We are destroying ourselves: a dance wrecking
We are destroying ourselves is a durational performance and embodied conversation that asks can destruction be an act of care?
We are destroying ourselves literally and metaphorically stages a conversation with white supremacy and American Modern Dance using the form of the dance wrecking. In these wrecking events we invite a guest choreographer to publicly dismantle, remake, and share a volume from our series my body as the topic coming around again. The wrecking is a compelling way to question received dance traditions; expose audiences to choreographic process; and explore what collective practices of decolonization can look like.
Since 2020 my collaborators and I have been developing a three-volume dancework that unravels the tangled threads of white womanhood and American modern dance. Centered around Land, (In)Visibility, and Caring, these dances traverse dualities of freedom/control; sincerity/satire; tenderness/violence; beauty/monstrosity.
Vol. 1: Land (2021) asks “how does it feel to dance on stolen land?” Created for the Dorothy Strelsin Memorial Garden in the Lower East Side, it considers how we have been taught to imagine sites and bodies as empty spaces to be staged and occupied. The work excavates the histories we stand on, creates a map of our training, and uses strategies of autoethnography to trace its own creation.
Vol 2: (In)Visibility (2022) uses satire and horror to exaggerate the constant (in)visibility of white female bodies. With looping devices and absurd, fragmented text, it disarms the viewer as it amplifies the power negotiations at work on stage and in life. As the volume continues it breaks apart as dancers question their own complicity and willingness to be seen.
Vol 3: Caring (2023) is searching for a way forward, asking how strategies of care and attention can provide a means to a more liberated practice. In this final volume of the work we ask what can be salvaged as we work towards regeneration and new ways of training, thinking, and being in our bodies.
In we are destroying ourselves: a dance wrecking we extend this conversation outwards to a larger community, acknowledging that the work of decolonizing dance cannot be done alone.
The project has been funded in part by Trinity College Faculty Research Grant, CT Office of the Arts Fellowship, Axis/Access Residency from APE and SCDT, Snowed in Residency, and the Garland Distinguished Fellowship from Hambidge Center for the Arts.
Photos: Shige Moriya/LEIMAY Arts, John Atashian, Peter Raper
Pictured: Ellen Smith Ahern, Theo Armstrong, Alexis Robbins, Taylor Zappone
What is a dance wrecking?Dance wrecking is a process-based tool that comes from choreographer Susan Rethorst. For her, the wrecking has been a means of soliciting artistic feedback that is direct, robust, and interventional. In this project we are repurposing the wreck for political aims. The bodies of the dancers become an archive, tracking the creation and material process that led to these works as well as each new version created from the project’s component parts by invited choreographers. Some may leave the work largely intact, while others may set it on fire. They will all leave a psychic trace. The wreck is part of an artistic tradition of creative destruction and joyful undoing. As is in Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing we are seeking the creative potential inherent in destruction. We enter into this process knowing: Dance Material is not neutral Dancing Bodies are not neutral Space is not neutral Place is not neutral Processes are not neutral
Why do it?The wreck is a way to literally and conceptually stage the shared work of decolonization, and to explode the notion of individual authorship. As in the game of telephone, the piece will change and shift as it passes from maker to maker. Everyone’s mark will be on it with less and less sense of who “made” it. The desire to counter white supremacy is expressed in this collective authorship. Embedded in the invitation to wreck these dances is a call to work collaboratively to disrupt patterns and legacies of colonization and white supremacy in dance. It necessitates coalition across spectrums of practice, race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, and ability, facilitating collisions and encounters that might not otherwise occur. The destruction of this dance and the willingness by the collaborating dancers to put their bodies on the line becomes a practice of generosity and freedom. What happens if we lean in, invite a new world, and remake the thing. Where do we go on the other side?
How is the wreck structured?We are destroying ourselves: a dance wrecking is a 2-3 hour event, during which one invited artist local to the area will “wreck” a 20-minute volume of the work. While the structure and timescale can shift, each wrecking includes: 1. An introduction and framing 2. A presentation of the original dance 3. Extended choreographic work period 4. Presentation of the “wrecked” dance. 5. Discussion with the artists involved and feedback. All parts of the process are open, and audiences are invited to engage in conversation, and wander in and out during the event. Ideally we will stage three wreckings consecutively, featuring different volumes of the work and “wreckers” from varied locations, backgrounds, and dance lineages.
How much does this cost?Throughout this process, we have prioritized paying collaborating artists a living wage, including pay for rehearsals, performances, and travel. While we know that each host has unique financial constraints, it is crucial that we are supported in paying artists fairly. We ask for performance fees that allow us to support collaborating artists, offer proportionate compensation to invited wreckers, and donate a percentage of our fee to indigenous communities in sites where we perform.
Who is our audience?The wrecking is a compelling way to reinvent dance practice; expose audiences to choreographic thinking; and welcome those inside and outside the field of dance to consider embodied practices of decolonization. This piece may be especially attractive to audiences in active political conversations within their communities and we hope that the model breaks down potential silos, facilitating choreographic conversations across genre, cultural, and racial lines.
Collaborating artistsThis work has been created and conceived in collaboration with four performers who bring a range of knowledge and identity experience to the table. The development process has included in-depth conversation about race, gender, and sexuality and how axes of identity visibly and invisibly shape our experiences of the world. The collaborating artists are: Ellen Smith Ahern (she/her) grew up dancing in Illinois and came east to study dance at Middlebury College. Since then she's collaborated with many artists, including Jane Comfort & Company, Lida Winfield, Kate Elias, Rebecca Pappas, Hannah Dennison, Pauline Jennings, Polly Motley, El Circo Contemporaneo, Amy Chavasse, David Appel and Tiffany Rhynard’s Big APE. Ellen has had the opportunity to perform and teach throughout Mexico, Cuba, Qatar, Europe and the US. With generous support from many institutions and community members, she shares her work through film, installation and live performance in a diverse array of venues, including the National Gallery of Art, Dance on Camera Festival/Film at Lincoln Center, Bates Dance Festival, AVA Gallery, Dixon Place, the Flynn Theater, Middlefield Community Center, the Ionion Center of Kefalonia and the Rococo Theatre in Prague. Ellen lives with her family on Abenaki lands in N’Dakinna/New Hampshire, where she continues to work as an independent artist and practice social work. Theo Armstrong (they/he) is a movement artist and writer based in Brooklyn. They currently dance with/for Portia Wells, micca, and Rebecca Pappas and have co-created in various capacities with Thea Little, BodyCartography Project, ChristinaNoel and the Creature, Milka Djordevich, and Andrea Haenggi/the Environmental Performance Agency. Their choreographic work has appeared at The Tank, BaX, SMUSH Gallery, The Dance Collective, Artefix NYC, and Green Space. Their written work has appeared in Isele Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, and Culturebot, among other places. They received a BA in English Literature and a BFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa. Alexis Robbins (she/her), a native of Wakefield, RI, graduated from Hofstra University with a B.A. in Dance and B.S. in Exercise Science. Currently based in New Haven, CT, Robbins is a choreographer, performer, teaching artist, musical collaborator, and improviser. As the Artistic Director of her project based company kamrDANCE, she has shown work at Triskelion Arts, Actors Fund Arts Center, Dixon Place, Center for Performance Research, Symphony Space, Arts on Site, AS220, SMUSH Gallery, the Transit Museum (Downtown Brooklyn), Whitneyville Cultural Commons, and many more, as well as created four dance films. She has current teaching affiliations with Neighborhood Music School and Rockwell Dance Center. Past and guest teaching affiliations include the Hartford Dance Collective, MiXt Co, Elm City Dance Collective, and as an adjunct professor at Hofstra University. Robbins has performed in CT as a featured soloist at the Ely Center for Contemporary Art, the Friday Pop Up Series on the New Haven Green, Kehler Liddell Gallery, and events by New Haven Jazz Underground, Hartford Jazz Society, Make Music Day, and Arts on Call (IFAI). She has been awarded the Artist Workforce Initiative Sponsorship from the New Haven Arts Council and the CT Office of the Arts for her community tap jams with live music, and commissions from Artspace New Haven (City Wide Open Studios 2019 and Open Source 2021) and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas (2020). Robbins currently serves on the Sandbox Advisory Board at the New Haven Arts Council where she is a passionate advocate for dance and marginalized artists. She hopes to continue to share her love for dance and music with communities in Connecticut and beyond. Taylor Zappone (she/her) is a dancer, choreographer, teaching artist and poet who has been based in Connecticut for 2 years. A Waterbury native, Taylor is thrilled to be back dancing and advocating for the arts in her home state. After receiving her BFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2017, she spent a year as a freelance dancer and choreographer in New York City. There she performed and presented some of her own work at several venues in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Since returning to Connecticut, Taylor has been lucky enough to work with the Judy Dworin Performance Project, Peter Kyle, and Rebecca Pappas. She is a Resident Artist with The Dance Collective.