Author and feminist bell hooks once wrote: “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is—it’s to imagine what is possible.” This idea has proved an important principle for PE︱mo directors Rosa Vissers and Hatlo for the creation of their most recent dance-theater work, Anatomy of An Accident (November 6-15 at Open Flight Studio). In Anatomy, Vissers and Hatlo imagine the possibilities of finding a different outcome from a traumatic event.“There’s sort of the blink of an eye, the moment of what happens,” says Hatlo. “We’re interested in, if you slow that down, if you cut that apart, and if you look at it from different perspectives, what actually happened? How do you interrupt that?”
The kind of trauma they’re referring to isn’t something as literal as a car accident, but instead an event that might affect a whole community. The piece has been in development since the summer of 2014, and many of the ideas it grapples with were informed by traumas like the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, as well as the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson. While Anatomy “does look at issues of class,” says Hatlo, “it more looks at issues of what the experience is according to race.”
This isn’t to say that Anatomy is a play-by-play of an event with a catalogue of possible outcomes. PE︱mo’s intention is less to be didactic about reversing racism and finding healing, than to create a nuanced and layered journey for the viewer. Part of those layers are that each performer (there are six) has a character with a backstory, but it’s not necessary that the audience know specifically what that story is. “It’s important to us that there’s an inner logic to the character’s behavior,” says Vissers. At the same time, both artists are drawn to abstraction, and the show incorporates text, theater, and dance to investigate its themes. Vissers furnishes the choreography while Hatlo supplies the stage direction and dramaturgy.
In addition to their work as artists, Hatlo and Vissers are dedicated activists for social change and racial justice. Both work in local non-profits: Hatlo at Teen Feed and Vissers at Yoga Behind Bars. Their jobs have certainly influenced the shaping of Anatomy, but in different ways. As a dancer and choreographer, Vissers uses the body as a tool for healing and sees this concept in her non-profit work as well. “I really believe in the body as a super powerful tool for resistance, for finding freedom, for transformation. I see it all the time in my work at Yoga Behind Bars when I go into prisons.” Through the choreography for Anatomy, Vissers reflects this “idea that we can overcome a lot of trauma, a lot of difficulties by just being in our bodies. Actually embodying ourselves by being in our bodies, being at home in our bodies, feeling safe in our bodies.” She also notes that in making art, “we can create some moments where we succeed, where so often in real life we don’t. We want to be able to show the possibility.”
For Hatlo, who does outreach on the streets in the U-district right in front of Open Flight, they find their practice of art making a way to model healing. “So much of how society is proscribed,” they note, “really serves to create so much distance between people. So being able to build this abstract version where people confront the damage they’ve done to each other, and try and find healing, is very healing for me. Because we don’t have a lot of great models of what that looks like.”
“The way into this work for both of us is so different,” notes Vissers. “With that comes a lot of trust of each other’s process, being so different and knowing that we often agree but we’re talking in a very different language.” Since they are rooted in different disciplines (Hatlo in theater and Vissers in dance), they’ve developed their own methods to merge their practices into a final piece. It can work in different ways. Vissers builds the choreography and then Hatlo adds a layer of depth or meaning to it. Hatlo crafts a narrative structure with a rough movement idea and then Vissers clarifies the movement with the performer while maintaining Hatlo’s intention behind it. This kind of tag-teaming takes extensive communication and the two meet almost as often as they rehearse with the cast. Hatlo says the process has gotten easier over the years as their trust has deepened. They’ve also learned when not to interrupt each other when one is in the flow of creating, how to communicate their ideas to each other, and how to effectively communicate those ideas to the cast.
Both directors face unique challenges as well. Vissers creates movement on people with varying degrees of dance experience (the cast includes three formally trained dancers), while Hatlo asks dancers to perform text as nuanced characters. The level of commitment and generosity they have from the cast is both formidable and tangible. “There have been moments where I’ve just felt so well supported by them,” says Hatlo. “There are moments when we’re not agreeing, and they just let us hash things out. They’re people who trust that we’ll get there.” That trust is a testament to the environment the co-directors create in rehearsal. Both have stressful jobs themselves, so they acknowledge that the performers also have things outside of rehearsal that take up space in their lives. This acknowledgement is reciprocated by the trust they receive from the cast.
Though Anatomy deals with weighty issues of race, class, and traumatic events, its abstraction lends itself to distinct moments of beauty and tenderness: a lush and interwoven dance phrase or something as simple as a performer gently resting their head on another’s shoulder. When asked what they hope the audience will walk away from the piece with, Vissers replied that, “If the audience feels like they were taken from one place to a very different place—like they travelled with the performers in some way—that would be good. I hope that people are affected by it, that it’s not just ‘I’m sitting back here and this performance is happening in front of me.’” The structure of the performance supports how Vissers would like the audience to engage. Since the piece changes orientation several times and the audience will move through the space, it will be difficult to watch too passively.
For Hatlo, they hope people find new possibilities in the work. “I think that in this piece, people are wrong. People are wronged. People fall apart. People invest in people that have fallen apart and help put them back together. And I want the audience to move through a world where we go from a place where people are being the way they normally would be with people, and then just slowing it down, moving out of time, moving out of context, and finding new ways of being in the world with each other.”
Accessibility was also an important issue for PE︱mo, and so they’ve made tickets available on a sliding payment scale. There are only thirty seats a night, however, so be sure to reserve your spot before it fills up. Go to see excellent performers in richly complex roles, or go to see moving dance theater, or go to experience what new possibilities PE︱mo’s world opens up. Whatever the reasons, it will surely be worth the journey.