Choreography as a Colonizing Force: Gerald Casel’s Splinters in Our Ankles | By Marie Tollon

There is a recurrent scene in the first section of GERALDCASELDANCE’s Splinters in Our Ankles: the seven dancers gather downstage, in uneven groups -two duos and a trio- to form a long row. Yet, they do not form a “human wall,” a common motif that appears in many dances -the most recent example being dawsondancesf’s punctus contra puctum where performers aligned, even-spaced, and performed in unison downstage at several moments in the dance, three weeks ago at ODC Theater. In Splinters in Our Ankles, the line the dancers create is curiously asymmetrical, each group staggered from each other. The line has gaps and interruptions, resisting a sense of visual cohesion and completion. It dissolves before any sense of wholeness can be achieved.

GERALDCASELDANCE in "Splinters in My Ankles" Photo by Andrew Weeks

GERALDCASELDANCE in
“Splinters in My Ankles”
Photo by Andrew Weeks

While watching rehearsal last week, this scene evoked the unsparing challenge of trying to piece together the past, when only disparate memories and parcels of stories are available. Such is the case for many who attempt to fill in the blanks in the history of ancestors who saw their entire culture and identity repressed and erased by colonialist forces.

My reading of this particular scene in Splinters in Our Ankles was certainly influenced by my earlier conversation with Gerald Casel, who discussed the consequences of colonization on the Philippines, the land of his ancestors. Casel and I talked about appropriation, cultural erasure and amnesia, themes that he explores in Splinters in Our Ankles, which premieres this week at ODC. Through his research, Casel came to question choreography as a colonizing force. After talking to him and analyzing the way I was reading into his work, I was prompted to consider which types of appropriating structures one puts into place as a kind of lens when (re)viewing art. Below is the transcript of our conversation.

Marie Tollon: Can you share some of the research you did for this dance?

Gerald Casel: The piece is inspired by the Filipino folk dance Tinikling. The genesis of it was the premise whereby this folk dance is taught and disseminated to lots of people –at weddings, cultural events… For years and years, I’ve seen this dance, which is one of the most famous emblems of Filipino culture.

However they don’t discuss that it was during a time of colonization, a time of slavery, in the Philippines [that the dance originated]. So I brushed up on the legend and looked around at the literature that I could find. There’s nothing cut and dried about what happened, how the dance evolved. There’s this mythology around it that says that it was inspired by a bird called the tikling. The dancers emulate the footsteps, speed and agility of this bird, evading the farmers who set up traps in the fields because the birds were eating the rice.

In my mind, that’s a metaphor for capture. You are escaping being captive, enslaved. If my ancestors were doing this to escape some sort of oppression, why is that not part of the discussion? When we talk about capoeira or other forms of dance that have resistance built in, it’s discussed. However in this case, it’s not. I’m not saying this is the truth, but I’m unveiling something that’s been covered up. I wonder if it was an act of resistance. In order to perform this, you have to conceal it within a dance.

MT: How familiar were you with Tinikling when growing up?

GC: I never learned it so I’m very ignorant of it and don’t know where it started. That was the springboard.

MT: The title of the piece, Splinters in Our Ankles, brings to mind the brutality and injuries that colonialized Filipinos who worked in the rice fields suffered, notably on their feet, for not obeying the settlers. This is one of the stories of origin for Tinikling. Is the title referring to that story and violence?

GC: Absolutely. I’m looking at the leftovers. What did those splinters represent in terms of Filipino culture, identity and history? And how do we tell our story? I’m trying to reclaim my sense of what it means now to be a contemporary Filipino artist. How do I honor traditional forms like this without getting angry, but by acknowledging [this story] and saying perhaps there was a reason why [it was told that way]. This is another part of the piece which I call “cultural amnesia:” Why did we forget? Was it too dramatic or was it more convenient to forget? Is it easier to move on without the pain of colonization?

MT: In most colonial relationships, the colonizers impose restrictions on the indigenous bodies and movement in one form or another. Was it the case with Tinikling?

GC: No, but as a choreographer in the 21st century, I have come to thinking about choreography as a colonizing force. When we teach dances to other bodies than our own, we are asking them to adapt to an individual body or a style or a belief system that is not theirs. And there is always an undiscussed agreement that dancers will obey what the choreographer is giving. So I’ve been trying to challenge that. There are two sections in the piece. In the first, I made almost no steps.

Photo by Andrew Weeks

Photo by Andrew Weeks

MT: So everything came from the dancers?

GC: Yes, except a little bit toward the end because I got very frustrated that I had to finish the piece! I feel the choreography is the oppressing force. It’s not really dark and ominous in the way I am portraying choreography but I am thinking that as a form, we can rethink how we give or take away agency from the dancers and how they allow us [to do so]. What is that process of inviting an agreement between 2 or among 6 or 7 bodies?

MT: For Dwelling you used a random movement generator to produce movement. Did you use choreographic systems when making Splinters in Our Ankles?

GC: Not in a systematic way like I developed the format in Dwelling but I invited a lot of movement response from the dancers. One task was to speak for 5 minutes while drawing for 5 minutes and then generate a movement response to that process – not to the content but to the splitting of the brain. When you are describing something in a narrative way and you are drawing, both halves of your brain are working at the same time and it disrupts the process where one usually goes and starts with the body. Because you are trying to track several processes you are distracted. I’m a meditator so I work a lot with the mind. I’m always aware of the quantity of information that one gathers and all the stories that you tell yourself, and how those forms are so subjective. When you are creating movement, you have the same liberty but we take it away. You’ll see it in the beginning of the piece where [the performers] are talking and moving at the same time. It’s inspired by Jeanine Durning [although] her process is much more about tracking or getting ahead of your brain. Here I use it as a wall of energy.

MT: So you are using text again in this piece?

GC: Yes, in a big way. I’ve had them work with rondos and we created limericks from the words that we gathered from this writing assignment. I’ve been thinking about these classical and Eurocentric musical structures. Why must we always look at art or dance or music through that lens? I process it and filter it through that device. Inside of it you’ll see a rondo, you’ll see a fugue, there’s a lot of simultaneity or counterpoint happening with the voices, but also with the movement.

Another thing I have been thinking about is the way dance ethnography is researched. We apply cultural anthropology on top of the lens of dance. Again this is a Western construct. I wonder if it is always valuable to write it down and put words into it, when dance is actually trying to escape words, is ephemeral and subjective.

MT: One of the themes present in the piece is assimilation. I imagine that is something you also experienced in your own dance training?

GC: Absolutely. Although it was very international, there were not many people of color (in my class) when I was training at Juilliard. We were definitely the minority. We had to learn ballet and modern dance -which are primarily American forms- and this is the classical base of my training. On the side, you would learn Spanish dance, Bharatanatyam, salsa, and other dances but those were always on the periphery and not in the center of the curriculum. I think there are a lot of changes now, where we are deprivileging Western forms and looking at all diverse forms as valid and on equal footing.

Another thing that I’ve been doing is subverting the power structures in dance. So in terms of colonial structure, the colonizer is taking from the indigenous people. What if that was reversed, I ask? What if a person of color steals from a white person? In this case, I steal from white choreographers -Trisha Brown, William Forsythe, Joe Goode, even Jeanine Durning. What is that process of taking someone else’s intellectual property, putting it on yourself and claiming it as your own? In fact, I’m not trying to do it in a negative or pejorative way but I’m calling attention to what would happen if the power structures were reversed.

Is it stealing when you are saying it out loud? I’m pointing to the fact that it happens all the time. When you do ask permission, how difficult is it to share information? Do choreographers have that kind of power over their work because dance is so temporal and vanishes? I can take the object of choreography and put it into my structure.

Last year I traveled to the Philippines and this past summer to Hawaii to conduct research. Being around a non-Western place kick started my research – seeing how Hawaiians talk about their ancestors and how the process of colonization is embedded in Hawaiian culture. The same thing [happened] in the Philippines. These legacies endure. We are left to our own devices. There is a lot of soul searching that I’m doing through this choreographic process. Whether or not I’m arriving at what’s Filipino culture, I’m definitely lifting cobwebs. I am also looking at how I perpetuate these assumptions about who we are.

MT: What guided your choice when picking the white choreographers you “stole” work from?

GC: There was no guiding principle in how I chose the white choreographers. I simply noticed that when I look to those who inspire me (within the context of modern dance), most of these figures are white – which says a lot about the dance community within which I work and see myself belonging. I also think that this “stealing” is more like an homage to these choreographers rather than a plagiaristic act. I didn’t actually steal their steps but was more inspired by what they were thinking about through their process. Because of the porous nature of sharing our work through performances and workshops – and how choreographers often share dancers, information gets transmitted through the body whether or not it is intended. I suppose I am calling attention to this process in this work.

MT: Another theme that you explore in Splinters in Our Ankle is mimicry. Can you talk about it?

GC: I’ve been thinking how unison is very much related to this idea of mimicry or learning material from another body. As an immigrant to this country, you try to assimilate, especially when you are a little kid. You don’t speak the language, you don’t look the same as anybody else. There are a lot of contentious emotions there that I am teasing out. But also, I’ve been reading about Asian American identity, particularly [the writings of] David Eng about this idea of mimicry. It’s always an assembly of things that don’t really come together and therefore you have this sense of ambivalence and melancholia. This really hit me when I was in Hawaii because one of the speakers described this Hawaiian dancer as being reserved. And someone asked: “Then are they really free?” And I really had a hard time with that, because it’s hard to know what someone else is going through and what this “reserved” looks like, or what freedom looks like in a body. How can we reduce it to these words?

And even when Hawaiians describe how the settlers came and raped their villages, they call it “contact”, the “first contact with the West.” I raised my hand and asked “Why do you use the word contact?” That feels like a very safe (and consensual) word when in fact this process is very violent: you are being taken over; your land, your resources are being taken over; your identity is stripped. How is that contact? And he couldn’t answer me.

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