Breathe, Be Interested, and Don't Give A Fuck

Reflections & Lessons from Sharing (UN)BRIDALED in South Africa

Last week was the culmination of my artist residency with Wits University’s Drama For Life program, my 3-month stay in South Africa. I shared (UN)BRIDALED, a 45-minute dance theatre show, at the Wits Amphitheatre as part of DFL’s Human Rights and Social Justice Season 2016.

And goddamn. It was fantastic.

At its core, (UN)BRIDALED investigates the point of tension between women’s agency and patriarchal violence. Without presuming to have answers, it poses the question, how do women find agency when confronted with patriarchal violence? This violence ranges from daily verbal assaults and well-meaning family pressure, to overt physical harassment and traumatic life-changing abuse.  With the theme of “State of Emergency”, it made perfect sense to include this show in this year’s Human Rights & Social Justice Season – women live in perpetual states of emergency, every moment of every day, in public and private spaces, negotiating how to protect and assert ourselves (walking alone on the street at night, entering an elevator with a strange man, waiting for a bus in a deserted area, the list goes on and on…). I also later learned that there has been great mobilization throughout South Africa around these issues, with campaigns like Red My Lips and #NakedProtests demanding an end to sexual violence and harassment on university campuses.

But when I arrived in South Africa mid-February I didn’t have much of this worked out. I created the first iteration of (UN)BRIDALED in 2014 in LA with an all-Latina cast. The original work was specific to our experience as Latina women in the US, coming from immigrant families and feeling the effects of patriarchy in a distinct way from other US-based women. Similarly, my intention in transporting the show to SA was to create a new work that spoke to the particular plight of women in South Africa, exposing and challenging how patriarchy reared its ugly head into their lives. Pretty ambitious (and possibly pretentious) of me, considering I had never been to South Africa before, or hell, the African continent at all. But hey, I was open to the process, and fairly certain that SA hadn’t somehow magically found a way to keep itself immune from patriarchy (ehem… Apartheid anyone? ‘isms tend to go hand in hand after all), so I thought, “why not give it a shot?”.

At the end of February, I auditioned about 35 people for a show I was tentatively calling (UN)BRIDALED (RE)MIXED, unsure of how much I would keep from the original work and how much I would be able to generate here. I called back 16 performers, and ended up casting 9 incredibly talented and diverse women- 4 current students at Wits School of the Arts, 3 recent graduates, 1 lecturer from the school, and 2 guest artists with no affiliation to Wits, all of varying racial backgrounds (3 whites, 4 blacks, 2 “coloured's” or people of mixed race) and performance training (mostly physical theatre, some musical theatre, and very little formal dance experience). I remember starting rehearsals in early March and wondering all kinds of things - will the group vibe and get along? Will they be familiar with and/or open to feminist theories like Audre Lorde’s “erotic as power”? Will they be strong enough dancers to carry an evening-length dance theater work? Will we have enough time to actually create a whole new show together? (and on my bad days…) Is this a total mistake and will it be a complete disaster???

As hopeful as I was, I could have never predicted just how incredible, transformative and rewarding the process actually ended up being for all of us.

In the span of two months, the 9 cast members bravely shared their stories of what it is like to be a young woman in South Africa, revealing common themes of gender violence, sexual harassment and expectations of a submissive and domestic female role.  Using Liz Lermans’ “Harvesting Intuition” exercises and the Dance Exchange’s toolbox for phrase-making, we interviewed each other and created choreography about moments in our lives when we have had to forcedly say “NO”, when we have excitedly said “YES”, and when we have been fed up beyond belief and proclaimed “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK”.

We called upon the fierce and fearless energy of Iansã (Afro-Brazilian goddess of the winds and storms), tested the limits of our bodies, challenged each other to take up space, to not give a fuck, to sway our hips, hold our heads high and unapologetically express the full sensuality of our bodies. We toiled, sweated, laughed, cried, and transformed together through this deeply intimate and vulnerable dance-making process.  The result was a reflection of this very process- an honest and brave portrait of the complexity of women’s agency, when it is a force to be reckoned with and backed up by the strength of a thousand women in solidarity, and when it is daily chipped away, thwarted, and aggressively attacked by strangers and people we love.

Some of my favorite memories from our process together will always be the performances themselves. Sure, the standing ovations, audience members laughing and crying, the praise, gratitude and congratulations we received at the end of each show were all remarkable and overwhelming to say the least. But perhaps what I enjoyed even more were the conversations we shared before each show, when I asked the cast to share a piece of feedback they got from the night before and a lesson they learned from performing the work.

I will leave you here, with some of my favorite lessons…

  • Breathe. Never underestimate the power of breathing onstage.
  • Be interestED in what you are doing, worry less about appearing interestING to the audience. (this one I need to credit Victoria Marks… thanks Vic)
  • Women who are unapologetically not giving a fuck onstage will make most men uncomfortable… and that is a good thing.
  • Comedy and tragedy are not on opposite ends of the performance spectrum, they are, in fact, neighbors who live side by side. Use the first as a strategy to approach the latter.
  • Audiences are sick of sitting through shows that are too long and too heavy- trick them into engaging with heavy subject matter by making them laugh, and leave them wanting more. 
  • An energetic and responsive audience is something to celebrate and vibe off of.
  • There is no such thing as “messing up” onstage. Live performance is literally being created LIVE, in THAT moment – it will never be the same again, not your body, not the audience, not what happened that day, not anything. So there is no use in attempting to recreate the same experience again. All mistakes are opportunities. Be present, notice, respond.