Dancing in the Face of Death

"Santuario" and the Pulse nightclub shootings.

Posted Mar 31, 2017

The room was bare. White walls, a gray floor, minimal lighting. The dancers were dressed in black clothes, gathered in a mass in the back corner of the studio. The audience sat on three rows of chairs, our backs to the front wall. I sat among them, at a studio showing of a new dance piece by the Philadelphia based company, Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers.

What transpired over the course of the next forty minutes shocked me back into a clear, recurring realization of how dancing serves, perhaps uniquely, to buoy and nurture humanity in the face of tragedy.

The dance piece was Santuario (Sanctuary). It was inspired by the deadly shootings of forty-nine people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 11, 2016. What I was to see was only a fragment of the piece, yet it was enough to pose the question: what response is possible to an event that is so horrific, not just for the gay community or the Hispanic community, but for anyone who has known and loved a gay person, or Hispanic person, or any other person?

The lights dimmed. The music began.

In the beginning, there was joy. In their clump, the ten dancers pulsed harmoniously together. Each was an individual, with his or her own signature style. Each was paying attention to the others, moving without conflict or collision.

The movement expanded into longer phrases that evoked club dancing. The dancers spread throughout the space. As we learned later, each dancer created his or her own sequence, as a personal exploration and expression of freedom and joy. Kun-Yang expertly wove these phrases together in a vibrant tapestry that folded and unfolded in space. A pair of men broke out of the group into a duet. Then one pair of women, and another, drawing the audience's attention into the details of their relationships.

The range of freedom shrank. The dancers found themselves in a line, or a line-up, stretched across the stage. Under surveillance. Being watched. Watching those who were watching them. They tried to recreate their sequences of joy in this restricted space, without moving too much; without bumping into one another; without drawing too much attention to themselves. Their movements registered a sense of oppression, not from one another, but from their common location in the line. Easy targets.

The line broke up. When a woman ran in from the back screaming in horror, I jumped in my seat. Harsh, leering slashes of hatred exploded from the stage, passing from dancer to dancer in waves, like a virulent infection. Everyone was engulfed, laughing cruelly; rolling on the floor; jumping up; shooting into the sky. Chaos reigned.

The group of dancers gathered in the back corner. They were in the same place where they had been just minutes before, but everything was different. The group was ravaged by an invisible scar. The dancers leaned on one another, swaying and cradling one another, without allowing any one of them to fall to the floor.

It was just an excerpt of what the company will perform at the Prince Theater in a month. But it reminded me of how dance is transformative.

At one level, a dance tells a story, in this case, loosely acting out a tragic event, not literally, but in an abstract, symbolic manner.

Yet a dance is never just telling a story. Because there, in front of you, are bodily selves – whole humans – beautiful, strong, lithe, expressive bodily selves. And they are moving. They are pouring their attention, their time, their energy, their love into making these kinetic images. The pain they depict bleeds out in their sweat and our tears.

Because of the dancing in Santuario, the devastation of the Pulse shooting registers at a sensory level. It is felt viscerally. The victim is me. The shooter is me. The ache is greater. But so too is the joy. The joy is never abstract. The joy is never absent. It is forever coursing through moving bodily selves and felt as a rousing affirmation of life by those in the audience who bear witness to it.

In Santuario, pain and joy, despair and celebration erupt simultaneously in a such a way that the pain expands, softens and becomes more pliant; the joy radiates, and grows more resilient. New insights and options for response emerge.

The ability of dance to deliver this combination of deep physicality and heightened empathy is not an invention of the modern period. It may be as old as human culture, present in the traditions with the longest histories. It is comforting to know that, as hard as certain elements of modern culture have tried to extinguish it, this dance still thrives.

Dance has agency in its ability to stir and catalyze acute awareness of pain and a loving, whole human response to it at the same time. The very movements that make our pain evident, visceral, and communal are the same movements that exercise our only hope of acting otherwise.

For more information: http://www.kyld.org