A Healing/Shifting Ground

Embodiment Project in “Music of the Actualized Child” Photo by David Wilson

“Spare the rod, spoil the child” is one of the recurring lines in Nicole Klaymoon’s Music of the Actualized Child. Tracing back to biblical times, the expression has entered common language and fed an educational model that justifies corporal punishments in children. Spoken in the background of the piece by a chorus of performers, it becomes as pervasive as a nail stuck in the wheel of the collective unconscious. In a work that unveils how colonization, racism and puritanism have created social, economical and emotional structures that continue to fail youth –especially children of color- the line reminds viewers of one of the many ways child abuse has been normalized for a large part of recent history.

Music of the Actualized Child, which draws from filmmaker and racial justice educator Shakti Butler’s new documentary film Healing Justice and is presented at ODC this week, deals with many forms of child abuse through the recounting of narratives of domestic violence, physical abuse, incest and sexual abuse. In her work, Klaymoon embeds personal stories of trauma -recounted through spoken text and movement- within contextual accounts of institutional racism and trauma research. The text is both her creation as well as quoted from a number of activists, researchers and clinicians. “In the footsteps of Anna Deveare Smith, I use Documentary Theater as a tool to uphold oral tradition as a form of research, cultural preservation, and a megaphone for formidable voices who have been silenced by white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy,” Klaymoon shared in a recent conversation. Providing a larger framework to the personal testimonies, these voices connect the structural to the personal, showing how systemic inequities trickle down to the family unit and the individual. By fracturing the linear narrative, Klaymoon also reveals the complexity and fragmentation of identity.

Drawn from Butler’s film Cracking the Codes, a monologue by educator and author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome Dr. Joy DeGruy looks at how the construction of the self is severely compromised when reflected through a systemic racist lens. This section of the piece illuminates how racial profiling can be traced back to kindergarten, and points to the inescapability of that system, which feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. Dr. Joy DeGruy’s monologue echoes the experience that author Ta-Nehisi Coates recounts in Between the World and Me: “The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools? Algebra, Biology and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines, copying the directions legibly, memorizing theorems extracted from the world they were created to represent.”

The piece also includes a monologue from an interview with James Bell, Founder and President of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, whose mission is to build equity in the administration of justice, and create policy change around the school-to-prison pipeline. “He talks about structural racism as a brick wall that has been built for over three hundred years,” Klaymoon summarized. “It’s institutionalized, so the process of dismantling the bricks is incredibly challenging because our system is designed to keep us from seeing it.”

Klaymoon weaves text and movement intuitively and is driven by a question: “How does dance function to provide the narrative of the unseen world, the narrative of the body of the person telling the story? Maybe the movement symbolizes memory, maybe it indicates the split from our essential self, maybe it symbolizes the inner critic. Dance can express the nuances and complexity of our emotional world. Coupled with language it can convey a whole other spectrum of feeling that lives in the body.” In the piece, movement plays a variety of roles, at times illustrating a monologue; at times offering a reprieve from the intensity of images surfacing in the spoken words; at times expanding them beyond the unspeakable.

Klaymoon credits her conversations and collaboration with Butler as one of the founding elements of Music of the Actualized Child. In their work together since 2015, Butler and Klaymoon have investigated how to “map grief” in the body — “a specific approach to dance-making, one that emphasizes the sacred practice of giving voice to the traumas subsisting in the body in an artfully exquisite way in the context of community,” Klaymoon explained. That research informed Klaymoon’s creative process.

When she began Ancient Children (the first version of Music of the Actualized Child, which was presented at the Transform festival at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) Butler was still working on her documentary Healing Justice and sharing excerpts with the Bay Area choreographer. Healing Justice considers the history of violence that has led to the current justice system and addresses the need for a comprehensive criminal justice reform. The film also states the importance and capacity of healing through restorative justice practices. The documentary excerpts that Butler shared with Klaymoon included autobiographical narratives of trauma, which reminded Klaymoon, a sexual trauma survivor, of narratives spoken within the childhood trauma recovery groups she participates in. “It made me think that sharing personal stories about trauma through art is critical. If we want to break the cycle of generational trauma we need to break the silence. The task of art is to humanize such unyielding and complex systemic issues,” Klaymoon recounted.

What about the audience receiving these stories? “In traditional Eurocentric performances, the audience is asked to be a passive consumer. But when you are in the presence of a testimonial like that, you are asked to hold the space with [the performers] and you are pulled in a different way. You exist and we can’t do that without you, so that breaks the fourth wall.”

When selecting performers, Klaymoon favors rawness and emotional availability, as well as a shared ideology partnered with technique. The dancers are not necessarily trained in the same street dance style, so one of Klaymoon’s tasks is to create a shared language and an aesthetic quality in her company Embodiment Project. “Most ballet and modern dance companies have the luxury to take class in the morning as a company. Street dance classes and practice sessions in the Bay are underrepresented in most dance studios and classes are offered almost entirely after work hours. This is revealing as to how resources are allocated in the dance world. We have very few models of professional dancers who can make a livable wage from concert dance, and our local models are strictly ballet/modern dance companies. Unless you are a crew and train together, how can you create a sense of continuity?”

Klaymoon created most of the phrase work of Music of the Actualized Child using house, waacking, popping, hip-hop, and playing with the intersection of different genres, for example merging house with modern dance. “I try to keep it versatile in terms of the different street dance forms. House seems to be the one language we all share. I’m a free style street dance artist but I’ve also worked in modern dance, hip-hop theater and with spoken word, so I have a lot of entry points. My objective is to not have my method predictable.”

With her work, Klaymoon aims at challenging the binary between “the western concert dance frame and the ‘arts as activism’ frame. You’re either making community-based social justice work, or producing “classical” or “technical” art in fancy theaters, which are euphemisms for “Euro-centric” (in both narrative and form).” Klaymoon follows in the footsteps of her mentor, Rennie Harris, who was one of the first artists to reinterpret street dances for concert stages, and articulate vulnerable autobiographical narratives about trauma that challenge hip-hop’s commercial veneer. “More than entertaining, Embodiment Project engages audiences in themes many people want to avoid (and can if they are in a place of privilege),” Klaymoon added. “Movement has the capacity to convey complex embodiment of nuanced stories and help to heal trauma.”