Approaching culture, approaching self: Identity and whiteness in Mierda.
This piece reflects on Mierda., a Dance MFA Thesis Performance by Jordan Klitzke, which premiered Thursday, September 6, 2018 in the Nelson Fine Arts Center at Arizona State University. Mierda was created with support from the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at ASU and a Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts (HIDA) Grant.
Photo by Sharon McCaman
The first time we hear Jordan Klitzke speak, it is in an English accent. He’s just finished an incredibly complex sequence of movement throughout which he’s stripped out of the crisp business suit he was wearing into his underwear and then into a loose-fitting t-shirt and jeans. “I’ve always loved accents” he shares, in the crisp, polished tones of Colin Firth or Ian McKellan. “Maybe because I don’t really like to talk.”
Flashback to when my friends and I in middle school would try to prank the Starbucks barista by ordering our mochas in faux “British” accents. Like playing dress up, trying on accents was a way to transcend our ordinary identities and slip into a new, more exciting version of ourselves.
Klitzke seems to have a similar relationship to accents. He glides effortlessly between a polished British accent to Irish, Scottish, and Russian accents. Each one, he points out, lives differently in the mouth and throat, perhaps indicative of the cultural attitudes of the speaker. When finally Klitzke finds himself in his “real” voice (a “neutral” Minnesotan), it’s not a smooth transition. Traces of the British accent still linger, and this new voice does not seem any more “authentic” than the previous ones.
The piece as it unfolds from here is autobiographical but not narrative, a sensory collage that disorients me again and again in time and space. I have the feeling I am looking into Dumbledore’s pensieve and catching scrambled glimpses of Klitzke’s life and experiences. Thickly layered, nuanced movement executed with precision and mastery is set against an evocative soundscape combining classic tunes like “Bang Bang (My baby shot me down)” with anachronistic political speeches from the 70s and field recordings that sound like they were captured through iPhone voice memos on the ASU Tempe campus in the morning. This is intermittently punctuated by autobiographical monologues in both English and Spanish where jokes fall intentionally flat and the moral of the story is never clear, and jarring disruptions like a mother walking her son on a leash through the performance space. Klitzke lets the elements of form (costumes, text, staging, props) shape spaces of meaning, liberating the movement from the need to communicate and allowing it to exist without translation. I find this choice refreshing. It allows me to let the movement wash over me in its kinesthetic form, without mining it for symbolism, interpretation or narrative.
Themes of culture, language, and identity are threaded throughout this tapestry. One monologue, spoken in Spanish, reflects on the sixteen months Klitzke spent living and dancing in Mazatlán, Mexico. The window into his thoughts is endearing, and his remarkable self-awareness prevents the writing from becoming another cliché about how “travel changed me.” Klitzke describes himself in the translated text as “a lost, longhaired American whose ignorance was so big that he found it surprising that people cared as much about sex as they did about dance.” Through this passage, Klitzke engages with his questions and observations about culture and self without needing to answer anything. The passage ends with a joke that most of us can’t understand because it’s in Spanish and outside of our cultural context.
I find myself reflecting on the similarities between Klitzke’s background and my own. We both come from white, middle-class American families steeped in a stoic Midwestern Protestantism. And we both have sought to define ourselves more through our dissociation from these backgrounds, than through our association with them. Jordan tells a story of trying to erase his American accent while thanking the trolley driver in England. I remember a summer in Barcelona when a new friend from Italy told me I was the “least American American” he had ever met, and it was the best compliment ever. We both have spent time speaking, living, and dancing in Spanish-speaking countries (Jordan in Mazatlán, Mexico for sixteen months and I in Barcelona, Spain for four). And we both have tried to embrace Latin dance forms, but discovered some embodied barrier (Jordan, lack of rhythm, I, a stilted relationship to my pelvis) to sinking comfortably in to the movement. Lastly we both grew up thinking we didn’t have an accent—the clearest indicator that our skin, voices, and bodies fit the dominant cultural framework. It takes an experience of otherness—the experience of travel—to help us see ourselves subjectively.
It’s a remarkable statement of our privilege that we have to spend thousands of dollars on plane tickets and lodging in order to have this experience of “otherness.” And yet, due to the internationality of light-skinned privilege and American privilege, the “otherness” we experience when traveling is still one of exceptionalism rather than marginalization. As Jordan writes: “I had no idea I would be so lonely and so loved at the same time.”
The choice to speak in Spanish indicates Klitzke’s desire to position himself as an outsider to white American culture. And there are several moments in the piece when he successfully holds up a mirror to the absurdities of white American culture and politics--from the leash child trotting through the stage, to a participatory re-enactment of a church service held at “Friendship Park” at the U.S.-Mexico border. But at the end of the piece, it’s not clear how he feels about any of it. This ambivalence is reflected choreographically through Jordan’s relationship to a pedestal. There are moments in the piece when Jordan finds himself atop a pedestal, elevated above the audience. At these times—whether intentionally or unconsciously--his movement loses its conviction and its potency, and he takes on a nervous, agitated persona. This discomfort with a visible expression of power is echoed in Jordan’s ambivalent relationship with his own whiteness, maleness, and Americanness.
At a moment when the moral imperative to dismantle whiteness has never been clearer, I’m deeply interested in the reason why both Jordan and I feel a need to distance ourselves from the very same parts of our identities that continue to afford us the most privilege. And in an era of call-out culture, I’m interested in how we can learn to approach these parts of ourselves with compassion and curiosity rather than judgment.
Walking away from the piece, I hold this work with reverence because of Jordan’s ability to investigate without needing to answer. To hold parts up against other parts and let the thing be what it is. To work rigorously towards what is interesting, rather than what is perfect. To push his physical limits as a declaration of life, rather than a means to an end. I believe that the work of approaching ourselves with curiosity, rigor, and reverence is how we remain fully alive. I’m grateful to Jordan for modeling this in his work and sharing it with me.
Photo by Sharon McCaman
Allyson Yoder is a performer, facilitator, and mover living in Phoenix, Arizona. She’s always in the process of unlearning, reconstructing, and trying to practice self-love in the process. Allyson is an advocate for the wisdom of the body and is currently pursuing her certification as a licensed massage therapist. You can learn more about her artistic work at www.ajymovement.com