Risky Talking with Bill T. Jones, Majora Carter, Elizabeth Streb and Laura Flanders
On November 1st, SLAM – the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics – opened its Williamsburg doors for the first in a series of discussions under the umbrella of Risky Talking. This series, funded by Dance/USA’s Engaging Dance Audiences program, asks attendees to participate in a “no-holds-barred discussion,” to “say what you think,” and, at least on this inaugural evening, to answer the question: What is a real risk? Everyone present wrote his or her answer on a slip of paper, placing it on a plate for collection, and for one terrifying moment I thought we were going to hear panel member Bill T. Jones read each anonymous risk aloud in that prophetic voice, but Elizabeth Streb had other plans.
Upon entering the performance/work space at SLAM, viewers observed the reinforced rigging and padded landing zone where Streb’s work is created and practiced. To either side of this platform were two transparent boxes, open at the top, inside both of which were stacked cinder blocks. The boxes were illuminated; the dichotomy of light and weight foreshadowed what was to come. Over an hour later, when our risky thoughts had been collected, Streb and partner Laura Flanders placed them atop the cinder blocks and gave the cue for twin bowling balls to drop from the ceiling and crush them to bits, sending puffs of concrete dust and shards of plate flying.
This was the second time within the hour that bowling balls had fallen from above – the “unique action moment” promised in this event’s description invited seven audience members to pull down on strings near their seats. Streb coached them through this: “[the string] should bifurcate the center of your body. You have to pull down with 19 pounds of pressure. You know how much that is.” The choreographed pull released seven balls, which swung pendulum-style above the heads of the panelists, almost as if keeping time, never once distracting from the fantastically free-ranging discussion going on below.
Over an hour later, when our risky thoughts had been collected, Streb and partner Laura Flanders placed them atop the cinder blocks and gave the cue for twin bowling balls to drop from the ceiling and crush them to bits, sending puffs of concrete dust and shards of plate flying.
Flanders, who served as the evening’s moderator, opened by confessing that she felt as though she was taking a risk just being “here alone with three MacArthur Genius Award winners.” She and Streb, who will host each installment of the Risky Talking series, were joined by choreographer Bill T. Jones and urban revitalization consultant Majora Carter, all powerhouses, all possessing a palpable admiration for each other. The discussion that followed covered architecture, religion, sexuality, class, geography, and race; it included anecdotes, aspirations, deep fears, and Jones singing “I Wanna Be Ready” (a vivid presence, he was constantly moving, gesturing, jumping out of his chair, falling to his knees). Like the light on the concrete blocks, the four were at once casual and deadly serious, taking on heavy questions with unaffected eagerness.
From an extensive dialogue, one clear theme emerged: the relationship between class struggle and artistic creativity. Who gets to be creative, or experience creativity? What barriers has society set in place for certain groups to have access, or not have access, to spaces and resources for artmaking? Streb addressed the challenges she faces in attempting to open her space to “the everyman,” Carter questioned our tendency to segregate neighborhoods by class rather than building low-income housing in historically affluent areas or creating destinations for wealthier constituents in economically disadvantaged areas, Jones told of a mythical time when Broadway was the theater of the common man.
The audience could have been integrated more gracefully, with more time for guests to ask questions or a post-show gathering more conducive to discussion. There are many opportunities for the curious to hear experts speak, and relatively few where a group dialogue is reinforced. Overall, however, this is an excellent forum for a town-hall-loving, critical-discourse-addicted dance community. More, please!