Getting in the Way: Thoughts on dance in St. Louis since 2014

Earlier this year I got to read this piece by St. Louis dance educator and writer Betsy Brandt, and it resonated with me on numerous levels. St. Louis, our Midwestern neighbor, may offer lessons for our own organizing, educating, or reflecting in Chicago, within the concert dance communities or in other circles. In the movement for black lives, around gender equity, or gun control, Betsy’s call to “apply pressure to the cracks in a breaking system” seems not just appropriate, but imperative. 
— Ellen Chenoweth, Interim Director, Dance Presenting Series

Getting in the Way: Thoughts on dance in St. Louis since 2014
by Betsy Brandt

18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. As a devoted St. Louisan, I never considered Ferguson as a separate place from the city I loved. It was just another neighborhood, known for harsh highway speed traps and its proximity to University of Missouri: St. Louis (UMSL, pronounced “um-zull”). Crowds gathered as Brown’s body remained in the street for hours. Over the next few nights, the community’s unrest escalated, sometimes erupting into looting and alleged gunfire. The infamously militarized police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Police delayed releasing the name of the officer involved in the shooting, sparking more conflict. Armored vehicles arrived. Protesters and reporters got arrested. The Missouri Highway Patrol took control of law enforcement. Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency.

I was working in New York City when all of this happened, the dramaturg on a new dance piece by Sara Hook and Paul Matteson. I spent my days in the tiny West End Theatre, nestled inside St. Paul and St. Andrew church on the Upper West Side. I even spent my nights in monastic conditions, taking cold showers and sleeping on a hard twin bed in another nearby church. It was the ultimate cliché residency experience—getting “away from it all” in order to make work. I felt very, very far away from home, and my heart ached.

I came home. Protests, ranging from peaceful organized actions to impromptu violence, continued all over the city. Friends and family were increasingly getting involved in the protests. I started a new semester, teaching technique and theory courses in the dance departments at Webster University and Lindenwood University, both in the greater St. Louis area. Struggling to find a way to engage the students in the conversation surrounding the events of Ferguson, I constructed an assignment for my improvisation class that asked them to consider protest as a kind of improvisational score. This made sense to me. Protests are organized around actions (or inactions) that put physical bodies in specific times and places, usually with a goal or desired outcome, but without knowing exactly how it will end. You don’t know how they will turn out, and that’s the point. Sounds like an improv score, right? This is what I told my students: “Identify an action/idea that warrants protest, develop a score for how you will embody resistance against that action/idea, then do it.”

 Edward Crawford Jr. throws a container of tear gas back at police officers during a protest against police Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., four days after a white police officer fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The photo was part of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo coverage of the protests. (Photo: Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via AP)

Edward Crawford Jr. throws a container of tear gas back at police officers during a protest against police Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., four days after a white police officer fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The photo was part of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo coverage of the protests. (Photo: Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via AP)

Results were mixed. A few students struggled to separate the abstraction of the score from their suspicions that I was trying to secretly radicalize them. But we got there in the end, after a few false starts and long discussions. One student decided to protest collegiate expectations of how women dress on a daily basis, going through an entire day in full homecoming/prom getup. Another student had questions about everyone’s habitual obedience to pedestrian pathways on campus, so she sat in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares during “passing” times between classes, just to disrupt the normal flow. Were they the most courageous or artistically inventive projects ever conceived? No. But the big takeaway? They were terrified. Their hearts were pounding the entire time, and they were each surprised by the intensity of the experience. After all, they were well on their way to professional dance careers, experienced with performances both onstage and off. But they felt vulnerable and engaged in a different way. It was scary. This wasn’t about “building” choreography or even fulfilling a traditional improvisational score. It was about breaking something. Disrupting something. That was new. And they felt it.

I wrote a blurb about the experience and posted it on Facebook. It garnered a few comments and shares, and the post ultimately drew the attention of Sara Burke, the founder of The City Studio Dance Center and one of the organizers of a series of events entitled “Dancers React to Ferguson.” She invited me to their second meeting. Discussions were passionate. The community clearly needed the event for the sake of getting together to heal as much as for charting specific plans. I remember Keith Williams, now a teacher at Grand Center Arts Academy, doing a kind of real-time devising of a dance in which one dancer would stand over the still body of another in horror. Burke, Williams, and a number of the other organizers (including Heather Himes, an alumna of the dance program at Columbia College) had roots in the Katherine Dunham company and its longstanding presence in East St. Louis. A civil rights activist as well as a choreographer and performer, Dunham’s legacy loomed large in the room. We were gathering to organize. To speak out and fight back. To build something. There was talk of a viral video, or the creation of a shared choreographic experience that could “bring everyone together.”

 Protesters drop a mirrored casket in front of a line of police officers in front of the Ferguson Police Department on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. “Look at what you’ve done,” yelled one man. (Robert Cohen/ St. Louis Post-Dispatch,  via Twitter)

Protesters drop a mirrored casket in front of a line of police officers in front of the Ferguson Police Department on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. “Look at what you’ve done,” yelled one man. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via Twitter)

St. Louis Public Radio produced a piece about the meetings that was later picked up by The Dance Enthusiast. A year later, a collaborative event entitled “Dance Speaks Volume I” was presented in cooperation with the Grand Center Arts Academy Theatre Department. A few other projects popped up in the subsequent months and years, but to me, it felt like the potential energy that was in the room during those meetings was never fully realized. Now I wonder—were we trying to figure out what to build when we should have been talking about what still needed to break? In a moment of cultural trauma and upheaval, were we too eager to use our art to heal rather than choreograph and perform our dissent?

As the protests in Ferguson continued in October 2014, a team of seven community artists and organizers known as Artivists STL walked from the site of Brown’s death to the local police department, carrying a casket covered with broken mirrors. Mirror Casket, now in the collection of the National Museum for African American History and Culture, asked bystanders to confront their own reflections as “both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and aggressor.” It was designed to create empathy, a theme that had been passionately championed throughout those dancer meetings. But this work prompted empathy by embracing fragmentation and failure. It wasn’t trying to universalize, but individualize. It wasn’t trying to fix anything. And it was powerful. Perhaps, as Hal Foster says, the contemporary avant-garde is most effective when it “seeks to trace fractures that already exist within the given order, to pressure them further, even to activate them somehow.”

A lot of changes have swept through the St. Louis dance community in the years since, and many related directly or indirectly to conversations about race and power sparked by Ferguson. Joanna Dee Das, a Katherine Dunham scholar (with a new book on Dunham’s activism recently published by Oxford University Press) joined the faculty of the dance department at Washington University in 2016. Kirven and Antonio Douthit-Boyd, former Alvin Ailey superstars, are also now St. Louisans, teaching at Washington University and heading up the dance program for the Center of Creative Arts. Alicia Graf Mack, another Ailey alum, is now an Artist-in-Residence at Webster University. From my perspective in academia, there is a palpable new urgency about the idea of supporting and empowering diverse research and artists of color in our educational institutions, and you can see it in increasingly diverse student populations, class offerings, faculty, and guest artists.

 Photo from Modern American Dance Company’s (MADCO) 2017 production “Freedom” Photo: Steve Truesdell.

Photo from Modern American Dance Company’s (MADCO) 2017 production “Freedom” Photo: Steve Truesdell.

Non-academic institutions are responding too. Dance St. Louis, the major presenter in town, geared its 2016 New Dance Horizons program to focus on the work of black choreographers, including Bebe Miller, Robert Moses, and Dianne McIntyre. The McIntyre piece got particular attention, featuring performances by the aforementioned Ailey dancers. The Modern America Dance Company (MADCO) produced a show entitled “FREEDOM” in 2017. Featuring the choreography of Cecil Slaughter, Nejla Yatkin, Jennifer Archibald, and Gina Patterson, the program was inspired by a collaboration with the civil rights archive at Washington University’s Olin Library.

There are many other makers and movers who are responding to issues of race and power in the St. Louis dance landscape. I point to Dance St. Louis and MADCO’s programming as not the most “important” examples, but rather as two clear instances of work being done by existing dance institutions, privileged with established organizational and financial support. These kinds of changes, like those occurring inside of academia, are operating well-inside of sanctioned constraints, often to the point of being incentivized by well-intentioned funding organizations.

I suspect that a more substantial and lasting wave of change in the St. Louis dance community is likely to come from outside of the safely established power players like MADCO and Dance St. Louis. Work stemming from a spirit of disruption and intervention may threaten established funding structures, audience loyalties, and artistic expectations. Doesn’t that sound a little more like resistance? Like dissent? In the first of a series of recent articles about St. Louis for Art in America, James McAnally offered a generous overview of local visual artists whose work is rooted in social practice. A number of these artists, including St. Louis native and Webster-trained dancer Katherine Simóne Reynolds, are using performance as one of their media of choice. Local institutions are also increasingly bringing in performance-based artists from outside of St. Louis, and again, an exciting number of black artists have been involved in these projects. Lygia Lewis’s Bessie-award winning Minor Matter came through now-shuttered White Flag Projects as a work-in-progress in 2016. The AUNTS performance platform took over the Pulitzer Foundation in April 2017, featuring (among its many overlapping performances) Jennifer Harge’s powerful solo cussin and prayin. Leslie Cuyjet brought a revamped version of her duet Fossil through the Luminary last summer as part of Alexis Wilkinson’s exhibition about time and corporeality.

This past September, three years after the initial protests in Ferguson, I was again in New York City working as a dramaturg on another project. Coincidentally, I was working with the same collaborator, out of the same theatre, and sleeping in the same hard twin bed. Back in St. Louis, a police officer was acquitted in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. Protestors blocked highways, gathered at the courthouse, marched the downtown streets, shouted “no justice, no peace,” threw rocks at the mayor’s house, got in fights, got arrested, prayed, and held hands.

When I got back home a few days later, there was a protest walkout scheduled at Webster University. I went. In the crowd, I saw half-a-dozen dance majors in their leotards and tights walking the line and chanting as we shut down a public intersection. I walked a few feet behind them, trying to give them space to do their thing and attempting to keep my mama-bear instincts in check as the police loomed menacingly, putting on their bulletproof vests. Later, I asked the dancers how it felt. It was different than they thought it would be, they said, even in the light of a sunny day in a familiar location. Ever-obedient “bunheads,” they were keenly aware that participating in organized disruption felt different than performing on a stage. They knew they were applying pressure to the cracks in a breaking system. They knew the stakes were high. They felt it.

Remember Mirror Casket. It took muscle. It forced the witness into an acknowledgement of their own immediate corporeality, reflection, and participation. It showed the cracks. We need to remember this as we envision the future of dance in St. Louis. We must clearly see what systems are crumbling and resist being surprised when and if they fall apart. The traditional role of the presenter, the administrative machinations of the sanctioned non-profit structure, the generationally and demographically-lopsided distribution of artistic programming and funding, and the very who/when/where/how of our performances are all up for grabs. There are plenty of cracks that still need to widen and plenty of questions that still need to be asked. We should figure out how to get in the way, and we should do it. And it will be scary. When we do, we’ll feel it.