Boundaries Still Not Holding: Upholding and communicating responsibility through creative process and performance

Arts / Article

By Caitlyn Swett, Triptych CollectiveWriter’s note: I have been working collaboratively with four dance artists since Fall 2013 on a piece that contemplates the meaning of home and how these experiences vary socio-economically. The piece, “The Boundaries do not Hold” funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has taken a different trajectory in the Spring 2014 season as dancers and I find socially responsible ways to speak about homelessness from an outsider’s perspective. Throughout both seasons, we have volunteered at Charlotte Family Housing, a transitional shelter for homeless families. The final work will be presented at Triptych Collective’s show, “ARTiculating Through Action: An evening of reflective dance performance” on April 24, 2014 at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, NC.

When our process began this season, we were unaware of the complexity of the issue we were attempting to discuss. Last season, we created a quartet that focused on the concept of home in efforts to create a pluralistic definition of home. I facilitated dialogues with the dancers to gather such experiences. This was something we knew and we were familiar with—these were our stories. None of us have ever been homeless, so how were we to create a dance work on this subject matter?

At the beginning of the year, we met to talk about how we might address this issue. We found that it is important to communicate to viewers that we were not pretending that we know what it is like to be homeless. We acknowledged that we have not experienced this level of risk or vulnerability, nor the things that come with it, such as poverty, violence, illness, and exposure to the elements. We then came to the “conclusion” that, through this dance work, we were going to advocate for and bring awareness to the homeless community in Charlotte.

“The Boudaries do not Hold” (draft 1) at “Genealogy” at Neighborhood Theatre in September 2013Photo by Benjamin Lemmond

Our rehearsal process requires much conversation, reflection, and embodied research. Through our ongoing research we have found that there are so many experiences of homelessness and few are actually like those portrayed in media or stories that we were (distantly) familiar with. We discovered that there are numerous communities within the homeless community which have varying experiences. It would be harmful to assume that individuals, families, children, and adults within Black, White, Latino, veteran, LGBTQ, mentally ill, physically disabled, and other communities would all have similar life experiences and perspectives, regardless of economic status or housing situation. We then came to the “conclusion” that, through this dance work, in addition to advocating for the Charlotte homeless, we were also bringing awareness to the fact that there is no singular face or experience to homelessness.

“The Boudaries do not Hold” (draft 2) at “Genealogy” at Gallery 22 in October 2013 Photo by Arvind Bhandari

“The Boudaries do not Hold” (draft 2) at “Genealogy” at Gallery 22 in October 2013Photo by Arvind Bhandari

It wasn’t until one of the dancers introduced the concept of white saviorism (also known as white savior industrial complex) to me that I began to dissect the language I was using to describe the concept and mission of this piece. White saviorism is the act of privileged, (typically) white, westerners stepping in to “help” or to “give back” to a community less privileged than themselves without engaging with ideas of why levels of privilege exist in the first place, and failing to acknowledge that people of a less privileged community have self-agency. The issue being that help or charity from privileged saviors is wrongfully disconnected from problems caused by colonialism, gentrification, and capitalist and patriarchal agendas. This results in the voices, experiences, and agencies of individuals within a given community being lost in privileged translation and exploitation. Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American writer, states that, “Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.”

“The Boudaries do not Hold” (draft 2) at “Genealogy” at The Chop Shop in December 2013 Photo by Mert Jones

“The Boudaries do not Hold” (draft 2) at “Genealogy” at The Chop Shop in December 2013Photo by Mert Jones

I found it problematic that I was “advocating for” a community that I was not a part of, and in continuing the piece with this idea, I was imposing my privileged agenda upon this community. Instead of “bringing awareness to” these individuals, I was exploiting their statuses. And while my heart has been in the right place, adjusting language and drastically changing trajectories with the work became mandatory. Though I am still grappling with how to be a human that is compassionate about other humans, I am making necessary changes to make this work as socially and morally responsible as I know how to. By suggestion of one of the dancers, we have decided to turn the piece back on ourselves. While we do not know what it is like to be homeless, the experiences we have come across in our research are incredibly relatable.

Recurring themes throughout our process became solidified when we discussed the common experiences of vulnerability, falling subject to stereotypes and generalities, and feelings of being misunderstood. We began to work with ideas of societal boundaries: the boundaries that exist between and among homeless communities and the housed. We created a number of improvisational scores that embodied these ideas. We chose to work with scores for sections of the piece to allow for an element of risk and chance as dancers make their decisions in relation to space and each other in the moment of performing, rather than setting and rehearsing written choreography. Additionally, we have worked with ways we can create material boundaries that physically confine space, as well as represent social limitations and community isolation. These movement concepts have been the best sensible solution to creating this work about unfamiliar subject matter in a responsible way.

“The Boudaries do not Hold” (part 2, draft 1) at “Take the Stand” at The Courtroom at Getty’s in Rock Hill, SC Photo by Becca Bond

“The Boudaries do not Hold” (part 2, draft 1) at “Take the Stand” at The Courtroom at Getty’s in Rock Hill, SCPhoto by Becca Bond

Aside from addressing social and moral obligations through dance, I have learned a lot about myself as an artist through my creative process. I have lost value in the idea of coming to “conclusions” when creating a work. I believe that dance, and the creation of this medium, is unremitting, fluid, and in constant flux, therefore allowing for continual growth, exploration, and discovery within the work. I seek to use dance in its fullest potential—as more than entertainment; as communication, therapy, advocacy, and political tool—and I attempt to do so in a way that dynamically cultivates conversation about our community and society.