dancing where bodies meet legal & economic contracts: joel valentin-martinez, brazos y abrazos @ marjorie ward marshall dance center, northwestern university, 14 march 2014; philip elson, terms and conditions @ links hall, 16 march 2014.
Joel Valentin-Martinez’s Brazos y Abrazos (Arms and Embraces) and Philip Elson’s Terms and Conditions, which both appeared on stage in Chicago during the same March 2014 weekend, were worth seeing side by side because even as they explored very different topics, they also shared an unlikely and surprising common interest: how dance allows us to glimpse where bodies meet legal and economic contracts. What does it mean to be bound to something, legally as well as corporeally? Where does movement, labor, muscle, and mind meet up with words, laws, agreements, stipulations, and disputes? What happens at the intersections of the human body and the body of contract law? What kinds of possibilities does this interplay unleash—and what are the many constraints it creates?
Valentin-Martinez’s dance piece was inspired by Bittersweet Harvest, a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition about the Bracero Program, a controversial guest worker agreement that sent agricultural laborers from Mexico to the United States beginning in World War II. The exhibition appeared in Evanston this spring and Valentin-Martinez’s piece at Northwestern* probed the conditions of exploitation, possibility, community, displacement, the earth, and the self that agricultural labor across the Mexico-US border created. Dancers leapt and twisted and turned, but most powerfully moved in rows horizontally across the stage, back and forth, grounded, bent, rooting themselves even in their displacement from home to distant places of employment. Their bodies enacted the backbreaking labor they had agreed, legally, to complete (though not always with a full understanding of the English language contracts they had signed). The dance acknowledged the pain and difficulties, the injustices and unfairness, of the Bracero Program, but it also registered how participants in the program transformed their contracted displacement into something else: a patience, a fortitude, a strength, indeed a bittersweet harvest not only of plants and food, but also of social life and individual being.
In his first piece as a choreographer, Elson, who is an ensemble member of The Seldoms Dance Company*, took his audience to a very different setting: while Valentin-Martinez took us back into the historical memory of contract labor in the agricultural past (though this kind of labor is still very much with us in the modern world, let us not forget), Elson intensified our awareness of the contemporary, even futuristic, world of what we might call digital contract leisure. His work created a heavily mediated space in which bodies interacted with the immaterial yet powerful forces of digital technology. Projected behind the dancers was an immersive environment of digital video—mock advertisements for ridiculous digital products and the assaults of sped-up, exaggerated announcements of the terms and conditions for digital applications (those pages of endless “fine type” text we all never read carefully but to which we must agree in order to participate in the digital world). These set the tone, funny but also ominous, as the video was interspersed with solos and ensemble movement that, in striking, original, well-crafted dance movement, took on a kind of prothetic quality, gesturing as much to the spaces around and among the dancers as to their bodies themselves. It was as if the forces of the digital were continually pulling away from the bodies of the dancers and toward circuits of dematerialized power and flow.
If Brazos y Abrazos (Arms and Embraces) sought out moment of groundedness within the historical displacements of immigrant labor, Terms and Conditions pursued the dissipation of the self and community in an increasingly untethered, wireless, modern world of screens, apps, social media, and GPS maps. The dance paid close attention to the ways in which data born of—and borne by—the body is either augmenting, extending, or perhaps even replacing muscle and bone and bodily form. Arms vogued away from eyes, fingers pointed off into the corners of the room as if zapping out the inner soul to the air, bodies seemed shocked, turned, jolted, by sudden inputs and pulsations, dancers fell and collapsed onto one another, limp, tossed about, if they had lost their centers of gravity.
In the horizontal movement across the stage in Brazos y Abrazos (Arms and Embraces), the dancers seemed to be crouched down deep—knees and backs bent, suffering but also solid and striving as they tilled, weeded, watered, and harvested crops not their own, yet somehow made theirs by their contracted labor transformed into bittersweet beauty. At one point, Terms and Conditions also featured the dancers moving across the stage in rows. But this time instead of crouched and planting, they were standing yet slumped as they stared down at imaginary mobile devices in their hands. Sometimes they moved forcefully, marching across the stage; sometimes they moved like zombies, entranced by the virtual worlds held within their hands, which had sucked their bodies in and almost seemed to replace the actual physical space before their eyes. They were no longer walking only into an embodied, actual future, but also into a simulated one too.
As they looked down, not forward, gazing into their palms, the dance seemed to emphasize a different kind of contract that we now enter into when we use digital technologies of the present day. These were not the older legal and economic agreements (and their buried injustices and disagreements) of the Bracero Program, but rather new kinds of contracted activities in which many engage today when we give up our privacy, our interiority, our identities, for participation in the pixelated dreamlands of digital experience. We do so as consumers, in our leisure. Only these entrances into the digital realm also contain a kind of lurking labor, what some cultural theorists call “playbor,” a new mode of economic transaction in which, neither exactly by free will nor entirely through involuntary coercion, we hand over parts of our bodies and our minds when we log on and join in to the digital emporium. There, where information supposedly wants to be free, dance reveals other terms and conditions hidden in the rectangular glowing screens and thrilling algorithmic calculations. These are the costs we may not quite always be computing as we are pulled, body and soul, into the new circuitries of pleasure and labor in the digital world. We tilt forward into this future, yet, in postures contracted yet ungrounded, are we really looking anymore where we are going?
*Full disclosure, I teach in the History Department at Northwestern, where Joel Valentin-Martinez is a faculty member, and I work with Philip Elson in The Seldoms Dance Company, where I serve as dramaturg and he is a key ensemble member.