Through my dashboard the rhythmic hologram of Venus projecting up from reflective dashes, her columnar nakedness a stolid repetition of disfigurement as idealization, brokenness inevitably paired with the female form. It was Kansas, and I was driving because that’s what we all did, because it was the plains, everything stretched out into brown-dry wheat fields and endless parking lots. Like many images from my psyche of that time, it soon appeared in a poem, which I submitted for critique while sitting in on a graduate-level workshop led by a nationally renowned poet at my university.
The group was discussing a reference I’d made to nervous Nellie, couched among hysterical, almost in-tongues anxieties and skepticism of the social contract. Was the phrase too colloquial, too jarring for the poem’s jangly but languid tone? Was it completely unnecessary in the plethora of context? My hands were sweating on the rubber grip of my pen, knuckles white, waiting for the inevitable. That is, cruelty. As the only undergrad in a room of dutiful masters-in-training, surely there would be contempt, ridicule, dismissal. Having never written within a community before, having never been received into a group like this—the unknown was an untested, unsafe territory to place one’s internal landscape.
To feel the pervasiveness of danger in public spaces is perhaps quite foreign to those who don’t identify as women, minorities, LGBTQ, those who can’t place themselves into the middle class. But, we feel it. Constantly. We feel that at some point the luck that has kept us from being randomly dismembered while walking home at night will run out. And being wired to pattern the world into cause and effect, our fates would be easily justified—maybe they had it coming, weren’t cautious enough, deserved it somehow?
Recently, after leaving a café with a friend she noticed a man moving spasmodically on the ground under his blanket. She couldn’t wake him so called an ambulance. As we waited for help that never came, despite calling multiple times, a man at the bus stop suggested we kick him in his “fat ass” and laughed at us for showing concern.
Social Darwinism—one of the most perverse interpretations of modification with descent. A convenient way to explain away the vast chasm between the rich and poor, a ready excuse to treat the struggling with disdain and contempt. Trump Jr.’s tweeted image of his daughter on Halloween with loot, for example, sarcastically joking that maybe he would make her give some of the candy to a child who didn’t trick-or-treat. And, so what if she did? Maybe that child doesn’t live in a safe neighborhood and can’t. Maybe that child just couldn’t be bothered, and doesn’t deserve this gift. And? So?
All the worries. What makes someone deserving? What if I help someone, and they aren’t grateful? What if I help someone who doesn’t deserve it? And? So? A little prompt as a reminder. Take risks. Despite knowing that a woman anywhere in public alone is a target. Despite being trained to think that if I dress and behave in the “correct” ways, I am somehow making myself safer. So deeply ingrained—that bad things happen to bad people, that the poor deserve whatever plight they find themselves in.
“Make the choice to be soft,” advises the illustrative artist lubadalu. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t. But, moreover, I can—a coming into the gift of being an artist and the responsibility to this gift, especially in the field of the performing arts, that means being with others, sharing with others, finding community.
I recently began rehearsals for my newest work What is Home, and in our first sessions we spent four hours focusing solely on generating consent, being sensitive and alert to others, finding agreement, and connecting with each other through emotional safety. I realized I had never as a dancer actually received the gift of existing in this kind of space or been taught how to use my creative energy for mutual support of my peers, but it is now so incredibly clear how vital these practices are and how necessary that these tools become available and widely practiced. As it should, #metoo has generated much discussion in the dance community around toxic environments, including this article by Toronto artist Kathleen Rea and the surprising backlash she received from men against establishing guidelines for contact improvisation jams that protect women.
How is our work to make any improvement in the world if the process of making it is heaped in misery, psychological manipulation, competitive aggression, and sexual abuse? Seattle, the shining progressive beacon of the nation, has, in actuality, proved in my personal experience to be a city teeming with misogyny, sexism, and psychological tyranny within the dance community, and we must begin saying aloud that genius, talent, and ability are not excuses for this behavior. We must ascribe, in a sense, to Voltaire’s musing, “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
And in another sense, we must acknowledge art activist Lucy Lippard’s statement in the 1970’s that “Violence and bigotry in art are simply violence and bigotry, just as they are in real life.” And how many exceptional women artists withered in anonymity while we continued to support violent men?
In conversing with a colleague and current faculty at Pacific Northwest Ballet about Peter Martins’ resignation, he related that during summer intensives at School of American Ballet as a kid it was common knowledge that Martins beat his wife, Darci Kistler, who regularly showed up to rehearsals with bruises and marks. It called to mind a passage from George Balanchine’s biography by Bernard Taper—an anecdote describing Balanchine sitting down with Martins at a diner to have the talk, to induct this man into grooming for the role of Artistic Director, a job in which it was clearly “a man” and one who must do it all.
As women were so central to all the work that Balanchine made in his lifetime, why don’t we consider a woman for the job of carrying on the vision of the woman ballerina? As a woman ballet dancer is, in training, imbued with the entire tradition of ballet’s treatment of women, why not allow a woman to be visionary about her own future and that of the premiere ballet company in the US?
I look back on that poem, nether highway written 16 years ago:
under the cool dichromate of night, the light-spoke tethers pull his car like stretched frog tongues, light converted to magnetic energy that spurts crimped rectilinears;
and the approaching dashed lanes spring tall as holographic ghosting columns, each a venus
exposed and amputated, unable to protect herself.
All the fear comes rushing back. But, at least, in the faux-stakes of the poem’s critique, there was survival. All the time we witness instances of survival.
Last week when the bus driver kicked a guy off who had a blanket draped around him. “Scum!” he yelled, in absolute contempt. We cannot deserve either the kindness or the scorn sent our way—these reflections of the state of the individual outputting into the world. This individual’s sense of their own belonging against the Other. This individual’s many parametric layers of identity aligning against the external world.
I hope for small shifts—a community that recognizes its own common interests and shared goals, a community in which we all can find safety, a community with access to the full color spectrum of its possibilities. A community turning towards itself. At times.
Christin Call is an assemblage artist and Co-artistic Director of Coriolis Dance. She is writing a series of essays “What is Community” for STANCE as a recipient of Velocity Dance Center’s Creative Residency Program. Her multi-disciplinary work What is Home an Obscure Kingdom an Opera Buffa It’s You Always You will be presented by Northwest Film Forum in July 2018. christincall.com