by slowdanger (anna thompson & taylor knight)
We are nothing without our community.
There are no movements of art without social gathering amongst artists to share and resonate with each other's ideas. There is no ability for us to create in this capitalist economy without sharing resources and boosting each other's work.
How can we decentralize vertical power structures in the creation of performance in order to leverage creative agency in process in different ways? How do we use this to create collective ownership in the dance community? How can we start quelling and examining the narrative of the ‘singular genius’ so often upheld by our industry, media, and the history of ‘modern dance’?
First we must understand what horizontal power structures are. They are systems of organizing and collaborating that leverage power on a flatter plane, allowing more focus to be placed upon the project or organization’s work towards goals and learning from mistakes. They try to alleviate power-struggles and tap into the strengths, imagination, and creativity of a team to innovate. They also seek to leverage work and power across individuals while empowering folks to contribute and do their jobs, moving away from micromanagement. While this can increase innovation, community, and productivity it can also lead to “too many cooks” when using solely consensus based decision making to move forward with tasks.
Vertical structures create a defined hierarchy and potentially many sub-hierarchies below that then must report their progress to whomever is at the top. This structure can get in the way of progress and cause organizations/projects to be ‘risk averse’, as the fear of failure can carry negative implications within the power structure and can lead to a lack of transparency and clear communication.
Working away from the scarcity mentality so often fed and bred into our bodies in training and in witnessing the world around us, takes incredible emotional labor and excavations.
Is it possible to have evenly leveraged power in all spaces at all times?
slowdanger with collaborators Mitsuko and Anya.
Photo by Mitsuko Clarke-Verdery
Perhaps not, as is stillness and meditation it is the process of examining and coming into awareness that is essential in working towards more horizontal mechanisms.
We will never be there...we will never arrive, so allow that to be a relief in your perfectionist mind to continually be experimenting, examining, honing and sensing.
These horizontal mechanisms of artistic praxis/ethics are not founded on performative statements and box checking collaborations/initiatives, nor should the pursuit be motivated by the desire for recognition or praise. Rather these modes are learned in the process of doing and making. Each new project or collaboration is informed by the previous failures, lessons, and successes and they will inform the next.
There will be failures. There will be messes. It is not an immediate fix. Using horizontal power structures is a delicate process of letting go and building teams with deep trust, accountability and clarity in communication. It is the acceptance that it might not become what you imagined so specifically in your head but, in that relinquishing, the wisdom of the community that is built around a project gets to flourish. It is the removal of paternalistic and emotionally abusive dependency of director to dancer relationship. It questions us to look at and re-pattern our perfectionist mentality, which is fueled, conditioned, and rewarded by capitalism. Furthermore, these modes allow for the possibility and openness for the project/piece/work/concept to be informed and illuminated by many individuals and interpretations. This decentralizes the sole perspective and ownership of a director/creator, in return becoming a more accessible work for a larger spectrum of viewers/audiences.
An inspiring example of resource distribution and shared/horizontally led program design, that we witnessed this July, was the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh. This year Kelly-Strayhorn Theater (KST) had to cancel their annual fundraiser due to COVID-19. They responded with “Hotline Ring,” a virtual fundraiser hosted by KST’s Executive Director Joseph Hall, in collaboration with 6 other Pittsburgh arts and community resource organizations, all of which led by or in community with Queer, Black, People of Color. The fundraiser intended to raise money for each participating organization while providing black femme-led organizations with a greater portion of the raised funds. The Hotline Ring team of organizations are quoted on the KST website stating:
“Part of our vision for the future is to end the disproportionate ways that resources are distributed in our city, therefore, we are committed to providing black femme-led organizations with a greater portion of our shared fundraising as an explicit way to address this inequity. Instead of only considering the bottom line of each individual organization, this fundraising effort will create shared resources that will benefit the interdependence of all of us.”
Behind the scenes at KST's "Hotline Ring"
We, slowdanger, are attempting to continue this work of decolonizing our process and decentralizing vertical hierarchy in dance and performance making through our newest project weighted sky. This new work explores the fall of white supremacist and capitalist structures upon the backs of American people. It is being collaboratively made in fluid directorship between ourselves and Michiyaya Dance’s Anya and Mitsuko Clarke-Verdery and in collaboration with Baltimore-based sound artist and club legend, Abdu Ali and sculptor Rob Hackett. This piece examines how the intersectional cast is affected by the failures of capitalism and “hustle culture” in disproportionate ways. It also explores imagining new futures together, outside of the rigid structures offered to us in society and as working artists. Collectively, we felt it was essential to build this work in fluid directorship so that everyone’s unique identity had agency in the room to express the varied ways that capitalism enacts violence on their bodies.
This project would be much more difficult to make with a sole director projecting assumed stories on the people in the room or ignoring their intersections of identities entirely. Creative decision-making is maintained through dialogue and check-in’s between collaborators. This allows for administrative work to be leveraged across multiple folks and, as we are also performing in the work, the ability to coach and direct each other performatively. As a team, we pool our resources and connections so that we can collectively work to be adequately compensated within the process.
Simultaneously, we are building a paid artistic advisory committee for the project that will be involved in work-in-process showings and short dialogue check-ins throughout the process. It provides us, as performers and directors in the work, another set of eyes to interpret the performative structures we are building within the process. It also builds a larger community around the work, providing more perspectives to lend to what will eventually be performed for larger audiences. This piece is being developed with support from the Opportunity Fund, the Andy Warhol Museum, and Unique Projects and will premiere at the Andy Warhol Museum and before going on tour in 2021.
More examples of horizontal leveraging within creative and administrative processes are the working groups for Creating New Futures: Working Guidelines for Ethics and Equity in Presenting Dance and Performance, Urban Bush Women’s new co-directorship/shared leadership, and loveconductors.
We have witnessed that queer and BIPOC folks have been imagining these alternative power structures and ways of working for a much longer time. They feel the violence of a vertical system upon their bodies and have sought to imagine alternatives to the oppressive modalities deeply embedded in our culture by white supremacist institutions.
In order for us to tear down the power structures that oppress and hold us and our industry rigid, we must maintain active imagining alongside continued practice of what these new forms and structures can look and feel like in our immediate spheres of influence.