michael j. morris

Beautiful Struggle between the visible and the invisible

Danté Brown, Esther Baker-Tarpaga, and Abigail Zbikowski
photo by Nick Fanscher

The Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project’s Beautiful Struggle premiered at the King Arts Complex Pythian Theatre on 13 April 2012. While my interest is to write about the piece itself—choreographed/directed by Esther Baker-Tarpaga in collaboration with performers Abigail Zbikowski, Danté Brown, Olivier Tarpaga, and D. Sabela Grimes—I feel I must first address the title and framing of the piece. Beautiful Struggle is said (by way of promotional materials and the program) to ask “audiences to think about the visibility and invisibility of race and privilege and how violence and love live on in the body’s memories.” It is important to me that when directed towards such complex issues as race, privilege, love, violence, visibility and invisibility, the ideas of “beauty” and “struggle” are not reduced to an antonymic binary. Beauty is not the opposite of struggle, but rather, struggle conditions a very particular kind of beauty. It is a beauty that does not come easily, and it is a beauty that is never entirely accomplished, victorious, at rest. It is a beauty that is necessarily vigorous, necessarily in tension, most likely in conflict. These conditions must not compromise the possibility of beauty; rather, I would suggest that in titling this work Beautiful Struggle, we are being asked to reconsider what is capable of being found beautiful—recognizing that “beauty” itself is never a neutral aesthetic assessment, but that aesthetics are intrinsically entangled with values, with an appreciation of a particular kind of world, and that those values take on social, political, and ethical valences. I do not feel that the title asks the viewer to be on the look out for how struggle obstructs or gives way to beauty, but rather asks us to consider the ways in which ongoing, unresolved conflict and struggle can, perhaps must, be found beautiful. This is the disposition with which I approached this work.

The piece opens with a figure crouched on table in dim light, facing away, tied to the table with ropes. Gradually the figure begins to move, and rises. The figure tied to the table (Baker-Tarpaga) struggles, but not with full force: a light trashing, a trashing that seems self conscious of is own futility. The trashing blends into undulations, swinging arms, stomping and stepping, and I begin to catch glimpses of what can be identified as citations of African dance forms. I am faced with a body—a body that seems visually legible as white and female, a body which is described to us (via spoken text in the soundscore) as a mother, as white, a body produced for us as white and female—being performed or coded with African movements, African culture. The transnationality of this body begins to appear across the surface of this body’s movements, and while nationality itself does not dislodge race—or gender for that matter—this kinetic appearance begins to gesture towards a history of formation that is not immediately legible on the surface of the skin.

The ropes constrain the movement; the body’s action is bounded from the beginning, and as the movements grow, they take on more impact. I see when they strike the limits of their range, with the ropes allowing each gesture to proceed no farther. Certainly there are complex semiotics being introduced in this image—the restraints and the table call up associations with auction blocks, execution scaffolds, go-go boxes at nightclubs, and museum pedestals; the ropes call up centuries of heretics and slaves and the bodies that were taken materially captive under such signifiers—and imagery and visual semiotics are an important aspect of this production. On first encounter, the piece seems in places more concerned with images and the visual that with movement itself. The citation and circulation of recognizable visual markers for race and gender—and in places, sexuality—provide points of departure throughout the piece; however, if the familiarity of these images holds my attention, it is because of how the choreography abandons these images for the less familiar and the less recognizable moving surfaces of the bodies on display.

The piece is predominantly bodies dancing in solo choreography, often in the company of other dancers. This brings attention to the individuation of these bodies, and perhaps, by extension, the formative histories of these bodies. Despite whatever superficial visual identifications I may make—white women, black men, for example—the solos function as a reminder that the stability and consistency of these categories depend on the reduction of bodies to one or two surface dimensions, specifically the visual (I might say, the “stationary visual”), and that such reductions are also elisions of other surfaces and dimensions along which these bodies take on complexity and differentiation. In these solos, the unique ways of moving that define each body, that make visible—however fleetingly—its training, its socialization, its cultures, remind me that these “white women” or “black men” are not merely “white” or “women” or “black” or “men,” but that each of these categories are always already run through with difference, revealing them as contingent and only ever partial. I do not mean to suggest that the complexity of racial or gender categorization can be escaped or abandoned through attention to movement or kinesthetic identity; rather, my suggestion is that in a production that so pointedly set out to address the visibility and invisibility of race, privilege, violence, love, etc., the solo movements of these dancing bodies are one strategy through which individual differences—some of which rupture within the smoothness of racial and gender categories—are made visible.

One such instance of the solo making visible a rupture in the smoothness or stability of what might have been previously ascertainable comes in a solo danced by Danté Brown. What begins as smooth, cool, and groovy moves on the dance floor dissolves into a spoken exchange at the front edge of the stage, calling out to “girls,” presumably in the audience. The monologue dissolves into a more sensuous two-step, a curving sway of the hips that eventually take Brown upstage to pose with the table now turned on its side. This moment of posing, gesturing towards sultry centerfolds and vogue balls, has a feminizing and queering effect on Brown’s body. Suddenly this is a body that no longer comfortably resides in the normative categories of “man” or, arguably, “black” (for a more comprehensive discussion of the intersection of race and sexuality, see Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture by Siobhan B. Somerville). These categories are not fully abandoned through this queering; Brown is still legible as a black man. However, the visible has been amended, and the invisible—here, a latent femininity, or queerness—has surfaced along the curves and swish of his gestures.

Yet the choreography does not become solipsistic; these bodies move through solos, but throughout the choreography bodies find alignments with other bodies through shared vocabularies, shared timing, and shared space, suggesting ways in which bodies of difference are held together, sometimes along visible lines of race and gender, and sometimes across such lines in ways that dance other groupings of bodies. What these shared choreographies accomplished is different each time, sometimes using bodies to demarcate space, sometimes creating presumably unlikely alliances—such as a strip and femininizing duet between Baker-Tarpaga and Brown that then dissolves into some kind of combat—and sometimes functioning more formally, simply showing different bodies moving together.

The demarcation of space is another way in which visibility is lent to that which is invisible. For instance, early in the piece, Brown and Zbikowski’s perform a rapid horizontal shuffling around the stage, marking off an arbitrary parameter. This is not the only time that the motions of bodies will be used to demarcate space, to trace an invisible parameter. Bodies walk in circles; they divide the stage in grids and on diagonals throughout the piece. I resist reading these instances as symbolic; I am not concerned with what it might represent that bodies are used to coalesce invisible parameters and borders on the stage space. Rather, my interest is that I as a viewer am made to see such invisible forms, patterns, and parameters, and that is accomplished through the movement of bodies dancing together. These spatial figures construct arbitrary and fleeting appearances of “insides” and “outsides,” one side and the other side, and the residues of these barely-visible geographies of the stage aggregate over the course of the choreography, showing that what was “inside” might now be “on the other side,” what was “over there” might now suddenly also be “out here.” There is a multiplicity to how space is demarcated and organized through the movements of bodies dancing together, revealing that these sorts of spatial dimensions are a positional production; they are in no way fixed, and over time intersect with other [sometimes paradoxical] positions and orientations. This is not visibility that is given in a single image, but rather that accumulates over time as an invisible residue of the visible.

Perhaps the most demonstrative performances of making visible something that does not lie in plain sight is through the use of impact throughout the choreography. Impact is first introduced in the opening scene of the dance, with the ropes tying Baker-Tarpaga to the table creating the concrete “edge” of her dancing; the source of the force of the impact is visible and concrete. Yet impact proceeds as a dominant movement motif throughout the piece, often with invisible sources, circulating through all of the performers at various points. What I mean by impact is multiple: first, I mean the force with which the movement stops, as if hitting an invisible surface. This surfaces in movements that strike suddenly, the collision of movement with the strength and control of the body. By impact, I also mean the illusion of the body being struck, performances of feigned combat throughout the piece. By “feigned,” I mean only that in these instances there are no visible opponents; the combat is an effect of a single body’s motion. I do not mean, however, that the force or even violence of these impacts is diminished for having been feigned. On the contrary, the is a poignancy to the extreme force with which bodies box with invisible opponents, jerk and thrash as if struck, and are sent tumbling and rolling across the stage space as if tossed by someone much larger in size and strength. One of the most memorable of these moments is a solo performed by Abigail Zbikowski, lit only by a floodlight handled by Baker-Tarpaga. Zbikowski begins to move with undulating, smooth and circular movement, as if her body is continually curving and sliding around itself. However, as Baker-Tarpaga approaches her with the hand-held light, her body responds violently, as if struck repeatedly from all directions. I want to emphasize that while this violence is an effect of the performer’s body on itself, this does not make the violence of these actions any less real. These sudden contractions, these rapid impacts and blows, while effected by the body also affect the body, live on in tissues. I begin to speculate about the physical costs of performing; the sometimes inherent violence of choreography—imposing, even consensually, movement on an-other body; the ways in which choreography/performance produces the body, participating in the formative history of the individual; and finally, the internalized force of social choreographies such as gender and race. It would be a stretch to say that all of this is directly addressed in these physicalizations of impact, but what can be said is that Zbikowski’s solo, and similar movement throughout the piece, show the force of the body acting on itself, a force whose source, unlike the ropes at the start of the piece, is never entirely visible.

Finally, the image that lingers with me the most as I live with my experience of the piece over the last several days is the use of the light and the front edge of the stage, both of which seem to be principally concerned with visibility (the light illuminating what can be seen a directing the viewers attention, the front edge of the stage being the precipice between the audience seeing and the performers being seen). Both elements are used almost as weapons throughout Beautiful Struggle, the bodies of performers being sent tumbling across the stage into the floor and the back wall of the stage. Both seem to suggest a physical violence to being or becoming visible, that what is or can be seen acts forcefully upon bodies. These images raise questions, even concerns, about visibility, almost a suspicion of the visible. I am reminded of Peggy Phelan’s Unmakred: the politics of performance, and her struggle with the ideology of the visible. She writes: “It is assumed that disenfranchised communities who see their members within the representational field will feel greater pride in being part of such a community and those who are not in such a community will increase their understanding of the diversity and strength of such communities. Implicit within this argument are several presumptions which bear further scrutiny: 1) Identities are visibly marked so the resemblance between the African-American on the television and the African American on the street helps the observer see they are members of the same community. Reading physical resemblance is a way of identifying community. 2) The relationship between representation and identity is linear and smoothly mimetic. What one sees is who one is. 3) If one’s mimetic likeness is not represented, one is not addressed. 4) Increased visibility equals increased power. Each presumption reflects the ideology of the visible, an ideology which erases the power of the unmarked, unspoken, and unseen” (7). Phelan attempts “to find a theory of value for that which is not ‘really’ there, that which cannot be surveyed within the boundaries of the putative real…. attempting to revalue a belief in subjectivity and identity which is not visibly representable” (1). This seems to be the Beautiful Struggle engaged by Baker-Tarpaga and company, a discrepancy between what is seen and what is unseen, between the urge to increase visibility and the tangible apprehension of the violent power of visibility. The piece struggles between the restaging familiar tropes of visible identifications, making visible the often invisible or elided complexity of such identities, and preserving the importance of an orientation and attention to what cannot be seen, what does not lie smoothly on the surface.

Beautiful Struggle does not resolve, not should it. To resolve would suggest that resolution of the issues it addresses is possible or achievable, and such resolution does not seem to be possible, at least/especially within our current historical moment. However, this production does not grieve the unresolvability of this struggle; rather, it stages the beauty of such struggle, the aesthetic and ethical value that is possible only through sustained engagement within difference, conflict, contradiction, the visible, and the invisible.


1 Comment so far
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love this post. we had coffee many moons ago and you were articulating a lot of these ideas regarding beauty and ethics. it’s lovely to see them so fully developed now and well-placed.

Comment by marygrace

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