DANCECRUSH SPOTLIGHT: PEGGY PIACENZA

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My personal introduction to Peggy Piacenza in performance was Dayna Hanson’s 2013 production The Clay Duke. I still remember Piacenza, stage left at On the Boards, methodically removing and naming each item in her purse, from the expected—a lipstick—to the absurd—a clown mask. Of course it was me who was new to Seattle at the time, not Piacenza, who has been performing and making work here since the early 90s. Since The Clay Duke I’ve tried to catch every creation and performance of Piacenza I can, and each reveals itself to be just as haunting and memorable as that first introduction. 

Full of aesthetic storytelling and off-beat characters, Piacenza’s work feels like a process of transformation: for the space, for the dancers, for the viewers. Her solo show, 2014’s Touch Me Here, staged at Washington Hall and then again at Velocity, flipped between an array of personas with humor and intimacy, eventually building to a wild and powerful climax. Piacenza thrashing her limbs and howling an ecstatic melody into a microphone is permanently etched on my memory. A few earlier performances with 33 Fainting Spells and Dayna Hanson still exist online, similarly showcasing how she can go from understated to wild like a switch flipping. Her idiosyncratic and unpredictable physicality command your attention. 

The Event. Dancers: Kim Lusk, Wade Madsen, Amelia Reeber, Ezra Dickinson, Peggy Piacenza. Photo by Jazzy Photo.

Her 2017 show The Event featured a cast of beloved Seattle dancers in a cotton candy cloud world, an aesthetic environment developed even further for video, installation, and performance work sweet rotten sweet in 2019, which showcased Piacenza’s artistry in multiple mediums. These major choreographic works reveal a depth that comes from a multi-year process and producing multiple iterations, as well as a lineage of working with revered artists of Seattle and beyond. 

Like many dancers, Piacenza started at a studio local to her Illinois hometown. Lucky for her, Carol Walker ran the studio, who would later become the dance department chair at SUNY Purchase. Through this quality studio, Piacenza was exposed to many forms of dance at a young age, including improvisation. “I remember improvising,” she recalls, “this image of jumping on a chair and kind of gesturing and waving my hands. This is where my love for improvisation began. I was hooked. I have my parents to thank for this. They supported me while making their own sacrifices in order to pay for my classes. These were the beginnings of a life pointing towards the body, towards dance.”

This is not to say that Piacenza did not ever take breaks from the dance world. Describing the trajectory of her career, Piacenza often refers to periods of burnout that punctuate her relationship to the artform. After studying at the Academy of Performing Arts High School in Chicago she attended North Carolina School of the Arts, where Piacenza describes a rigorous and toxic learning environment. “The model at UNCSA was to break you down in order to build you up, to be the dancer they wanted you to be. I did get broken down. I lost perspective of why I was dancing. My choice to leave was of my own accord and it was a difficult decision to make.” Several of her classmates have recently come forward in sexual assault allegations against teachers at UNSCA, a fact which doesn’t surprise Piacenza and her experience of a “highly sexualized environment.” 

Peggy Piacenza and Wade Madsen in a still from Dayna Hanson’s film The Improvement Club.

She quit—leaving dance entirely for two years and toggling back and forth between living in North Carolina, Seattle, and New York. She found reentry into dance through classes with Erin Matthiessen at UW, and then came the moment that jump started her career and cemented her firmly in Seattle—an audition for the Pat Graney Company.

Piacenza was among a cohort who joined the Pat Graney Company in the early 90s who would become movers and shakers in the Seattle scene. “I was working with a collective group of stellar women, I was learning about the creative process. I was learning about what it is to experiment, take risks and to be in dialogue with complex ideas, and then implement those ideas into a fully realized work. I attribute getting into Pat’s company as the start of it all.”

Piacenza was also one of nine founding members of D9 Dance Collective, which commissioned works from choreographers like Bebe Miller, Wade Madsen, Stephanie Skura, Jim Coleman and Terese Freedman. In the second half of the 90s she became a performer and creative collaborator with Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson’s company 33 Fainting Spells. “I felt fortunate to finally feel like I had a community of people to dance with, and to this day feel incredibly grateful for that.”

Process for Quiet. Photo by Doug Arney.

Pat Graney and 33 Fainting Spell’s style of dance theater helped Piacenza understand her strengths and interests as a theatrical performer rather than a classical one. Other mentors include Bebe Miller, Stephanie Skura, Karen Nelson, and Daniel Nagrin, whose approach Piacenza used diligently to investigate the who, what, where, why, and when of each role. “Every role that I took on, I would spend in-depth time exploring how to manifest this performance.” Her later work touring with Deborah Hay (in 2006 and 2007) pushed her to think about being available to the moment, presence and inviting being seen. “Working with Deborah turned the notion of ‘performance’ upside down for me. It was one of the hardest and best experiences as a performer that I have had. I wasn’t able to rely on previous performative methods—I had to begin to trust whatever was happening in the moment and respond to it instantaneously. It was all so psychological, but so good. I failed over and over.”

This history of curiosity, research, and intention may be responsible for the depth that comes through in Piacenza’s performances. Her process continues to evolve, and these days, meditation, stillness, and quiet play a big role. “That’s my somatic practice right now…sitting, walking, and settling the body in stillness. This process starts to melt the armor surrounding my heart and in turn creates the space to experience the joys of daily life. All my anxieties, fears, and exhausting destructive habits are seen for what they are. Ancestral patternings. It’s not easy. This is the daily practice I’m committed to.” 

Perhaps these practices are what keep her performances feeling so intimate, even though Piacenza is often playing characters. When I ask Piacenza about the relation of the self to the performance self, she responds, “I think they are one and the same. Something about vulnerability comes to mind. Something about how the self and performer is attending to the moment. Something about how one sees with their eyes. Performance is a place to play out both the interior and exterior life with all of its vulnerability and discomfort. What are the subtle ways we hide in our everyday lives, and does this impact how available we are to our creative process and the roles we bring to life? Maybe I’ve been hiding all of these years behind the roles I’ve been playing? Hiding or not-we are always present.” Like so many of her answers, she is pondering both sides of things, living in complexity the same way her performance work does. Strange yet relatable, goofy yet sorrowful, subtle yet feral.

Ode to Baba. Photo by Gaelen Hanson.

In 2007, after several large scale works of her own and others, Piacenza had her “second burnout” and returned to school to study religion and gender studies at Smith College in Massachusetts. But even then the intended distance from dance didn’t last long. She started dancing for an old UNSCA classmate who happened to also be attending Smith, and then, even though her major was not in the dance department, “Everything I was writing about was funneled through the lens of the body and performance.” Touch Me Here featured a video of her thesis—a heavily padded Piacenza completing what must be the world’s most exhausting and dizzying journey for a cup of coffee, log-rolling the entire distance down the streets of Northampton in tribute to Lotan Baba, “The Rolling Saint” of India. 

Since her return to Seattle in 2010, Piacenza’s works have bent autobiographical, but her starting place is one of image rather than story. “I trust an impulse, I trust an image, and I basically build on it…one image leads to multiple images, some of the images form relationships, some don’t, some ideas stay, some go away. And the meaning that is inherent in my work is never clear from the start, but as the images start taking shape, the piece begins to inform me.” As an example, Piacenza tells me about an image that figures prominently in several works: a boat filmed from above, coming into view and out of view. Something about it stuck with her. Later, as her mother was dying, she opened to a poem, Bishop Brent’s The Ship, an exact description of the boat image. 

Featuring this image, The Event responded to the death of Piacenza’s mother and her own fears around mortality. “I don’t feel the momentum of youth that I felt in my 20s, 30s, and even my 40s. Though I don’t feel old, my mortality kind of hovers over everything right now. And it’s asking me to pay attention in a different sort of way. It also puts into question, what does it mean to be an artist, at this stage, specifically a white middle-aged female identified artist? How am I connecting, responding, listening, belonging and trusting-within the current climate of all that is happening in this world. What kind of work am I currently making and does it have any relevance?”

Touch Me Here. Photo by Tim Summers.

Nowadays Piacenza’s focus is turning more towards video installation as the prominent vehicle of expression to address some of these questions, a pathway evident in her most recent major work, sweet rotten sweet. Piacenza developed material from The Event for an immersive set containing projections both larger than life and tiny enough to fit in the palm of your hand. “Video allows me to broaden my palette for creating meaning and complexity. It allows me to direct the viewer in ways live performance can’t always do.” Examples she gives are highlighting minuscule movements or the texture of materials, not to mention the play with scale and perspective displayed in sweet rotten sweet. “The images and characters I work with tend to create a surreal, fantastical landscape that is both real and imagined. The intent is always to reveal the power of the lived experience.”

In terms of lived experience, The Event and sweet rotten sweet felt personal, but existed in that space of common experience that provides a little distance between the artist and the art. Less so in her most explicitly memoiristic work, Touch Me Here, which grappled with the taboo of her other career as a stripper. “I never really talk about my 30 year career in the sex industry. I’ve been quite private about it. Touch Me Here was the first time I brought it out. What was important to me in this work was to get past the obvious conversation surrounding exploitation and empowerment, and talk about what never gets talked about, connection and intimacy. This is the conversation that is missing and that I’m always willing to have. There is so much shame associated with the human body—can we turn towards pleasure instead?”

It’s taken a lot of processing, but Piacenza has realized that there’s no distinction between these various aspects of herself—the performer, the sex worker, the aging dancer, the spiritual self, the roles that she’s played over the years. The work she’s currently developing, Quiet, is all about exploring integration, in large part by digging into her personal archives. “These are characters and roles throughout my performing history that are dear to my heart. These characters haven’t stopped living in me. So I want to resurrect them in a new light.” Footage from a recent On the Boards residency shows the eagle from Gloria’s Cause in conversation with the clown from The Clay Duke, two roles played in Dayna Hanson’s work. Hendri Walujo, Julia Sloane, and Amelia Reeber have been part of her process. 

Gloria’s Cause by Dayna Hanson. Dancers: Peggy Piacenza, Pol Rosenthal, Dayna Hanson, Wade Madsen.
Photo by GlassWorks.

Quiet is expected to debut in 2023, but Piacenza’s not getting too specific about timelines. Previous projects have been so consuming it sometimes feels as if they “rob me of my life.” So Piacenza is learning to work slowly. “I’m trying to counter this tempo of production and consumerism and the fact that we have to produce and work quickly and onto the next project. My artistic process is asking me to slow down a bit, to see what’s here, what’s present. And I feel like that helps us to cultivate a way of seeing that moves beyond a sort of capitalist  consumerism, consumption, and fast pace living that takes hold of our psyche and soul. So slowing down, that’s my resistance.”

Piacenza cites Barbara Brennan’s book, Light Emerging, as an influence. “I really love the way that she talks about the creative process. She talks about it as an expansion and contraction, and that the contraction phase really needs to be honored. It’s after you’ve just given birth to a big piece and that it takes time to come back to yourself and digest what you’ve done.” The practices of slowing down, meditation, digestion, they all lead her to the idea that “We begin again and again,” a line that has appeared in Piacenza’s works. “Every moment is an  opportunity to start anew. To start fresh with perhaps a different response to whatever the moment is bringing us.”

True to her philosophy of new beginnings, Piacenza is asking herself how she wants to develop as she embarks on this new work. This time, she desires to make a stronger connection to her viewer and wants the audience to be able to “find something a little bit more tangible.” Process-wise, she’s learning to integrate the ever-present doubt that, like many accomplished artists, plagues her. “There’s always going to be the feeling like, why am I doing this? But I’m beginning to trust. I think this is a common process, a process I’ll be in dialogue with for the rest of this life.”

Process for Quiet. Photo by Doug Arney.

I am reminded of something Piacenza said to me about five years ago at a DanceChat event, when I was experiencing my own bout of garden-variety artist doubt. “There’s a whole person in there,” she said. It’s stayed with me—a reminder that all people are beautiful and complicated and worthy of making art if they want to. Piacenza’s wisdom and work has me fascinated by this idea of integration—of the person, the performer, the artist. In conversation she is so down to earth, so humble, and a touch reserved. I am delighted and inspired to know that this person is also that strange, or sexy, or wild, or commanding person I experienced through performance. It flies in the face of the ego we prescribe to performers, or any stereotypes around sex workers. When it comes to Piacenza, “There’s a whole person in there” seems like an understatement. 

Perhaps most evidently, Piacenza seems to approach everything with a deep kindness and consideration. Those may sound like personality traits, but when process is product, when the work of the artist is dismantling and questioning, the artist and the art overlap. As a founding member of Base Experimental Arts + Space in Georgetown, Piacenza has spent the last five years helping make space for art outside her own work. “I’m grateful for the Base team and for all the artists who have made Base a home for their artistic process. One of my greatest joys is making new connections and seeing people do their work.” She is excited that the 2022 artist residency program will be curated by Pol Rosenthal and DK Pan.

“Just watching bodies move brings me so much joy. The power of performance is that it is a portal. It’s a transference of presence where a kind of magic happens. And it’s a witnessing, receiving and giving a witnessing…something larger than ourselves. This very powerful medium takes me beyond the mundaneness of everyday existence.”

To learn more about Peggy Piacenza, past and present, visit her website peggy-piacenza.com.