Vulnerability as a bridge: Responses to Breaking Ground part 1
Dance artists are supposed to be good at eviscerating our souls for emotional catharsis. Movement is a universal language, and dance gets at the emotions that words can’t, and at some point, we’ve all reposted that Martha Graham quote where she declares dance “the hidden language of the soul.” In my adolescence dancing gave me access to fully express emotions of sadness, power, and joy. So as I sit and absorb the dances onstage at the Friday night program of the 2020 Breaking Ground Contemporary Dance Festival, I’m bothered by something. Why don’t I feel more?
The pieces I’m seeing are skillfully constructed, thoughtfully designed, and beautifully executed by fabulously talented dancers. They mostly use ambient or classical soundscapes and a palette of grays, browns, blacks, and neutral tones for costumes. I enjoy the precise languages of gesture and isolation and the complexity of the floorwork throughout, qualities that can be sourced to the influence of hip-hop dance forms — mostly breaking and popping — on concert dance. The sense of thick detail within restrained space that is present in Steven Redondo, Mayra Barragan, and Hyoin Jun’s work, as well as in some of the solo and duet work in CONDER|dance, is beautiful, and a fascinating testament to the influence that those small squares on Instagram where dance artists these days share much of our work may have on concert dance aesthetics.
Aesthetically, I’m most drawn to the composition of Redondo’s restrained and tightly woven duet, “Eight” and Barragan’s deft, fluid and limber physicality in her solo “La Mala.” CONDER|dance’s “in the direction of the unknown” has some beautiful images reminiscent of the way the Connecticut-based dance company Pilobolus plays with human bodies to create illusionary structures. I like seeing the cacti onstage, too, and they help me imagine the dance in its original environment, Frank LLoyd Wright’s home and school at Taliesin West.
So it’s not that I’m totally untouched, but what I feel is mostly limited to intellectual or aesthetic appreciation. What’s missing for me, with the exception of a few moments, is the feeling of being seen: of making an empathetic connection with the work; of being moved.
Photo taken by Rick Meinecke, courtesy of CONDER|dance
Am I emotionally guarded? Jaded from too many years of seeing contemporary dance? Is it maybe something about the proscenium space, designed to create clear boundaries between audience and performer? Or is it something about the works themselves that they won’t let me in?
Brené Brown is a social researcher whose research focuses around the critical role vulnerability plays to enable human connection. Brown defines vulnerability as a combination of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Paradoxically, we put up the most guards when we feel the most in need of human connection, and yet it is the daring act of revealing our faults that allows for connection and transformation to occur. Although Brown has become known as the vulnerability “expert,” she’s certainly not the first to recognize the importance of vulnerability. Poet, feminist, and human rights activist Audre Lorde identified “that visibility which makes us most vulnerable” as “the source of our greatest strength.” Amy Poehler calls the people who are able to make themselves vulnerable in this way “the magic people of the world.”
It turns out that the next morning when I wake up and think about the night, I can only really remember three pieces. The others have slipped through the sieve as I slept and are as difficult to recall as my dreams.
Photo taken by Rick Meinecke, courtesy of CONDER|dance
Although radically different in style, texture, and execution, it turns out the ones that stuck all share that magical element, vulnerability. They linger with me because of the surprising moments where the artist— Rebecca Bryant, BOSS, and Hyoin Jun — pull back the curtains, exposing inner thoughts and private worlds to create a bridge of human connection between self and audience. Through vulnerability, these “magic people” open the gates on a third space where the possibility for transformation exists.
I’d like to give each piece the time and breathing room they deserve, so here are my thoughts on the first piece, “white onion” by Rebecca Bryant. I’ll be writing about BOSS and Hyoin Jun’s works next week in a separate article.
True to its name, “white onion” by Rebecca Bryant has layers. The piece starts out like a tribute to 1960s post-modern Judson Church movement. Dressed in a patterned white bodysuit, Bryant executes a dry sequence of disconnected movements with neutral stoicism. When the stage background transforms into a giant powerpoint presentation the piece turns into a commentary on whiteness, complete with footnotes and a narrator breaking down the dynamics of power and privilege that allow a white person to “be this un-entertaining onstage.”
In the age of callout culture and “10 things” instruction lists for white people, Bryant seems eager to demonstrate that she’s “done her work.” The powerpoint is replete with quotes from authors of color, appropriately cited, with a bibliography available on her website. Decisions about structure and form connect with larger themes of questioning and displacing power. For example, the confident, omnipotent sounding narrator (maybe Bryant) is interrupted at times by another voice (maybe also Bryant), which sounds young and insecure (“I hope I pronounced Ta-Nehisi right.”) This troubles the idea of the individual “expert” and depicts how white folks often hide behind intellectualism, while giving an important window into Bryant’s own self-conscious thoughts.
Two-thirds of the way through the piece, Bryant exits the stage, and Justin Morris, a black dance artist, enters to perform the same sequence of movement. Bryant doesn’t return for the rest of the piece, and Morris is joined by local dancers Haydehn Tuipulotu of CONDER|dance and Nic Herring-Harman (a dance M.F.A. student at ASU) for the bow, so that three men of color are seen onstage in the final moments of the piece. To me this seemed like a really beautiful way of paying homage to multiplicity and challenging the Euro-centric origin myths of post-modern dance while decentering the white body. Then a friend pointed out that this it was more a symbolic gesture towards the idea of white people stepping back than a real act of allyship, and Bryant’s concern to demonstrate that she “gets it” felt self-righteous, and her use of the three men to stand in as universal representations of black-ness and brown-ness was tokenizing. But I’m not here to gatekeep.
Yes, if I take the piece at face value as a social commentary, it comes off as academic and maybe too self-satisfied. But I think that Bryant’s choices to expose her own thoughts and process invite us to view it more autobiographically. So what I am left with is a self-portrait of a white woman/artist-in-process, working to understand her whiteness and its impact on her identity as a maker and performer.
There is this moment early in the piece when Bryant hovers at the edge of a downpool of light without entering it for an awkward length of silence. When Bryant repeats her sequence the second time, she enters the light, and that timid, smaller voice comes back as she clumsily performs the new movements: “I skipped this part before, because it’s new, the choreography I mean, and it’s not perfect yet. I’m going to do it now, even though I’m struggling, because it’s new, the choreography, I mean...” I think of all the times I have felt fumbling and clumsy in conversations around race, and times when I have chosen not to speak out because I was too afraid of saying the wrong thing. In this moment I see myself, and laugh at myself, and hold myself with a little more lightness.