A buzz of uneasy anticipation ran through the audience at Brooklyn’s Actors Fund Arts Center as stagehands unfurled a room-sized sheet of plastic, placing it center stage and taping down its edges. As the performance began, it quickly became clear why: two dancers, Laurie Deziel and Ashley McQueen, would soon be wrestling with a huge American flag and dripping with, well, what exactly? Blood? Paint? Oil? It was all part of a powerful and engaging excerpt of Refusing To Be Disposed, an allegory of women’s struggle and resistance, performed as part of evening of dance on October 21.
As the lights dimmed, the dancers took the stage against a video montage of early twentieth century suffragette marches, the 2017 women’s march on Washington, D.C., and the #MeToo movement. At center stage, one woman (McQueen) stood draped in what turned out to be an elongated, American flag-like “leash,” and soon she was wrestling with the flag, seemingly trapped inside it and struggling to free herself. The flag itself was soggy, wet, dripping with what appeared to be blood, and the dancer was soon drenched. Meanwhile, a second dancer (Deziel) – also, like the first, clad in either a two-piece bathing outfit or workout clothes – strode purposefully across the plastic, carrying one at a time what appeared to be paint trays, carefully setting down each one of the four corners of the plastic sheeting.
As the piece unfolded, the first dancer managed to free herself from the flag entanglement, and she then used it to engage in a muscular tug-of-war with an (offstage) partner. The second dancer, whose movements seemed to signify pain, struggle, and enormous effort, contorted her body while spreading red, white, and blue paint across the floor. To a score marked by jarring, often abstract musical accompaniment, the dancers struck poses that alternated between oppressed, angry, and supremely defiant. At the piece’s finish, both dancers were literally painted from head to toe in multi-hued colors, survivors and triumphant.
The presentation of Refusing To Be Disposed was an excerpt from a much longer piece, part of a master’s thesis by Ashley McQueen, the choreographer and artistic director of Smashworks Dance, which calls itself “a New York-based group of movers advocating for human rights through arts activism.” In an interview with Picture This Post, McQueen said that the full-length work is backed by a sixty-page, footnoted research paper into all aspects of how women and women’s roles have been treated historically and in the current political moment. It is, she said, “designed to make people uncomfortable” – just the desecration of the American flag alone could do that for many – and to “performatively redefine my role as a woman.” The objectification of women’s bodies, the “spectacle of femininity,” the “notion of the disposability of women’s bodies,” and the struggle of women to free themselves from the boundaries and constraints imposed by a patriarchal society are all reflected in the piece, she said.
The company, Smashworks Dance, is explicitly political. “We dance to advocate for human rights issues through education outreach and performing arts,” says the company’s website. “Our artistic work reflects and responds to current societal challenges and provides an alternative platform for peaceful dialogue. We are a multi-faceted, international group of artists and activists dedicated to promoting inclusiveness and diversity within our community.” Recently, it has focused on the immigration and refugee crisis, and they’ve explicitly advocated for get-out-the-vote efforts in 2018.
Emotions Physical Theatre Presents 11 Dances
The October 21 performance was the final set in a series of eleven dances, curated and presented by Shawn Rawls of Emotions Physical Theatre, part of An Evening of Contemporary Dance. Among the performances, a standout, in this writer’s view, was Wabisabi by Komorebi Collab, in which one dancer (Sofie Nappi, who choreographed the piece) appeared as a loose-limbed, puppet-like figure who was soon dancing with two others (Elias Rosa, Joey Picciotti). In one sequence, one of the male dancers seemed at first to be the puppet-master, but as their movements began to mimic each other, it was hard to tell which one was the puppet and which the master.
Laurie Deziel, Ashley McQueen
“Suffering Suffragettes” from SchoolHouseRock
A Tape Full of Mistakes
Smashworks Dance will premiere an evening length political satire FOR WHICH IT STANDS and Ashley McQueen's REFUSING TO BE DISPOSED at Satori, An Artist Space, in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Presented by ANNONYArts, from November 1-3 at 8 pm and November 4 at 2:30 pm. For tickets visit ANNONYArts.
For more information on Smashworks Dance please visit the Smashworks dance website.
Photos by Ashley McQueen, unless otherwise indicated
Bob Dreyfuss is an independent journalist based in New York City and Cape May, New Jersey, who has written extensively for Rolling Stone, The Nation, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and many other magazines. He has served as a member of the board of directors for Cape May Stage, an equity theatre in New Jersey, where he profiled dozen of actors for the company’s weekly newsletter. He currently serves on the board of The Upstart Creatures, a New York theatre company. Onstage, he has appeared as Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as Delivery Man in Barefoot in the Park, and he is currently writing a full-length play about the late Senator John McCain. He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including the PBS Newshour, Fox News, Democracy Now!, and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and has traveled widely, including reporting from Iran, Vietnam, China, and Tanzania.