The Minstrel Show Revisited Is Difficult…

October 19, 2015
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The Minstrel Show Revisited is difficult…

It is difficult because it complicates our thinking

It is difficult because it is disruptive

It is difficult because it confronts

It is difficult because it makes us race-conscious in a way that is not comfortable or easy

It is difficult because it represents conflict, chaos and potential danger

It is difficult because it hurts and we feel the pain

It is difficult because the issue of race in America will not go away

It is difficult because our responses reveal how ‘tinny’, limited and narrowed by political correctness our conversations about and around race are

It is difficult because it does not falsely uplift and we do not feel good

It is difficult because it provokes

It is difficult because it asks us to be brave and courageous

It is difficult because it asks black people and white people to sit in the same room when race is the issue

It is difficult because race and negative representation is thrust and thrown in our faces

It is difficult because we have to acknowledge the racists legacies of our past

It is difficult because we are asked to stare into the face of the minstrel “black-face” mask and it stares back at us

It is difficult because we are asked to face representations that horrify us but are part of our culture and history

It is difficult because we become aware of how we have internalized racism

It is difficult because our responses are complex/complicated and we want/wish them to be simple reactions, easily categorized

It is difficult because we feel guilt, shame, anger, surprise, complicit, fear, astonishment, remorse, sadness, and are numb all in the same breath

It is difficult because we are taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride

It is difficult because we laugh

It is difficult because we see and hear others laughing

It is difficult because we are bombarded by images and sounds that unnerve and unsettle us

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that what we thought or hoped was finished, dead and gone, is alive and well

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that at this point in time, there is no post-racial America and never was

It is difficult because it seems to ‘re-inscribe’ the language of racism that it purports to want to erase

It is difficult because we are reminded that history is painful, we can hardly bear it and want to rewrite it, or wish it weren’t so, just so we can feel better

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that we see color and race

It is difficult because in spite of what one says, none of us are color-blind

It is difficult because sitting in the darkened theater we are aware of all the unfiltered thoughts regarding race running through ours mind – and maybe others know what we are thinking

It is difficult because it raises questions and provides no answers

It is difficult because we hate every minute of how we feel when we watch it yet watch it anyway

It is difficult because we are sick and tired of the past and wonder why we can’t just “move on” or just “get over it”

It is difficult because in it the past and present collide and often look the same

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Photo Credit: Nate Watters, 2014

An Update to “The Departure”

July 22, 2015
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This is the time of year when one performance season is transitioning to the next. It is also a time that Company dancers depart for new or just different lives. Often during this time I find myself reflecting back on the events of the past season, the highs and the lows, but also on my relationship with the dancers, in particular those that have decided to leave.

 In 2010 a Company dancer departed suddenly mid-season. It was a dancer that I was very fond of, not only as an artist but also as a person. In March of 2011, I wrote a blog about my thoughts and feelings regarding dancers departing the Company. This was the first time I had ever expressed them publicly (in writing) and maybe the first time I had ever thought them through so thoroughly. Since that time, from time to time, I re-read what I wrote then (usually during this transition time) and am often surprised that those thoughts still seem true and relevant. This year that posting seems to resonate more than usual. It is re-posted here, with some slight edits, and dedicated with love to all the former dancers of Spectrum Dance Theater who have moved on to the next chapter of their lives.

The Departure
March 29, 2011

One of the most difficult and challenging aspects of my job as artistic director is watching dancers leave. I almost always feel sad (and abandoned), sometimes hurt, and at times angry. Occasionally, I have felt betrayed or some combination of all of the above.
The abandonment feeling is my issue and has nothing to do with the dancer. On the other hand, the sadness means that the dancer is leaving with grace and my affection for them is still intact. There is a degree of dignity in their departure. My sadness being an indicator that I care about them, that we (well at least I) have connected. It is a deeply felt loss to lose someone that I not only have affection for, but with whom I won’t have the pleasure, joy, and challenges of almost daily creative interaction. It is a grateful sadness. The hurt, angry, and betrayal, however, is more complicated.

Usually when I have one of those responses it means that the decision of the dancer to leave and how they have chosen to do it has at best had some ‘awkwardness’ to it. These might include a range of things such as unfortunate statements – “there is nothing for me to get at Spectrum”; to innocuous one -“I don’t like Seattle and can’t live here”; to ones that are real pressing issues for the dancer – “it’s not enough money”. At other times these statements/reasons will demonize the organization, other company dancers and often me. I have to consider whether some of this ‘awkwardness’ can be attributed to age or inexperience in how to gracefully end a work relationship without burning bridges. Or is it mean-spiritedness, justification, or some unspoken expectations that the dancer had of Spectrum or me that were not met? The latter is I believe the most common – undeclared expectations not met or assumed promises unfulfilled. Rarely, I believe, is it plain mean-spiritedness (though there are couple of examples I can think of where I believe I misjudged character and the dancer was not the person I thought them to be).

One would think after all the years of doing this job that I would ‘get it’ by now:
1) Nothing lasts forever, 2) There is always change, and 3) Dancers leave companies. My head knows all of this but my heart is another matter.
Simply, I hate it when dancers in my company leave. My emotions take over and I am not reasonable – I am in a profound state of upsetness. I feel they don’t get my contribution to them or even who I really am. How could they do this to me? I gave them everything I had. I feel unappreciated, unacknowledged, unvalued and left alone (that’s the abandonment part). I feel sorry for myself. I sit on the ‘pity pot’. I wallow in the loss and in thoughts of loss. “What am I to do without them?” I think. “How can I go on?” I am inconsolable.

My response might seem overwrought and dramatic but beneath the histrionics the feelings are real and authentic. I guess it is my form of grieving. The departure of the dancer, the leaving, I experience as a kind of death. In some ways I go through all five stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is the end of a great and wonderful ‘something’, of a collection of moments that can never be recaptured, lost in time and trapped in memory. I am reminded of the fragility of existence. Like a dousing with a bucket of cold water in the middle of winter, a slap in the face, I recognize at the moment of the dancer’s departure that my dances/choreographies as created with and performed by this particular configuration, this group of unique and singular people, will never happen exactly the same way again. Dance, like life, is ephemeral, the moments brief and elusive… There is an adage that says, “Wear life like a loose garment”. I like that – but it is so hard to do.

On Carmina Burana

March 10, 2014
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In the latter part of the 20th Century a few stage directors, notable Peter Sellars, began to look at the cantata as potential theatrical material. By the beginning of this century we began to see these staged cantata pop up on various stages across the US and Europe. The Sellars’ 2001 staging of Bach’s Cantatas nos. BWV 199 (Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut) and BWV 82 (Ich habe genug) with the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson made a convincing case for staging what many considered ‘un-dramatic’ musical works. What Sellars sought in his staging was to create an intimate, personal, and spiritual experience for those that encountered this particular work. Even if one were to concede to the un-dramatic nature of the Bach pieces, their musical value, and how they speak to a personal relationship with God, their spirituality, is unquestionable.

On the other hand, the ever-popular 1935 Carmina Burana from composer Carl Orff, subtitled a scenic cantata, was intended to be staged (though often it is now performed in concert form as a standard cantata). In addition, while drawing its text from poems and song found at the monastery at Benediktbeuern it is anything but religious or spiritual. Its subject matter – mortality and fate; nature; and tender, explicit, and highly sensual love – places it directly in the center of the secular and with its bombastic and hyperbolic score it is far removed from the intimate.

In 1997 I staged and choreographed Carmina Burana as a large-scale danced musical drama, a spectacle, for New York City Opera. The production was not only in keeping with the spirit of the music but also with Orff’s stated intentions. Orff developed a dramatic concept he called ‘Theatrum Mundi’ in which music, movement, and speech were inseparable. In this artistic formula every musical moment was to be connected with an action on stage. As such, Carmina was intended as a staged work involving dance, choreography, visual design and other stage action.

During the restaging two years later, however, I began to have other thoughts about the work especially in light of the fact that the supposed authors of the text were Goliards, defrocked monks. I began to wonder what circumstances might have led to these monks disillusionment and their subsequent descent into hedonism and debauchery. As I combed the text, I believed it gave indications of or suggested possible reasons. In order to explore this new way of thinking it seemed to me that the work needed to be stripped of all it spectacle and bombast, reduce the size of the chorus, use the two piano version of the score, focus in on and centralize the role of the baritone as a monk who becomes a Goliard. The simple concept that governs this production is – a righteous man’s crisis of faith that takes him on a journey through the darkness of his soul and the exploitation of his flesh and finally back to a place of personal enlightenment and a renewed faith in the goodness of man, and perhaps even God’s grace.


Carmina Burana runs March 28th & 29th at Spectrum Dance Theater’s Studio. Purchase tickets here.