This is the first in a series of blog posts recounting a creative process for Growing Our Own Gardens, conceived and directed by DX Associate Artistic Director Matthew Cumbie. This iteration of the work-in-progress was commissioned to be shown at the Queer Voices festival in Cambridge this past June.
This is an invitation to dance
Here with us on this stage
We will interrupt the space
and time of the surrounding world
Enact pleasure in our own bodies
Bodies we have to told to leave behind
Once we have left that stage.
Our dance opens with these lines. The lights slowly rise on three bodies moving on the diagonal toward the audience. Two produce tableaus, foreshadowing the performance to come, while the third takes his “disorientation solo”, improvising movement, throwing himself off balance, spinning around a faulty center of gravity. I continue to read the poem as the tableaus arrive and rearrange, asking the audience to remember with us. To remember the dancing of others, to imagine the movement of bodies now lost, to endure this remembering together. Remembering itself predicated on loss; we can only remember what is not here, now. Although often marked by pain, perhaps remembering together might make that pain more bearable. It might be enough to fuel transport to future horizons.
The show is titled Growing Our Own Gardens, an iterative performance project led by Matthew Cumbie, Associate Artistic Director of Dance Exchange. I spent a week this June in Providence and Boston on creative residency, building the 30-minute piece with Matthew, Jessica Hale, Darryl Pilate, and Sam Horning. We bring a diverse set of artistic practices to the process, including contemporary and modern dance, improvisation, poetry, drag, and drill team. As a cohort we are interested in questions of queer experience, solidarity, and futurity. Our weeklong residency began in AS220’s dance studio Monday, June 15th and concluded with two performances at Dance Complex in Cambridge on Friday and Saturday.
Sunday morning Sam, Darryl and I began our drive to Providence. Sunday morning, the morning of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Every fifty miles or so I drove, my passengers provided updates, news breaking, and yet in many ways, so familiar. The scale of it was impossible to comprehend; the toll grew larger with each update. Although some part of us always recognized the safety queer spaces provided as tenuous, these clubs, like Pulse, are one of the few places where such a mass of queerness is publicly allowable. Going out is a kind of weekly family reunion. The family is chosen, the lighting low, the movement more unbounded than in the straight world beyond. These spaces do not undo the oppressions of the world outside, but their existence is a haven for many and a place of embodied political resistance. The Saturday night that bled into Sunday morning, Latin night at Pulse, was doubly so. I am constantly reminded we are made as queers to lose much more, the loss being particularly compounded with intersecting modes of oppression.
We arrived at the studio raw. We sat close and devised a plan for the rehearsal, starting with a review of material we had previously developed separately. Our designs for the piece prior to Pulse were to speak to the possibilities of a queer futurity predicated on liberation, of the end of intimate, state-sanctioned, devastating, unbelievable, and quotidian violence which contours queer experience, and queer and trans peoples of color experience even more acutely. We were interested in mining the past for glimpses of this liberation, for moments where queerness was defined not by violence but by pleasure, by desire, by joy and generosity. This utopia, relying heavily on work by José Esteban Muñoz, is found through both the fierce critique of these violences as well as the casting of a picture, the potentiality always on the horizon of what might, could, or should be. Through the act of remembering, bringing closer our own personal histories as well as the histories of those performers who provided the possibilities for how we are now or could be, we hoped to collectively generate a kind of queer world on stage.
The possibility of generating such a world seemed all but impossible during that first rehearsal. The questions continued to arise throughout the week: Why were we making a dance? What could that do in the wake of Orlando? How could we, who have witnessed brutalized bodies, let others, as well as ourselves, know it is still possible to have our skin sing? These questions remain. With more distance, with more writing and syllabi, and time to process, these questions remain. During that week we held each other close, both physically and in the creative process. We watched remotely as each of our home cities held vigils. We witnessed the familiar news cycle of homophobia, racism, xenophobia. We made a dance and performed it in front of an audience of strangers. I am thankful for being with these collaborators, these friends throughout the week. Personally, working alongside them allowed a kind of processing. Each of their fierce contributions invited a return to my body, a return to the pleasure of movement, of moving together and the possibilities therein. A guiding practice of generosity emerged during the week, which directed many of the text and movement decisions for the piece. In part two of this post I will speak to how we attempted to practice generosity throughout our residency and how performance can be both a mode of critique and creation. I will speak to what we did, the possibilities of performance in the wake of violence and injustice.
If you are interested in delving into Gardens, join Dance Exchange artists and local activists at the 2017 Winter Institute January 5-8, 2017. We will weave together performance and dialogue to explore queer world-making as an intersectional and coalition-building framework and to collaboratively create the worlds we need.
Tyler French, is a lead artist in the project and recently led the evaluation initiatives for Dance Exchange’s 40th Anniversary Summer Institute.