It was 1988, I was a graduate student and my dissertation advisor, Dwight Conquergood, a professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern, was giving a talk about his fieldwork with Chicago street gangs and their performances of survival and belonging. At the end of his talk, the familiar question rose again:
“Professor Conquergood, this work you are doing with street gangs is so dangerous! Are you safe?”
Dwight was asked this question time and time again. I remember that night we talked about the question and Dwight slowly shook his head and quietly said: “Everyone is worried about me—the white man.”
Ten years later in 1998, as an associate professor, I was on my way to Ghana to conduct fieldwork with local Ghanaian activists on women’s human rights and practices of bondage. When I mentioned I was researching performance as a tactic, of intervention and transformation, for human rights activists in the rural areas of Ghana, I often heard:
“Be careful Soyini, I hear it can be dangerous in those areas!”
Ten years later in 2008, as a full professor. I remember a phone call from, Hannah, one of my graduate students conducting fieldwork in Southern Appalachia on black lung disease in an economically devastated coal mining community. She told me she was going down into one of the mines in order to experience first-hand what the miners experienced. I said immediately:
“Hannah! All those mines are closed; it is too dangerous!”
Hannah told me it would be safe and she would be underground with experienced miners. She told me she must go to the source of black lung and she would take the necessary precautions. Hannah did go down into the mine to write and direct a beautiful performance on the oral histories of Appalachian miners and black lung disease.
What does it mean to flip the script on danger?
What would it look like to no longer be a victim of danger and to be a perpetrator of courageous danger?
To be a danger to structures of violence, greed, and narcissism that generate and sustain suffering?
What is a courageously, dangerous performance?
A performance of dangerous courage that works like a boomerang to inflict injury upon the foundation of that which steals away our lives through borders, prisons, death, narcissism and lies?
My plea is for us not only to speak truth to deadly power, but to put this brand of power in peril, in jeopardy
—to endanger it.
This all comes from me being tired of rage.
As I approach 70 years and look into my granddaughter’s face, I realize I need a new strategy for greedy, malevolent power. I am needing a new strategy for this new epoch of power with its hidden abodes of cruelty and flashy falsehoods as well as its unabashed greed and timeworn hoarding. I have made up my mind in my golden years that I am going to be a dangerous old lady and for me, it no longer begins with interventions on political economies or structures of the state or nation, or global capitalism, or corporate greed or ideologies of neo-liberalism (a confusing term that I hate). It is true, these are the targets of courageously dangerous performances; and, they may be the starting points, but they can no longer be my angry inspiration.
The new strategy begins with the Body and culminates into Beauty.
II. The Body
In Performance Studies, we do a lot of talking about the body. We always have and we always will. This talk can never get old because our body is not only the feeling and sensing home of our being and the miracle of our breath, but it is the alchemy and the means by which we move –flesh with flesh—in the touch of space and time with Others.
My body in live performance is the truth that I exist (and have existed) with you, with myself, in the abundance of this present moment—in the enormity of right here, right now.
Live performance gives evidence to our common body in the union of the Here and Now.
I am not anywhere; I am not nowhere; I am not yonder; I am not absent; I am not forgotten; I am so existentially vulnerable to the here, now, and you. In live performance my body breathes here, unmediated and unprotected from the reach of you.
My beloved audience and spectators, in the commons of bearing witness to what my creative body can do, I give myself to you in the name of beauty and danger. In this liveness, you can reach across space and touch my wounds, feel my beating heart, hear me breath, kiss me, strike me down and see my blood flow.
For better or worse, I want to honor and even fetishize the liveness in live performance as testament to the fact that I cannot live or die in the absence of my body therefore I give you the embodied facts of my existence and my immortality wrapped in a performance offering.
The point is that where my body is, is where I am vulnerable to the radical extremes of life and death, to emotional waves of disgust and pleasure, to the show and tell of danger and its infinite purposes.
We put our ‘body on the line’ for live performances
as we re-make danger into scenarios of liberation and beauty.
Live performance invites us to Bear Witness as a form of truth. The truth of not what precisely happened in an empirical or earthly moment, but what profoundly happened to your feelings, my feelings, and our feelings that is both lastingly transformational yet materially ephemeral. This bearing witness is the call to witness more art, to tell the story, to make the dance, to play the music as a uniquely new creation again and again for the sake of danger and other bodies on the line.
But this is still not enough.
I have learned that no matter how noble the liberating danger of our performances become, how many times they are repeated and/or how much or many times the body in live performance labors inside fleshly temporality, we need Beauty.
I first started thinking about beauty several decades ago when I read Toni Morrison’s essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” She defends political art against accusations that it is didactic, preachy, unskilled, or “tainted.” She responds with my favorite quote:
“The problem comes when you find harangue passing off as art. It seems to me that the best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” (emphasis mine)
Much has been written and discussed about beauty and its call to politics, justice, art, and belonging. I want to playfully enumerate beauty across these discussions as well as its value to liberatory danger, including the body in live performance.
For our purposes let us remember that beauty is more than glamour, appearances, and surfaces. It is a bodily sensation generating feelings and emotions that can withdraw us from the world. We may forget or become distracted from the pain in our body, our broken heart, or our worried mind when we enter beauty’s consuming grasp.
The beautiful object/experience calls our attention and causes us to deliberate in reflection and wonder. We notice deeply and we listen intently. This call of beauty is not a distraction from the politics of liberation, but can make it imaginable, inspirational, and accessible. We pay deep attention to beauty that breaks the frames of how the world is toward how the world could be.
Beauty invokes deliberation.
To be audience to the beautiful inspires us toward replication and resonance. We elongate beauty toward a new path of continuance. We want to re-make the beautiful again through our own hands and within the movement or sounds of our own lives and creations.
We want to write a poem, make a dance, sing a song, or make bread as replications of it wonder and the joy of our encounter with it.
Beauty defies boredom. We are kept awake and alive by its pleasure. That beautiful thing stops me in my tracks and I stop what I am doing or thinking to listen to it, to gaze upon it. It intrigues me; it brings me pleasure; I am interested. Boredom cannot rest beside what I find beautiful; I can only attend to it and in so doing there is the inclination to believe and to follow where it leads me.
Beauty enlivens presence. In the face of beauty there is no other time but here where my feet stand beside it. My body holding its nearness. When I enter this beautiful art I am stuck, here and now. Visions of past and future, beyond this temporal present, come to me only because beauty chooses to take me outside this existential present.
I only time travel in this present moment of beauty’s calling.
Beauty embraces the intelligence and wisdom of our senses. Beauty is the saving grace of our senses; beauty is home to our senses; our senses thrive in the beautiful. Beauty is the gift to our senses as our senses are the gift to beauty.
It has been said that beauty and the senses remind us that we are embodied creatures as beauty opens gateways to our senses, nourishing and enlivening them.
Beauty invokes communion and social relations. Beauty always beckons the witness.
It is only in Otherness that beauty is made known. Beauty is the ultimate communicator birthed through social relations and communion. Beauty must have a maker, an observer, a participator, and world of others in order to be protected, known, and received.
Beauty is a natural collaborator, even at the hands of the lone artist—be it a mountain, a river, a blade of grass, and every element of nature untouched by human spaces. Beauty is always from the inheritance of the beautiful that came before it. Beauty exists through its natural and communal inheritance.
I understand that beauty can also be used for greedy power and malevolent purposes, but that is not my interest in this rumination.
Maybe for another time.
Right now (as I turn 70, retire from the university, and move to a new home) this new phase of my life is full of beginnings, and I find myself drawn to the inter-animating frequencies of danger, the body, and beauty as a first step in the wondrous path ahead.