Reflections on An Ornate Hiding Place
ACT 1- The Beginning
During junior sem I was working with the idea of honesty and non-performativity, and I was initially planning to continue that work for my thesis. That isn’t what ended up happening, but those ideas definitely appeared in the process, so I think it’s important that was sort of the predecessor to the work. I decided to let honesty go. This one day mid-summer I went to Rittenhouse and I had this idea that I wanted to go dance in the park by myself to see how that felt and... it felt like really weird and I kind of hated it but I also thought it was really interesting because it brought up these two ideas- vulnerability and visibility.
The more I started thinking about these ideas and the connections between them, the more I started connecting them to femininity/the experience of being a woman. For example, vulnerability is connected to expressing your emotions, which then connects to both (1) danger in expressing emotions as a woman as well as (2) sight/visibility. I think about images that compared Kavanaugh’s sexual assault trial and Hillary Clinton during the Benghazi trial, and how she had to be utterly composed while he expressed his anger and frustration freely and without question. Who is allowed to make visible their emotions without repercussions, who is allowed to be vulnerable in that way? Or, how women are constantly watched, looked at, policed etc., and how that hyper-visibility makes them more vulnerable to be targets of harassment, discomfort, etc. So that is how I came to my three rooting ideas of vulnerability, visibility, and femininity.
Another slightly tangential but also connected idea I had was singing. I knew I wanted to involve singing somehow into the work, and I felt that singing was also connected to vulnerability and visibility. I also connected it to femininity; I considered how women are taught to minimize their presences in space, and how that related to the use of the voice, both in terms of volume and the voicing of opinions.
ACT 2- Stuff We Did
1. Check in: Every rehearsal we started with a quick check in and overview of the rehearsal. I thought it was important to do a check in to make sure that my cast didn’t feel like they had to leave their personal stuff “at the door”.
2. Word Association: During our first rehearsal we did a word association with vulnerability, visibility, and femininity, and we drew connections between the associations for different words.
3. Trust Exercises: We had lots of trust exercises that we did as warm ups/community building exercises. These included different counter balances, save me, going off balance and being caught. I think it’s pretty clear how these type of exercises relate very literally to vulnerability, trust.
4. Head Lab: I had an idea that I wanted us to work with our heads, specifically putting our heads in each others hands- that felt very vulnerable. The head is also related to sight. We started out with partners, exploring how it feels to put your head in someone’s hands, to hold someone’s head. AJ and Liv started tossing their heads back and forth, and we started playing with that in a circle. We noticed that there was this contradiction this practice seemed to embody, of being both caring and aggressive.
5. Marguerite Exercise: I never thought of a better name for this, but I learned it from Marguerite Hemmings. In this exercise you move across the room with a partner, partner A moves, and partner b vocalizes in response to partner A’s movement. And then you switch roles, and partner A vocalizes, and partner b moves in response to the vocalization. This was a great exercise for us because it related clearly to (1) visibility. Having the immediate feedback of someone vocalizing in relation to your movement is confirmation that you are being seen, and it’s making the action of you being seen tangible in the space. It also relates to (2) vocalizing/singing. It functioned as a vocal warm-up. And it related to (3) non-censorship, non-judgement. It became an exercise in silliness, there’s something about the nature of the exercise that allows for play with your partner and with your movement. It’s hard to do it with a straight face, without any play, and we leaned into that aspect of it.
6. 60% Exercise: This is a personal practice of mine. In this exercise we moved and vocalized simultaneously and constantly, hopefully until exhaustion. The point of it is to get to a point where it not longer looks/sounds “nice”, to get to a point that it more real and less planned/controlled. It often resulted in a feeling of less self-judgement or self-censorship, a feeling of liberation. We sometimes did them as solos in front of each other, to feel that vulnerability of not looking/sounding “nice” in front of an audience. One rehearsal, AJ didn’t want to do it by herself so she and Liv did the exercise as a duet. That resulted in an additional layer of non-censorship, non-analyzing, because you also have to respond to the other person, so you have even less time to consciously make choices about what you’re doing.
7. Hidden/Shown List: One of the sub-topics that came up was this idea of thing in our lives that we feel we’re supposed to hide/minimize. We made two lists- one of things we’re supposed to hide in dance, and one of things we’re supposed to hide in life, but there was a lot of overlap. Some of these things included: sweat, body hair, sexuality, crying, being rowdy, mental illness, periods, negative emotions.
8. 10 Ways to be Vulnerable: I learned this exercise from Jesse Zaritt. In it, you make a list of 10 ways to _______. We each wrote lists of 10 ways to be vulnerable. Then, each person had a partner and the partner read the person’s list out loud to them, and they performed the tasks they had written down. This was early on in the process, and part of the goal of this exercise what to get at exactly what vulnerability is/can be, and how it’s different for each of us.
9. Priming/protecting the space: We started doing this because I anticipated that it would be challenging to bring the work to a more performative space. I originally thought of priming the space as protecting the space. In this process I felt like I was trying to create this comfortable, safe space where we could allow ourselves to be vulnerable with and for each other, and I was thinking about how we would be able to continue doing that in a less comfortable, safe space. It made me think of Harry Potter, the way that they cast protective charms around the exterior of a space to protect what is within, and I wanted to do that. Eventually protecting became ‘priming’, this idea that we needed to get the space/eventual audience ready for us, simultaneously getting us ready for it/them. A simultaneous readying. We did this with our voices. There’s something about singing that leaves such a tangible residue for me, so we started doing our vocal warm-ups around the exterior of the space. For the piece we wanted to do this all around the y-gym, which took 5 minutes so we were going to do it during intermission. When we realized this would not be possible, we created a new priming, that incorporated similar elements.
10. Following impulses: This wasn’t an exercise that we did a lot, but I think it was important for what the piece ended up becoming. It’s an exercise that I learned in Jimena’s TMD class in 2017. In the exercise, you stand with your eyes closed, and listen to your impulses. You consciously ignore a couple, and only after a few have passed you follow one, and attempt to continue following impulses. If you find yourself thinking, planning, analyzing, you close your eyes and start the process again. Similar to many of our other exercises, this exercise was an attempt to un-censor. It was also a way to be selfish, to get very internal and individual. In a way, being selfish/impulsive feels contrary to what is expected of both women and performers, who are sometimes led to believe that their sole duty is to provide for others. So it feels extra-subversive for a woman to be performing selfishly.
11. See-saw weight sharing: This was an exploration that joy and ada were interested in doing. A constant back and forth of carrying weight between two people, passing power/control/vulnerability back and forth constantly.
12. Falling/control Phrases: I started thinking about this idea that women in particular are asked to embody contradiction a lot in their lives. We should be soft but not push-overs, strong but not bitchy, intelligent but not intimidating. We navigate contradictions like these everyday. I was interested in how it would feel to take physical contradictions or opposites and put them together into phrase material.
13. Performative Seeing: Since seeing and being seen is such an important part of the work, we took some time to practice it in a performative setting. I think as performers we often become guilty of appearing as though we’re seeing something/someone, but not really seeing them. The goal of this exercise was to sensitize us to that habit. Half of us were audience members, and half of us were performers. While the audience members watched, the performers had to enter the room and notice the shift from performative seeing to actual seeing. From this we derived tools for performative seeing: starting internal, looking for the unfamiliar, grounding, laying down/getting a new perspective.
14. Pop Culture Research/Discussion: For one rehearsal everyone brought in an example of pop culture in which they felt they were really seeing someone, and we spent time discussing each example. See addendum1 for the references we looked at.
15. Always off center phrases: Playing with this idea of power and control in connection to vulnerability, we created duets in which at least one partner was always off of their center of gravity. In this we played with fluid power roles in this relationship, and fluidity of responsibility and vulnerability, rejecting the ever-present binary of power usually present in partnering.
17. Pass the face: This was a fun warm-up we did. It was just intended to be a way to warm up our faces and get used to using our faces in a more active way. We stood in a circle, one person made a face and directed it at one person. That person received the face and responded to it, passing it to someone else. This became one of the practices we did right before we did the piece.
ACT 3- Construction of the Piece
We spent most of the process researching the ideas and creating material. When it came time to put it all together, it was a bit overwhelming, and we decided we would just start somewhere and start putting things together haphazardly, which is what we did. And we did this the whole time trying to be non-precious with our decisions. Some of this structuring happened in rehearsals, but I started doing a lot of it by creating visual diagrams (see addendum2 to view examples of the diagrams I created).
We knew that the piece was going to start with the protecting/priming of the space. The next preparatory practice we added was all introducing ourselves to the audience. This felt important to me to (1) acknowledge the presence of the audience and (2) acknowledge that in this piece we wouldn’t be performing characters, that we were still ourselves.
Another important part of the construction of the piece were the stations. We had 3 stations on the periphery of the stage. As part of the score, when the dancers weren’t engaged in any set material, that were engaging with the stations. (See addendum3 for a map of the stations.)
Station 1- The Hiding Place
Station 2- The Costume Closet
Station 3- The Music Corner
ACT 4- Paradox
After our tech rehearsal, just a week before the shows, AJ and I had a conversation in which she was saying she felt kind of lost in the piece. She felt disconnected from the research and the dancers, she felt like she didn’t know how to be in the piece. I felt similarly lost, like the piece needed some kind of frame to help all of this content mean something, make some semblance of sense. After conversations with lots of people- Maddy, Anna Merritt, Jinsei- I came to the conclusion that this complexity/ multiplicity/ many-ness/ paradox/ dissonance/ contradiction that we were feeling in the piece and that was leaving us with this kind of confused/uneasy feeling was actually serving the work. I decided that we would use this feeling of multiplicity/contradiction as our framing device for the piece. In that, came the idea de-limiting/un-limiting ourselves to the range/possibilities of multiplicity/spectrum within our personalities, emotions, experiences, wardrobes, etc.
This frame also functioned to help us contend with the dissonance of performing a piece about being seen. There was especially a lot of uneasiness within the performative aspects of the piece- doing it in a proscenium setting, with stage lights, in front of this large audience, etc. I realized that part of this experience was negotiating with the forces of performance, figuring out how to be within them and retain the integrity of the research we had done. This was the language I used with my dancers in email:
“The negotiation between this very personal research and experiencing it in a “performative setting” that we are feeling, is part of the piece!!! If you feel discomfort, or feel a sense of dissonance or contradiction at any point- that's part of the piece!! Try your best to stay in it and work through it however you see fit. Make decisions around it, be active in it, take note of it. We’re reckoning with all the forces of performance, and simultaneously trying to stay true to the research.”
This idea of multiplicity served to help us understand the purpose of the stations as well, which was to increase the states in which the dancers had to be present throughout the piece, to stretch their capacity to shift between different physical/emotional states. So, they had to be in their station like doing whatever they were doing there and trying to be as engaged with that as possible, but there weren't any music cues, all the cues were from watching each other, so they had to be in different states at once, and then change between states
ACT 5- A Description of the Piece that I Think is OK
I wrote this description that i wrote for an assignment for senior seminar may seem a little repetitive, but I wanted to include it because I think I did a good job of describing the ideas of the piece in a way that is simple to understand/not super jargon-y.
The work, “An Ornate Hiding Place”, is an exploration of how being a woman relates to vulnerability and visibility, and how contradiction, negotiation, and dissonance are implicit in those ideas. Through these broad topics, we’re exploring the rejection of identity binaries, and trying to come to a more nuanced view of what it means to be vulnerable and seen, as a woman. How do we negotiate the multiple realities within ourselves? How do we negotiate the multiple selves expected of us? How do we negotiate the multiple realities of a complex and dynamic performance score? How do we embody contradiction and dissonance, and learn to breathe and live within it? We’re also grappling with the complications of presenting this work, which centers around being seen, in a performative setting. We have begun the process of researching these big ideas, and have performed the piece twice in the framework of being an excerpt of a work in progress. By performing it we have started to focus on performance as practice, and in this way we mess with content and form, questioning how to behave while seen, what parts of a process should be seen, and where and how different types of work should be presented (what happens if you rehearse in a proscenium setting with stage lights?). The voice as a material has come up and is crucial to the work as a way to ground ourselves, connect with each other, and get closer to expressing ourselves in a way that is uncensored and non judgemental. We hope that this work will make an intellectual impact on those who watch it, and a wider social impact as a result. We hope the work forces those who watch it to re-think their capacity to understand and appreciate complexity and multiplicity. For women and female-identifying people especially, we hope this work provides a message of solidarity (always solidarity), as well as an invitation to think more deeply about unleashing the fullness of the complexity within themselves. However, we also feel that this work’s underlying ideas, while based on the experience of femininity, applies to any and all marginalized peoples- including but not limited to LGBTQ+ folks, black folks, Muslim folks, any and all immigrants, and disabled folks.
ACT 6- Personal Process Notes
In addition to making this specific piece, I feel like this process was an exploration for me of how I want to make with, and how i want to be in relationship to others in that process.
Collaboration was really important to me. I personally find it really frustrating to be a part of a piece/process in which I don't understand why im doing the things that i'm doing, which is why was always so hesitant to go into rehearsal and just say ‘this is what we're going to do today.’. I was trying to seperate myself from the “collaboration” that I had experienced in student led pieces in the past, which always felt very superficial, and actually have everyone be involved in the research and structuring of the piece.
I also felt like this was an experiment in making work “democratically”. I really wanted them to feel really clear about the ideas of the piece so they would feel comfortable questioning and being active in the process, asking questions and making suggestions.
Intersectionality was also important to me in this process, and making sure that this piece made room for intersection of identity with being a woman. I was really worried that I was going to end up making a piece that only reflected my experience as a woman, and didn’t reflect that many gender, sexual, and racial/ethnic identities that were part of the process. I tried to figure out ways for them to explore their own experiences. One exercise that I felt activated that was collectively making the list of things we hide, because it encompassed all of our experiences. I think a balance I was struggling to find was between making the work intersectional and putting too much labor onto the dancers to contribute their personal experiences.
In a similar vein, I thought a lot about ethics while making this piece. One thing I wanted to make sure I didn’t do was enact the idea of being objectified or being watched or being looked at. I was trying to enact freedom not oppression and I felt like asking them to perform each other's oppression would be just defeating the purpose. Which brings up one of the trickiest parts of making activist work in general, but also that I thought about a lot with this work: How do you show or experience something without just enacting it?
ACT 7- Reflecting After the Shows, and Where To Go Next
I want to focus on some of the feedback that I got after the show, and how I plan to incorporate it and let it inform the process as I continue with this work. A lot of people thought this work was very funny, silly, light-hearted. I’m very happy with that feedback- I didn’t want to make a very serious work that would make people upset. However, it leads me to question whether there was enough context of the ideas of the piece, because a lot of the discussions that we had that helped to create this work brought up a lot of the negative, oppressive, difficult aspects of these topics, and I want to make sure that that part of the work isn’t lost on the audience. While I don’t want to take away any of the humour or silliness, I want to make it clear that we’re not being funny just to be funny, that there is a purpose behind the humour. In some ways humour serves as a tactic of survival and self-care within an oppressive society.
I want to continue this research. I’m not very attached to the structure that we created, so I don’t plan to try and fit any forthcoming research into it- I just want to research without the pressure of creating something. I want to dig really deeply into all these smaller sub-topics that came up, because even the sub-topics are large in breadth. I’m hoping that by digging into the details of the sub-topics, I’ll be able to start connecting them and keep clarifying what this research is trying to do. I could picture this research manifesting in some sort of workshop format, as well as a performance.
Across the Universe- I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Sia- The Greatest
i’m glad i met you at this age
Car Seat Headrest - Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales (Live at Rock the Garden)
Janelle Monáe - I Like That [Official Video]
Sigur Rós - Valtari [Official Music Video]
Andrew Winghart- 9.21