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Last weekend I went to a yoga therapy and trauma-informed event in Chicago.  In the context of working with trauma and distress, one of the teachers said something offhanded, like "enlightenment just means to shed light on something, right?" It's a version of a teaching I've heard hundreds of times--that spiritual, religious and personal work doesn't mean you bypass pain or difficulty (links to .doc). At first, it may mean you experience it more directly because you are no longer choosing to numb it in the short-term.
This year has taught me so much about what it means to live this out in a real way. It has also proven to me that, despite what the little hater inside says when I make mistakes or screw up at work or overeat or check Facebook first thing in the morning, or the millions of other ways I subvert the process, I am serious about this life: shedding light on things in myself and in the world, working to repair, restore, reveal; to make whole by welcoming it all.
"Enlightenment"--shedding light--also has so many strange connotations. I got trained to read darkness and light metaphors in the way Toni Morrison does, to be wary of the metaphor that "dark" is bad or unexamined, that "light" means good or right or liberated.
So in another metaphor: a braid of sweet textures connects this new life--as a yoga practitioner and teacher and social worker and writer--with my past experiences and labor. I've been trying to write about these threads, and about the anniversary, but the words get knotted. I'm glad, though, that I get to keep trying. Thanks for everything you've done this year, friends. God, the sweet walks and hugs, the money and meals and emails and phone calls and Skype and all the invisible threads that contribute to this braid. More soon.

Welcome to the mid-run production blog! Technical difficulties prevented me from posting yesterday, but I hope faithful readers just took the opportunity to attend the matinee performance. The show picks back up on Saturday at 5:30 and 8pma woman's Place is an innovative piece, yet part of its appeal to me is an established American story: mental health, gender, and racism.  I'm gonna spin this story from far above here, in hopes some aspect of it piques your curiosity. I've sprinkled in some links. A lot of people worked and fought and played and flirted and struggled and dug deep to do the stuff I'm lucky enough to write about here. So, lots of gratitude for those lives and years of knowledge, sacrifice, and experience.


Let's start with the big concepts--first of all, gender.  I know scholars who say there are as many genders as there are people (I mostly agree). Within this variety there are some groupings --man and woman, for instance. In common usage we distinguish this from male and female, calling the bodies/parts 'sex' and the social or individual qualities 'gender'. Cool. Except for wild, beautiful, complex reality, of course.


Except that there really is no such thing as only two opposing, concretely different sexes. Except for many people, sex and gender don't line up (e.g., transgender folks)--and even if they do, they mean radically different things in how they connect with other identities. I often give the example of Channing Tatum and Larry the Cable Guy--two examples of hyper masculine dudes, two very different types of masculinity. And they are both straight, white, wealthy, cisgender men! Or consider the differences between Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, and Oprah--all wealthy black women, all presenting very different forms of black femininity. 


And here's the kicker: those are are all performers!  Which is really just to say, those are people who intentionally express in public.  Think of all the people in your life who may fall outside of what you think of as traditional gender and the mind really begins to wobble.  There is incredibly violent backlash against anyone who resists (whether by choice or not) these binaries.  Or, put another way, there is a lot of incentive to submit to them.


This is partly because gender is a major way we organize almost all aspects of our lives (family, self, work, religion, the list goes on). These different forms of backlash, which have very different consequences for everyday people, demonstrate how deeply gender is connected with other power systems, especially race and class; and how much the systems around us impact our individual lives. This brings me to a woman's Place


 What is a woman's Place? And who is, or who are, the women there?


For many generations, women who defied gender norms and roles were diagnosed with mental illness and sent away. Some asylums were sites of retreat, a 'rest cure' for beleaguered white upper-class women. Some were brutal sites of torture-as-treatment, where the most vulnerable (poor women and/or queer and/or women of color) would be tested, starved, probed, and often sexually assaulted. This institutional sexism was part of a larger system of control and social sorting, including eugenics and post-slavery attempts to control black and immigrant populations.  These forms of violence are all around us in 2016, despite our desire to place them firmly in the past.


Sexism and racism, you see, depend upon one another. And one of their cornerstones, as many feminist and womanist scholars have argued, is the emotional 'fragility' of white (especially middle class) white women.  This 'fragility' requires that some women be both vulnerable and powerful--but only if they cede their power to men.  This kind of fake vulnerability both upholds and undermines white women's power.  (The term 'gas lighting' may be familiar to some of you.)


So what we see in a woman's Place, from my gender studies perspective, is the flailing enactment of white women's victimization and recovery.  It's a partial, half undone performance of how we are required to be and how simple it may be to resist it. I appreciate the acknowledgement of the history and the bravery of the story, told in movement, as trauma often needs to be.  I also wonder especially about the absence of race as an explicit figure--the absence makes it even more hyper-present. Only for some is racial or class identity, or sexuality or ability, secondary to their identity as a woman.   As a queer femme, I've often struggled with how to be out and proud in a culture that reads and sometimes rewards my supposed staightness.  In being read so often as straight, and in all the ways I have benefitted from my whiteness and educational class, I am doing violence. Often I have done violence to others, whether consciously or not; also to myself. And definitely colluding in violence against others, including many very dear to me.  


For me, a womans Place is an honest, complicated enactmeant of these tensions. What is it for you?  


Check it out this weekend if you haven't already!  

It's less than a week until opening night for a woman's Place!  The show starts this Saturday, February 13 at Danceworks.  Last week I attended another rehearsal and spoke with cast member Hannah Klapperich-Mueller, ground choreographer Marisa Clayton, and co-directors Kelly Coffey and Don Russell. I began by asking what they would want audience members to know about the play, but it turned into a much deeper conversation about collaborative performance and contemporary feminism.


Like most events sponsored by Co-Operative Performance Milwaukee, a woman's Place is a piece connecting multiple artists and partnerships--aerial and ground choreographers, cast, musicians, lighting experts, directors and devisers and dancers (oh my).  The cast mentioned this as a source of nervous  anticipation, a kind of delighted fear that maybe it wouldn't all come together, and total confidence that it will.  Co-director Don Russell shared his excitement that audience members would not be coming to see a play, but to see a trans-genre performance piece--the kind of boundary-crossing work you expect to see in a larger city in Milwaukee. 

Without the constraints of a traditional play format, and with many partners and creative energies at play, there's a buoyancy to the process.  Cast member Hannah Klepperich-Mueller, who has a more traditional theater background, said that her top two facts for audience members are that it is so collaborative and that it has a strong dance element.  Ground choreographer Marisa called this dance component "body theater", where the storytelling happens through the body.  She described a recent rehearsal where a little girl dropped in and watched the play while her mother taught a class next door.  The girl watched in fascination as the cast enacted Marisa's choregraphy.  When deviser/writer/director Kelly asked her what she thought of the women, she replied, "they look like dolls".


This is a profound observation.  The piece is in part about how women are treated as objects and their behavior commanded or punished.  A doll may perform gestures, but there's no animating heart. The child's clear insight into the piece was a huge validation that the many puzzle pieces, the many collaborative visions, are weaving together.  Though the show does have some adult or heavy content, it works on the level of immediate insight about how gender and power work together.

Kelly, Marisa and I ended up in a deep tangent about how the little girl's reaction was inspiring especially for Marisa, who sees a lot of relevance for contemporary feminism.  In her experience, so many people view struggles for women's rights as passe or anti-man; the piece comes as the perfect timing  to destigmatize feminism by putting a conversation out there.  One of the elements of the choregraphy is that the characters begin to share the gestures of the doctor controlling the hospital. 


This twist crystallizes for me the whiteness and straightness of womanhood in a woman's Place.  The capacity for white, heterosexual, upper-class women to imitate the gestures of men in power is a privilege not everyone has access to.  It's also not something that necessarily means we are getting power when we do so.  The institution in this performance, like so many institutions in our culture at large, is fundamentally violent and broken; for women to take power by recreating the same gestures has symbolic value but is its own form of violence. For women to act out these gestures might feel like power, and may be, but it is still derivative --a byproduct of abuse.

In sociology, researchers often talk about the difference between structure and agency.  I.e. how much do the systems we take part in shape our decisions, and how much freedom or choice do we have in making our own decisions?  This debate opens up wider through research showing that the systems we take part in have their own biases, like the mental institution depicted in a woman's Place.  For the women in this play to take power in the same way that they have been subjected to it is a form of agency within the institution.


The performance acts out a damaging and potentially liberating self-consciousness about how to access power.  a woman's Place both recreates that condition, that experience of being placed as a woman, and disrupts it.  The question I leave with after each rehearsal is:  now what? What other depths and heights of power are possible, with the aerialists spinning overhead? 

I think it's really interesting that the phrase "man-hating" comes up so often in my discussions about feminism.  When something like a woman's Place speaks what's usually unspoken, it holds up a mirror to unpleasant realities. I see "man-hating" as dismissive, a kind of reflex that works to push something away rather than try to understand the perspective.  I know what it's like to be terrified that I am losing power, whether over myself or over others.  When I think about times in my life I have felt that fear, though, it always comes before a deeper sense of my own true power--the power that comes from not knowing exactly what structure is going to surround me, but feeling confident in my agency.  That comes from a willingness to take risks, and collaborate, and feel the pleasure of new challenges, just like the cast are experiencing getting this show ready.  As Marisa noted, the looping choregraphy opens up the conversation.

In a few days I'll drop back in to talk about gender and the history of mental institutions.  Get your tickets now and check back soon! 


It's opening night!  In just a few hours the curtain goes up on a woman's Place. I'm posting remotely and millisecond-processing on the rehearsal I attended this week, where I got the chance to speak with Andrea Burkholder, the show's aerial choregrapher.


My conversation with Andrea and, later, with two of the aerialists brought in another layer of analysis. Something about the air up there, but our dialogues were condensed and esoteric in the best way. The aerial work creates another dimension to the show, literally--Andrea noted that what drew her to the project was a sense that the other  collaborators understood the artistic potential of aerial work to lift and extend the stage. People are on the ground and in the sky, telling the story. 

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The process was similar to the other collaborative elements of the piece: Andrea choreographed emerging from key moments in the script and the aerial and ground work was brought together later. There's a natural dissonance and fluidity between the two stages, defying and dancing with gravity. 


I also heard from the cast member who bridges the two worlds: the Shaman. I have many thoughts about this word and its use that I'll share in my post tomorrow. But the Shaman, played by Sarah Hellstrom, both mirrors and challenges the Doctor, and flows between the difficult, heavy space of the institution and the difficult, precisely calibrated flow of the air.


After Tuesday's rehearsal, Sarah shared more about why this character is an especially powerful one for her to play. With her permission, I'm sharing that dialogue below. (I'm having server issues so the beautiful photos of shadowy aerialists are on pause until I get a chance to figure things out, and more soon!)


A Woman's Place Thoughts - Shaman Dream

 Hey Susannah,

Thanks for coming to rehearsal last night. I wanted to mention a strange incident which guided me in this process.


At the end of last September I was biking to perform in a show when a car turned into an intersection on my right of way and hit me at high speed. I saw it seconds before and reacted by kicking off my bike and tucking and rolling into the intersection. My bicycle was destroyed and I sat up with a minor concussion, cracked nose, teeth, and ribs, and multiple bone bruises. Due to Adrenalin I persisted in performing that night even though I left some blood on stage. The next thirty days were painful but he worst was the flashbacks and the sensation that I was no longer in my body and could trust no human. During this time I had a dream in which I was actively attempting to bridge a psychic boundary between two worlds. In the dream I had the choice to deliberately experience pain in order to grow stronger or to create music and art in an effort to regain - or redeem? - connection to the human world.


Due to physical injury I doubted I would be ready but my body healed faster than my mind. My primary challenge in this piece is the transition between the two worlds, which has only recently been incorporated. I love the process because it is a cloud of conscious thought that we exist in on multiple planes which succeeds most when all are fully aware of themselves and others in both positive and negative space. As Shaman I must provide a portal for change by inhabiting a liminal zone. I am grateful to work with those progressive enough to turn these concepts into matter through stage art.

~ Sarah Ann Mellstrom / Shaman



Oh, and here is the dream if you are interested. I keep a dream journal. The significant aspect is that it is a Shaman who makes me the offer... oh, for reference, Josh is the name of my boyfriend (he was biking ahead of me when the car hit me).


9.30.15: Dream after I got hit by a car

I try to go to work. I enter that white square box. I cannot find my classroom. The building is many stories higher than usual. Panic awakens. I descend the square spiral staircase. Each nook and cranny is stuffed with discarded popcorn. My speed increases. I reach the lowest level. I exit through a steel door. Outside I am greeted by unfamiliar rural utopia. The office building appears now as a rustic lodge. Horror rises from my gut. Former friends beam falsely at me. I walk around to the rear. I apprehend a gated compound atop a rock slope. Inside are many spirits as child bodies. I climb the rock pile. I jump in jest up a pillar of the fence and cling to it. The structure falls outwards slowly. The immediate section of chain bows down and collapses. I leap clear. Spirits tumble over the barrier. I climb over the rubble and up the slope. A shaman in a dark green cloak with maroon sleeves has his back to me. His hair is long ropes. He shakes his arms and head rhythmically and the sleeves unfold groundwards even longer. “I want to get back into my old life” I utter.” “You can return as a Shaman but you must endure pain” he responds. He demonstrates by rolling down the rock slope with determined abandon. Several spirits follow. They ignore damage incurred upon their bodies. I turn to those remaining. They form a line. At the rear is a brilliant blond with curly short hair. It marches the others forward with a pipe. They parade around to the front of the building. I fall in behind them by choice. Two older boy spirits emerge from the front door. They ask me: “Where are you from anyway?” “From a neighborhood in the city.” “We should visit your home if we can ever get there.” They say. I decide to try to walk there with them. I turn to put on my boots. They are my restored doc martens. I see Josh’s leather shoes. I stand up with my shoes tied and we look towards the road. I hear a loud sound and see a 1984 VW Rabbit rolling up on the right. It is made over as though to be a tank. I think I see Josh behind the wheel. My heart lifts. But it is not he. It is an older man in a militant suit and aviator goggles. I still determine to walk to the city. I believe my old life lies there. The two boys wish to accompany me. Among all these spirits are no true familiar faces. Merely lookalikes. The air is sweet and bitter. The Shaman keeps dancing behind the lodge.



I was struck, moved, elevated by Sarah's story and by Andrea's description of the artistic process. They are all consistent with the visceral, transformative power of this show. Watching dress rehearsal got something about the mental institutiton into my bones. Andrea shared that the aerial work requires not only a great deal of physical strength but also a tremendous sense of stability, security, and skill. The sheer physics of dancing and storytelling in the air mean that dancers and choregraphers must move so deliberately. 


Thinking about the difficulty of that practice (and my own yoga practice, for example)... draws out the tension in the piece between wellness and illness, power and victimization, clarity of mind and heart, and the need for profound skill in navigating these worlds. 


But don't take my word for it --the show is only a few hours away! Runs tonight at 5:30 and 8 at Danceworks and again tomorrow at 5:30. Tomorrow's blog: gender and history (as promised) and meditations on race and shamanism.

I'm excited to be blogging for an upcoming dance/theatre piece called a woman's Place (co-presented by Cooperative Performance Milwaukee, the show opens February 13 at Danceworks).  In this first blog I'll tease the show a little after reading the script and checking out one rehearsal. 

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a woman's Place is a movement-based performance piece about five white women inside a 19th century mental hospital.  The show is not really a play in a traditional sense, but it's easy to follow, with dance, song, aerial movement and dialogue that voice the experience of mental illness and repression.  The five women are institutionalized for different reasons, but all violated the expectations of "normal" or "sane" womanhood.

Regular blog readers will know that I'm especially interested in breaking open the myths of white womanhood, so I'm excited to dig into the ways that "normal" and "sane" play out for these characters.  The production is about how women of a particular class/status were controlled and abused in mental hospitals.  I am curious about how this whiteness and class status will be visible in the play.  There's also a very cool twist that complicates any simplistic ideas about who is sane and really in charge.

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I'll get into some of the history next week--for now, just think about how many times you've heard the stereotype that women are crazy.  Or do a Google search, like I did, and you'll find it in no time!   There are little and big ways we have a cultural idea that men are rational, pragmatic, and clear-headed while women are emotional, unstable, and not to be trusted with facts or power.  This has deep historical roots, very connected with racism and homophobia, so stay tuned on that...

The show is also fascinating to watch.  The aerialists swarm above the characters with supernatural strength and grace in fabric cocoons.  The dancer/actors really sink into the relationships and mental collapse while the doctor who runs the facility stalks around the stage.  

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It sounds like a lot--but it's clean and simple and breaks open a deep cultural myth about women and mental illness.  All these concepts become not just visible, but visceral (thanks in part to a jittery, gorgeous original soundtrack from Milwaukee's own NINETEEN THIRTEEN featuring Janet Schiff and Victor DeLorenzo from the Violent Femmes).

In a few days I'll post about the rehearsal experience and offer some glimpses into the production. In the meantime check out the video trailer with deviser Kelly Coffey.

a woman's Place

created and devised by kelly coffey


Feb 13 | 5:30pm + 8pm

Feb 14 | 2:30pm

Feb 20 | 5:30pm + 8pm

Feb 21 | 2:30pm

danceworks studio

1661 N Water St.

Milwaukee, WI 53202