Personal Statement: The Politics of Art-Making
Editor’s note: Amy Chavasse is a professor of dance in the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Her teaching interests include contemporary dance technique, improvisation, composition and social issues on dance. She is also the artistic director of ChavasseDance&Performance.
Restlessness and curiosity have always been incentives for my practice as a dance maker, performer, improviser and educator. It’s looking like it’s high time to let righteous indignation find its way back into my choreographic considerations.
Finding methods to survive the next four years as an artist, humanist, environmentally aware citizen, a student of science, a supporter of Meals on Wheels and a believer in the benefits of diversity will resound in the ways I craft my next dances and move through the world.
I’ve been donating to the Southern Poverty Law Center — a nonprofit organization for civil-rights legal advocacy — for years. I recently finished reading the biography of its founder, Morris Dees, and I’ve joined, like many others, the American Civil Liberties Union. I’ve increased my donations to Planned Parenthood to reinforce myself and construct a buffer against the mendacity and absurdity that is part of the noise of the day.
Writing about the Brussels-based choreographer Meg Stuart, dancer David Hernandez comments: “Drawing the eye of the public to what is important is an investigation that relates to the way we are reading people's bodies every day of our life. How someone enters the room or is holding herself — the animal part in us sizes up a situation intuitively, like a plug directly into the brain.” Cultivating “sizing-up” skills feels crucial now. My choreographic research survived Donald Rumsfeld — one of the first dances I performed here at the University of Michigan was a work inspired by Rumsfeld’s tortured rhetoric and reasoning. It was called “Not Mistaken” and involved a large vat of pudding and lots of histrionics.
Although I dance to toss little nuggets of self-satisfaction to my ego, to feel a combustible blend of physical and intellectual exertion, I more intensely dance to imagine other realities, to slip into the skin of other people or creatures.
My experiences broaden as I age, as does my willingness to expose the urgency of my intentions. Consequently, my encounters with imagined ways of being in the world expand and surprise, heightening the tension between illusion, desire and subterfuge. Age gives the gift of loosening attachments to inhibitions and vanity. I wish I had known this sooner. My heroines and mentors are women who became more experimental and radical in their art-making and as they grew older, rather than tacking toward the reliable dullness that comes with settling into the familiar, conservative and acceptable.
I make dances to wrestle with raging questions, to deal with the discursive clutter and noise that fill my thoughts. When asked what her dancers are about, famed contemporary choreographer Pina Bausch answers: “How people behave in their desire … and what moves people, not how they move.”
I also keep in mind this question: Does my art serve a purpose beyond fulfilling me or advancing my career? After the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been looking at how — or if — it’s possible to make political dances that matter or invite change. There is so much noise and disruption inside my head and a feeling of being under attack — it is a familiar feeling.
During the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, I threw myself wholeheartedly into making dances with “statements,” with overt points of view, with embedded challenges to the status quo and to counter the damaging rhetoric and actions, the consequences from which we are still suffering from.
“81 Questions” was the first politically driven dance I made. I latched on to the number of questions submitted to the House Judiciary Committee in the lead-up to former-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings in 1989. It was an examination of hypocrisy and grandstanding. I recall the reviewer of my dance describing it as elliptical and containing several absurdly graphic situations. I don’t think it was very well constructed, but it was an itch I needed to scratch.
I began my autodidactic education around how to make work that has integrity, shape, momentum and interest outside of the political motivation that launched it. The movement and the movers still had to be translucent with intent, sharp with alertness and full of presence. I’m still deep inside this education. It became interested in tracking hesitation, infallibility and failure, alongside smug self-righteousness. Showing multiple angles, confusing the point of view became an interesting challenge to me. I guess what I’m saying is that I veered more toward parody.
“I Sleep with Ann Coulter” takes a scathing look at hypocrisy and the flagrant act of public lying as a handsomely profitable career choice — themes that are front and center again. I made and premiered this solo in 2007, after enduring one of Ann Coulter’s many cynical tirades. In this one she railed against the “fags” and “miscreants on the liberal left” who were polluting society. Constructing a movement narrative, a kind of cheeky personal declaration, I told the story of being Coulter’s secret lover, patiently waiting for her to return home to me each night.
If the audience sees my work and asks, “What is going on and why?” I find this a valuable response. I think we should be asking this question more often, and with more urgency, about art and the events unfolding around us. Viewing a dance, or experiencing any work of art, is not a passive activity. Questions should arise constantly. Answers either align with the various questions or do not. The idea of liking something or not liking something shouldn’t privilege the sensation of expectancy, disorientation or repositioning that can occur when we encounter something new, or something old presented in a new way.
“Hunger for the Longing (a biased history of seduction)” seeks ways of exposing the misinterpreted folk mythology surrounding Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” through movement, theater, video and music. As “God Bless America,” with its themes of overt patriotism saturated the public conscience, Guthrie created this iconic work to counter what he viewed as misleading representations of nationalism and common good. Examining and (de)reconstructing ideas about seduction and indoctrination, I used multiple versions of Guthrie’s anthem to the common man, honing in on the latter and less well known verses.
“All I Ask of My Enemies” is a duet with video that examines the concept of enemies — how we decide who our enemy is, how we treat those identified as the enemy, the opportunistic nature of naming one's enemies, the use of force and coercion once the enemy is captured, and how human nature is subverted when one person claims power and superiority over another. It grew out of my research on the torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in 2004. I found and then scoured documents from the National Security Archives, in particular a policy paper titled “Prohibition on the Use of Force.” It contained the most beautiful language that described the most disturbing acts, which I adapted for the work. I augmented the contents of the archives with my own words and songs. A video, created by video artist Sue Rees, supports the absurdity of the exchange with excerpts from the Roadrunner — Wile E. Coyote cartoons, intercut with James Bond movie footage.
In reminding myself that making art should feel driven by more than tactics of survival, I’m reclaiming my embrace of the unique ways that movement expresses desire and can expose or imagine an alternative reality. “Emi, Amy and Mimi, the Celebrated Love Partners, and their Bicycle Emi Nomo,” is a new trio collaboration that recently premiered in New York.
It imagines a world in which three characters are bound together in a shared memory of something lost. The characters sing about orgasms and bicycles and imaginary adventures. While continuing to refine this new work, I’m looking ahead to tackling a thorny topic, to dealing with my righteous indignation.