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How Dancemakers Responded To The First Year Of The Trump Presidency
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
Dance has long been a haven for transgressive bodies, ideas and aesthetics. So it's no surprise that many artists feel the Trump administration's platform stands in direct opposition to their values.
"The election was absolutely horrifying for me," says Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd. "Trump annihilated my beliefs about basic human characteristics, like kindness."
Filmmaker and choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall adds, "I'd thought our moral arc was bending toward good. I feel distraught that the country I call mine is dominated by values rooted in fear and racism and hatred."
Some of the administration's proposals, like eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, have yet to be realized, but that doesn't make them any less frightening. Nor does it blunt the impact of those that have been implemented—and which directly affect dancers—like rolling back protections for trans people, changing the tax code in a way that will likely reduce charitable giving and complicating access to health care.
In response, dancemakers are reconsidering how their work and their process can better reflect the state of today's politics.
Counter-Narrative and Solidarity
For some, dance is a way to give a voice to those who may otherwise go unheard. During a 2016 road trip, Minneapolis-based choreographer April Sellers began to consider how politicians use campaigning to collect and disperse versions of what it means to be an American.
"They're potential creators of our history and future," she says. So for her project Gay Patriot, Sellers felt that it was imperative for her dancers to speak for themselves onstage as a way to take control of their own stories.
April Sellers' Gay Patriot rehearsal. Photo by Steven Lang
She adds that in the wake of the election, she and several of her dancers have disconnected from their biological families because of political tension. The experience has raised questions about who the work is for. "Do we only perform in theaters where people love us, or do we dance at family reunions?" she asks.
To avoid preaching to the choir, choreographer Danielle Russo is taking her work Sentinel, which responds to surveillance and social profiling, to public sites across the five boroughs of New York City. Russo is interested in seeing what happens as unsuspecting passersby encounter the dancers.
She hopes the heightened visibility of a public performance on a city street in daylight—a space that seems safe, but can be dangerous for marginalized people—will help her emphasize what she calls "the lived experiences of a targeted body."
Danielle Russo working on Sentinel. Photo by Nir Arieli
Education and Community
Artists like San Francisco choreographer Keith Hennessy, who are deeply rooted as educators as well as creators, are developing specific teaching devices in response to the election. "Right now, the escalation toward the right has forced us to rethink the role of dance class, performance and how we're using choreography," he says.
How might the patience and willingness to experiment and fail, so necessary in dance improvisation, function in politics or social justice organizing? The workshop Hennessy teaches most frequently is called "Social Dancing (aka Negotiation)."
"I have a few exercises that reduce all touch to either pushing or pulling," he says. "The dancers create precarious and interdependent structures that become metaphors of community economics, power, failure, hierarchy and collaboration."
Though Dante Brown has long made work with social justice commentary, the aftermath of the election inspired him to create the kind of community he wanted to see, a space where people could come together in a commitment to movement and activism.
Dante Brown's Package (revamped) featured dancers in Trump masks. Photo by Ezra Goh, via Facebook
"The election made me care less about myself as an artist and more about platforms and programs for others," he says. For example, he organized a successful workshop series to raise money and awareness for Black Lives Matter.
The power to make change, according to New York dancer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili, is in the persistence. "The folks I know have been working to accommodate artistic practices that are generous, collaborative and non-authoritarian—a direct rebuke to the patriarchal violence, toxic masculinity and winner-take-all ethos that defines the Trumpian way," she says.
But, she adds, these practices have stretched for decades, and have long challenged the worldview that made Trump's election possible in the first place.
Committing to those values takes real work, especially in a world that, as Bill T. Jones points out, is experiencing a crisis of truth. He is astounded by the Trump administration's opportunistic relationship with facts, and worries that cynicism will replace skepticism. "Now, everything is suspect," he says, "and this is frustrating to artists who believe in ambiguity."
Bill T. Jones' A Letter to My Nephew. Photo by Bernie Ng.
Reverberations Within the Audience
Fans of Spectrum Dance Theater know to expect what Byrd calls "social/civic engagement" from the company, and he has long choreographed straight from the most difficult headlines. However, even in the firmly progressive city of Seattle, Byrd finds that his audience isn't always receptive to political content.
Donald Byrd's (IM)PULSE responds to aggression against the LGBTQ community. Photo by Nate Watters
"You want someone there to receive your work," he says. "I'm grappling with that fear and whether it will push me away from work that I feel is important."
Lately, Byrd has considered how the audience might become active, rather than passive, spectators, and how the work itself can instigate political engagement. "I wonder, though," he says, "if that desire might drive my audience away from participation because they feel alienated."
BalletX choreographer Matthew Neenan recently created Let mortal tongues awake, a contemporary ballet that uses images of silencing, control and bureaucratic power to hint at our political climate. It was a thematic departure for him, and Philadelphia audience members had strong reactions—not all of them positive.
"People found it shocking, but I told them I wouldn't apologize," he says. "Some people only want to see dance as beautiful and elite, and I truly believe you need to entertain your audience. Right now, though, we have no choice but to make work that responds to what's going on."
Love your audience, he suggests, but also challenge them.
Rowlson-Hall, whose first commission after the election was a short film investigating paranoia, isolation and nuclear fallout, sees dance as a way to unlock empathy in others. "I can't convince a white supremacist to change their views," she says. "But maybe they can see a performance or a film that will affect their heart. It's a little less locked than the mind."
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.