Art as a Catalyst for Social Change | Buzz Blog

Art as a Catalyst for Social Change

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Artists, psychologists and activists alike came together with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company on Thursday to discuss the role of art in social issues.--- 

This fall, Ririe-Woodbury is set to perform "Duet," a piece choreographed by Bill T. Jones of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in New York City. While Jones is known for communicating about societal issues in his work, "Duet" reverts to pure movement, and nothing more.

According to Leah Cox, dancer and Education Director for the company, "Duet" is derived from a particularly controversial piece in Jones's history.

"[Duet] came out of and from behind a piece called 'Still/Here,'" Cox said. "It was a piece that Bill felt compelled to choreograph when his long-time partner Arnie Zane passed away."

Zane died of AIDS in 1988. 

"Still/Here" is an exploration of terminal illness as a whole, rather than an observation on AIDS as many assumed, Cox said. As a result, when it debuted, it stirred more heat than Jones intended. While it received a good review from the New York Times, critics such as the renowned Arlene Croce refused to even watch the piece, calling it "victim art." Later, a reverend would catch wind of "Still/Here" and follow the company as it toured to protest the performance without having seen the piece, because he thought it "condoned a gay and homosexual lifestyle," according to Cox. 

After sparking such controversy, Cox said that "Bill returned to the basement" to retreat to an exploration of movement at its purest; that is, movement, performance without social commentary. Thus, "Duet" was created.

Last night, Ririe-Woodbury dancers Caine Keenan, Betsy Kelley, Jo Blake and newest members Tara McArthur and Barbie Powers performed previews of "Duet," which will be featured in the company's performance of "Configurations" in September. 

The choreography featured great attention to detail, with focus on even every last finger. The intricate movement, if taken apart, would not be normal to the body, but the way one move catalyzed another gave the dance a natural flow overall. The difference between linear and circular patterns throughout the body were emphasized, making clear the choreography is an analysis of what the body is capable of.

Set to music such as foreign chanting and something baroque-like, the choreography seemed to look at how two bodies can move together, how two body parts can work together and how movement works with movement. The dancers seemed emotionally detached from one another, yet at the same time held such a strong connection; a connection, perhaps, rooted not in their emotional beings but in their physical beings. The duet did not tell a story between two people; it showed a relationship of movement against movement.

As the first variation of "Duet" came to a close, two other dancers came on to show the next variation, featuring the same movement set to new music.

Cox explained that usually, the duet is performed by the same cast of dancers, but that this showing would rotate through the dancers. Jones, she said, was focused on showing and reflecting the world in his work. He sought to include dancers of all colors in his pieces and observe how a piece, such as "Duet," would change when it was done by two males, two females or a male and a female. This variation of "Duet," was set a few years after the original choreography was performed and the music, being louder, faster and more confrontational changed the tone of the piece from something that was just movement to something that did seem to have a message.

A fusion of rock music and vocals that made statements such as "when God says something he can't take it back" changed the pace of the piece. In the first showing, the music worked to supplement the choreography as background music. This time, it became part of the movement; as a whole, it seemed to have a story to tell.

The last variation began in silence, bringing the audience a sense of raw reality, as if the soundtrack was the dancers' breathing and the impact of feet against floor. Soon after, clippings from interviews and voice recordings filled in as the music. When it first began, it seemed entirely nonsensical; voices said things like, "wouldn't you say what we are dependent upon is reality?" Two different voices went back and forth, and though they came from different recordings, seemed to have a conversation - "call it culture, or whatever" was followed by "okay, God bless you."

I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but as I listened to the voices, I began to feel a sense of loss and a weight on my chest. Rarely do I focus more on the soundtrack than I do on the piece, but this time I was caught up in the words. Like the repetition of movement on stage, the words were repeated, with more added on each time so that "the 24th of February" transitioned to "the 24th of February was his" and became "the 24th of February was his birthday." (And in case you were wondering - the 24th of February is my birthday, too.)

Towards the end, the two speakers were saying long phrases rather than the short clippings we were introduced to in the beginning. "But if you know nothing, how can you protect yourself? That's what I believe happened to him. That's how he lost his life," one speaker said while the other said, "What you're actually interested in is what superimposes what." Finally, as the duet closed, the phrase, "no one could hear each other," was repeated over and over - and to me, this spoke to the "conversation" that didn't make sense - the "conversation" where nobody was listening to each other, or perhaps simply could not hear one another.

As the preview ended, four panelists went on stage to answer questions posed by Ken Verdoia of KUED-TV. The panelists included Cox, Executive Director of the AIDS Foundation Stan Penfold, clinical psychologist David Huebner and author Emma Lou Thayne. 

In response to a question concerning the problems an artists faces when he or she treads into the social and political world, Cox said that according to Jones, "there's no reason to make art if it's not engaging all of society." What's difficult, she said, is creating a work and putting it out as its own thing - it might be one thing to the artist, but it can be something else to other people who may be enlightened, but who also may become enraged. It's important, Cox said, to help people realize that such a response is the point of the work: to insight.

According to Huebner, art is an opportunity to expose people to new ideas, but that there is tension between being an artist and being an agent of social change. Often, he said, even if an artist doesn't mean to be that agent, he or she may have that affect anyway because "there is something in art that makes us better people."

Sometimes, Cox added, it's the audience's vulnerability that may cause them to react to art.

"As audience members we expect certain things; perhaps to be removed from reality," Cox said, adding that the expectation to lose that reality is what makes people vulnerable. "Bill actually brings that reality, and people may not like it."

Verdoia then asked about the "danger" that when an artist tries to catalyze change it is pushed away and rejected by those who are against change, or those who claim that art should stick to art and not reach into issues in society or in politics.

Thayne argued that art does something other things can't do.

"What art does is expand us," she said.

According to Penfold, art challenges people to think differently and to broaden not just political or social views, but one's view of the world. Those who claim that art should leave social issues alone, he said, are those who haven't seen the arts.

Overall, Cox said, it's important that people allow art to affect them.

"People need to let art exercise creativity. It's about exploring and experiencing our sense of humanity. There's this sense of an artist versus a non-artist, but art should affect everybody to create," Cox said. "Just be human and respond." 

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