Part one of this series can be read here.
As of late I have been writing a great deal about strategies and modes of resistance. I have been thinking about the usefulness of dance, of the power of embodied action to simultaneously imagine and enact alternatives to dominant schemas of value that exclude what Judith Butler has referred to as the “ungrievables”. Those whose lives are devalued by social conditions and governmental policies to such an extent that if their life were to extinguish it would go unnoticed.
“…someone, anyone, who already understands him- or herself to be a dispensable sort of being, one who registers at an affective and corporeal level that his or her life is not worth safeguarding, protecting and valuing….If it turns out that I have no certainty that I will have food or shelter, or that no social network or institution would catch me if I fall, then I come to belong to the ungrievable.”
Butler goes on to write, “ yes, the ungrievable gather sometimes in public insurgencies of grief, which is why in so many countries it is difficult to distinguish the funeral from the demonstration.“. While I am inclined to agree with her position I wonder still about the alternative social networks and temporary communities that might arise out of these public “insurgencies of grief”. Where might the well choreographed reaction take place? and is this kind of activity not a site, at least temporarily, of unity? A place from which we find in each other the courage and strength to stand up against legislation and societal conditions that prevents us access to our most basic necessities and that actively stop the expression of our whole being. Courage, as Cornel West has said, is after all “the great enabling virtue that allows one to realize other virtues like love and hope and faith.”
But how might we make this place? From where might we build these sensations of collectivity? These kinds of questions gather around my desk as I huddle safely behind notes and speculate on the dangers just outside. I have to believe an answer hides in the language and history of modern dance. Have to, because it is where I am at the moment, where I rest, where the majority of my time collects and because I have felt the political potential of dance. This is what led me to the work of Rebekah Kowal.
Romero: “Can you tell me how you arrived at and what the process was behind the writing of your book, “How to Do Things with Dance: Performing Change in Postwar America?””
Kowal: “The book started as my attempt to examine the role of modern dance choreographers working in the US in the 1950s as there wasn’t a book published on this era at the time (late 1990s). It began as a dissertation, which I completed in 1999. Then, over the course of ten years, I radically revised and substantially added to this manuscript in order both to provide greater contextual depth and sharper focus on the politics of race within the modern dance field and American culture more generally, as these had a significant impact on what choreographers created and on how audiences received or made meaning of these works.
The main argument, that 1950s modern dance choreographers were on the front lines of cultural change in their choreographed embodiments of ways of acting and being different than the norm, had been the driving force behind the dissertation. Moreover, the dissertation contained a chapter that compared the choreographic elements of the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960 to Anna Halprin’s choreographic methods during the same period in terms of the ways in which they similarly “de-familiarized” the ordinary. This idea took on new dimension in an article I published in 2004 (The Drama Review) that looked exclusively at the setting and situation of the Greensboro sit-ins from the perspective of the cultural politics and physical space of the city itself. In writing the final manuscript of the book, after having written all of the case studies, I began to see a continuum of sorts defining choreographic “action” as a manner of being in the world. The book is organized in this manner, to illustrate this continuum and the political and phenomenological efficacy embodied in the movement practices of each of the choreographers I studied.”
R: “In your work choreography appears to have a political function both on and off stage. There is the choreographing of political activity We might think of occupations, sit ins, interventions, and other kinds of performative activism in this way. Then there is the staging of choreographic dissent, modern dance being an example. Can you speak to the political potential of choreography in relationship to these functions?”
K: “In a couple of ways, the senses of political significance attributed to bodily action to which you allude in this question strike at the heart of some of the main reasons I wrote this book. I wanted to call into question some widespread and casual assumptions people make when considering the kinds of political activism you mention, on the one hand, and the choreography of concert dance, on the other. I thought that it was a mistake to believe that organized political action happened entirely spontaneously, with no preparation and/or planning in order to ensure its approach and efficacy, which I why I thought to investigate the Greensboro sit-ins as a kind of choreographed event both in the aforementioned article and in the book. Similarly, I felt that many modern dance choreographers who emerged as leaders in the field in the 50s had not adequately received their due as progressive artists, or that the progressive spirit in modern dance that had driven its development through the early to mid-20th century had not been sufficiently illuminated. I wanted to debunk myths surrounding the 1960s in concert dance, that portray it as harkening back to the 1930s in its activism and, therefore, as not continuous with reformist efforts in the 1950s. I also hoped to use the notion of action as a theoretical lens through which we might shed light on the role of certain approaches to concert dance as transformative, for doers and/or viewers, and therefore efficacious in ways traditionally affiliated with ritual experience. There are important differences to consider, however, when seeing nascent civil rights political activism and 1950s concert dance as comparable especially with respect to what is at stake and risk for the actual bodies on the line, and I hope that I acknowledged these contrasts even as I found grounds for overlap and comparison.”
You can read more about Rebekah Kowal here.