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Faculty Spotlight: “Hair and Other Stories” in U-M Classrooms

This post was written by UMS 21st Century Intern Grace Bydalek.

On January 12th, 2018, UMS rang in the new year with a performance of Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories in the Power Center for the Performing Arts. Urban Bush Women’s work focuses on text with the history, culture, and spiritual traditions of African Americans and the African diaspora. Artistic Director Jawole Zollar weaves together the boundary-pushing non-linear stories through dance, music, and spoken word.

Hair and Other Stories was crafted through interviews and other personal narratives, highlighting the struggles and complexities of our current world and times ahead. Original compositions by The Illustrious Blacks underscore dynamic movement and storytelling about gender identity, economic inequalities, body concept, race, freedom, liberation, and release in this extraordinary time.

Faculty across a variety of schools at the University of Michigan chose to integrate this engaging performance into their syllabi, exposing their students to the world of performance art and modern dance. Below, some of these faculty discuss the impact of Hair and Other Stories on their courses and students.

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

            Clare Croft brought the students in her course Dancing Women/Dancing Queer to the performance of Hair and Other Stories. The students had been prepared for the performance over the duration of the semester. Croft explains, “The students read portions of dance scholar Nadine George-Graves book on Urban Bush Women, did class exercises focused on movement description, and then attended the performance as their first step in their performance analysis paper. For the paper, students had to take notes on the physical, material details of the performance; and then write a paper in which they described a significant moment in the performance, contextualize that moment in the performance as a whole, and then discuss how that moment raised questions about gender and sexuality.”

Croft observed her students’ curiosity and increased engagement in the course after the performance. They were, as she describes it, “struck by the overt discussion of race and gender, which some thought was moving and some thought demonstrated a lack of trust in dance’s ability to make meaning.”

            Petra Kuppers exposed her undergraduate students in Health, Gender and Performance, a course run as a collaboration between LSA’s Women’s Studies and the Theatre Department. In the class following the performance, Kuppers and her students created their own movement material from their “body histories,” inspired by Urban Bush Women’s physical movements.
“We used the theme of ‘everyday rituals,’ and students wove performances of worship and communal meals together with moments of private movement, abstract patterns that held memories for them, and that they shared with and taught to their co-performers,” Kuppers explains.  She immediately observed a change in the way that her students, many of them pre-medical, engaged in the course material. “As it was early on in our course, this was the first time the students performed for each other, and it was a pleasure to see the energy and delight unlocked by seeing and then engaging dance work together,” Kuppers states.

urban bush women

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

Joel Howell’s Medical Arts Program focuses on the benefit of the arts on medical practice, and is done in cooperation with the medical school Office for Health Equity and Inclusion. Given the nature of the program at hand, Howell did not do any specific preparation for the performance in his course, save for a lively discussion with Jawole Zollar. They discussed the piece at large, and about racial disparities in medical treatments and outcomes. “I think the conversation with Jawole Zollar before the show was the most valuable part of the evening,” a medical student stated. “Not only did it help contextualize the show and highlight some of the intent behind the pieces, but it also helped draw connections between art, especially dance, and how we as physicians move through the world.”

After each performance, he asks his students to provide him with feedback. The connections between Hair and Other Stories and the medical world abounded. “We talked a lot about being truly present in a moment when communicating with someone and ways to consent to and properly end a shared experience no matter how big or small,” one student observed. “We also discussed the concept of autonomy and asking for permission to enter a shared, intimate space with another person. Both of these things are essential components to a positive patient encounter.”


Human Beauty: Wayne McGregor’s Movement Research

Photo: from AtaXia.

There is a long tradition of work fascinated by difference: last month’s Einstein on the Beach, is based on the writings of Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet, and collaborator of Robert Wilson. In AtaXia, a sci-art dance he created in 2004 by Wayne McGregor, disability and bodily difference emerge as formal movement principles, and create a new attention to different ways of being in space.

McGregor choreographed AtaXia after an eight-month research fellowship at the experimental psychology department at Cambridge. Merging scientific research and movement research, he based the dance on the disorder named by its title. McGregor, a group of neuroscientists, Sarah Seddon Jenner who has an ataxic movement disorder, and Random Dance’s troupe of well-trained, professional dancers all worked together to choreograph a dance based on a medical condition which disrupts movement, and overloads nerves.

And it is not just the bodies that play with disruption, starts, stops, overload: AtaXia’s stage has a mirroring backdrop, multiplying the movements and bodies on stage. The bodies flash in costumes shot through with fiber-optics, lighting up movements and speed. In the patterns of the dance, an arm’s arc gets arrested, thrashes, hacks at the air.

Curiosity and both scientific and artistic research shaped the creation of the piece. Jenner describes her interaction with the company:

I came back for a 135 minute question and answer session with the company, during which we covered many of the things they had learned in the research context, as well as working through some of their own observations about movement, dysfunction, and how bodies cope with impairment.

The whole piece really started to make sense to me, though, after a rehearsal I did with the company during which one of the dancers (Leila Dalio) and I worked through some choreographic exercises.

The whole company, including Wayne, was in the room, but they all appeared to be working intently on their own material. I was concentrating on lasting three hours without a) forgetting my movements; b) injuring Leila by leaning on her too much; and c) falling over. So, I didn’t realize until I saw the finished dance how carefully I’d been observed.

Some examples of ways I move that made it into the finished piece. I scoot on my backside along the floor rather than stand to move from one place to another. I touch people and things not so much to bear weight as to help orient myself relative to them. As I get tired, I lean on others for support and more often than not, I get that support.

In her discussion with me, Jenner mentions that her contact with the dancers taught her important information as she continues to adjust to living with ataxia: the information reflected back to her by the trained bodies of dancers, well-used to picking up unusual movement information and structuring it. Through these translatory processes, Jenner’s embodiment echoes back to her across the image of the dancers on stage – a new image of her own movement quality emerges for her.

Jenner shared with me her emotions about experiencing her movement mirrored back to her. Mainstream aesthetics see disability so often only as a tragedy, as something to be overcome (and this attitude is easily internalized). In this collaborative research process, her condition became the source of exciting movement patterns, of intriguing human difference.

PK: What did YOU learn about your own movement by watching the dancers in the performance? Did anything surprise you? What and why?

SSJ: There are specific gestures in AtaXia that are typical of those with neurological impairments that I despise catching myself make, and I surprised myself with how negative and judgmental I feel about them. (Specifically, jerky arm gestures and the tendency to hold the arm close to the body, fully flexed at wrist and elbow). One dancer explained that the shame and hostility I associate with those movements are learned social responses and that they are not intrinsic to the movement. It was all I could do not to snap back, “I hate them anyway.” I find that now that I’ve seen them performed, the sting has gone out of those gestures and I don’t even mind seeing them in the mirror.

Some critics call Wayne McGregor’s choreographies distant, or cool. As I give myself to his intricate spectacles, I remember the empowering effects of movement research on Jenner, and enjoy the play with the movement differences our world has to offer.

Editor’s Note: Wayne McGregor and Random Dance come to Ann Arbor to perform Far on February 19, 2012.