By Anne Bluethenthal, Professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry and Artistic Director of ABD Productions
I am a lover of covert political art. This is not to say I don’t love, appreciate, and perpetrate abundant overt acts of political art. But I get a special thrill from the surprising twist of language, image, form, structure, and mere presence that turns some piece of the world on its head, stretches my brain, catches my breath, and extracts from me a sly smile of recognition.
I swoon watching the delicious, tall, brazen, butch presence of Peggy Shaw--lesbian theater artist--whose presence on stage is itself an act of cultural subversion (“I’m so queer I don’t have to talk about it, it speaks for itself!”). She doesn’t need a diatribe of gender theory to justify her work. She is the diatribe incarnate. And I’m moved to tears watching aerial dance matriarch Terry Sendgraff hanging naked and fetal from a bungee cord; gradually, systematically revealing her one-breasted chest as she hovers precariously and confidently above our heads. The normalizing of the radical has a special place in my art heart.
That sense of “normal” has intriguingly evolved and changed in the Bay Area arts scene over the past 2-3 decades. When I first started making dances professionally, it was not at all usual for women to be lifting each other, much less lifting men. When my dancers worked with each other in this way, absent any gender assumptions, this was a radical act, made covert in the sense that the dances were not overtly concerned with gender. These were abstract dances, dances about the environment, about family, spirituality, relationship. The radical act that excites me has to do with the presence of a certain vocabulary or physicality that, by being intrinsic to the dance creates a visceral revolution. Now, the act of women lifting men or each other is neither radical nor noteworthy – at least in most of the contemporary dance scene. In some archaic forms, of course, the old gender roles are alive and well and perpetuating old ideas through kinesthetic and visual cues.
Beyond even the usual covert acts – the assumption of a certain presence on stage, the subversion of visual and theatrical or gender norms – are the politics of the body itself. How the body performs the culture, how we physicalize our economies and our cosmologies has been an interest – obsession actually – for most of my life. I see the potential to awaken and rupture hegemonic views through conscious acts of kinesthetic art. When western thought and action aspire toward the sky in an unreflected passion that defies gravity, denies body, and disconnects from other beings, it becomes a radical act to cultivate a technique and language of the body that allows, that opens, that surrenders to gravity, that dissolves the barriers between body parts and among bodies. This is even subtler, more covert work. The soft ankle that opens the foot to the earth, the sternum that yields rather than hardens around the heart, the arms that hang and follow from the spine rather than forming themselves into preconceived lines and curves of fragmented speech – these are silent statements of revolution. This art is about the absence of striving, rather than its replacement with another sort of effort. Absence is not usually consciously perceived. Instead, it slips into the consciousness of the observer not through even the visual image, but viscerally, through the kinesthetic sense, transforming through the subtle transmission of…less.