Lineage, Mimicry, and Ambivalence
When I think about lineage, I imagine taking those DNA tests that reveal surprising details about one’s ancestry. I have never done this, but I suspect that results may be less revealing for immigrants of color than our white counterparts, especially those of us who have been naturalized and who no longer have deep connections to the homeland. As someone who came to this country at a young age, I possess a heightened awareness of my otherness — my appearance, my accent, and my actions all give me away as an outsider — as well as the strategies I employ to conceal it.
Assimilation has always been a subconscious edict. Further complicating matters is the fact that we (Filipinos) have been colonized by numerous countries, so the colonial mentality is deeply ingrained in our psyches and subjugated bodies. Rather than harmonizing with the background, assimilation feels like blending in so as not to be registered as an alien — akin to camouflage. It has taken me years to cloak my Tagalog accent in order to sound “American,” or as some would say, to neuter my mother tongue. Imagining what my lineage would be through an ancestry site seems preposterous, since as an immigrant, I have long been trying to divorce my identity from my past while imagining what it would be like if I didn’t have to blend in.
My already fraught relationship to (white) American culture is further complicated in the dance world: as a performer and a choreographer I am aware that I am always/already seen through my artistic ancestry. When people who know something about dance see me move through space, (I feel) they have assumptions about how and why I move the way I do, how I put phrases of movement together, and especially how notions of inherited movement affinities call into question with whom I have danced or studied. I question the focused squint of their gaze. Do they see my brown body first and then my inherited movement qualities? Or vice versa? My brownness along with my “en-corporated” kinetic identities cohere around a series of identifying markers that position my body as a unique colonial subject — one that bi-culturally assembles while simultaneously erasing itself though movement. Because I work in the lineage of postmodern dance, my brownness cannot be unseen through the white gaze projected on its white canvas.
Since I started choreographing in the late 1990s, dance critics have understandably associated my work with my dance lineage. In 2010, Roslyn Sulcas wrote in The New York Times, “Casel must be tired of hearing that his choreography is reminiscent of the work of Stephen Petronio, whose company he danced with for seven years. But it’s true that choreographers with distinctive physical styles and dynamics tend to imprint those qualities on a younger generation. (Mr. Petronio was himself strongly influenced by Trisha Brown, with whom he too danced for seven years.)”
After dancing with Petronio for over twelve years (and assisting him with several commissions), I learned the quirky movement vocabulary, the intuitive improvisational skills, and coordination required to feel a sense of belonging in his hypersonic and dexterous choreographic world. As a dance-maker, it has been difficult to position myself within the continuum of embodied dance history and its associated hierarchies. I have tried to disidentify with my movement ancestry in an effort to assert my independence through my dances. This has taken a very long time, partially because of my penchant for and necessity to mimic. Sulcas was right when she said I was tired of the associations to Petronio, since it implies that my work cannot stand on its own. To be fair, she also wrote, “But Casel has his own aesthetic. His dances tend to be cool, almost formal exercises in shape and pattern, leavened by understated encounters between dancers that suggest muted emotional currents surging between them.” As much as I took this as an encouraging pat on the back, I still find it strange how dance critics feel the need to qualify the value of my work through the field of history. I wonder how long it takes for choreographers to molt their associative linkages from their relationships as dancers in other choreographers’ work. Does this function the same for white choreographers as it does for choreographers of color?
While I acknowledge and honor my experience with Petronio (and his connection to Trisha Brown and her association with Judson Dance Theater), I feel an element of tension around it. That element is race. Most on the Judson genealogical path are white-identified. What happens when people of color interrupt this lineage? Black and brown immigrant bodies who mimic movements generated by white bodies produce a certain level of ambivalence since they can appear “almost the same, but not quite.” 1 White bodies are allowed to mimic any form since whiteness assumes a kind of unmarked-ness, while bodies of color are read through codes and metaphors that underscore racial phenomena which convey power and privilege only to certain groups. In the case of postmodern dance, how does the future adapt to changes in ancestral derivation? How do we address and reconcile race within the project of modernism? What comes after postmodernism?
I extend this line of thinking to two recent performances at ODC Theater. In Grandma, Cori Olinghouse created a collage of bodies and objects, evoking a landscape of mnemonic debris that reflected her lineage to her grandmother. During a panel discussion a few nights before the performance, three women artists gathered to discuss their work to a small audience. Since she danced with and has been archiving the work of Trisha Brown, I was curious to hear about Olinghouse’s relationship to Brown’s movement vocabularies, especially since I, too, have an indirect lineage to Brown. I was surprised that Brown’s influence was minimally discussed.
Olinghouse’s relationship to clowning, however, was prominently brought up, particularly her attraction to the work of Buster Keaton and Bill Irwin. Since she had been developing a practice she calls “clown therapy,” this makes perfect sense. In describing her work, she talked about absence, residue, and affect, and how she learned a dance by Keaton that she performs in the film Ghost line (2013), a project she co-created with filmmaker Shona Masarin. In Grandma, three dancers (including Hope Mohr, who also danced with Brown) wore bright pink outfits, white shoes, and the same blond wig to pay homage to the choreographer’s grandmother. Drawing on her excavation of the “American South as it connects with [her] personal family lineage,” Olinghouse and her collaborators performed a combination of clowning and satire that memorializes a time and place all through the imbued memory of her grandmother. Reminiscent of the self-portraiture of the photographer Cindy Sherman, Grandma conjures a movement portrait that contemporaneously embodies objects, subjects/detritus, and ephemera to depict not just an image of grandma but also the processed food-eating suburban culture that evokes the purpose of memorabilia, complete with static sounds from a dial-tuned television, Wonder Bread, and Twinkies.
In this world, the personal collides with the universal — encapsulating Olinghouse’s anamnesis and the collective memories shared by Americans who grew up eating processed food and watching afterschool specials. I wonder how this work would be viewed, specifically as it relates to clowning, if Olinghouse were a person of color? Choreographers and performers of color do not have the luxury of choosing how they want to be seen. Since white performers’ bodies are presumed “neutral” and can assume any role they imagine, they can play roles that span a wide spectrum whereas bodies of color must always/only/already be read through filters and layers: first, through an ethnoracial context, and then through the subject they are working with. In Grandma, the movements and wigs made it difficult to determine the dancers’ ethnoracial identities. It is important to note that all three performers are considered as fragments of the same figure (a white, elderly, American woman), although one of them, Martita Abril, is Mexican-American. Abril’s identity is camouflaged through the movement and costume.
In Paramodernities, Netta Yerushalmy facilitates, as she calls them, “a series of lecture-performances, or dance-experiments, generated through deconstructions of landmark modern choreographies, performed alongside contributions by scholars and writers who situate these iconic works and artists within the larger project of Modernism.” Yerushalmy brought excerpts deconstructed from iconic works by Vaslav Nijinsky, Merce Cunningham, and Alvin Ailey to ODC Theater under the auspices of Hope Mohr’s Bridge Project. During the Cunningham section, Brittany Engel-Adams and Marc Crousillat performed passages from Cunningham repertory in silence for a while, then with guest speakers Claudia La Rocco, Jennifer DeVere Brody, and Margaret Jenkins (who restaged Cunningham’s work between 1967 and 1976). At the end of the section the dancers began to speak — revealing their inner mental chatter to each other and the audience. They paused downstage center as if stuck in a time glitch, repeating a phrase over and over while audience members were invited to ask questions or offer observations. One question was: “Can you do the phrase on the other side?” After some finagling, the dancers successfully accomplished the task. I wanted to ask Engel-Adams (who is Black) how it felt to do the precarious balances on one leg with an afro. Since I have never seen a Black woman in Cunningham’s company, it felt like a germane question. I wonder why Merce never hired any Black women? By placing Engel-Adams in this Cunningham deconstruction, Yerushalmy probes the question by (re)presenting a Black, female body in this mostly-white world. It was lovely to see both dancers engage in this highly technical “mini-event,” especially to see Engel-Adams’s kinetic conjugation of the unadorned and sleek Cunningham vocabulary. This installment of Paramodernities placed a stone in the river of choreographic lineage.
In the final section, Revelations: The Afterlives of Slavery, the writing and performance of Thomas F. DeFrantz takes this choreographic intervention further. On stage, DeFrantz shouted out phrases that resonate with me: “liquid modernity,” “black liquidity,” and questions such as “Can modernism be inflected Black?” His testimony to the legacy of Alvin Ailey asserts that dancers who identify as Black and queer can also have a home within the genealogy of modern dance. Inlaid against original text and Ailey’s Revelations (performed by Oluwadamilare Ayorinde, Stanley Gambucci, Nicholas Leichter, Engel-Adams, and Yerushalmy), we are met with DeFrantz’ refusal to be seen through a white theoretical framework. In scholarly writing, much of the referential work pays homage to predominantly white thinkers; to disrupt this process reveals the undercurrent of power and privilege within the academic status quo. Similar to my process of disidentifying with my dance lineage, DeFrantz creates a space for warranted recalcitrance. This section invited the audience to be spread around the performers so that we could see different angles and relationships between each body; we were also able to see each other, sitting in the round.
Full disclosure: I am collaborating with Yerushalmy on the final installment of Paramodernities. Along with Magdalena Jarkowiec, we are working with George Balanchine’s Agon. As it is too soon to analyze this process, I can only offer a few bits of insight. Learning the Balanchine material, I am contemplating the performed and perceived notions of race, gender, ability, class, stature, and age, and how these elements can be foregrounded or hidden within ballet. Having never professionally performed ballet, I am learning a new movement language along with its aesthetic idiosyncrasies and presumptions. Since it is not part of my lineage, dancing Balanchine makes me feel outside of my safety net. There are moments where I feel I am able to fluidly slip between my taking on the effeminate textures I noticed had been choreographed for the Balanchine women and the forced masculinity inscribed in the male variations. However, there are times when I feel these idiosyncratic gestures are put on like costumes that don’t fit; the delivery of the steps, mannerisms, and gendered embodiment evoke in me a familiar, deep-seated ambivalence.. I can mimic the steps, but doing so induces great hesitation and self-consciousness, and I wonder how my performance of Balanchine will be read. Not only does this concern have to do with my personal history and relationship to mimicry and assimilation but also how these matters have always stirred up a heightened sense of ambivalence in me. There is no easing this tension: it is the dual legacy with which I will always live.