Six Degrees of Speculation: Dancers Respond to Injustice
“I want more heart and more theater in my work. I want to tell a story, at least strive to make something that’s not… candy.” A few hours before the premier of her latest choreographic project, a piece that shared a stage with the new works of five other choreographers during the contemporary dance show Six Degrees of Separation: How We Respond to Injustice at the end of June, dancer Christy Williams spoke to me about her frustrations with and hopes for the world of dance in the United States. She intends to create something that has the potential to both satiate her artistic peers, and draw the population at large away from the glitzy, guilty-pleasure commercial dance scene. On that score, Williams and her fellow dance-makers absolutely delivered.
The show began and ended on an international scale, with politically-minded works by Jessica Howard and Cecly Placenti, the organizer of the collaborative project. Placenti’s doleful “The Dance Alone” addressed the Chilean genocide perpetrated by Augusto Pinochet’s regime over the course of two decades. During the crisis, Placenti explains, “mourning women would dance the Cueca, the national dance of Chile, in the streets and outside public buildings.” With this vision in mind, the choreographer asked her dancers to develop their own phrases to be performed simultaneously and interspersed with sections of group movement. The moments of unison dancing, particularly when the women waltzed with outstretched arms encircling absent loved ones, were the most affecting, conveying the full intensity of a grief both individual and terrifyingly communal.
Howard’s “26 days after” revisited a more recent news item, the seemingly snap decision of the United States government to declare war with Afghanistan less than a month after the World Trade Center became a mere memory. Confusion, anxiety and helplessness hung in the air as the six-dancer corps moved about the stage seemingly at someone else’s volition. At times, they stood in transfixed silence, staring through walls and audience members, exhibiting an awe that could have represented either this country’s reaction to the collapse of the twin towers, or Afghanistan’s reaction to the war abruptly waged against it. At other moments, the dancers attempted to defy a gravitational pull too formidable to be natural, repeatedly picking themselves and each other up from the floor before falling again in perplexed defeat. Howard, whose poignant solo (disconcertingly set to Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “What a Wonderful World”) heightened the atmosphere of confused tension on the stage, says she had in mind “a physical manifestation of some sort of manipulation to this group of dancers by an external force, and even by their own internal forces.”
A similar theme of agony both private and shared pervaded Angie Conte’s “Muzzle,” a vivid illustration of domestic violence as an endless, insurmountable cycle. “The unfortunate truth,” Conte says, “is that fear of repercussion causes many women to respond by NOT responding.” Repeatedly, the dancers made gestures of support to each other, offering an outstretched arm to prevent a fall or extending a hand and an empathetic glance to a fellow victim. But with little warning, silent commiseration gave way to violent anger, which pitted the dancers both against themselves and one another. In spite of the sorrowful subject matter, Conte’s work was quite beautifully enthralling, like a well-written tragic novel that refuses to be set aside, though we all know its unsettling ending.
“Convictions,” Rachel Russell’s first foray into choreography, dealt with another instance of group betrayal. In developing her piece, Russell hoped to lend her voice to “those who have been wrongly accused and incarcerated,” a crowd to which a good childhood friend of hers belongs. Her passion for the cause read quite clearly in the form of a physical narrative that saw one character mercilessly expelled from her community and treated with cold contempt by her former peers. Russell clearly intended not only to bring an under-addressed issue to light, but also to encourage an awareness of the role each of us plays in creating and perpetuating prejudice.
My favorite pieces on the program, Williams’ “Pallid” and Kristen Klein’s “Adminisphere,” spoke to injustices perpetrated on a scale perhaps less tragic, but just as disturbingly real. Full disclosure: Williams is a beloved friend of mine. She also happens to be a brilliant choreographer. At the time she began to develop “Pallid,” she says she had, in her own words, “been obsessing over Big Brother books – a lot of Huxley and Orwell,” and was inspired to craft a narrative commentary. “I wanted to make a physical book. Each section is a chapter or volume, each chapter is a look into these people’s lives.” The most captivating of these chapters was a duet between Williams and Lior Shneior that portrayed the turbulent interactions that can become the theme of relationships held together by habit alone. Throughout this and every section, the other dancers loomed over their peers, simultaneously playing the roles of the obedient masses, and of some demagogic figure fueling the dysfunctional fires of a dystopic society. Of this live-action narrative, Huxley and Orwell would certainly have approved.
“Adminisphere,” Klein’s humorously accurate commentary on the monotony of life in the administrative world, carried further the unsettling idea that we do not define our own statuses, nor do we determine our daily routines. The systems by which we live and the people who run them have the power to reduce our actions to a draining cycle of meaningless movements. Klein asks, “Why do people get stuck in these dead-end situations? Why do humans spend so much energy on tasks that don’t matter to them?” Klein’s piece did not attempt to answer these questions, but it did, perhaps, force viewers to take a look at their own positions in the great rat race.
The idea behind Six Degrees of Separation – to bring together the theme-based works of six young choreographers, all connected to each other via fewer than six other dancers – made for an evening both pleasantly cohesive and refreshingly varied. Over-saturation with any single style or concept was not a possibility, and several of the pieces even left the audience cheering for more. Fortunately, from this set of promising artists, more is certainly to come.
To see what the Six Degrees choreographers and dancers are up to next, visit the websites below:
Six Degrees Dance (Cecly Placenti’s company)
XT Danscollective (Christy Williams’ company)
Inclined Dance Project (Kristen Klein’s company)
Angie Moon Dance Theatre (Angie Conte’s company)
Jessica Howard’s website