Do You See Me

Risa Jaroslow’s “At Your Service” . Photo by Robbie Sweeney

In a recent public letter, the National Domestic Workers Alliance celebrated the women of Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film Roma, especially the main character housekeeper Cleo, played by Indigenous and first time actress Yalitza Aparicio. Unremittingly laboring, cleaning and helping raise the four children of a middle class family in the Mexico of the 1970s with constant kindness and self-effacement, Cleo suffers the physical hardship of her manual labor and the occasional bursts of verbal abuse from her employers. In the letter, taking Cleo’s narrative as an example, the National Domestic Workers Alliance demanded work protection and rights, arguing that “[domestic] work is valuable, but it is not valued.”

A similar message ran through choreographer Risa Jaroslow’s piece At Your Service, presented at ODC Theater last weekend. By casting light on compelling stories of daily dedication and bravery, the dance emphasized the substantial value that service workers provide daily to families, communities and the larger society. At the onset of the piece, audience members were greeted by performers who had taken the role of servers: wearing aprons, five dancers (Emily Daly, Sydney Franz, Anna Greenberg, Kevin Lopez, Scott Marlowe) walked around offering glasses of water on trays. After the lights went out, they performed a section in which their gestures recalled the repetitive tasks of workers in the food service industry. Soon after, the dancers would catch a peer falling backward or jumping in their arms as the recorded voice of one of the performers shared moments of his day job as a customer support for a telephone company. He recalled helping a woman who had recently lost her husband and shared how both were crying at the end of their encounter. He had not only provided a mere service but also offered compassion and support to a grieving woman, in a moment that highlighted their shared humanity and the momentary collapse of the hierarchical structures of their different roles.

The next monologue was delivered by Derek Boyd, a high school math teacher in Oakland, who shared his love of teaching mathematics as well as the daily demands of a job that is underpaid. His story offered a window into the demands of fellow Oakland teachers who went on strike that same day, calling for smaller class sizes, additional resources for students and an increase in living wage to match the rise of Bay Area’s cost of living (Teacher Unions have since reached an agreement with district officials). As Boyd delivered his monologue, the cast of core dancers, sitting on movable chairs, assumed the position of students following a lecture, at times called upon by their teacher.

The piece also addressed the gender inequalities, power struggles and sexual harassment that are common in service jobs: a female dancer entered the stage on all fours as a male dancer stood with his feet glued to the back of her toes. Each time she motioned forward, he advanced accordingly. In another section, the three female core dancers were joined by an additional group of female dancers (Suzanne Beahrs, Sarah G Chenoweth, Rebecca Morris, Robin Nasatir, Piper Thomasson, Korea Venters) who performed as the lyrics portrayed male customers pressuring waitresses to give them their phone number in exchange of tips. In the last section, the five core dancers each took the stage individually to perform a solo, accompanied by the singing chorus “Do you see me?” a plea to the viewer to look at the individual beyond the person serving them.

Bay Area songwriter Amy X Neuburg, standing downstage right in a jean jumper suit, was a powerful vocal anchor throughout the show. Her songs — alternatively playful, sharp-witted, funny, moving- added layer and substance to the narratives performed on stage. Jaroslow herself joined the composer in a duet where she tackled the uneven balance between serving one’s family and creating one’s art. The Bay Area choreographer recalled being turned away, years ago, from a job as a dancer simply because she was a new mother, echoing conversations shared by the SEAM (Support and Elevate Artist Mothers) choreographers. In her response, Neuburg evoked the difficulty of attending to the needs of aging parents while finding time to write songs and questioned the worth of art if it comes at the expense of taking care of loved ones.

Jaroslow has a knack for choosing individuals whose stories of service resonate in their extraordinary humanity. Fundraising for Social Change author Kim Klein, hospice nurse Carolyn Marlowe, firefighter Anita Paratley, former nurse-midwife Arisika Razak and veteran of the U.S. Navy Emma Tookey each took the stage alternatively to deliver a compelling personal story of courage, dedication and love. Some of them first-time performers, they communicated their experience in a way that magnified and sustained the dance in a powerful manner.