Staining Each Other: A Conversation with Headmistress | By Marie Tollon

The full meaning of a language is never translatable into another. We may speak several languages but one of them always remains the one in which we live. In order to completely assimilate a language it would be necessary to make the world which it expresses one’s own and one never does belong to two worlds at once.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

Similar to language, the body is imprinted with the mark of the world in which it is rooted. Through their work, dancers and choreographers Amara Tabor-Smith and Sherwood Chen engage in acts of translation, both between their respective bodies and with artists from other cultures, to further explore and navigate the world(s) in which we live. Confronting the inherent untranslatability between two different realities evoked by French philosopher Merleau-Ponty, Tabor-Smith and Chen investigate the context, assumptions, and power structures that exist within the space between bodies, histories and cultures.

Headmistress Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

In 2009, they founded Headmistress, a collaborative entity which is currently in residence at ODC Theater. Tabor-Smith is a former Associate Artistic Director and dancer with Urban Bush Women and her training is rooted in the traditional dance forms of Africa. Chen’s movement vocabulary is highly influenced by his work with dance artists Anna Halprin and Min Tanaka. In anticipation of Headmistress’ performance at Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF (WDDF-SF) this weekend, I spoke to both artists.

Marie Tollon: What was the impetus for working together?

Amara Tabor-Smith: We spent a lot of time dancing together in the clubs. That was the basis for our work. Recognizing that although it is not necessarily validated from a contemporary dance perspective, the spirit that is generated or cultivated in those environments is a fertile ground. What would it mean for us to try to keep the thread of that magic happening and create work in the studio, work that we would perform? It wasn’t so much that the dance floor movement made its way into our choreographic process but the spirit of it did. That imprint was made and it became something else in the studio, but it was that magic and that connection that continued in everything else.

When we first started working together, some people were very intrigued about this duet between an Asian man and an African American woman. Those reactions had a lot to do with race and assumptions about whom they thought we were. We both knew that, even before we would take a step, people’s glasses would be colored -no pun intended- with how different we were, when actually it was our chemistry, our ‘kindredness,’ that brought us to work together and not so much our differences.

MT: In our earlier conversation, you mentioned: “One of our early intentions was to stain each other.” Can you elaborate on that notion of staining each other?

Sherwood Chen: Both of us are aware and proud of our roots, both culturally and artistically. We were not trying to move away from them. We were drawn to each other as much for the places we resonate, as for the ones where we felt like we were foreign to each other – foreign bodies in the most metaphorical and literal sense. We gave each other the permission to experience something that had nothing to do with our respective backgrounds. Working directly with Amara gave me the permission to explore movement vocabularies in a creation environment, in ways I had prior refused myself.

Going back to the notion of stain, it has so many negative connotations in English. If you stay with somebody long enough, even if you are still considered a foreign body, it’s going to mark you indelibly. You can’t take it back. You cannot go back to where you are coming from. We were not trying to become one another, but we became different artists than what we were.

Headmistress Photo by Ana Teresa Fernandez Projections by Jefferson Pinder

Photo by Ana Teresa Fernandez
Projections by Jefferson Pinder

MT: Sherwood, the space created between two bodies, two trainings, two cultures, brings to mind the notion of décalage, a French word which you use and which roughly translates as ‘discrepancy’ or ‘interval.’ This notion, along with the question of translation, is one that you have been investigating, both within and outside of the context of Headmistress. Can you talk more about it?

SC: I muse on translation in my work because in the traditional act of translation from one language to another, there is a tension between the guaranteed betrayal of the source material and the moral ambition to make the effort anyway. Lucidly recognizing an inevitable degree of missing the mark. Understanding this tension. Framing it. Trying to work with it as a source for performing material.

MT: In an interview at the Headlands Center for the Arts, where Headmistress was in residency in 2010, you stated: “Our questions were similar. It was your training and forms that were different.” What questions did you two have in common?

SC: Questions about identity, culture and our aesthetic heritages and negotiations with them. Questions about race, power and differentiating between institutionalized perspectives and where we are coming from. In the San Francisco Bay Area, these questions are very common, and in that sense we are Bay Area artists. But neither of us were interested in rendering these questions legible on stage for their own communicative sake. Instead, these enduring and personal dialogues have been the process-oriented springboard for formal investigations in performance.

MT: Outside of the U.S., Headmistress has participated in residencies in Senegal, Brazil and France. What were you interested in exploring? How did those experiences affect the work?

ATS: One of the things that we often say is that we both have the experience of ‘other’ in the United States. Yet, there is a way in which this is our home, we also are from this place, even if in this culture we are ‘other.’ We wanted to see how other places – where we are ‘other’ in other ways- would stain us.

SC: We were already addressing foreignness between us in the studio. Could we crank up the fire by putting ourselves in these other situations, all the while knowing that travel is associated with privilege? I am constantly struggling with the spectrum between the worst of cultural appropriation, and an effort toward exchange -which implies a balance of power- to allow myself to receive and to offer. To say “we are all one” avoids addressing imperialism and the ways in which power can be changed. Being in residency abroad keeps me in line, makes me vigilant towards my own naivetés.

Headmistress Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

MT: Sherwood, the questions relative to cultural appropriation permeate in one of the solos that Headmistress is presenting at WDDF-SF, notably through the use of a song by Moroccan singer Hamid Zahir. Can you elaborate?

SC: When I was exposed to the song over twenty years ago, it resonated with me. I had no idea what they were saying. The song lived with me, I lost it and then found it again a couple years ago online. I played it acontextually in one of my workshops in Brussels. A Moroccan-French participant and colleague approached me afterwards to tell me how that song spoke to her deeply of her childhood, her roots. That became my motivation to treat this as a jumping off point because this song could not have illustrated more the divide between her and me – of deep nostalgia she lived and the sense memory of the Rabat streets which this chaâbi song evoked in her, and then me, some young American who heard the song randomly on a cassette tape one day in suburban Los Angeles. Both of us were touched but in different ways. This difference creates a gap. The shift from analog to digital to memory to live performance also yields many gaps. I am trying to problematize rather than resolve these tensions.

MT: Amara, part of the other solo that Headmistress is presenting at WDDF-SF, consists of a jumping sequence anchored within a repetitive rhythm. Watching this moment, I felt your body read as a history book of untold, or less told, stories. Can you share a bit of the making process?

ATS: I am stripping bare, peeling layers. I keep searching for the place where I can be as vulnerable and as open as possible in public. How much darkness, and light and spirit, can I expose to my audience? Where is the line and when is it too much? And I don’t know until I am in it. I think of it like jazz musicians, in search of something deeper. If you can appreciate that it is not always the thing that brings you joy or comfort, or makes you think “Oh I understand,” if you allow yourself to just breathe it in, maybe there are other levels that you can’t necessarily articulate or intellectualize. But I’m more a feeler, I’m trying to live in that place, I’m trying to live in the question, and keep digging for more questions, than answers. I’m trying to stay loyal to the spirit that wants to come through.

MT: You often choose to set your work in unconventional spaces, such as the street, a store or the lobby of theater. How do these alternate spaces affect the work?

ATS: I am less interested in theater space. It doesn’t mean that I won’t perform in the theater but I’m finding a home where my performance is more accessible to anyone who happens upon it, and is transformed by whomever happens upon it. Because there is a more direct contact with the audience, so that line between the performance and audience is more dissipated, the present changes the experience – which also makes it harder for me many times to articulate what is going to happen. There are set intentions, and even logistically some set aspects, but all of that could change. When I did my piece “He Moved Swiftly…” as part of Dancer’s Group/ONSITE dance festival, every moment was impacted by who was there. Some things that happen were crazy, magic, heartfelt, and chaotic. And I like that. That’s home for me. That’s taking the story where the story wants to be. My intention is to be diligent to the spirit of what is trying to come through.




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