What is Activism in Performance?

Concept: To get in the studio with multiple dancers to explore some of the complex ideas of gender, identity, and race especially outlined in Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and other texts discussing the whys and hows oppression happens and how to evoke the empowerment to overcome these situations.

Methodology: Researching the ideas of gender and racial oppression in the body required 2 weekly rehearsals in the summer 2019 with myself, three dancers, and a dramaturg. Beginning with micro-aggression toward women we used Paulo Friere’s methods of fighting oppression, to devise improvisational structures. Having two African American women in the space obviously brought the element of skin color into the space and we discussed this as it came up and leaned into it, made choices, and discussed the possible visual and physical ramifications of putting this onstage.

In May and June, Alessandra Christmas, Davianna Green, Laura Neese, and Emily Craver met with me twice a week for four hours. In addition, I had two-hours a week prior to rehearsals to prepare and research solo. Alessandra was a resource as dramaturg and Davianna, Laura and Emily were important and vocal collaborators in the process as well. Using making methods and ideas surrounding emergence and improvisation, we explored the complicated definitions of control, specifically surrounding societal conduct and power structures affecting women.

Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed details the education of oppressive societies to fight against their oppression. Although the stakes are much greater in Friere’s books, I found that some of the words he used to subdivide the last chapter define complicated and layered societal formulas that happen in the everyday.

The first four (Conquest, Divide and Rule, Manipulation, Invasion) phrases were ways groups of people elicit power and the next four (Unity for Liberation, Organization, Cooperation, Cultural Synthesis) are their counters describing ways people can come together to liberate themselves from their oppression.

In my solo rehearsals I would create movement from some of the words mentioned above and then share these phrases with the dancers.


When I was with the dancers all together, we began defining and manifesting these words through movement, improvisation, and the use of space. Alessandra would then discussion parts that stood out to her and we would try to recreate them. Alessandra also created a wonderful video archive of rehearsals that I could use to pull visual concepts and striking movements.

The concepts of separate/divide and together/away (see video below) kept resurfacing physically. The ideas of bodies in unison and then not, bodies high, middle and low as a power structure, two against one (see video below), and bodies intercepting or inhibiting another’s movement came to the surface. The ideas of women empowerment, control, and social structures were apparent as these themes were explored further.


Questions: How do I unite improvisation and codified movement in a way that doesn’t seem forced and goes along with my personal aesthetic? What am I trying to say and how much of that do I want the audience to actually glean? How do I want to challenge the audience? I am not one to tell anyone how to feel or put what I feel in their face, so how with these sensibilities do I create work that is powerful and potent enough that an audience participant can come up with some important questions? Is my goal to leave people with the sometimes-unanswerable or uncomfortable important questions? How do I prepare the audience to receive this information without alienating them and allowing the content of the performance to permeate their sensibilities and allow the performance to affect them viscerally? If I’m interested in transcendence and affective states how does this translate to activism or am I just not an activist? What is activism in performance?