Maggie Kast photographed by Milena Berbenkova
Sometime in the early hours of November 9, 2016, I woke in fear, wondering if my small, safe corner of the world had been destroyed. I turned on the TV and yes, the unthinkable had come to pass. No matter how minimal the new President’s margin, no matter how flawed our electoral system, this TV star and business mogul would be our official leader for the next four years. Home wasn’t home anymore, and I drifted, unmoored to the place where I’d once belonged. I’d awakened to a nightmare.
A meeting of Links Hall’s Task Force on Critical Response had been scheduled for that Wednesday, and Roell, Director of Links, called.
“Nobody’s going to want to meet today,” she said, voice shaking.
“Let’s meet anyway,” I said. “We need warm bodies.” I knew I did. Like zombies we gathered, alive and warm but only partly conscious, as though sleep walking, wondering how we had arrived at this strange turn of events. Roell offered a bottle of Framboise, raspberry wine, and we each had a tiny glass, sweetening the sad day, beside our coffee or tea.
The Task Force got scant attention, while each of us expressed doubt that Links’ mission and work were still relevant. Shouldn’t we be organizing, planning actions, building barricades? Many in our extended Links family did engage in actions going forward: travel to Washington to protest the Inaugural, joining the Women’s March in various cities, and continuing to donate and canvass over the next two years.
But Links never stopped incubating and presenting dance and performance, while many of us continued to ask if there was any connection between taking action and making art.
On the first Saturday morning after the election I gathered with Links Hall board member Jackie Kazarian and many others at the Hideout, a bar and music club by night. We surrounded a bonfire and screamed our heads off at a clouded sky before settling down to learn about refugee assistance, resistance to the Muslim ban, voter registration and other possible actions.
Women & Children First bookstore held a series of public conversations on topics related to resistance. There I learned about E. L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, a fictional version of the Rosenberg executions, and realized that our current situation was hardly unique, that our President couldn’t be worse than Senator Joe McCarthy, with his unverified list of “un-American” names he waved about and threatened to divulge in 1950. With no more respect for evidence than our current leader, McCarthy’s rants ruined lives.
Discussions like these caused me to wonder: should we, like Thomas Mann had done when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in in 1933, leave the country? If we were still welcome here at home, shouldn’t we depart in support of those who were being kicked out? Perhaps we were forgetting history and thus doomed to repeat it. Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, contemporary of Mann, wrote that, “A new technique of deliberate and cynical amorality was being built up.” I saw a similar “technique” in every tweet and policy position of our new leader.
Today, two years and several months after that post-election meeting, I ask: what has experimental dance and performance contributed to the struggle?
On reflection, I’d say a lot, in several ways.
First of all, the work Links presents fosters hope, an attitude that combats the tendency to accept a “new normal.”
Hope at Links is engendered by giving voice (in the form of space, time, mentoring, technical help and performance opportunity) to those who have been voiceless because of age, economics or discrimination. Links listens when artists speak, whether with movement, images or words. Feeling valued, they sing, and both artists and audiences are filled with hope.
Links combats despair by providing to artists, staff, board members, and audiences an atmosphere and attitude of enthusiastic mutual support. Every artist co-missioned by Links makes a community investment by contributing their art and by working as ticket taker, cleaner, seller of raffle tickets, or author of an artist-to-artist response for Performance Response Journal. Once a year Links has a down-to-earth workweek, when hordes of volunteers, including artists, clean, construct and otherwise improve the spaces used for performance, rehearsal, meeting, and greeting.
These two things: voice and mutual support, are ingredients of hope, without which one cannot wake up in the morning, much less make art or take action.
Secondly, Links gives artists courage to emerge, sometimes with their first self-produced show, and also by exhibiting work in progress, when it is still rough. Fellow artists and audiences alike are emboldened by seeing development and growth. “This kind of work gives people the energy to keep going,” said board member Tracie Hall at a recent meeting.
It gives artists permission and thus courage to try untrod paths, to experiment, to, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” to quote Samuel Becket in Worstword Ho. And courage even to “Throw up for good” to place that quote in its less-known and more pessimistic context.
Becket’s own awareness of evil seems especially appropriate these days when our country is supporting the Saudis as they starve Yemenite children and use U.S.-made bombs to finish the job. Maybe we do actually need to throw up for good, and that takes courage. Two of the most moving works I’ve seen at Links in recent years, “Guerra” and “Next Door,” do exactly that, confronting social evils with a force that holds nothing back.
First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. Sick of the either try the other. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for Good. Where neither for good. Good and all.
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Third, performances of movement, voice, and music require imagination, and imagination enables us to envision worlds different from the one we live in now. Imagination has to precede change.
The practice of rehearsal enables what has-not-yet-come to take shape. Scholars of liturgy (public worship), often describe that kind of ritual action as rehearsal, a practice of right relations in a microcosm. Rehearsal, like liturgy, can be a trial run for a more just world.
Through rehearsal imagination works out a vision. If we can imagine and enact a just world in a performance space then we’ll know where we’re going as we move ahead.
Fourth, Links fosters beautiful works, a reward to artists and audiences and an inspiration to make more.
The perception of beauty can be different from day to day and from one person to another. For me, it breaks in without warning. I sit in one of Links Hall’s studios, and suddenly my whole body lights up with a smile I can’t repress. “This is it,” I say to myself. “This is the real thing.”
Beauty wakes me up. I may bask in a performance as perfectly made as a bird or a flower or be challenged by one as rough and random as tumbling rocks in a canyon, but both will wake up both body and mind, changing me in beautiful, terrible ways.
Jenn Freeman, who performs burlesque as “Po’Chop,” developed a solo, “Dynamite,” as a Links Co-Mission resident artist. Wearing overalls and working with a rocking chair as prop, she suggested a rural setting. If anyone was dozing as she rocked, they soon were roused by her extreme energy and bare emotion as she eulogized, fought with, and in some ways embodied her grandfather, known as “Dynamite.” He must have been. She certainly was. Accompanied at first by the sound of preaching and later, by loud house music, her dance was a cry, a protest, a barrier-breaking explosion.
Jenn Freeman photographed by Anna Trier
Walkabout Theater Company, whose current artistic direction was born out of a Links residency, works co-operatively, devising movement, text and song to re-invent and express classical materials, such as legends of Faust, plays by Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, always integrated with personal experiences of the company members. Most recently they presented “The Brink, or Nobody’s Ever Kissed Me Like That” – a Links commission. The piece “respond[s] to that moment when the ground beneath us shifts too quickly, and the world suddenly seems unrecognizable,” in the company’s words. To me it felt unbelievably timely.
Each of Walkabout’s many works, some incubated and performed at Links and then beyond, plunges to pre-conscious depths and rises to inspirational heights, challenging and beautiful at once.
Another source of gems at Links is our program of Curatorial Residencies, in which artists are selected to curate a series of performances. In this category, the A-Squared Asian American Performing Arts Festival this year presented a solo by Taiwanese American Irene Hsiao, a response to the exhibition “Tang Chang: The Painting That Is Painted With Poetry Is Beautiful” at the Smart Museum, University of Chicago.
Her movement was as precisely defined as any I’ve ever seen in terms of line and shape, while its dynamic was fluid as water. It was as though each part of her body: hands, head, torso, legs, had its own independent dance, like a four-part harmony embodied. Her movement flow sometimes stopped at her wrists, as you can see in the photo above, but in the next moment her hands would go on to do their own, subtle dance. The beauty of Hsiao’s movement was delicate as calligraphy, which Chang incorporated in his work, but she wasn’t limited to a single use of force and speed. She could go soft or slinky, percussive or fierce, legato, staccato, piano, fortissimo. She woke up each part of her body independently and let it sing its own song.
Links’ Curatorial Residency program launched the now-annual Physical Festival Chicago whose curators Alice da Cunha and Marc Frost brought the Copenhagen-based company Out of Balanz to present its work, “Next Door.” This hilarious and complex piece had a thesis that’s simple and painfully true: we don’t know our neighbors. Two characters, one severe, like a stern schoolmaster, and the other friendly and comic, beguiled me into questioning why my neighbor is still a stranger. The debacle of November 2016 has been blamed partly on the blindness of urban dwellers like me to the problems of rural citizens. “Next Door” challenged us to imagine how others live and explore what really connects us. The show was so convincing, that the audience was glad to pass a basket of candy, sometimes a hokey symbol of sharing, without rolling eyes.
“Guerra: a Clown Play,” performed by the Mexico City-based troupe La Piara in collaboration with Chicago writer-directors Seth Bockley (a Links alum) and Devon de Mayo, was a hilarious satire on the military. These clowns had neither red noses nor wigs, but were highly skilled mimes and actors. This theatre piece brought me from laughter to tears within an hour and showed me how gesture can replace words, singing its own song, while wonderful clowning can reach deep into my heart and mind.
The excerpt shown at Links was about fifteen minutes, while the whole opera runs an hour and a half. You can get a sense of what we saw and heard (with different staging) by clicking the link below to video documentation of Dust at La Mama in New York and start viewing at about fourteen minutes.
The Annual Festival of Poet’s Theater‘s 2nd edition curated by curatorial residents Patrick Durgin and Devin King brought a rare performance of an opera by poet Robert Ashley, directed by musician Alex Waterman. A chorus of ten or twelve people sat around a table speak-singing Ashley’s text. He asks us to, “Imagine a street corner anywhere in the world, where those who live on the fringes of society gather to talk, to each other and to themselves, about life-changing events, missed opportunities, memory, loss and regret.” The piece was in progress as the audience entered the theater, and I was hypnotized by the musical speech, conducted with subtle, rhythmic gesture by Waterman. Hints of meaning and bits of story came through the sound. From time to time a solo voice rose to the fore, and a lengthier personal story revealed itself. The work was both poetry and opera and literally sang. As an ode to the marginalized of the world, it’s both beautiful theater and political action at once.
Now, two years after that funereal morning meeting in 2016 and despite some victories at the mid-term elections, the U.S. is still selling bombs to the Saudis, Syria still suffers, immigrants are still expelled and new refugees are turned away at our borders. But Links continues to wake up the world by means of hope, courage, rehearsal and beauty. These four forces nudge each of us awake, perhaps with more insight than when we dozed off. We still need to vote and to protest, take action and donate, but if we awake without singing, no one (not even we) will know we’re alive. And Links makes sure there’s a song, whether it’s a scream, a piece of cabaret, a verbal opera, a bit of clowning or a candy passed with a smile.