Go Deeper

We the People

Posted August 10th, 2011

photo credit: Bill Hebert

We The People, a contemporary dance rumination on the nature of struggle and democracy, will have its 2011 Philly Fringe run in Washington Square—an apt location in light of the show’s thematic interests. “In a way, this piece is a little bit like a prayer or a wish for this country,” says choreographer and director, Lacy James. Placing her dancers so near to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Lacy aims to communicate a sense of respect for the ideals of this country. However, the dance itself, with choreography that revolves around struggle, recognizes the long road that we as a nation still have to travel before we create an equal society—and acknowledges Lacy’s fear that we might not succeed in getting there.

Lacy explains that her piece is out to ponder the struggles that result from attempting to build and maintain a democratic society. Building the dance on a specific set of rules and simple movement permutations, Lacy’s main focus for her choreography centers on conflicts in movement and physical struggles between her dancers.

After the jump: freedom, democracy, and contact improv meets Martha Graham.

As demonstrated in the videos in Lacy’s rehearsal blog, the movements of the dancers in We The People echoes the thematic content of the piece. She has choreographed a work that requires her dancers to force their weight onto one another, to push against each other, and to pull each other out of movements in such a way that their actions begin to resemble a grappling match or the beginnings of a fight more than they do a dance.

With this choreography, Lacy brings to light questions and concerns regarding the state of our own democratic society: What is freedom and who is free? How does that relate to democracy? Does democracy really work? Can we adjust our idea of democracy in order to improve its function in society? We The People asks people to examine their ideas of democracy by presenting the struggles that arise in trying to create a society of equals.

“I don’t have the answers to any of these [political challenges],” Lacy comments. “All I can do is say ‘Look at this’.”

We The People has been in development since November, 2010, but the foundations for the movements in the piece trace their roots back to Lacy’s own training as a dancer. After graduating from Swarthmore College, Lacy studied at the Martha Graham School of Modern Dance in New York City. Although new training methods and movement techniques have since developed in the contemporary and post-modern dance scenes, the Graham school remains a huge influence on Lacy’s work. Now she strives to blend her own training with the techniques of a company of dancers better versed in the post-modern practice of contact-improv than Graham training.

Lacy confessed that she personally has very little experience with contact-improv. This lack of experience hasn’t been a deterrent, though. Throughout the rehearsal process, Lacy found that her dancers’ ways of thinking about movement surprised her; for her, their work became exciting when she and they began to find the places of unity between their techniques.

Choreographically, We The People is one result of this blending of techniques. Lacy allows her dancers the freedom to improvise their movements—but the set of movements that they have to work with are restricted from the start. Their improvisation, then, comes out of discovering how to be creative within the specific movement set.

photo credit: Bill Hebert

The site-specificity of the work also contributes to the dancers’ ability to improv within the choreography. While most of We The People‘s rehearsal time was spent in a dance studio, the performance itself will take place outdoors, in Washington Square, where the dancers will have to contend with performing in an unfamiliar environment. Lacy is excited to see what comes of it, acknowledging that, by performance time, “some of [the dance] will be out of my control.”

Being entangled in a struggle, conflict, or disagreement is a universal experience. As a result, watching other people engaged in a real physical struggle creates a visceral connection. Using that connection, Lacy strives to create an emotional access point for viewers, giving them the space to derive complex meanings from such a seemingly simple presentation of personal strife and conflict.

“I think it really goes back to the essence of [that] experience,” she says.

We the People runs September 4 and 5 in Washington Square Park, 6th and Walnut Streets, Center City. Shows at 2:00, 2:30, and 3:00 pm each day, $5 suggested donation. For donations/tickets, click here.

–Logan Tiberi-Warner