Safe House
The Movement

Dance Place
Washington, DC

October 15, 2017

Carmel Morgan

Usually my Sunday nights are sacred. I relax at home indulging in quiet before another work week begins. But on this Sunday, I gave up my typically serene end-of-the-week routine in favor of an encounter with difficult subject matter — human trafficking. And I’m glad I did, even if my emotional tranquility was temporarily shattered. It’s good to be shattered now and then as part of a shared artistic experience in a safe environment when the feeling of being broken is momentary. Imagine, though, being caught in circumstances in which your freedom is circumscribed. What if a relaxing, self-indulgent evening is but a dream, and your reality is something painful from which you yearn to escape?

Dance Place, now led by Executive Artistic Director Christopher K. Morgan, in conjunction with ArtWorks for Freedom, co-presented Strong in the Broken Places, a suite of four dances addressing human trafficking. ArtWorks for Freedom, a nonprofit organization that harnesses the power of the arts to raise awareness of human trafficking, commissioned the four-part dance suite. Actually, there were three dances and one work that might be better described as performance art. The artists were asked to contribute works around the idea of “Kintsugi,” the Japanese art of repairing ceramics with gold, silver, or platinum lacquer to highlight the beauty of the imperfections and show reverence for the object’s history. Each of the artists was paired with a human trafficking survivor who was able to supply a personal perspective. Barbara Amaya, author of Nobody’s Girl and an ArtWorks Advisory Board Member, worked with Erica Rebollar; Tina Frundt, Founder and Executive Director of Courtney’s House, an organization that helps protect children from sexual exploitation and trains community officials about sex trafficking, worked with Holly Bass; and Shamere McKenzie, Executive Director of The Sun Gate Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds educational opportunities for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking, worked with PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER and Christopher K. Morgan.  

Rebollar’s work, Safe House, was inspired by Amaya’s book, and also by a documentary about sex slavery in New York City called “Very Young Girls.” The start of Safe House is stunning. Five female dancers (Amanda Blythe, Heather Glasgow Doyle, Katie Sopoci Drake, Franki Graham, and Shanna Lim) rest in lit squares on the ground, their legs flipped over their heads such that only their backs and rear ends are erect and visible to the audience. They look like truncated statues, not whole human beings. When the dancers finally stand, they pulls their shirts down. What had been an electronic pulsing buzz becomes the sounds of breathing and gasping tears. Dancers violently manipulate themselves and shake. They’re isolated. One twirls like an autistic whirling dervish. A voice emerges uttering the words like “shame, blame, game, aim, love, hurt,” repeatedly, and later, “I want to kill, I want to die, I want to hide, to run, to love, to live, to be awake” in different languages. As if in frustration, the dancers kick, pull, and stomp, and go up and down from the floor, until they’re exhausted. Yet there are embraces in the end, a sisterhood built from trauma.

Deontay Gray in Christopher K. Morgan's Sliver, photo by Oliver Mertz

Deontay Gray in Christopher K. Morgan’s Sliver, photo by Oliver Mertz

Morgan’s work, Sliver, engages more literally with the broken theme, with strips of light making cracks on the black stage. Three women (Tiffanie Carson, Abby Farina, and Racher Silver) and one man (Deontay Gray), all wearing pale gray, carefully navigate the bright shards like tightrope walkers, often sticking to sharp diagonals. Or they bunch together, piling hands over hands, leaning against each other for support. When someone breaks away, someone else eventually draws near. In grabbing one’s own ankle to hold a leg up, I could see strength and healing. When cellist Wytold enters and begins to play, black tape (or something like it) is unfurled across a glowing cute that splits the stage, and the dancers move along its path, delicate as gymnasts on a balance beam, pressing the darkness down so it won’t buckle. When a dancer steps away from the line, is he or she finally free?

Holly Bass’s work, The Movement, is, at first blush, a conversation with a trafficking survivor (on Sunday night, the role of Tina Frundt was performed brilliantly by Maryam Foye). Immediately, there is a problem with a microphone. Not the microphone of the interviewer, Bass, but the microphone of the survivor. It’s awkward, and humiliating, and gets worse, as each replacement microphone is likewise not working, rendering her unable to tell her story and causing her to become stuck in a mess of cords that wrap around her body. That is, until she whips out a glittery embellished microphone that she just happens to carry in her golden bag. She saves herself and speaks. Yet Bass doesn’t make things easy. She inappropriately interrupts, playing a round of duck, duck, goose to add “levity to a heavy topic.” It’s like no one wants to hear the survivor’s words. Bass literally pushes herself away, grabs the shiny microphone, and throws out some sexy whispers. Who do we listen to in life? Rather than describe details about being trafficked, Foye as Frundt ultimately relates a childhood memory — she used to hang out in libraries all day but never checked out books because she was in foster care and frequently moved, so she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to return them. Instead, she memorized her favorite stories so that she’d have them with her always, ready to share with her foster siblings, who begged her to “read” to them. Heartbreaking and human and vulnerable.

Stephanie Miracle in PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER's Gold, photo by Oliver Mertz

Stephanie Miracle in PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER’s Gold, photo by Oliver Mertz

At the close of the program was Gold, conceived and directed by Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig of PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER. You could hear crinkling just before the curtain opened. From the ceiling at the back of the stage to the floor of the front, long strips of silver hung like stripes cascading down the top of a circus tent (set design by Sali Treek). Five dancers (Tzveta Kassabova, Stephanie Miracle, Candace Scarborough, Patrik Widrig, and Huiwang Zhang), wearing black, move underneath and between the sloping rolls of sheen, which appear to be giant sheets of aluminum foil. They jump up and land with force, slamming the floor. They fall sideways, they get up, again and again, and the splat noises seem significant. A voice commands, “Stop,” and the dancers do. It’s clear the dancers aren’t the ones controlling their movement, and the foil stripes are such that they create the illusion of being imprisoned. At the end, the voice demands the dancers to stop, go, go back, take two steps, etc. Each dancer walks gingerly on a foil strip. It’s easy to anticipate that someone will keep walking past the point where the foil begins to lift toward the ceiling and it will break. Yes, it’s satisfying when that happens. And it’s satisfying when the dancer responsible for that break keeps walking, now of her own volition. It’s, well, gold!       

All of the works were effectively enhanced by the lighting design of Alberto Segarra.