The artist talks about her recent performance Night Ballast which explores the power that can come from vulnerability.
"Now, there’s a Full moon. I’m opening boxes. In one box are notes from my old studio... Questions, “Is this a play? Am I a counterpart to an as yet undetermined main character?” “How is a text a body?” How is an object an event?" —excerpt from Perel’s performance text
I sat down with Marissa Perel to discuss the process of her performance, Night Ballast, which was presented as part of Food For Thought at Danspace Project on April 12, 2013. The evening was curated by Stacy Szymaszek, Director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and in this instance, represented an overlap of the D/d/owntown worlds of dance and poetry.
Marissa and i have been engaging in an ongoing conversation about body politics in relationship to dance, wellness, and gender identity. In the face of my own health challenges, newly navigating the world with invisible disabilities, and bringing these complex dynamics into my own choreographic work, i connected to Perel’s ongoing struggles with chronic pain and performance making, and how these things which seem somewhat contradictory can coalesce and lead to new forms.
In this conversation, we talk about the choreographic process in her living room, the use of sculptural objects to mediate and heighten perceptions of stillness and everyday movement, and the reading of her personal narrative as part of the dance. We arrive at an open, moving conversation on “fierce vulnerability,” and the power of emotional content and choreographic subtlety.
Iele Paloumpis In my memory of how the performance started, the way Justin [Cabrillos] entered with a brightly colored rug and stick, stood out to me. It was something about the stick, how pale the wood was, that looked like it was naturally a part of the space of St. Mark’s. When I saw him lean the stick against one of columns, it made me think of you, of your body, leaning. And the rug was this lone source of comfort. The movement was very still, but at the same time it felt very personal to the dancers themselves. It was quiet, internal, reflective, subtle. Were the performers improvising, or was the movement choreographed?
Marissa Perel It was a combination of set choreography and improvisation. Tess [Dworman]’s movement on the rug comes from a series of Authentic Movement sessions on the rug on my living room floor. We then weaved certain phrases together from those sessions. When Tess was walking with the wooden stick, and would lean on the stick to pivot her body, it’s a stance I take with my cane in everyday life that becomes a gesture.
IP It’s fascinating to me that somehow the stick became this magical object that provided another way of working with movement and seeing the body in the performance.
MP I wanted to open up the viewer’s perception of the performers’ bodies instead of literalizing the stick as a prosthetic aid. The movement and object reference my experience, but are distinctly other than that. I was trying to choreograph a dance between my own physical limitations, and the perception of the body sculpturally. It was all guided by stillness. I wanted the dancers to be able to stand and look, and have that be the event. I wasn’t interested in having them break out of the subtlety; I wanted the stillness to be just what it was.
The dance wasn’t hard to do because of physical challenges, but because of limitations. I was always asking Tess and Justin to do less. Justin has a “dancing femur-head” score, where he pauses in the middle of walking, and rolls the right side of his pelvis over and over on his femur. It’s a movement I do to try to get out of a stuck place in my hip, but for Justin, that movement is completely within his control. His next gesture is a twist out of his hip, which I can’t do.
IP That sense of control is such a hard thing. How we can or can’t move based on how our bodies are made.
MP Well, there I was in my apartment, not being able to move much, or do certain quotidian tasks, and inside of that my body felt very out of control. I desired the feeling of control and simplicity. So, I wanted to carve a dance through the space keeping those values in mind.
IP There was a level of restraint to the dance that felt very considered. It didn’t seem put on, or overly contained, it seemed to occupy a certain space. i noticed that the dancers never touched, or interacted with one another.
MP Tess and Justin are very different in terms of their personas and performance styles. I wanted to give space to those differences. Their interaction of holding the stick at the same time created an intimacy that resonated for the piece, it had to be mediated by an object.
IP i was thinking about that in relationship to previous conversations we’ve had. What is accessible? How do we connect through/with our difference? Justin’s isolation upstage when the piece started brought these questions to mind immediately. i also thought it was interesting that Justin’s back was to the audience at times. It didn’t feel like an act of resistance or giving attitude. It felt like he was simply moving in another direction, and we were behind him.
MP Privacy is one of the points of focus in the dance. Justin isn’t refusing to be seen by the audience. Energetically, his body is open to be viewed, even though he is sometimes facing away. Tess’s angles and pivots were meant to always keep her gaze slightly askew, so she never looks at the audience straight-on. This practice with their gazes shifts over the course of the piece until they each perform material where they are facing the audience. It corresponds to the text I’m reading. The build up to when they face the audience corresponds to when I talk about mourning for my friend, the poet, Akilah Oliver. Each section of the dance helps me build on the text and open up to the audience with what I’m saying.
IP Was the timing of the reading and dance set, or did they correspond by chance?
MP It was loosely constructed so that I knew approximately which material Justin or Tess would be doing while I read a certain section, but it was still up to chance. I could decide not to read certain parts, or read them differently.
IP i really love when there is the space for potentiality in the work. It’s a very empowering position to be able to decide what you want to read and when, what your needs are in that moment, and what you want to say.
MP My performance work usually originates from writing, but I am always changing it based on what the performance becomes and demands. I always have the text there, but I might read it differently, change parts, or start saying something else. This time, I was building a world with Tess and Justin, and felt permission to fully shape that world with language. Reading the text while others are dancing is a new form for me. It’s a very different kind of power than being on stage itself.
IP i recently had a conversation with a colleague about my work, and the word “permissiveness,” came up in a critique. When i was studying under Donna Faye Burchfield [at Hollins University], she would say over and over, “You just need to give yourself permission.” So when i heard the word permissiveness, i didn’t associate it with criticism, i associated it with power.
Another word that comes to mind is vulnerability, giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable. Vulnerability isn’t just this soft, gooey thing that is too soft and gooey. That shit can cut you! There’s a fierceness that comes from that. In watching you give yourself permission to be vulnerable, it made room for me to touch parts of my own pain. And, going a step further, i can imagine my thoughts referring to you in the near future when there inevitably comes a time when i need that permission/courage to communicate my own experience.
MP Some audience members approached me after the performance and told me that it made them want to cry, or that they did cry. It was hard for me to hear that, but I did want the audience to connect to my own sadness. I made the piece out of despair, and I knew there was no way to get out of that. At the same time, I know that some people feel manipulated by the display or confession of emotion, so I felt that I was also being held responsible for something. I wanted them to be ok with what they were feeling, but I was also thinking, “Why can’t it be wonderful to feel an emotion?”
IP Wow, of course! It’s hard to know whether the audience is connecting with what you’re feeling, or associating their own history with what you’re saying, or what they might be projecting onto you. In listening to your voice read that letter to Stacy [Szymaszek], it was crystal clear from the beginning that the experiences, memories and desires came directly from your body. They were "personal" in that they were uniquely and unquestionably yours, and even in moments when you quoted other texts, it was still clear to me how those texts influence your experience and perception. The strongest example of this for me was when you read:
Key words from The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability:
All at once, i felt like i was hearing your/my skepticism, sarcastic humor, and internalized shame in relation to bodily desire. But instead of "individual expression" creating a barrier to the audience, (ie: the idea of things getting "too personal") it opened many of us up.
The last lines really resonated for me:
When you ask me to make a dance and I write you a poem. Either way something is breathing for twenty minutes and then it disappears.
Lately, i've been feeling the absence of dance in my body as it adjusts alongside my physical impairments. i don't know how to best communicate that feeling of loss - especially when my clearest means of communication have always been through dancing. So the thought of you giving yourself permission to write a poem in place of a dance (although i'd argue that you most certainly did both) felt very powerful to me, as did the thought that all of these states of being are impermanent.
MP What was your experience of the end of the piece, when I finished reading the text from the audience and came onto the floor?
IP That was a very decisive moment where you finally showed yourself. You moved directly forward, in a straight line toward the altar.
MP I had a really hard time with that. Thom [Donovan], who was my dramaturge, was insistent on me showing myself at some point in the piece. He wanted me to stand in front of the audience. All of the feelings of shame came up, and I had to really fight myself to stand there. It’s much easier to feel confident in your presence when you have total command over your stance. It’s a slippery issue because I don’t appear to have anything wrong with me, and yet I have that cane.
IP This raises the issue of visible vs. invisible disability. Joni Eareckson Tada, from the International Disability Center said this interesting thing when speaking to someone with chronic fatigue, “People have such high expectations of folks like you [with invisible disabilities], like, ‘come on, get your act together.’ but they have such low expectations of folks like me in wheelchairs, as though it’s expected that we can’t do much.” Both of those perspectives are oppressive ways of seeing or actually not seeing disabled people.
MP Right, well, how can I know that I am actually seen by the audience? I might have a myriad of projections placed on me that I have no control over. At the same time, I’m trying to feel like it is fine to stand there. Waiting on a subway platform, it is not always clear, someone could just knock the cane away and there goes my power, but no one is going to run up from the audience and do that at Danspace.
IP It becomes a matter of standing in whatever your power is in that moment. Giving what it is you have to offer, and that being a source of strength. By allowing yourself to really go there and be visible, you extended permission outward. Watching and listening to you gave the audience an opportunity to witness your fierce vulnerability. Showing that difference is a form of strength.
iele paloumpis is a trans/queer dance artist, choreographer and teacher. At the center of their practices are ideas exploring body politics and artistic self-empowerment.