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.

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