Dance As Resistance

Image by Aron Altmark, Dancer: Gerald Casel

When I arrived at the rehearsal studio, GERALDCASELDANCE’s performers were getting ready to show Thirdperson, a piece that premieres at ODC Theater this week. Casel had prefaced my viewing of the work by saying that he was exploring the possibility of “throwing away what looks like a dance and working on something underneath,” resisting the readability of a familiar and normalized choreographic form.

In the beginning, the five dancers stood apart from each other in a row, facing the audience. Almost imperceptibly, they started to walk backwards, isolating a shoulder here, a hip there, and slowly morphed into different poses, passing through evanescent moments where their hands rested on their hips, elbows bent, in an affirmation of authority that quickly transformed into something else. The slow motion and unaffected movements of the dancers created a peculiar texture, somehow thick and viscous, from which the performers appeared to be continuously ungluing themselves. They looked as if they were peeling themselves away from the point of departure and the formality of the line that their five bodies created, thus challenging what a dance “looks like.”

Casel explained that the beginning scene was an improvised exploration of the head, shoulders and chest inspired by choreographer Susan Rethorst, that was layered with an investigation of one’s relationship to power: “When we practiced it, we thought about what it meant to pull something away — a diminishment of power. And then, when the dancers walk back [toward the audience] they are experiencing the opposite — a gaining of power.” The moment highlighted downstage, the space closest to viewers, as the hot spot, where power lies. What negotiations would need to take place in order for the performers to subvert the power of the viewers’ gaze, one that is loaded with inherited social and racial constructs?

Throughout his work, Casel underlines the systemic power structures that permeate the field of dance and the way the dancing body is both represented and perceived. He notably highlights how power and racial issues are deeply intertwined. In a recent essay following his participation in Hope Mohr’s Bridge Project’s Ten Artists Respond to Locus, Casel challenged the notion of a neutral body put forth by postmodernism: “One of the assumptions that postmodern formalism arouses is that any body has the potential to be read as neutral — that there is such a thing as a universally unmarked body. As a dancer and choreographer of color, my body cannot be perceived as pure. My brown body cannot be read the same way as a white body, particularly in a white cube.”

These considerations also make their way in Cover Your Mouth When You Smile, which will be presented at ODC this weekend as well. Cover Your Mouth is the second piece of Casel’s triptych about Asian and Asian American identity. The first piece, Splinters in Our Ankles, presented last year, was inspired by the Filipino folk dance Tinikling and brought forth issues of appropriation, cultural erasure and amnesia. In Cover Your Mouth, Casel collaborates with Seoul and Hong Kong based choreographer Na-ye Kim who was his student at New York University and who trained at the Royal Ballet. In this collaboration, they explore racial melancholia, the model minority myth, and mimicry in Asian and Asian-American cultures.

“In my response to Locus I purposefully chose Filipino bodies to underscore the representations that we can’t get away from. Even though we are not doing Asian or Asian American ideas in our dance, will we still be read as neutral? And the idea of never arriving at the expectation of the Western construct, (through the lens of) postmodern dance, creates a physical and emotional state that scholar David Eng describes as a sense of melancholy. We’ll never measure up to our white counterparts unless we do Asian dance.”

Casel has used colonization as a model to map the systemic power structures that pervade the dance world. In a conversation last year, he explained: “As a choreographer in the 21st century, I have come to thinking about choreography as a colonizing force. When we teach dances to other bodies than our own, we are asking them to adapt to an individual body or a style or a belief system that is not theirs. And there is always an undiscussed agreement that dancers will obey what the choreographer is giving.”

Casel not only looks at the way the dancing body can be subjected to colonization through movement but he also explores the power that language exerts on bodies. In Thirdperson, performer Kevin Lopez voices out: “Stand still for a moment.” Kristen Bell echoes: “She hears Kevin’s voice and wonders how to respond.” I first took Lopez’ vocal statement as a choreographic prompt — a dancer performing the traditional role of the choreographer and giving out instructions to others, imposing his creative imprint on his peers, while Bell’s response acknowledged the possibility of choice in acting on or against a choreographic suggestion. But for Casel, something else was at play in the verbal exchange: “Language [not just choreography] creates an imposition as well because it has so much power. I am asking performers to describe what they are doing in the third person to invoke a meta narrative. To me that’s what it’s about. How do I take it from myself and make it for us, more objectively? Can we do that in movement? I think we can. Thinking about choreography as an object makes it easier to observe and I can feel myself detaching from it.”

A few weeks prior, Casel had participated in wrecking sessions and I wondered if they provided him with a platform for distancing himself from the work and resisting familiarity. Wrecking is the model that Rethorst first developed in 1995 to re-imagine dance and provide an opportunity for the choices of other makers to work their way into one’s creative process. Last October, Casel had his work wrecked by choreographers Amy Seiwert, Kimiko Guthrie and Christian Burns. “I noticed all of them had a sense of urgency because they had a time limit, less than an hour to come up with something and make it ‘successful,’ which is the thing that I am resisting,” Casel commented. “It was nice to step back and look at how the process lead to product. From grant writing to announcing your press release, how are we being judged by the work?”

Memory and history –how history is manipulated and created, and by whom- are also running themes in Casel’s work. The upcoming shows at ODC will give Casel the opportunity to dive into his own creative history by revisiting Fluster, a male trio he choreographed in 2010 with two of his former students, Nicholas Strafaccia, and Samuel von Wentz, just before they joined the Trisha Brown Dance Company. In the piece, Casel uses the fugue — “the hardest structure that we can think about in terms of choreographing” — to explore states of agitation and confusion. Casel argues that “in order to change behavior, you have to change thinking and feeling. The ultimate goal is to prevent stereotypes from perpetuating.”