Bodies Against the Grain

program note for the seldoms, the making @ pulaski park fieldhouse, 09-11, 16-18 November 2017.

The Seldoms in The Making. Photo: Callum Rice.

Who are you who will read these words and study these photographs, and through what cause, by what chance, and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it?

— James Agee

There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

— Walter Benjamin

The forces that buffet the powerless pummel and pull, upset and undermine, strain and arrest, bend and almost break. These forces—inequality, injustice, unfairness, racism, sexism, prejudice, ignorance, lack of access, abuse, exploitation, bad luck—place a person under enormous pressure, in body and in soul. This state of being often evinces a profound sadness, both in the suffering subject and in anyone with half a heart who witnesses powerlessness.

How can one properly register the body in pain as it strives, suffers, yet also survives and persists? Whether silently or silenced, the body still does its work. Even under duress, it is the building block of the self, of society, a starting point not only for registering impacts, but also for responding to conditions of unfairness, of imposition, of limitation. Bare life, contracted and worn down, stripped to its pulsations, threatens to disintegrate, fragment in pieces. It hurts. And yet it still resolutely assembles itself into being, into coherence. The person checks herself. The person locates himself. They reposition and, even when almost bowled over, recoil to action. They beat back the onslaught.

Skeletal, muscular, sensorial, sentient, the body is where we begin, where we end, how we often connect. When a sentiment accrues power we call it touching. The body’s physicality is what moves us through life as we move in a million forms and ways, out of phase, sometimes syncing up. The body is where the person starts, and it becomes a framework for a multitude of personhoods.

But we often do not see it that way. Institutions, ideas, words, technology, money, wealth, status—these are among the things we think divide the victors from the defeated, the elites from the “underprivileged,” as we euphemistically call them. The body remains, however. It must inhabit these entities, shaped by and for them, but it reaches beyond them, too.

The Making continues a line of inquiry that The Seldoms have been pursuing over the last few years. Power Goes (2015) explored power and persuasion through the figure of President Lyndon Johnson and his times. RockCitizen (2016) examined power and agitation in the broader social movements of the 1960s and 70s. But while these works investigated power by employing tactics of multimedia storytelling, including spoken word, historical photographs, texts, and music, video projections, and, of course, movement, The Making removes language and history, shifting to the body itself, squeezed to the brink of breakdown, confronting problems, struggling to deal. In The Making, The Seldoms use their dancing bodies to “brush history against the grain,” as Walter Benjamin famously wrote, to reveal powerlessness and to show its costs. They then investigate how people nonetheless carry on, sometimes with astonishing recovery or discovery of a poise and a purpose they did not know they possessed—forces that somehow skim along the skin, explode like lightning from fingertips, or are summoned from deep within, sporadic but propulsive.

The group, led by artistic director Carrie Hanson, also asks audiences to attend to how perceptions of powerlessness matter, using visual artwork by Fraser Taylor, Bob Faust and Liviu Pasare, and Faheem Majeed as touchstones, sometimes as blockades, other times as liberating tools. Under Julie Ballard’s lighting, accompanied by Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design, the violin of Chihsuan Yang, and in costume designs by Melissa Leandro, the dancers embed supposedly powerless bodies in various contexts and settings that allow audiences to witness their movement anew, see them fresh, honor their suffering, realize their beauty, grasp their difficulties, admire their endurance. Sometimes, we cannot even see them at all, or we see them partially, or we see them too close or at almost epic, but distant scales. One begins to glimpse how seeing itself matters to the ways in which we perceive and experience powerlessness.

When people lack resources, when they are hit by forces beyond their control, when they are reduced to little, they must use what they have at hand—actually better said what they have in their bodies as a whole—to make do, to survive, and maybe even to thrive. Often in The Making the dancers go it alone, as indeed do many people who find themselves in situations of powerlessness. But the most provocative moments are when The Seldoms coordinate their activities. In those instances, the dancers reveal how even among the ostensibly underserved, the down and out, those with few resources other than their own bodies, power can grow rapidly, exponentially, forcefully, through solidarity.

In the end, we must find ways to move together, individuals never dissolving into a mob or a mass, but in ensembles of action, in formations of inclusive, dynamic mutualism. There is not victimhood here, but rather something else: an honoring of tenderness and need alongside expressions of strength and potency. These leave their mark. They are how our isolated bodies become a successful collective social body, something bigger than oneself yet helping to define and sustain a more robust sense of selfhood.

We are meant to be moved by this kind of action, with sadness but not with despair. Because when experiencing it one realizes that this is ultimately how we are made: of, by, and for the making.

Tickets for The Seldoms, The Making @ Pulaski Park Field House, 09-11, 16-18 November 2017.

Damon Green in The Seldoms, The Making. Photo: Callum Rice.
Hannah Santistevan in The Seldoms, The Making. Photo: Callum Rice.

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