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My hand rests on a stranger’s shoulder, and then another person’s shoulder except this person I know, and then my back leans on a person I have not seen yet but I hope is okay with the surface area of my back and, ok, part of my shoulder too. My body holds a slightly uncomfortable shape that I did not foresee as being uncomfortable until now, when I am required to hold it for a small period of time. This feels like a dance workshop, except I’m in baggy jeans and boots, worrying that the dried mud on them will dirty the stage. But I relax, because I don’t feel watched, even as the group’s eyes scan one another. We’re listening as we create “Bamboo” with our bodies, a sea of beanies and sweaters clumped together.

Photo by Dayna Hanson

What am I / we / it / they / this shit / this magic / this sharing / this connecting / these practices / these rituals / this training / this situation / this disappointment / an occasional accolade / this distinction between you and me / this act of performing myself vs the act of being myself / or the problem with what this vs that / or the problem of hidden contexts / or how some bodies matter / and we think words make sense and bodies aren’t words but are in fact made by them/”

Shannon Stewart reads from a piece of paper, words that run together, vulnerable questions without the conclusivity of inflection. She finishes a stanza, and asks us to shift our collective structure again. Then it is back to the hyper-awareness of my body touching others. Her voice is humble, soft, contrasting her demeanor earlier in the work, when we were all still the audience and she was the performer. She began by scanning the audience, droopy eyelids fluttering with quick, but tired blinking. Settling into a propped elbow, then jarringly dissolving into some other shape so quickly it was hard to capture the full event of the movement. Then she appeared to be forced out of performativity into a baffling sequence of shakes and verbal sounds. The sounds are raw, carnal, human, necessary. “That was the first part,” she concludes.

what can be (un)done? is part solo performance, part workshop, and part lecture given by Stewart at Base: Experimental Arts + Space on Tuesday night. For those who know Stewart, her return to the PNW to share her work, even for only a brief moment, feels like a welcoming home. In “part three”, she reads directly from her dissertation of her recent graduate studies at Tulane University. She describes her process with choreographer/scholar, Deborah Hay, in creating the solo Dynamic from 2012-2014 (read our coverage of the Seattle performance here), and the questions that Hay put through her body during that time. Questions like, “What if my whole body at once is my teacher?”

As she reads paragraph after paragraph, she weaves through ideas of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology and Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, drawing parallels between them and her process with Hay. These trails of resources converge at her own proposed theory of “Body Based Theory Practice,” or BBTP. She speaks of BBTP taking queer phenomenology and other queer theories, within a structure like Hay’s improvisational practice, and creating a way for them to exist materially, particularly in the context and history of dance training, theater, and performance. In this way, the field can begin to address issues of sexism, racism, and appropriation within post-modern dance, inside of physical, informative bodies.

As I listen, my mind flutters to ideas such as privilege, only to find that Stewart addresses the personal and public presence of this in her next breath. While an unexpected lecture could go in the direction of stuffy and distanced, I’m reminded of our earlier Bamboo structure, how it gave the entirety of the audience a framework in which to work off of. In an excerpt of her complete dissertation, Body Based Theory Practice, she states “the practice is the theory itself and the theory is the practice — that it is in the doing/experiencing that the theory is manifest and activated.” Ultimately, Stewart suggests we go directly to the source with the most answers: our bodies.

what can be (un)done? was performed at Base: Experimental Arts + Space on Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018. Learn more about Shannon Stewart and her work here. Read an excerpt of Body Based Theory Practice.