Earlier this month, our BFA Program’s Class of 2020 was asked to participate in a 24-hour livestream event benefiting Doctors Without Borders called the NITE 24 Hour Global Art Carousel. The invitation came from BFA alum Adam Peterson who works with Noord Nederlands Toneel, the Dutch organizers of the virtual fundraiser.
Scattered across the country, these now former classmates leapt into action to take full advantage of this opportunity to collaborate again. They chose to create a work expressing their experiences with the Black Lives Matter movement, the result of which was broadcast on July 4 and can be viewed below. The film uses audio and video recorded by participant Alesandra Harper during a protest in Atlanta.
INTERVIEW WITH ALESANDRA HARPER AND MARIE FINLEY
We reached out to two members of the Class of 2020, Alesandra Harper and Marie Finley, for insight into how this film came together and what it was like to create virtually amidst a global pandemic.
What were the challenges and/or new opportunities of collaborating and dancing during this period of social distancing?
Marie: Even in the flexible-as-ever schedule quarantine has gifted us, finding a time to discuss and choreograph all together was simply impossible. The beautiful thing about our class is we mutually respect each other’s artistic voice and opinion, so everyone was accounted for even if someone didn’t have a say at our meetings.
Alesandra: I was in Atlanta, GA during the making of this film while all the other dancers I collaborated with were on the West Coast. This made time zones a challenge as when we had rehearsals in the evening for them, I was about ready to go to bed. Another major challenge is that the room I choreographed in is tiny. I’m not able to fully extend without running into furniture or walls. It’s very frustrating, but also has allowed me to learn how to manage my space more efficiently. I’m learning to dance with such high saturations of texture, dynamic qualities, and presence that my movement is completely fulfilled. Learning that less sometimes has to be more is a mindset I’ve been trying to adapt to.
In terms of collaboration in the choreography, it was difficult to not be able to directly draw from the other artists. When you’re in the room with people your brain and body are absorbing information from those around you even if it’s subconscious. This is almost impossible to do over Zoom so it made creating choreography that flowed well a lot more difficult.
Marie: To create our phrase, we took turns doing a movement and looped through the participants four times. We have choreographed on each other before and we have watched each other dance for the last four years; we are aware of the embodied natural tendencies inside each improvising artist. It was fun to explore my classmates’ movement impulses within the natural dancing tone inside my own body.
Exploring the movement within my given space was a new challenge. The challenge of dancing at home is your body is the only color shading the energy of the room, it is difficult to muster enough energy on my own to dance with all the fibers woven in my body.
Are there any major changes in your creative approach dancing for film versus the stage?
Alesandra: I find that I’m much more aware of the atmosphere I’m creating in film as opposed to when I’m approaching work on stage. I feel more pressure to hold the audience’s attention when dancing online because there isn’t that energy exchange between the viewers and the performers. It’s much more difficult to convey ideas with clarity and vigor over video so the dancing has to be that much more expressive.
However, video also allows us to see ourselves in the third person which offers a lot of new information and perspective while creating a work. I’m able to re-film clips almost infinitely and able to edit in ways that highlight certain movements or motifs in a piece. It’s also cool that we can be in multiple places at once in film as opposed to when we’re on the stage. We don’t have to worry about quick changes or crossovers; we can appear and disappear in an instant.
In your eyes, what is the role of dance in the larger landscape of current events?
Alesandra: The common language of humanity is art. Dance, of course being a subset of that, is probably the most accessible and most practiced art form. It’s something we all understood how to do even when we were infants. Black art and black dance especially has been a powerful vessel, both historically and recently, for discussion and social change as seen in the cases of Michaela DePrince, Tobe Nwigwe, Michael Frye, Ava Holloway, Kennedy George, Josephine Baker, Bill T. Jones, Beyoncé, and so many others. Overall the role of dancers in this time is to be the leaders of change. White dancers need to open their spaces to black, indigenous, and people of color and concert dance in general needs to be more accessible. Dancers with large platforms need to use them to uplift voices of marginalized dancers so they can tell their stories and be heard. More than that we need more non-white bodies on stage! The majority of the world is not white, therefore the majority of representation shouldn’t be white either.
Marie: Protesting is an art. Les Misérables: “Can you hear the people sing?” Newsies: “This is the story we needed to write as we’re kept out of sight, well no more”. Hairspray: “There’s a dream in our future, there’s a struggle yet to win…to sit still would be a sin”. Every story produced by Western theatre has a happily ever after. BIPOC Americans are still asking for their happy story.
Our video project captures the uncomfortability of unresolved conflict. Alesandra has already delivered the same rattling feeling of conflict through a choreographic lens when she premiered her piece at Angelico Concert Hall right before “shelter-in-place”. She worked with all the technological props to transform the stage into a different universe. As an audience member, I felt like I was on a thrilling horror roller coaster. Typically, roller coasters slow down before they stop, but the piece halted, and the audience couldn’t snap back into their feeling of comfortability, much like white folks who watched the video of Derek Chauvin depriving George Floyd of oxygen. They can’t unsee the injustice and can’t sit comfortably anymore. As Black Lives Matter swept social media, it is essential we (white people) are as respectful as we (performers) want our audience members to be.
Upon premiering our video via Zoom to the audience of NITE Hotel’s Art Carousel, I noticed people’s faces tense up once they caught on the message our video was sharing. We were one of the few American performance groups so we knew we had to make a piece about racial injustice. I thought we would move the audience, but they held a harsh silence in their body language, reading to me as uninspired, even annoyed, and for sure uncomfortable. There is a lengthy frame within the video where names of the lives who have been taken by police silently scroll up the screen, and I saw many people leave the livestream. Hardly do we see a human turn their cheek at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City or at a concentration camp in Europe, but racism is not a one-time event, so we cannot bear the thought that there is no foreseeable resolution.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Marie: I believe our class is a special group – individually we are outstanding, collectively we thrive. I encourage each member to run full speed past their full potential, for it only inspires me to challenge myself.
Alesandra: I know that right now as dancers we feel really stuck in ourselves because we aren’t able to engage in our craft as we usually do. Dance anyway. Dance in that stickiness, dance in your teeny, tiny bedroom, kitchen, or living room, dance outside, dance because you have to, dance because you want to. Also everyone please wear a mask.
Photos: © Steve Disenhof, Manny Crisostomo, Doug Kaye
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