This Monday night, students from “DANC374: Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty,” taught by Visiting Assistant Professors of Dance Liz Lerman and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, will gather in Beckham Hall for their “Performative Teach-In,” a set of dance and multimedia performances that encompass the course’s vision of addressing issues of poverty and personal experience through dance and movement. The Argus sat down with three students, Sara Feldman ’17, Min Suh ’15, who is also the course assistant for the class, and Chelsea Tweneboah ’15, to speak about the event, the structure of the course, and the benefits of dance as a philosophical and artistic tool.
“Blood, Muscle and Bone: A Performative Teach-In” will take place in Beckham Hall from 7-11 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 11.
The Argus: Could you explain a little bit about how the performance will work Monday night?
Min Suh: During the four hours, the doors of Beckham will be opening every 30 minutes to let people come in and go as they want, so people don’t stay for the whole four hours. It’s going to be very interactive with the audience, and we’re hoping to show them what the course is about, but also to get the audience’s perspectives on what we’ve been learning and dealing with. There’s going to be dancing, stuff on the screen like videos. We’re working on getting stuff together but that’s the idea…interdisciplinary…
Sara Feldman: Different media.
MS: Yeah, it’ll be fun.
A: You were talking about how you’re going to express what you’ve been learning in the course. How has the course been structured? I know it’s a dance class, but with an unconventional approach?
SF: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a dance class. There are dancers and non-dancers in the class, and it is being taught by two professional choreographers, but with guest professors as well that come from Wesleyan and some from other schools that have been teaching us about poverty, mostly in the U.S. and through different media. So poverty and politics, poverty and economics, poverty and race, and we’ve been taking their presentations and their knowledge and processing it through dance, but also through spoken word, through song, comedy, through just movement and tying in our own experiences with that.
MS: Yeah, I think that last part is especially important, like sort of connecting all the statistics, numbers and articles, to relate it to our real lives, to what it actually means to our daily doings.
SF: Not just individually but as a group, because we all come from different perspectives, but we’re all working together to create what we will perform.
A: So is it one dance [performance], or…
SF: No, it’s a lot of different things. There’s different dances, there’s different pieces of spoken word, there’s some singing, some PowerPoint presentations, some comedy, and it’s just going to be a lot of different things.
A: So, as you were saying before, the word “dance” is almost a misnomer. It’s more of a multimedia approach to this topic.
MS, SF, Chelsea Tweneboah: Yeah, that makes sense.
SF: It’s more dancing than anything else, and more movement than anything else.
MS: The course is cross-listed between Dance, [African American Studies], and American Studies, so that might give you an idea of how…
SF: And the title of the course also is [“Blood, Muscle and Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty.”] So “Blood, Muscle and Bone,” in that we’re talking about what are those three things in terms of our bodies and how we move our bodies.
CT: And then “Anatomy of Wealth,” how different aspects of how our bodies affect those things.
MS: Yeah, a part of the class that I really enjoyed that you guys were reminding me of is how we take this huge, huge issue—you know, I came into class being super overwhelmed, because it’s such a big part of our lives, but it’s so vague and big that we often don’t know how to talk about it. I mean, I don’t. But then we brought it into the studio and we explored the ideas of our bodies, we moved, and we also talked about how childhood experiences affect our bodies very physically. That was very helpful for me.
A: How do you see movement in general being the ideal way to address these topics and to express what you want to say in your performance?
SF: I think in this case, a part of it is being an alternative method of communication to a traditional class where you would have reading and writing and talking, and in this class, we’re saying you know, there’s another way of going about this.
MS: Just to briefly add, as a part of an assignment for this class, we had to do research on protests that happened on Wesleyan’s campus, and the protest I researched was about the Dance Department. Basically in 1999, 1998-ish…they did a protest, but with dancing. They went into the President, I think it was President Bennett at the time…they went into his office on like a Friday afternoon, and these dance majors and these people who got together danced, and apparently that was super powerful, and it’s quoted all over The Argus….that’s how I read about it. Basically, sometimes movement can be really powerful.
CT: I think that goes off of “actions speak louder than words;” sometimes there’s some things that you can’t really express yourself when you say it, but when you move and take action with your body, it has a much more powerful feel than that.
SF: And then another one I think is movement as universal language. In our class, there’s a lot of people who speak different languages and come from different places, but we can all move together. We can move individually…
CT: And collectively.
SF: And collectively, and we can interpret one another’s movement.
MS: And moving together definitely made all of us closer.
CT: Definitely. Four to seven hours a day? Definitely.
A: Are there any performances that the three of you are involved in that have spoken to you or that you’re really proud to show on Monday?
SF: You mean any parts that we’ve done so far?
A: Yeah, because it’s a bunch of different parts of this larger whole, is there any part of it that really speaks to you?
SF: We’re all in this class because we care about this, and so they’re powerful to us, and we want these things to be equally powerful to the audience. And we want people to care and we want people to want to do something about this issue that we’re talking about, which is poverty, usually in the U.S., and why it exists and how it exists, and that’s one of our main challenges in the class, was to take the information that we have and through movement and through these other media that we’re talking about to make it really powerful. To me what’s been really powerful are the statistics, just the numbers, are astounding. Percentages of people who own certain amounts of wealth versus percentages of people in poverty in the U.S. is really impressive in a bad way.
MS: And we also in class did this thing that Liz [Lerman] called asset mapping, and basically we’re incorporating all the different talents and capabilities that students have and intermingl[ing] that with our discussion. A performance I’m in is comparing the role of a doula, who is a person who helps with pregan[cy] or women going through abortions during that process. So basically a student in our class brought an asset of being a doula into the class, and now we’re using that for our performance as a tool to explore and describe what we’re trying to do with this issue of wealth disparity, how to go about creating a movement, how to support a movement.
CT: We’re silent for most of [my performance], but this is the part where we describe our projects, so we had a project, it was “design your own museum exhibit with the goal of teaching people about inequality in America based on wealth.” So for me, I’m talking about a classroom in which we give everybody black and white paper, and then you give them the same color crayon, so if you give people black paper, you give them a black crayon, if you give them white paper, you give them a white crayon, and using that hopefully to teach people about the unfairness of [in]equality and how that puts people at a disadvantage.
A: It seems like you’re really involved in engaging the audience; it’s not just a stage/audience performance. What are the benefits of really engaging with the audience in a meaningful way?
CT: I feel like people learn more when they do it themselves; it’s one thing to talk at people, but to have people experience it, it’s equal to a classroom; someone can tell you about something, but you’ll never really know what it feels like until you are in that situation by yourself, so having an interactive medium and show will in some sense make it real to our audience, instead of being like, “Come and sit down, listen to us,” they watch us perform.
A: What has the process of building these performances been like for the past two months? Has it been one project over two months, or have they come together at different times?
SF: Well, the way our class is structured is such that it’s only full-day workshops. We had three days over fall break, two days two weekends ago, and we have two days this coming weekend, so it’s the full day but outside of that we’ve done our research projects but we haven’t met as a class. So these have all come together mostly during these full days, but they’ve gone through a lot of development, it’s not like we just got it together and said it’s done. When we create something, whether it’s a comedy or a dance, what happens is the group of people perform it for the rest of us, and then we ask questions about it, we discuss it, we suggest ways it could be more powerful or things to add or things to take away, and we sleep on it and we do it again and again and again to really bring it to the essence of what it’s supposed to be.
A: And how has your performance changed over time?
CT: I originally thought it was just going to be a poem, but instead of speaking it, I’m kind of acting it out. When I was writing my paper, I thought that I was going to write it and they would choose from a pool of exhibits, or one of the exhibits would be handing the audience paper, but we talked about it and now I’m just performing it in a symbolic way.
A (to MS and SF): How about you guys? How have your performances shifted over time?
SF: It’s hard, because it’s not like we each just have one thing; we’re all involved in a lot of different little pieces. But I’ll take for example, this technique called “walk-and-talk,” so when one of the choreographers, Liz, will give us a prompt related to one of the projects we’ve worked on or one of the presentations that we learned about poverty and say, “I want you to pace across the room, one time, two times, and talk about this prompt.” And then we’ll do that, and she’ll say, “Do it again, but you only have half as long.” And then again and again to make it shorter and shorter so that we distill it down to what’s the most powerful part of what we’re trying to say. And then we’ll take that sentence and we’ll do a different movement sequence or a movement exercise and we’ll use that sentence, or we’ll take the words in that sentence and make moves that go along to those words.
In that way, it’s not just like you’re saying something, and then that’s the performance, it’s like you say something, and then you take those words and do something with them, and you take those movements and you teach them to someone else, and then they interpret them and they do something else with them. So we keep on taking the material and reusing it.
A: How have the two choreographers in the course been involved in shaping these performances and the way you’ve learned?
MS: Working with Liz and Jawole, I think that for most students in the class, this has been a really great experience, at least for me. And part of the reason is that they’re so responsive. In the beginning of the semester, when we first talked about how the class would go, they had their plans and they had a temporary syllabus written out, but then as they came in to class and saw what different students were bringing in, they were super flexible about changing things and being very accommodating to us, like changing assignments to better fit how our performance is going, and they would give us a structure and let us have the freedom to be as creative as we can be in that structure, and I think that’s worked really well.
SF: They’ve been good about giving us prompts, letting us create, and then taking what we’ve done and organizing it into something that we can perform.
A: How does this approach to dance differ from how you’ve approached it in the past?
SF: I have to admit when I first signed up for the class I didn’t know what [the choreographers] meant by dance as research. But what I’ve found is that when we have these presentations about poverty or we take our personal experience or our research about the protests or whatever, the material that we have, and we translate it into dance in one of several ways including taking each word and making up a movement for each word, or making up a sequence of movements about the general idea, that forces us to ask questions that [we] wouldn’t think to otherwise ask.
If I intuitively do a certain movement to a certain word, then Liz or Jawole will say, “Well, why did you do that?” And I don’t know why I did that, and then I have to think about it and say, “What caused me to do that movement based on that material?” Was it something else that I associated with it that I didn’t think about before, or was it something that’s happened to me that I didn’t realize, and then in that way we come to these new conclusions that we wouldn’t have otherwise come to.
This interview was edited for length.