A collaboration in Richmond examines how dance can be used to create community and foster dialogue. The partnership between VCU, the non-profit Dance Exchange, and members of the public culminates this weekend with the performance “Still Crossing.” Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
At a VCU Dance studio, about thirty people stand in a big circle and warm up, patting their arms, legs and torsos. The youngest is 7, the oldest 80. The students and community members are part of a residency with the Takoma Park, Maryland-based non-profit Dance Exchange. Cassie Meador is the organization’s artistic director.
Cassie Meador: For over 40 years Dance Exchange has been creating performances in communities around our country as a way to examine and to explore, unpack the histories and the questions that are most central to our lives and to the world that we’re living in. And one of the ways that we do that, at the core of our mission are four questions: Who gets to dance? Where is the dance happening? What is it about? And why does it matter?
Dance Exchange brings together people of all ages and different disciplines. Performances have explored aging, racial equity and nuclear physics. They’ve taken place in shipyards, hospitals and forests. The program with VCU began last Fall. Dance students facilitated movement and storytelling workshops with seniors at Better Housing Coalition’s Randolph Place.
Meador: And from the sharing of those experiences and stories, there’s rich movement that can be drawn from that, both the movements that the body is making while people are communicating and sharing these stories through words but also the movements that we draw out from the rich imagery in the stories. So students are getting to bring their choregraphic skills and capacities to this really new context outside of the dance studio and outside of the theater.
Working with community members has been eye opening for students, says School of Dance Associate Chair Lea Marshall.
Lea Marshall: All of them have spoken at one time or another about a deeper understanding of how we view elders in our culture and how ageism is as potent a force as racism or sexism and how working in this way has really helped them gain a deeper understanding of what dance can facilitate across generational lines, across cultural lines and how it is a mode of engagement that has a great deal of power.
Intergenerational exchanges continued as students and community members began to rehearse Still Crossing. The piece was created by Dance Exchange founder Liz Lerman and first performed in 1986. It was staged at night, in Manhattan’s Battery Park.
Meador: The backdrop of the performance is Lady Liberty lighting up the night sky and lighting up the performance and you can see the ships passing in the background, so the tempo of that against the dance in the front of it.
Still Crossing is a meditation on the experiences of immigrants. Meador says the power of the work comes from the questions it brings.
Meador: Questions significant to the times that we’re really living in now and that I feel must be asked now. Questions about who is welcome in our country, who decides who is welcome in our country, who is America for? As well as questions that the piece has carried for a long time about what it means to leave one home and begin a new home somewhere else and what we leave behind in order to do that, what we carry with us.
Questions also arise from each place Still Crossing is performed. A city’s unique history and the lived experiences of dancers shape the work. VCU student Marsell Chavarria is majoring in dance and choreography.
Marsell Chavarria: Involving the work Still Crossing, there were some questions that came to mind within the process and in the making of the work. How do we reconcile the journeys to this country that were not by choice, the forced migration of Africans into slavery at the founding of our nation. And second how do we face and heal wounds this history still creates today? My family migrated from Puerto Rico, with my mother, her two sisters and my abuelos. Since then they have been searching for a better life, more opportunities, safety and lower taxes.
Fifty-one year old community dancer Ingram Brown is also thinking about these issues.
Ingram Brown: Most of us came here as an immigrant, whether it be a choice, whether it be for servitude, whether it be enslavement, we all came here to this country, majority of our families are the result of immigration.
Brown was born in Germany to American military parents, and is a naturalized citizen.
Brown: This is an incredible nation and it’s filled with incredible people, just a rich, rich fabric. So, I would encourage people to think back about their history and their families and where their families came from. Yes, we live in different parts of the country that may strive a little differently or sound a little different or have different cultural aspects but we all came here from some place and we’ve all created really a great nation where we can provide for each other and have built this nation together, all of us.
Seniors taking part in still crossing are called “seasoned dancers.” Dorothy Schoeneman is one of them.
Schoeneman has several prominent parts in Still Crossing. Just a week before the final performances, she shared her own family’s history with fellow dancers.
Schoeneman: I was a refugee, I came in 1948 to the United States as a stateless person and I’ve been a faithful and loyal American ever since. I’m proud of that and I’m proud that I can do this.
Eleven years old at the time, she remembers looking up at the Statue of Liberty as she approached the shores of the New York.
Schoeneman: I saw it when I came, I remember being on the boat and seeing it and looking out for it and it was absolutely amazing.
At a special performance for Virginia General Assembly members and their spouses, Dorothy Schoeneman leads other community dancers as they roll across the floor. Dressed in shades of blue, they move past student dancers, like waves carrying migrants across an ocean. VCU dance major Christine Wyatt says community dancers bring something powerful to the performance.
Christine Wyatt: When you watch a seasoned dancer move, it’s like their life experience is in their motion. There’s no way that I can move like Dorothy, one of the soloists in Still Crossing. There’s no way I can move like her because I haven’t experienced what she’s experienced, I haven’t had my life yet. Part of it is also noticing and acknowledging that what Dorothy and all the seasoned movers, what they have to offer and the way that they do the movements is just as valuable as what the [student] dancers bring to the piece.
The piece ends with the full cast moving in unison, side by side. Arms crossed above their heads, they gesture a breaking of chains. Freedom secured, dancers raise their arms high, a movement of strength and unity.
Chavarria: Right now a lot of transitions are in place between ourselves individually, as a community, in our own state, in our country and as a world and Still Crossing is about making those bridges and not building walls to cover them.
Wyatt: The fact that this work brings all these different people from all these different backgrounds together in the same space, helping each other, following each other, leading each other. That’s one of the most amazing things, particularly about the end section of this work. I’m following the people who are in front people, the people who are beside me are dancing with me and I think that’s such an important metaphor for right now, because if we highlight and focus on the unity-- Our differences, they’re there, we must acknowledge them, but they don’t outweigh our unity, our sense of humanity, what we’re here to do.
Still Crossing will be performed as part of VCU Dance Now, Thursday February 16th through Saturday February 18 at the Grace Street Theater. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.