REFLECTION: choreographing geography in taisha paggett's "the meadow" research studio
KESTREL PATON | DECEMBER 11, 2018
In October 2018 I assisted interdisciplinary dance artist taisha paggett during her tenure as SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts' Audain Visual Artist in Residence. For her residency, she continued research on her ongoing project i believe in echoes, which had previously been presented as an installation and performance in the Made In L.A. 2018 biennial exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. This project explores the somatic experience of geography through the metaphor of "the meadow". i believe in echoes is part of her broader practice, which explores the relationship between geography and being in twenty-first century Black America. taisha works independently and collaboratively, often choosing to depart from the conventions of the stage into galleries and the outdoors.
A significant part of her residency was the presentation of a series of six public movement workshops titled "the meadow" research studio. The workshops consisted of movement exploration exercises that facilitated the improvisational choreography of breath. These guided improvisations were then recorded as "breath scores" and installed in her exhibition at the Audain Gallery.
My participation in this project was made possible through the SCA internship program. As a fourth year Dance major, I chose this internship because I was intrigued by the prospect of working with a visiting artist outside of the dance circles at Simon Fraser University and Vancouver. I was interested in taisha’s use of research and experimentation as tools for creation. The professional dance work that I have encountered in my circles is primarily finished work, and I rarely get to see the behind-the-scenes process of creation. "the meadow" workshops made me curious about the tactics that choreographers use to generate concepts and movement, and how I might be able to use similar strategies in my choreographic framework.
"the meadow" workshops were held in a dance studio on the fourth floor of SFU's SCA campus, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 6 - 9pm, over three weeks. Prior to the workshops, taisha had me gather the registered participants outside of the dance studio and await her instruction. Participants arriving for the first time were only aware of what had been advertised in print and digital promotions and what taisha had sent them in an email, which was a photograph of a handwritten note on a scrap piece of paper.
The promotional posters simply explained that participants of "the meadow" "will explore exercises and methodologies including breath scores, recorded breath and amplification, floor and gravitational choreography, writing, and ritual action with earth and soil". No one who registered knew for certain what they were getting into, which I imagine inspired a curious sense of confusion. I was in a unique position of having some sense of taisha's process - although I admit, I was still digesting the immense amount of information I was in the process of learning from her. I didn't know exactly how the workshops would unfold, but I did know that taisha would lead them in complete silence, and that her research drew on the work of scholars Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten and Katherine McKittrick, who she referenced in her note. Once I had introduced myself to the participants as taisha's assistant, their instinct was to look to me for instructions of what would happen next. Despite the deeper insight I had however, I often knew as little as they did about what would ensue.
Eventually taisha would appear in the lobby, wordlessly inviting us into the dance studio with her signature slinky movements, accompanied by a written message on a scrap of paper. This written method of communication was used as her 'voice' to guide us through the workshops. Her messages were often vague in that they weren't instructions per se, but concepts that offered guidelines for movement exploration. Some of them made immediate sense, such as "let this turn into a walk that dances." Notes like these were digestible to dancers and non-dancers alike, who could materialize the prompt into tangible movement. However, some notes were more abstract, such as "how do we carry the weight of history?" In response to this particular note, she introduced a sandbag into the workshop and guided us to explore moving while restricted by its weight, inciting us to consider how our own histories bear weight on our bodies.
The silence created a feeling of cohesion and safety amongst the participants. There was no pressure for small talk and no need to explain ourselves. This was valuable because we were often being asked to do vulnerable exercises together. Typically, once we had done a number of prompted tasks, we would gather in a circle in which taisha would sit with her laptop. She would prompt us with questions she had written in a document, or orchestrate us to read her personal texts and manifestos out loud, singularly or in unison. Some of the questions she asked included: "what are you most afraid of?", "what do you care about and why?" and "what would you die for and why?" In answering these questions, I revealed my greatest fears to a group of strangers. My heart would beat faster when the laptop got close to me. At the same time, there was also something liberating about that fear and about vocalizing aspects of myself that I wouldn't have the courage to express otherwise. It felt like the group of us were no longer strangers at that point, having gotten to know each other through movement and breath rather than words. The silence we were bound by took away the social masks we often put on in a room of strangers.
In one session, taisha asked us to partner up with the person we were closest to for a duet in which we "shared a spine". I made eye contact with a girl who was around my age and we made our way towards each other. Instead of being able to discuss what "sharing a spine" looked like, we simply had to trust that we would figure it out together. What emerged was a beautiful and intimate dance with a person whose name, I realized after, I didn't even know.
As the residency continued and I got to know taisha, I realized there is a very specific social and political aim to her work. taisha's practice is grounded in the social currents of her black and queer community, neither of which I belong to. This presented the potential to be a daunting experience for myself, as well as other participants of "the meadow". I thought, who am I to be working on a project about realities that are outside of my lived experience? taisha's expressed authenticity, however, made it clear that there was room for everyone in her research and the workshops opened a window into a previously unknown social realm, encouraging me to be curious and critical about realities that I may not otherwise have been exposed to.
Uniting all of the exercises we did in "the meadow" studio was taisha's lived experience in, and research into, blackness. She shared quotes by Malcolm X and recordings of Maya Angelou. Throughout the multiple workshops, she repeatedly played a video of NFL Philadelphia Eagles player Malcolm Jenkins responding to a group of reporters in silence, communicating only through a large poster that said, "YOU AREN'T LISTENING". He held up other poster boards to the press - who were questioning him following President Trump's disinvitation of the Eagles to the White House as a result of the team's support of the national anthem protest - that outlined statistics on African American deaths due to police violence and racialized flaws in the justice system. A horde of reporters jostled each other for prime positions, trying to get Jenkins to explain his message. When they became particularly invasive, he would return to holding up the poster that said "YOU AREN'T LISTENING". Ironically, the reporters shouted back, "what are we not listening to?" Interjections like this in the workshop reminded participants that taisha was addressing broader social structures of racial conditions within "the meadow" explorations.
taisha's research into geography was another thread throughout the workshops. What is geography anyway? This initially stumped me. I know what it means in the literal sense, and I thought I could even comprehend it in the metaphorical sense, but I couldn't immediately see it in taisha's sense. taisha talks about geography as space, place and location of one's physical being, as well as the imaginative spaces we create for being. She is interested in how one's identity and movement are directly shaped by the rules and structure of the places in which we are located. taisha would often quote from Katherine McKittrick's book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies Of Struggle (2006), to express these ideas:
Geography is not, however, secure and unwavering; we produce space, we produce its meanings, and we work very hard to make geography what it is. Demonic Grounds reveals that the interplay between domination and black women's geographies is underscored by the social production of space. Concealment, marginalization, boundaries are important social processes. We make concealment happen; it is not natural but rather names and organizes where racial-sexual differentiation occurs.1
The following quote from Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman's conversation on the Black Outdoors at Duke University, which all of the workshop participants were asked to listen to, also conveys how taisha thinks about complicating geography by bringing the outside into the inside of the dance studio. Here Moten talks about how he, as a black man, experiences the outdoors, and in turn his own sense of geography:
I could just always hear somebody running. I just felt like those instances of being out in the woods, that for me, was where I was closest to the runaway. I can't separate the outside of this constant necessity and activity of running away, or flight. Which therefore means that the outside is always bringing those constraints with it.2
It was this social and political aspect of "the meadow" that took me the longest to understand. This wasn't due to my intellect, or my ability to grasp conceptual complex ideas, but to the fact that I'm not a marginalized minority and have never had to question my own "geography". The thought that the outdoors could carry heavy weight and historical meaning was something I had never considered. Even after completing taisha's suggested readings, the political and social reality she grapples with was difficult for me to comprehend. It wasn't until after I started processing my experience of "the meadow", through writing this text, and returned to reading McKittrick's Demonic Grounds, that the pieces gradually started to fall into place for me.
From my perspective, taisha conceptualizes "the meadow" as a way of imagining a geography that is detached from historical and societal constructs. She approaches this work as an African American woman, whose located being is saturated in complex history. In her own words, "the meadow" is a space that "create[s] breathing room for the echoes of multiple histories to be felt and heard". "the meadow" is an imagined space, not a specific physical space. For me, "the meadow" conjures a lovely image of a luscious field in which one could be vulnerable without judgment. I think this is the space that she is interested in cultivating, and the beauty of it is that it could take place anywhere: a dance studio, an art gallery or the street.
After the workshops concluded, I reflected on whether the intention of "the meadow" research studio was achieved, and wondered why participants had been willing to trust taisha's direction. Move around the floor with this sandbag on top of you - ok! Introduce yourself with a made-up breath dance - sure! These are unusual tasks to be asked to do. Yet even I participated with total cooperation and trust. As I reflect further on these questions, I concluded that it is remarkable that taisha had the capacity to assure us that she was trustworthy, and that participants felt open to her offering. I realize that as artists we do have a unique power to create and transform spaces into whatever we want them to be. When a dancer takes the stage, the audience anticipates and behaves accordingly to a performance's cues. When an artist frames a set of gestures in a gallery, as taisha had done later on in her solo performance, people view them with a unique form of respect and open mindedness. As long as participants are willing, an artist can nurture deep emotions in people that they may never have experienced on their own. This is rare and unique. Ultimately, it is easy to be dismissive of things we do not immediately comprehend, but at the risk of missing out on the richness it could offer if the time is taken to process and inquire.
 Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 12.
 "The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman at Duke University," October 5, 2016, 25:33 - 26:09. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_tUZ6dybrc