On the 28th consecutive day that our government has been shutdown for a $5.7 billion border wall, and on the 79th day since President Trump deployed 5,000 armed troops to attack poor and hungry migrants, I watched a dance protesting borders on stage at Cornish Playhouse, and was entranced by this act of political resistance.
In Trail of Soles, Oliver Wevers (Artistic Director of Whim W’Him, choreographer of this piece and immigrant himself) and the Whim W’Him cast displayed a profound testament to the pain, suffering, and violence that borders create, as well as illustrating the strength, cooperation, and resilience of communities torn apart by borders.
A line of shoes stretched along the stage, creating a symbolic border that contained and separated the dancers. It was a trail of soles defining a trail of souls.
The dancers of Whim W’Him made clear the line of shoes signified a hard, insurmountable border. In one poignant scene, six dancers stood on one side of the border, arms outstretched, hands tense, and bodies frozen, while one dancer reached out from the opposite side. The forced divide was apparent.
Using shoes as the border carried out a multidimensional purpose. Most obviously, the shoes constituted a physical obstacle, constricting the movement of the dancers. Throughout the piece, shoes divided performers from each other, kept dancers restricted to a certain space of the stage, and limited the types of dance moves they could execute.
Impeding where and how the dances could move across the stage was a powerful metaphor most aptly applied through dance. Other artists, like singers, actors, or painters would be mildly inconvenienced or not at all bothered by a row of even small, shoe-sized hurdles. Dancers, on the other hand, necessarily rely on movement in their artistic expression. In preventing movement, the audience could easily see how the shoe-border disrupted the dancers’ ability to perform.
Through this metaphor of movement, the dancers created a clear statement on how borders create difficult problems for vulnerable people. To me, the parallels were stark: while dancing without external barriers is essential to an art form that depends on movement, living without violent borders is critical in maintaining the humanity of all people. Without violent borders, people can see their families, access opportunities, and escape violence – all necessary in fully exercising our fundamental rights as a human beings.
Employing shoes also allowed the dancers to reposition the border. Over the course of the piece, the shoes were probably moved upwards of ten times. In one case, the dancers weaved in and out, through each other, picking a pattern of shoes to remake a border downstage, and finally permitting all performers to dance together on one side.
In the fluidity and frequent changing of the border, Wevers showed how borders are a construct. There’s nothing inevitable about where borders are placed and who is on what side, but instead they are a choice. In the program notes, made in collaboration with the artists, it proclaims that “human-made walls and borders” are “constructed by collective fear,” implying the collective imagination that is crucial in establishing and upkeeping hard borders. And in fact, parts of the current US-Mexico border were established by a small commission of US and Mexican surveyors, walking across the continent, determining what patch of grass or smattering of pebbles would be American and which Mexican.
The shoes also referenced a rich history of activism against violence and oppression. Pairs of shoes have been used as potent imagery to demonstrate the death toll of brutal policy and inaction. Last March, 14,000 shoes were placed in Washington DC to represent the number of children who died from gun violence since the Sandy Hook shooting. In Puerto Rico, activists used shoes to show how many people died during Hurricane Maria, while the US government erased these deaths. Almost three years ago, shoes were used to show the number of people who wanted to take action on climate change when the Parisian government forbade citizens from protesting. Wevers’ use of shoes seemed to be a deliberate choice and a reference to bold activism around the world.
Trail of Soles also presented critical moments of showcasing resilience and the strength of community. In a breathtaking scene, the dancers lifted one dancer up in a starfish position, arms and legs spread high. They twisted and turned as one, but quickly collapsed to the floor with only one dancer holding the previously starfished dancer limp over his back. The lift displayed a powerful foundation in community, followed by the destitution of reality.
In another act of solidarity, the dancers glommed onto each other in a pack of interconnected limbs. They moved as one and looked out for danger as one, flicking their heads left and right in alarm, swirling around each other in a mass of bodies.
Mid-way through the piece, the dancers emerged on stage in silver, aluminum-like ponchos, with hoods covering their faces. Though startlingly at first, the costume change prevented the audience from distinguishing individuals, and facilitated the appreciation of the dancers’ movements as a group. In metallic ponchos, the performers strengthened their resolve to experience the painful border as one, while also exaggerating their shivers and spasms of anguish with the crunch of the aluminum.
Trail of Soles is not just a powerful dance piece; it is protest art. This is resistance.
Trail of Soles was performed by Whim W’Him at 3 x 3 on January 18, 19, 25, and 26 in Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center. Also debuted were The Most Elusive Hold by Yin Yue, and This mountain by Zoe Scofield.