Emotiolitical 08/06/2011 4:26pm

The day was full on Thursday, so the only time I could see a show was 10pm. I looked on the Fringe website under "Political" and found one show. Christopher Watson Dance Company and Jeffrey Peterson Dance present How Do You See It? At the time, I had no idea Peterson's show from last year's Fringe, Thinkingaview, was was a big hit, so to me it was just one of 167 Fringe shows, all with equal opportunities to fail, but I don't think like that anymore. Since yesterday. I've always loved watching dance. Unlike theatre, when the house lights go down at the beginning of a dance piece, I'm pretty confident I'm going to see something amazing. With theatre, I'm usually thinking, "I'll give you 60-90 seconds to prove you're not going to suck all the joy out of my life for the next two hours." I saw a show today that hooked a shop vac hose up to my joy, but we can chat about that in another blog entry. Actually let's not. I trust dancers because even before I've seen them do anything I know they're specially trained, disciplined performers who seem to have skills beyond those of mere mortals, unlike many actors who should stop nickel and diming themselves into poverty by buying fancy coffee drinks, spend more time honing their craft, and do push ups. I can say this, because though I don't drink caffeine, I haven't had an acting class in almost two decades and I think I can only do about fifteen consecutive real push ups. Maybe twenty. Let's find out. *pause* Eleven. The Lab is a gorgeous space with a huge, old brick back wall that extends up into darkness. There were the sidelight posts with spaces between them for dancers to enter. There were the splashes of colored light on the floor letting us know something was going to happen there. Then the lights went down and it started happening. Two men entered the stage and danced as partners, intertwining, supporting each other, working together, being affectionate. They showed us their life together. It was simple. True. Beautiful. Then I got annoyed. Why is this political? Who decided it was? The choreographers? Why can't a dance about homosexual love just be a dance about homosexual love? Is it political because it's controversial, and is it controversial because straight people don't see homosexuals touching each other very often? When are people going to get over it and just enjoy watching human connections? Why can't I tell a campfire circle full of drunken motorcyclists that I liked the acting in Brokeback Mountain without being nicknamed "Brokeback" for the rest of the trip?! Boy, was that a mistake. I could feel the same frustration kicking around in my head that pushed me to start Minnesota Artists for Equality, but I was brought back to the moment by the beauty of the dancers. I learned later that this opening piece was performed in the recent past, and was actually created for two women as an exploration of how women interact with each other. Platonically. It wasn't about romantic love or what it means to be in a romantic partnership. I brought that to it because the dancers were men and I have preconceived ideas about what it means when men are affectionate with one another. The legitimacy of same-sex coupling has also been on my mind, so that's how I saw it. I made it political. And so it was. For me. The first half of the show was an exploration of gender roles in all kinds of relationships. Gender politics. One of the dancers was about 6 months pregnant. My mind kept making her body disappear, revealing the fetus inside, floating and weaving at its mother's whim in and out of the space created by the other dancers. Riveting. The second half of the show, called Stand Up, started with these people... FringeImageHowDoYouSeeIt1_0.jpg ...led into the space by Sarah Palin twirling an American flag like a color guard, their smiles and waving hands reminding us just how phony the political landscape can be. This was about women, the nature of modern feminism, and how simple Sarah Palin in all of her folksy simplicity simply doesn't understand how she's destroying modern feminism. Comedian Margaret Cho's voice said, "I fucking hate Sarah Palin." Inescapably political statement. Polemic. Now the choreographer is talking to me, making a strong, progressive statement about why the Tea Party and it's female leaders are taking women a step backward. It was funny and poignant and sharp using the music of Aretha Franklin and Etta James and the voices of female comedians. In the end, the dancers stand in a line as Margaret Cho talks about true beauty, with music swelling behind them as they remove their skirts and open their clothes showing their lovely, black undergarment-clad bodies. These were real women (and two men) and they were beautiful beyond measure, strong and confident. I shifted forward in my seat, let out some kind of appreciative gasp, and held my hands out as if saying to my fellow audience members, "are you seeing this, too?" It was an autonomic response. The moment, the whole piece really touched me. As the lights came up, a woman walked up to the man next to me and said, "you are so funny." Huh? Why is this guy funny? He's just been sitting here... Wait. He's one of the choreographers. Feeling important with my Gold Press Pass, I introduced myself as not only a writer for Minnesota Playlist, but also as the co-founder of Minnesota Artists for Equality. "I'd love to talk to you and your troupe. Do you have a little time?" They were headed to the Monte Carlo, so off I went. On the way out the door I ran into dancers who weren't heading to the bar, gave them MAE postcards and briefly described what we're about, and complimented them on their work. One of them was beaming. "You were the one who reacted so strongly at the end. I saw you. You made me cry," she said. We shared that moment. Neither of us could help our reaction to that sharing. Hm. That's why I go to theatre, I think. That's why I do theatre. To share emotions and responses with other people. It's personal. At the Monte Carlo, I rounded up choreographers Jeffrey Peterson and Christopher Watson, both friendly, generous men. A few of the dancers sat with us. The 10-15 minutes I assumed I'd need to chat with them turned into almost two hours. Thanks for that, gentlemen and lady. I asked them were all of this came from. What part of you needs to share this? Do you think of yourselves as political artists? "I make work about issues," said Jeffrey. "I seek to push buttons. I am passionate about the way that poeple interact, the way that people give information and receive information. If I'm not encouraging people to question, then I don't feel I'm doing my job as an artist. I don't just make pretty dances, I seek to make social statements. Cultural statements." So you were angry about what Sarah Palin and her ilk are doing to feminism? "Not angry. Frustrated. Passionate and frustrated," he added. Not me. I'm angry. I'm angry that one group of people thinks it can tell another group of people how they should operate. How I should operate. That what I think is wrong. It feels personal when Michelle Bachman tells the world that homosexuality is a deviant lifestyle, because I don't agree with that. She's telling me I'm wrong. Why can't she just spend her time thinking that a leave me the hell out of it? Go think that in your church with the rest of your people, but leave me alone, please. The other thing is that I'm fairly certain I'm a fairly smart guy. These women strike me as being pretty simple-minded. Where do the stupid people get off telling the smart people they're wrong? How did we get to a place where these people started thinking they can compete with people who ACTUALLY know things? It fucking pisses me off. I asked Christopher if he was a political artist. "I think all art is political. Whatever you're putting onstage is a politcal statement." Interesting. Art raises questions and makes statements and it's all political. So why is there a "political theatre genre" if it's all the same thing? When someone mentions politics to me, I feel like we're talking about something that someone could or would vote on in the near future. We're talking about people who have ideas that can influence the rest of us. We're talking about power. People that have the power to change the way I operate in the world. Maybe that's why it always makes me mad. When you come down to it, politics is about how someone else is going to affect my life, and if it's in a way I don't agree with, then I will suffer. So politics is wrapped up in fear of uncertain outcomes. If politics is about affecting the lives of others based on fear of an outcome that doesn't sit right with us, is one of the functions of art to change things or stop that from happening? To change minds? Do we use art to protect ourselves from people with power? Are we trying to change their minds so we don't suffer? Is art a political defense mechanism? "Changing the world overstates my power as an artist," replied Christopher after some hesitation. I struggle with that. I co-founded Minnesota Artists for Equality because I felt like the people who are doing the hands on work of changing people's perspectives and influencing their voting decisions needed support. I thought, "what better way for artists to join the cause?" In some ways I agree with Christopher, that artists aren't the ones who change the world, we're the ones who suggest what change might look like. Some folks I've talked to believe artists are the only people who change the world, because the influence of art is at such a deep, primal level. We have emotional responses to art that we can't always articulate. So much of political discourse is intellectual. The emotional responses we have to politics, or at least that I have, mostly come from disagreement and frustration. The emotional response to the influence of art seems bigger than that. More open. Boundless. The chat was fantastic, the troupes agreed to join with MAE, and we'll be talking in the future about possibly even building a fundraising event around an evening of their work. It's exciting, the connections that are made when you engage with artists. The night ended with Jeffrey asking me where he could get one of our MAE T-shirts, which I was wearing. Since we don't have an online ordering system in place yet, I literally gave him the shirt off my back in front of the Monte Carlo at 12:45am. I'm still wearing his T-shirt right now, which reads: "This is what a Gustavus FEMINIST looks like." Go see their show. Read more about the choreographers and their dance companies here. Up next, I'm either going to talk about the show I saw today, or I'm going to skip that and talk about something else because yikes.
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Adam Whisner
Emotiolitical: A professional actor turned political activist attempts to connect art, politics, the Fringe, and the desire to change things without being so mad all the damn time.