October 10, 2014

This Is The Girl / Funsch Dance Experience, Sep 2014

This Is The Girl

Funsch Dance Experience
Sep 12-14, 2014
Dance Mission, SF

Observations and opinions by Keith Hennessy
followed by a comment by Christy Funsch

Choreographer Christy Funsch enters to give the (now) compulsory pre-show announcement that unnecessarily frames dance performances in SF... but with a twist... when we realize that the announcement is (integrated into) the performance. Information about exits and cell phones erodes into awkward silences and unfinished statements, until finally Funsch states, “I am nothing” and exits as if lost... This opening action reveal's Christy's dry (or is it wry?) sense of humor that threads through and sometimes even structures her work.

A woman in a red dress plays electric guitar with five young, fit, multiculti, dancers. Christy and Nol (Simonse) are the seasoned performers in this work, sometimes exaggerating their “experience” by playing old farts who need help from the young whippersnappers. When they chat, the text and performance are so unforced. The audience relaxes. It's easy to laugh along and enjoy. Later Christy tells me that the conversation is improvised. I say it's like watching old friends play together. Super charming. Amid family tales of sisters and coming out, they talk about story versus nonlinearity and ponder the relationship between construction and imagination.

SF choreographers never got the memo that unison movement is “out” or at least should be questioned and not assumed as integral to dance making. But then I think about how many companies based in SF (at least 5, maybe 6...) employ photographer RJ Muna to make them look practically indistinguishable, their (wannabe) sexy lithe bodies revealing lots of bare skin, leaping. Add some flying fabric for extra drama. Neo-classical modernism thrives here. That's not what Christy's doing with her young dancers, but it's a meandering rant that follows my questioning of her use of synchronized ensemble movement. What is possible to communicate, invoke, or inspire with dancing and when is unison the best tool or sign for choreography?

The next section involved the Dance Brigade's Grrrl Brigade on Taiko drums, led by Bruce Ghent. I thought Bruce's role was perhaps too big for a young female empowerment project but my main experience was of the joyful power of the taiko, and the particularly feminist approach to taiko that the Dance Brigade, with Bruce's coaching, has brilliantly pioneered. I don't know whether it was the thrill of the precision drumming or the ubiquitousness of teen girls in daisy dukes but I didn't notice at first how short the girls' denim shorts were. But when I did, they distracted me. How does fashion happen? Can shorts be too short? And would I be a terrible parent of a teenage femme?

The young dancers help out the fake-old dancers and everyone plays together – electric guitar, taiko teens, big showy dancing. What does dancing do? It invites me to ponder issues of age and power, of gender and sexuality, of color and racism, of the relationship between individual and group, of the invisible exchanges and collaborations from which choreography emerges. Maybe a better question is, “what does dancing want?” or “what do dancers and dance makers want?” But maybe not.

Nol joined the quintet for encounters of touching and measuring. I'm writing this in Rome from notes I scribbled in the program's margins three weeks ago. And this note doesn't trigger any memories. I wonder how long I've been watching Nol perform... more than a decade I'm sure. He's a generous dancer who plays well with others in so many different contexts. I loved seeing him outside a sprawling warehouse in Oakland in the work of Mary Armentrout and I remember being provocatively surprised when I finally saw him in his own work.

My notes kinda fall apart. I noted three slow pods, cuddling but not ________ then simply “taiko + dance” and an observation about recurring cross generational themes that made me re-assess my earlier comment about Bruce and the Grrrl Brigade.

The emotional tone of the work coalesced with the entrance of a team of young girls from the SF Community Music Center's Children's Chorus. The vibe intensified – I don't know how to describe it but something was happening – to all of us it seemed – the energetic-emotional field intensified when Christy and Nol started dancing, fierce at first and then in unison. “Horses in my dreams...” the girls sang. Teens hung out in the back, looking out windows, and although the image was 'staged' it didn't feel fake. It just felt good, like how it's supposed to be, and I mean the whole thing, all of us, sitting there in the dark and light. The person beside me started to cry which simply seemed like part of the plan, or part of the potential of the plan, as if (Christy's) choreography is not a plan but an invitation for an experience to happen, inside and among us.

The song ended. A light, fast, repeating dance moved upstage, with one dancer downstage center focusing our gaze into a four-generational world of music and dancing, in the Mission, where many of us live(d) and work(ed). And this history of place and creativity, while delicate, seemed neither precarious nor exceptional but just right, just right now.

Response by Christy Funsch, choreographer of This Is The Girl

One of the most difficult decisions I made in my recent full-length work, This is the Girl, was how to costume the teenage women of the Grrrl Brigade (who accompanied several sections of the work on Taiko). I allowed the six 8-year old girls from San Francisco's Community Center (who sang to accompany the last section of the work) to dress as they wished-why wouldn't I offer the same freedom to the teeagers?

Perhaps because it isn't so simple. Questions of who is in charge and in control of their presentation in public beleaguered my wrangling. Do they realize that they stand on the brink of our culture's vapid insistence on objectifying them? They study dance and music (and some have for ten years or more), with Krissy Keefer's Dance Brigade, a crucial, strident collection of women who have pushed back against mainstream depictions of femininity for decades. Surely some of this counter-cultural politic has rubbed off? Why, then, when given the choice of costuming, did they all decide to wear revealing, tight-fitting clothing very similar to each other's and very much emphasizing their physiques?
Should I have asked them to wear pajamas? Or martial arts clothing?

Most disappointing to me is owning that when I was wrangling over this decision I did not set aside time to have this conversation with them. I should have made it as much of a priority as getting their music rehearsed. It also brings up for me a larger query which served as subtext for the work, subtext that was latent perhaps but nonetheless alive in my decision to assemble an age-diverse cast for the work. Is there a time when we realize our place in power's structure? Does this happen at different times depending on where you are in the structure? How does our confidence shift when we grow from young girls into teenagers? What happens when we come into sexual awareness and how can we cultivate autonomy in young women when it happens-not just inside the household but all of us, culturally? Is provocative dress a sign of empowerment or compliance with expectations and objectification? Is it the height of conformity or a bold act of rebellion and resistance?

I don't know and will now have to (sadly) file under "conversations that didn't happen." I was so focused on the power implicit in the choreography (what I call "who is lifting whom"), that I missed an opportunity to engage the extended cast in this troubling, rich discussion.


Sri Louise said...

yesterday i watched a conversation between bell hooks and lavern cox where fashion, replicating patriarchal expectations, was touched upon. bell asked lavern to speak to "some people" thinking that transwomen perpetuate patriarchal norms of femininity and bell highlighted lavern's 4 inch heels as an example…

lavern is so intelligent and articulate and open and seemingly unfluttered by the "second wave" assumption/attack and goes on to, as janet mock did in a recent conversation with bell, describe that this is how she feels empowered, because this is where/how she feels herself.

in another recent conversation about how women internalize the oppression of the patriarchal gaze, i wrote…but when the female body is already sexually exploited, what are the politics of her self-objectification? What are the modes of her resistance? Are there ways for her to use her body to claim her sexual freedom that don't replicate patriarchal practices of oppression? And if not, how do we rethink/respond when women and female artists use their body to claim their freedom?

i would love to be present for the discussion that didn't happen, but needs to happen with those teen performers!

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