This Mediator—And Former Forsythe Dancer—Uses Dance to Address Conflict
Can choreography solve social conflict? Dana Caspersen thinks it might. A veteran dancer with Ballett Frankfurt—which was run by her husband, William Forsythe—Caspersen now uses movement to help people around the world navigate disputes.
She promotes conflict resolution through teaching, writing and coaching, and develops choreographic methods that let groups address differences in nonverbal ways. Many of her projects center on participatory "action dialogues," which allow groups as large as 250 to tackle fraught issues like racism and polarization.
She recently spoke to Dance Magazine about her work, and why she sees choreography as an appropriate vehicle to change minds.
Caspersen's project Knotunknot. Photo by Marion Borriss, courtesy Caspersen
Why she thinks we need to rethink conflict:
"We get stuck when we think of conflict as only a destructive thing. I think of conflict as the friction that occurs when we come together. It can arise in how you deal with other drivers, or handle the dishes with the person you live with. I'm interested in helping people build a capacity to be curious."
How her work works:
"Theater works for a reason. The structures, the formality, the containment it brings, the conscious shaping of a vehicle for experience—these help people shift their thinking."
"The work I'm doing is not dancing; it doesn't require any skill. I work on larger structural questions—the organization of the room, context in the room. What's a choreographic setup that functions as a system for communication—that enables anyone to step into it and not be wrong?"
"Think of choreography as organizing ideas physically. Any situation is organized physically, but we don't always notice it, or choose those mechanisms. If you walk into a bank, for example, it's organized physically in ways that prevent or enable certain actions."
Caspersen's project The Exchange. Photo by Almut Elhardt, courtesy Caspersen.
Ways that movement can change minds:
"With movement, we can create metaphoric relationships that allow people to understand things differently. It's a more nuanced, internal experience. Sometimes the action provides an intimacy; sometimes it's an abstraction that's necessary. Sometimes, if you're using physicality, you can get a sense of what everyone in the room is thinking."
"A simple example is when people are walking together. The act of walking side by side, instead of sitting facing each other, allows them to have a proximity that is not confronting."
"In our racism project, Under|Stand, there's a section where people do physical mirroring. One person is answering questions with gestures, and the other people are taking on their actions. So you receive information that can't be argued with, but you learn something from them."
Why her background as a performer enriches her:
"I'm finding more and more that I'm valuing my experience as a performer. Performers hold seemingly contradictory truths together. Their job is to find a thread that allows a pathway through different layers of friction, direction and intention in an overall work—to be certain that there is a way forward."
For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.
Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"
At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.
Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.