Reshaping Space Through Choreographic Intervention: An Interview with Rebecca Chaleff

GERALDCASELDANCE. Photo by Anja Hitzenberger
The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality than has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture.
José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Politics of Performance, 1999

With Splinters in Our Ankles, the first piece of a trilogy that premiered in 2015, Bay Area choreographer Gerald Casel’s work took a political turn. The trilogy, which includes Cover Your Mouth When You Smile and Not About Race Dance, explores choreography and dance history through the lens of postcolonial and critical race theory. A preview of Gerald Casel’s Not About Race Dance, preceded by Cover Your Mouth When You Smile, opens at ODC Theater this week.

Not About Race Dance references New York-based choreographer Neil Greenberg’s iconic Not-About-AIDS-Dance. Greenberg’s piece was created in 1994 in response to the loss of his brother and several friends from AIDS. In the work, Greenberg discloses personal information about the dancers and himself through text. In Not About Race Dance, Casel revisits this process, yet also distances himself from it to point to the hierarchical structures and exclusion systems inherent to postmodern choreography and dance presentation.

Rebecca Chaleff, who has performed with Casel since 2013 and is currently a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Dance Department at UC Riverside, worked as a dramaturge for Not About Race Dance. Her book manuscript analyzes the racial and sexual politics of reproduction enacted through 21st century US American dance transmission and legacy projects. Chaleff and I talked about her work as a dramaturge and how Not About Race Dance attempts to reshape the space for the bodies and voices that have been historically excluded from it.

Marie Tollon: What did your research for Not About Race Dance entail?

Rebecca Chaleff: It was my job to talk with Gerald about what theoretical interventions he wanted the dance to make and what I could bring in from my academic background that would help us discuss those topics with the dancers, musicians and everyone involved. I was bringing in material at the intersection of performance and critical race theory. For example, one day we talked about what it means to be critical of whiteness, how whiteness has been described in the academy, and examples of how critical whiteness studies have informed conversations with dance studies. We talked about how race really informs the way that dance is structured and the way that bodies move and occupy space, both in the studio and in our every day lives, and how those moments intersect.

We also spoke a lot about José Muñoz’ Disidentifications, which is a significant cornerstone for the dance because we are trying to find a place to work through choreographic structures that have historically excluded people of color and we’re trying to work through those devices as a way of pointing to historical and contemporary forms of exclusion. So we’re thinking about how we disidentify with these dance histories as well as with the choreographic structures that have persisted over time and that have shaped dance space and social space and also defined the bodies inside (and outside) of that. How can we use these structures to redefine the ways that bodies occupy them?

Then there was just historical work about Neil Greenberg’s piece and the moment when it premiered, in contrast with Bill T. Jones’ Still / Here. I offered an analysis of Not-About-AIDS-Dance in terms of what we might want to point to, take from it, or critique. It was a pretty broad range of material that I brought in but it seemed to all intersect around how space for dance can be reshaped through choreographic intervention.

MT: Not About Race Dance also references Trisha Brown’s Locus. Did your research focus on that piece as well?

RC: I didn’t give any specific presentation on Locus because Gerald, Arletta [Anderson] and Karla [Quintero] had already learned Locus and had worked with Diane Madden through the Bridge Project in 2016. That’s when a lot of these conversations started happening, so I felt there was an understanding of how that piece was working within our process. But I’ve done a lot of research on Locus, and when I entered the conversation, I was able to contribute and complicate certain assumptions around it. We talked about it a lot when we talked about disidentification because it’s an example of a really clear choreographic structure where the space of the choreography — this idea of the cube — is literally activated by the body that creates it. It’s the white body activating the white cube creating this white space for dance, so how do we disidentify with that structure to create space for different bodies?

MT: In Not About Race Dance, there are several markers of the year 1994, including music created that year. The piece also both references Brown’s 1975 solo and speaks of the current times. How did you navigate straddling those different times?

RC: We talked about the cross temporality of the dance to draw attention to the durability of these social formations and how they continue to influence dance construction and dance making and the questions that dance addresses overtime. Even in these different times, when race was not necessarily the question being addressed, it is still a question that we have looking back at it. So there is a sort of circularity bringing these histories of postmodernism together through this central critique.

MT: What parts of the Greenberg’s piece did you choose to reference and what are the ones you chose to distance yourself from?

RC: There are certain structural parts of the dance that we are referencing by the way we are using text, as a way of drawing attention to specific elements of the piece. This is something we are drawing from Greenberg, especially the use of the supertext. But one thing that we are challenging in the piece is the way that Greenberg’s voice was the only one represented, even when other dancers were being ‘spoken about’ or ‘written about.’ It was always assumed that the supertext was in Greenberg’s voice, which both presupposed and formed an authorial hierarchy in the dance. We were interested in troubling this hierarchy of who has a voice in the piece because Gerald’s process is very collaborative and we really wanted dancers to represent themselves through their own writing and reading. Everything that they read is something that they have written or something that they’ve contributed individually. We really wanted to break down that hierarchy and to remove Gerald as the authorial center of the work.

Greenberg’s piece is called Not-About-AIDS-Dance because it’s drawing attention to the AIDS crisis. There’s this sort of Derridean split between presence and absence, the fact that he’s calling attention to the thing that he says it’s not about. It’s the negation that emphasizes its centrality in the piece. So we’re using the same structure our title to draw attention to race, but we’re also calling attention to the fact that whiteness is not thought of as a race. Whiteness is the ‘not-race’ that we are addressing in the dance.

MT: Can you talk more about the characteristics of this invisibility of whiteness in postmodernism?

RC: First there is the fact of representation. A lot of people trace the beginning of postmodernism in dance history back to the Judson Dance Theater, when there was only one person of color who ever performed with the group and that was Rudy Perez. He was literally made into a footnote in Sally Banes’ seminal text [Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance,1987] and he is just left out of the history a lot of the time. So it was a space that was dominated by white bodies, and that segregation inherently creates exclusion. As soon as solely homoracial bodies occupy space, just the way that race is considered in our culture, it automatically creates a boundary. And then of course, people of color are responsibilized for not entering that space even though there is a very strong dynamic that already prohibit them.

I think that there are a lot of fantastic artists of color who are making really great postmodern work now but it is usually perceived in response to, in confrontation of or as refusing this central whiteness of postmodernism. So it creates this false binary, where there is the center and there are the people working on the margins. If you look at people like Ralph Lemon or Trajal Harrell, they are at the center of what’s going on in post modernism now but it’s just never considered that way because of the durability of this history or this sort of aura of Judson and the Judson artists.

So what’s interesting is that race never entered [the Judson artists’] social consciousness at the time. They were doing fantastic work with gender, with contact improvisation, even with sexuality, but there were never any critiques of the homoraciality of the US American postmodernism. As soon as white bodies occupy space, the space becomes oriented toward their whiteness. I’m drawing from Sara Ahmed’s work on the phenomenology of whiteness. It becomes a home for whiteness and as soon as whiteness has found that home, it’s automatically exclusive, it immediately creates a binary that can be traced back to colonial histories, and those histories are reinforced and perpetuated through these sort of social formations.

Within this homoracial atmosphere, Judson artists could ask all sort of questions about what dance could do and what boundaries it could deconstruct, but because they never considered race — one of the biggest social boundaries that they never personally encountered as choreographers — their own history didn’t involve experiences of racial othering or racial difference so those were never experiences that they sought to challenge. That was one blind spot that became solidified through their work and their practices. And I think that is something we can learn from, but I think that binary has definitely perpetuated.

It’s also really important to consider this typical idea of the neutral body and the neutral doer as one that is deeply sedimented with whiteness. Because no body of color is ever perceived as neutral in America. There’s always this extra history that is projected onto them, that they are not American even. For example, if you look at the history of the blackface minstrelsy or redface or yellowface, bodies of color are always being made into what is perceived as extraordinary whereas white bodies are just ordinary. There is a different categorization that has racial overtones and colonial history. Only certain bodies can appear ordinary on stage and that ordinariness is prescribed by the spaces created by those bodies.

MT: What are the tools that you used in the piece to destabilize the power structures that perpetuate this invisibility of whiteness in choreography and dance presentation?

RC: It’s like this quote from Audre Lorde, we’re trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. It’s a real conundrum because we’re trying to work through structures that immediately code the space as neutral and we’re trying to say that it’s not. When different bodies, different histories or different stories are all perceived the same way (even though they’re not), how do we get people to see these bodies differently, to see the space differently? Certain bodies are never at home in the space of postmodernism. It’s almost as if postmodernism precludes the idea of seeing those bodies as different. So it’s very difficult to draw attention to that. We can dance a phrase in rehearsal and understand how it’s working with or against a Trisha Brown’s compositional method, but it’s hard to get an audience to see that. So we have to have these other modes that exist in conversation with the bodies in space, but also outside of the bodies in space, to clue people into what we are doing because it’s so difficult to communicate that just through bodies. It’s one of the reasons why we are using text, or some of the work in music that Tim Russell is doing. And in the scenic design we are making sure the white cube is visible, revealing the choreographic structures. I think that it is this intertextual aspect of the dance that’s been helpful in exposing this critique.