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This article was written on 09 Nov 2012, and is filed under Guest Writers.

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Skin Deep

By Kathy Wasik

Last weekend, I danced in Deborah Hay’s Blues, a work presented as part of a series curated by the choreographer Ralph Lemon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The piece involved two casts, the titles of which were based on the skin color of each group: the blue whites, comprised exclusively of women, most of whom had participated in a workshop Deborah taught in December of 2011; and the blue blacks, a group Ralph put together for Deborah (with one exception, who happened to be the only nonwhite participant in Deborah’s workshop last December). The lines Deborah drew in the piece and in the process of creating the work raise troubling questions surrounding race, gender, power, and money.

The process of Blues began with an eight-month email correspondence, one that remained largely segregated by cast, during which the performers responded to Deborah’s assignments. The blue whites were instructed to practice quietude, a process of meditative observation in which the dancer is “served by how she sees rather than by what she sees,” while the blue blacks worked on a song Deborah had written. At some point, when a blue white asked about the larger implications of the work, particularly those of a conspicuously segregated group, Deborah explained that her decision to work with dancers of color was largely aesthetic – that darker skin might better attract the viewer’s eye in the vast white space of MoMA’s atrium. As for the blue whites – whose race seemed more incidental to Deborah – she hoped they would bring a necessary calm to the noisy space.

Throughout the finished piece, the blue whites, costumed in black leotards, tights, and shoes, stood relatively still and as a unit, while the blue blacks, dressed in mostly brightly colored costumes of their choosing, followed an improvisational score that allowed for greater movement and an ability for each member to move independently of the group. A hierarchy between the casts was becoming more clearly defined. At some point, Deborah seemed inadvertently to further establish the power dynamic by granting the blue blacks permission to break her rules while later explicitly denying the blue whites the same right.

As a longtime admirer of Deborah’s work, I had trusted her throughout the process, despite some uneasiness about the lines she was drawing. But as the structure of the dance solidified, I couldn’t help but feel hemmed in by the hierarchy she seemed to have set up. My position had become increasingly more vulnerable. Audience members felt free to take photographs of me in skintight attire. I felt stripped of my voice and my individuality. How could I feel “served by how I was seeing,” a practice that had now become my primary task in the piece, if I felt demeaned by my extreme lack of freedom?  And how should or could members of the other cast deal with the thorny political implications of anchoring a space through their skin color?

The night before the first show, I asked Deborah to what extent I could defy the boundaries she had set up. She said that the hierarchy I described did not exist and that it was not in my power to challenge the dance’s structure. Despite feeling dissatisfied with her response, I went ahead with the performances. She was Deborah Hay. Who was I to distrust her?

Toward the end of the last performance, something unexpected happened: a member of the blue black cast intentionally shoved a member of the blue whites, an incident that alarmed members of both casts. The blue white cast maintained stillness, despite hurt feelings among some of its members. In that moment, I did everything in my power to suppress a need to rebel.

After the performance – in a discussion among the performers, Deborah, and Ralph – dancers from both casts admitted to having felt a lack of security that afternoon and throughout the process. Deborah did not directly address the performers’ concerns about the aggressive act that had surprised many of them earlier that afternoon. She maintained that she approached the work from a largely aesthetic standpoint and that the power structures alleged by many of the performers were not part of the work. According to her, the piece was not the sort of troubling social experiment it seemed to be.

And then came this bombshell: at some point during the discussion, a member of my cast revealed that the all female blue white cast received less than one third the pay of the blue blacks for comparable rehearsal time, a fact about which Deborah had not been transparent. For eight months of independent practice, two days of in-person rehearsal, and three performances, I received $200. Members of the other cast received $700. Such information made Deborah’s flat denial of the hierarchy all the more difficult to swallow. Members of both casts seemed troubled by the discrepancy, one that remains unremedied at the date of this letter’s publication.

In performance and behind-the-scenes, Blues has raised important questions about both the economy and process of contemporary dance work.  According to Dance NYC’s 2012 Dance Workforce Census, white female dancers comprise a significant majority of workers in the dance field. Is it fair to allow the laws of supply and demand to dictate a dancer’s pay, if this is indeed what Deborah was doing? (She has yet to explain the pay discrepancy.) And how transparent should choreographers be about payment? Is it the dancer’s responsibility to inquire about compensation?

Regarding process, is it the choreographer’s job to make his or her dancers feel safe? To what extent is the onus on the performers? Can a choreographer ignore implications of a work once they are brought to his or her attention? How do choreographers and performers navigate the muddy waters of increasingly more collaborative work? With whom do ownership and responsibility lie?

I offer these questions as a starting point for discussion. Blues affords us an opportunity, albeit frustratingly unintentional, to discuss a number of sensitive topics. I hope the Performance Club will provide a forum for such dialogue.

Kathy Wasik is a Queens-based dancer and choreographer. She has worked with Carolee Schneemann, Susan Rethorst, Diana Crum, and Jessica Morgan, among others. She will present new work at the 92Y this December and at Dixon Place in January 2013.

 

22 Comments

  1. Dora Themistocleous Willoughby
    November 9, 2012

        Reading this article pains me. The blood,sweat and tears a dancer puts into their art is unbelievable. I absolutely feel it is the choreographers responsibility to insure comfort, stability and equality among dancers. In a world where dancers tremendously outnumber choreographers I am afraid it is obvious, at least in this case, that dancers are being taken advantage of.

                 I believe that  todays dancer would not compromise their sense of self for a spot on stage,with that said bravo Kathy for your words! I feel sorry for your experience but applaud this effort in demanding respect as a dancer.

  2. Name *
    November 9, 2012

    A shocking story; but what I find most surprising is that you and your colleagues stayed with the process for so long in the face of so many warning signals.  $200 is not a fair price for an extended commitment.  Therefore, it appears that Deborah Hay’s reputation or stature was the draw for you.  But when you realized how empty and oppressive the structure was for you, why did you not withdraw?

  3. Karen Bernard
    November 9, 2012

    money dance money marriage money food money sex money power money money money — its too difficult a topic — i recently was paid to perform, my travel and hotel expenses covered and I even received a per diem — what a treat….. its embarrassing – i know some people are used to this… but i am also thinking that when you get to another level..  your dance even costs more…  I was once naive and thought Nureyev died poor — ha ha ah — may he rest in peace.

  4. Maggie Bennett
    November 9, 2012

    unless we unionize or something…

  5. Maggie Bennett
    November 9, 2012

    i missed the performances due to transportation dumbness…however, i feel like if deborah says the work was about the aesthetics of color, from the white architecture to the clothing of the skin to skin as clothing, than that is how she was working.  from what i know through her writing, performances and workshops, her work really is about the perception of the performer.  And i think for an audience, experiencing the possibility of being truly free in the body, in oneself, through one’s perception as made example by the performer (which is where i think our generation comes in… i think we are taking that proposal and now trying to make work that allows the audience to feel a freedom in their own perceptual faculties, over time, in performance…).  At this point in our western contemporary society, it does seem perception is where freedom lies.  it sounds like she intentionally put the blue whites in a situation in performance that would challenge them to their core.  and so to bring your bodies to that space in performance she gave you a practice to develop, that would help you navigate the complexities of the situation.  She first gave us the solo project, which shifted our percpetion of our dance practices inside choreographic frame-works — and a commitment to practice to develop the tools to navigate the complexities of performance — , and now she is pushing our perception of performers further — our dance practices inside the cultural and political context at large.  in the world.  in this shitty shitty economy.  she gave you the training to not experience all the things you have written about.  she was giving you the task of utilizing your visual perception to create your own experience.  the score of your role was “to practice quietude, a process of meditative observation in which the dancer is ‘served by how she sees rather than by what she sees’.”  The dancer is served by how she sees rather than what she sees.  I feel like everything you’ve written is about what you saw, and or how you were seeing in a way that doesn’t serve you. 
    You saw an act of aggression, you saw unequal pay and value for your labor, you saw a denial on the part of the artist to take responsibility for your experience, you saw a portrayal of the injustices you already
    perceive around your identity and gender and race in your field, you saw an objectification of your body.  I don’t mean to be obnoxious, but i think once again Deborah has given the dance community a wonderful gift.  I think the real question is, does this way of seeing — looking for signs of injustice and devaluing of our craft — actually serve us?

    what if we just truly committed to the practices of our work, and create our own economy of value around it?  there was an opportunity to have a deep aesthetic experience and perform a state more powerful than anything moving, anything else in the room even.  that you used your vision to perceive your were powerless and objectified reveals something very sad to me about how we’ve let the politics of the world at large
    influence our experience in our bodies as performing artist.

    of course open to being told i’m wrong!!  and your articulation of your experience and this process is truly valuable for a reader.  i’m not saying you failed or something!  i’m just pointing to another possibility of experience.  and any sense of urgency is from my own
    frustrations around the discourse of our field.  i do feel it’s time for us to take responsibility for our experience and the value of our work, beyond that which any institution grants it.  i think all the questions you bring up about pay and transparency are about the individual.  we all have to have our own ethics around our practice, and what is right for someone else might feel not ok with us.  these high-exposure gigs with well known artists in reputable institutions is an economy of it’s own.  you agreed to the the performance.  you could have not.  yes, there would have been another dancer to take your place.  there would have been dancers who would have taken your place for no pay.  and there are people who would have turned it down.

    i don’t know what exactly my point is, just, as subjective as this form is, so is the way we must navigate it and develop our relationship to power structures — economic, social, political, institutional, etc…

    –Maggie Bennett

  6. Levi Gonzalez
    November 10, 2012

    thank you Kathy for writing this! I was deeply troubled by Deborah’s seeming lack of awareness of the larger implications of her work and this just reinforces it.

    I found the work problematic on so many levels, and I hope Deborah will realize there is no such thing as a “pure” aesthetic inquiry, devoid of political implications. I also find it deeply disturbing to hear about the pay differential. I really feel that this was an instance in which a respected member of our community ventures into territory beyond her, and people trusted her because of her reputation, but that trust was squandered.

    I  spoke with someone today who likened the experience to a family dinner when your grandmother says something embarrassingly racist and you just chalk it up to her age. but wait, Deborah is a working artist and this is MoMA and that is not ok.

    Its not that I don’t have respect for Deborah and her work, but I would ask that she keep it in the realm of what she knows and understands. I found the situation she set up demeaning to blue whites and blue backs, and upset even by that terminology.

    sorry maggie, i think we need to be more active here. i think the piece was unintentionally but unquestionably racist. I don’t feel a need to bring her down on this, she is a great artist, but I think she ventured into an area that she was not equipped to understand. and on top of that, i found the intentions of the work murky at best. would like to hear from members of the blue black cast as I found their role somewhat exploitative. 

    what i enjoyed was seeing the agency of black performers inside of the work, but iwish that had not been confined to race. Overall, a very troubling experience in the museum.

  7. Name *
    November 10, 2012

    I think all of these points are excellent to bring to the surface, but I think someone should acknowledge that the feelings of being manipulated, under appreciated, poorly or unfairly paid, and considered less “eye-catching” are what most people who resemble the blue black cast experience constantly, in life and art,  and no one ever gives any voice to their frustrations. It is interesting to see how much voice a white cast with these frustrations can achieve. I absolutely support everything Kathy is bringing to the surface, but I also think we need to look at this part if the equation, even though Deborah clearly is oblivious. 

  8. Abigail Levine
    November 10, 2012

    Thank you to all the writers here for starting this conversation. I hope it comes to reflect all the points of view that were a part of this experience. Levi gets at most of my feelings. The performance in the atrium was of such shocking and naive racism, it was almost hard to believe it was going on. If it was useful, it was because it pointed out that these are prejudices that are being played out regularly in our midst, even our most welcoming-seeming midst, only under more substantial cover. 

    I would only add a couple of things—perception is, of course, at the crux of this matter. Choice about how one is perceived is a privilege that some of us have in greater measure than others. The question of heirarchy that Kathy raises also has elements of perception; the balance of power looked very different than what she describes from my position in the audience. While questions of the economic inequities of Hay’s arrangement are also essential to deal with, I think we lose an important opportunity as a community if we do not use this as a moment to reflect deeply on how race plays out amongst us. I hope we can create a space safe enough that we can have an inclusive, honest conversation about this issue.

  9. Mathew Pokoik
    November 10, 2012

    Karen – I’m not entirely sure what you’re saying, that it’s complicated I think?

    What is not complex is that MoMA’s revenue was a bit over 200 million in 2011, yet a professional performer was paid $200 for months of work.

    Those numbers are very simple – nothing complex about it.

  10. Name *
    November 10, 2012

    Kathy,  I think your letter is a daring personal account of the precarious position of a freelance artist negotiating unpredictible and challenging predicaments which challenge not only personal politics but, due to the public nature of the work, resonate to larger social spheres.  I think questions of pay inequality in relation to the purely ‘aesthetic’ decision to separate the groups based on race is a deeply puzzling and irresponsible position to take.  Instead of reiterating all the troubling questions you’ve already outlined so eloquently I would offer my support and promise of a continued dialogue on such matters.  I think the art world has a responsibility to question and provoke even their own heros if there is any hope of art having a social function outside the market.  And since this is MoMA and not a commercial gallery, these questions of responsibility should be in focus. 

    Thanks Kathy.

    x

    Jenna

  11. Tavia Grace Odinak
    November 10, 2012

    I find what Kathy writes deeply troubling.  I also find it aligns with a question about the direction dance seems to be heading, at the moment – into museum and gallery spaces.  How do we, as performers and makers, adjust our craft to the context of those spaces, and likewise, how do we alter those contexts by being there?  I can see Deborah’s desire to explore “pure aesthetic” in the context of the MoMA.  Much of the art hanging on it’s walls do just that, and I think this speaks, at least somewhat, to the desire for inclusion in the powerhouse art world that is clearly dealing with money dancers wouldn’t dare dream of. However there is an enormous difference between the aesthetics of objects and the aesthetics of people.  Objects may be viewed objectively without wider cultural ramifications.  They are static, unemotional, non-thinking things.  The mediums of object and body will never be comparable – and this is the most important thing to consider when bringing bodies into the context of a museum.  There are so many potential questions that can be asked, and assuming that the museum context can turn bodies into objects, negates all of those possibilities.  (Not to mention that it is problematic and insulting to both performer and viewer).  The complexities of working with the human body and the cultural baggage the body innately carries must not be ignored as we enter new contexts.  I hope that other dance artists with such an opportunity to confront a visual institution with the body don’t waste it by denying the most basic truths about bodies as medium.

  12. Aynsley Vandenbroucke
    November 10, 2012

    Because of travel troubles I also missed this particular week of performances. Arg! But from the outside, it reminds me, for better or worse, of Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/ Brown Eyes” exercise with her students in ’68.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/lesson_lifetime.html 

    And I’m with Abby about using this as an opportunity to talk together about the (continuing) role of race in our field.  The discussion with Faustin Linyekula and Dean Moss the week before raised interesting related questions so I continue to be curious how this last week is in dialogue with the performances from the previous weeks.

  13. Philippa Kaye
    November 10, 2012

    Regarding all the questions Kathy raises in the last paragraphs, please take a look at the Dancers Compact which was created after many discussions and town meetings within our community—granted, a decade ago—and sets out clear guidelines for working relationships between dancers and choreographers. Available for use by anyone :   http://www.nyfa.org/level4.asp?id=220&fid=1&sid=51&tid=199

    It’s useful for creating a contract for yourself as a performer, or a contract for performers if you’re the choreographer; more easily enabling discussion and clarity of any of the politics and policies inherent in any process.

    It sounds as if the process (of all of the performers working on solos with specific yet vague directives and internally-motivated ) didn’t allow for discussion of content and meaning, and that to a certain extent the choreographer wanted to shut down questioning by the performers.  It may have been a different story, avoiding abuse and confusion, if the structure, relationship, of the experiment had been agreed upon initially. 

  14. Name *
    November 12, 2012

    Comment:

    We should seriously re-visit word AESTHETIC: 

    1798, from Ger. Ästhetisch or Fr. esthétique, both from Gk. aisthetikos ”sensitive, perceptive,” from aisthanesthai ”to perceive (by the senses or by the mind), to feel,” from PIE *awis-dh-yo-, from root *au- ”to perceive” (see audience). 

    Popularized in English by translation of Immanuel Kant, and used originally in the classically correct sense “the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception.” Kant had tried to correct the term after Alexander Baumgarten had taken it in German to mean “criticism of taste” (1750s), but Baumgarten’s sense attained popularity in English c.1830s (despite scholarly resistance) and removed the word from any philosophical base. Walter Pater used it (1868) to describe the late 19c. movement that advocated “art for art’s sake,” which further blurred the sense. As an adjective by 1803. Related: Aesthetically.

    It is interesting to note when the meaning shifted. My question is how do we position ourselves now with the history of tat word? Can we deny its origin and what do that mean? Is content something that is avoidable?

    Daria Faïn

  15. [...] the process and the conflict. Niv, in turn, invited Kathy Wasik to tell her side of the story as chronicled over at P-Club. I don’t know nearly enough of the story to recount it here, go to P-Club and read up or to [...]

  16. Ask Homeland Security
    November 14, 2012

    1.  Since when do audiences accept the artist’s descriptions of his or her objectives at face value?  Or am I to believe that, when asked to participate in a series addressing what one audience member has paraphrased as “What is black music?”, DH suddenly awoke to a world in which “aesthetics” had somehow become detached from all the prejudices and fetishes that decorate its infamous history, from the Greeks, to the present (thus the legendary library at Alexandria, envisioned as depository for all the worlds’ knowledge–so long as that knowledge had been written in Greek, that is).  

    2.  Having been invited to participate in said series, the choreographer chose what to pay her dancers and how they should conduct themselves during the performances.  There appears to be widespread agreement that the decisions involved in this process raised controversial questions, at the very least; at the worst, the decisions made by the choreographer might be indicative, perhaps even prototypical, of racism in its most vulgar forms–possibly accompanied by discrimination against certain body types. 

    3.  In other words, to recap: a choreographer seems to have discriminated according to skin color and body type when selecting her performers; in addition, these discriminatory practices appear to have influenced the different rates of pay that the dancers received for their work.  

    4.  After witnessing the performance choreographed by said choreographer, a dance community necessarily familiar with myriad performances in dance venues that include performers chosen according to skin color and body type, to which varying rates of pay are routinely attached, is suddenly outraged to see the same discriminatory practices employed during a performance at MoMA.  

    5.  Am I alone in assuming that DH is playing the role of provocateur?  

    6.  If it is so upsetting to see the prejudices routinely practiced by the dance world exposed to a much broader audience, I can certainly see why there’s so much unrest about “dance in the museum context,” etc., etc.  Perhaps the dance community would prefer to keep its prejudicial practices less–ah, public, shall we say.

    7.  On the other hand, if MoMA & Ralph Lemon have provided a platform for a provocative performance in which the routinely discriminatory practices of the dance world have been put on display, so that even the dance community has been forced to question (yet again, and again) its institutionalized racist legacies, such an event might give that community reason to applaud both MoMA, and Ralph Lemon.

    8.  Then again, it would be humiliating to applaud an institution such as MoMA, what with all the money it gives to choreographers who don’t pay their dancers very well; better to criticize MoMA for letting such a terrible thing happen, and retreat with pride (?) intact back into those venerable dance institutions in which racism can be practiced without question, and in which choreographers do not pay their dancers well, but “that’s just how it goes,” status quo, quid pro quo, exploit my body, please, and pay me a degrading wage while you do so, etc., etc.

    This series certainly HAS been bad for dance, by god!  Let’s exploit one another in less public settings from here on out.

  17. Name *
    November 15, 2012

    hhhmmm….I didn’t see the performance so I can never have my own “first-order” experience of the work.  Just reading the comments (and re-reading them now a week later) I actually find myself most stirred by Levi’s comments.

    He assesses Deborah Hay to have

    “a lack of awareness” and says she

    “ventures into territory that is beyond her” and has therefore

    “squandered people’s trust;”  he calls the work

    “unquestionably racist.”  He requests that she 

    “keep [her work] in the realm of what she knows and understands” for she has

    “ventured into an area that she was not equipped to understand.”

  18. [...]  Kathy Wasik, a dancer whom I don’t know, wrote on the Performance Club Blog about her troubling … It may put some of what Sam Hanson wrote about RDT into greater context and give you an idea that Salt Lake is not the only place where dance, when it comes to race, is stuck in the cold war era, and that even PoMo experimentalist icons can make huge blunders. [...]

  19. claudia
    November 29, 2012

    Interesting to come across this article: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/arts/dance/22Kour.html:

    “SALLY SILVERS has immersed herself in tricky material for her new dance, “Yessified!” This work, which will be performed at Performance Space 122 beginning on Sunday, delves into race: specifically, how, as a white, liberal downtown choreographer from Tennessee, she could explore whiteness and blackness.”

    wish I had seen it….

  20. Name *
    December 2, 2012

    did not see the work. very interested in the dialogue here. and also want to know what ralph lemon has to say as the curator. 

  21. [...] Marissa: Many of the performers in Hay’s group were extremely fraught throughout the process. [...]

  22. [...] to get down and dirty about Deborah Hay’s work on that program. You can read about it here, then here and finally here. As the discussion ramped up, then fell apart, then ramped up, stalled, and [...]

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