American Life in Poetry.”
Resources : Political Activism in Dance
Acocella, Joan. Mark Morris (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) 1993.
Acocella, Joan, ed. The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 1995.
Daly, Ann. Critical Gestures, Writings on Dance and Culture, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press), 2002.
Fisher, Jennifer, and Shay, Anthony, eds. When Men Dance (New York and London: Oxford University Press), 2009.
Goellner, Ellen W., and Shea Murphy, Jacqueline, eds. Bodies of the Text (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press), 1997, 1999.
Graff, Ellen. Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City 1928-42 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press), 1997.
Hanna, Judith Lynn. Dance, Sex, and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and Desire (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press), 1988.
Jowitt, Deborah. The Dance in Mind, Profiles and Reviews 1976 – 83 (Boston, Massachusetts: David R. Godine), 1985.
Lerman, Liz: Hiking the Horizontal. (Wesleyan, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press), 2011.
Steegmuller, Francis. Your Isadora. (New York, N.Y.: Random House), 1974.
Annals of The Village Voice.
Bill T. Jones, Dancing to The Promised Land. View Video Dance Series, www.view.com
The New Dance Group, Gala Historical Concert-1930s -1970s. www.DancetimePublications.com