Making (and Seeing) Dance in the Politicized World

Yet the political dimensions of dance seem especially pointed right now, at a time of heightened discussion about the privileges afforded some bodies and the risks that burden others. However overt or subliminal, intended or accidental, these dimensions rise to the surface, whereas at another time they may have rested beneath it.

I wondered how choreographers were thinking about the politics of their work and if, in the year since the presidential election, their creative approaches had shifted at all. So I spoke to a few who have presented new pieces this fall: Tere O’Connor, whose “Long Run” opened at Bard College in October; Jasmine Hearn and Mariana Valencia, who recently shared an evening at St. Mark’s Church; and Ms. Gill. They have little in common other than working within lineages of postmodern dance, in which artists have long been attuned to the political implications of their medium.

Blurring and Smudging

Ms. Gill’s geometrically rigorous work is often described (including by her) as formalist or abstract, but in “Brand New Sidewalk,” an hourlong triptych, she took her crystalline minimalism in a new direction. “Each section feels much more politically engaged and self-aware than past work of mine,” she said in an email.


Angie Pittman, left, and Jasmine Hearn in Ms. Hearn’s “shook,” presented by Danspace Project. Credit Ian Douglas

Ms. Gill selected dancers and began creating “Sidewalk” before the 2016 election, and as the turbulence of national politics intensified, so did her interest, she said, in “shaping and tuning the political intent of the work.” That tuning had to do, in part, with what she calls “smudging or blurring representations of race.” In the past, she noted, she had worked almost exclusively with white women like herself, close to her age (she’s 36), two of whom return in “Sidewalk”: Ms. Goldman and, in a closing solo, Maggie Cloud. The central section is a serene, measured duet for two African-American dancers in their early 20s, Joyce Edwards and Kevin Boateng.

The duet unfolds in almost eerie unison, with the dancers looking nearly identical in streamlined hooded uniforms. If it reads as cautious, that may stem from Ms. Gill’s careful thought about the range of associations any movement can call up. Whether finessing how an arm coiled into the body or a progression from standing to lying down, she sought to play with “notions of whiteness and blackness,” she said, without embodying stereotypes.

“Often this meant altering the quality, pathway or timing of a gesture, in order to disrupt and confuse its reading,” she said.

Taking Up Space

Just the choice to pursue a dance career can constitute a political act. Ms. Hearn, 28, said that as a queer black woman, she comes to her work with a history “of being told to be your smallest and most quiet self.”

The decision under those circumstances to “make some noise and actually take up some space — I think that’s political,” she said. And while the election didn’t alter the broad trajectory of her work, which often poses questions about race and sexuality, it did prompt her to break “this habit I had of apologizing for what I was doing.”


Mariana Valencia in “Yugoslavia.” Credit Ian Douglas

“We don’t have time to play around anymore,” she said.

With “shook,” presented by Danspace Project, she set out “to hold a space for black women to not be doubted,” she said. Together, she, Dominica Greene and Angie Pittman held that space in a dreamy, unrushed way, as if suspended in the sprawl of a summer evening — a tacit rejoinder to the anxieties of the outside world.

Ms. Hearn’s work appeared on the same program as Ms. Valencia’s witty and melancholic “Yugoslavia,” in which the self-described “first-generation Latina queer American,” who was raised by her Guatemalan mother and her Polish stepfather, investigated the Eastern European side of her (nonbiological) family history.

“What does it mean for someone who isn’t Polish to tell that history?” said Ms. Valencia, 33. “My body is representing this thing that isn’t technically expected to be connected to a body that looks like mine.”

“Yugoslavia” splices monologue with song and dance, including, most memorably, a kind of joyless aerobics routine inspired by footage from a girls’ dance school in the former Yugoslavia. The girls, Ms. Valencia said, were rehearsing “these very devotional dances” to perform for the dictator Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

Ms. Valencia noted that in the year since the election she has felt a stronger imperative “to say something, really anything, that’s transgressive and productive.”


From left, Emma Judkins, Lee Serle, Eleanor Hullihan and Simon Courchel in Tere O’Connor’s “Long Run.” Credit Chris Kayden/Live Arts Bard

“Part of this exercise in looking to socialist Eastern Europe was asking, What other hard realities were there?” she said. “What are we repeating? Is there any kind of solace in another version of strife to see ours in relationship to?”

A Nervous Motor

For Mr. O’Connor, 59, the ambiguity of dance is itself politically significant.

“Exclusively binary readings of things, which are such a problem in our politics right now, are not available in dance,” he said. “Everything is up for multiple readings by various groups of people who will be watching it.”

And while his lush, convoluted works — including “Long Run,” for eight dancers — never set out to convey a particular story or political message, he doesn’t view them as apolitical. “The work is made of politics — it’s made of response to the personal and larger community politics that are happening on earth,” he said. “It’s not a depiction of that; it’s a result of it.”

Though the past year hasn’t fundamentally changed his choreographic process, he does sense its influence in “Long Run.”

“There’s a real nervous motor underneath this dance, driving its structural conceits, and that’s definitely absorbed from the moment I’m living in,” he said. “There are a lot of places where the dance looks ungoverned, like the inhabitants are coming up with the next step by themselves.”

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