julia foulkes

Inheritance

Conversation is an integral part of Netta Yerushalmy’s conception of Paramodernities. There’s a performance of dance and words and then a conversation about it all. Broad questions hover above as titles running atop the stage: Who has the right to dance what? What power does a moving body hold, what a speaking body? What does it mean to repeat choreography? These questions are woven through the performances themselves and then addressed in conversation with the viewers.

Or so we hope. Post-performance “talk-backs,” as they have come to be called, are now ubiquitous and rarely interesting. Questions slide toward the mundane, about rehearsing, costumes, etc. A meaty discussion about philosophical issues in dance usually does not occur. Netta hopes to make an intervention in this trend, to shift the conversation to more difficult questions—not just through talk-backs but in the performance pieces themselves.

One conversation after a performance at Jacob’s Pillow was more difficult than others, although not in the way we might have expected. (I was not a part of this particular performance or talk-back so my understanding of it comes from discussion with many involved.) A viewer accused the dancers and speaker of the piece on Ailey’s Revelations of being “too loud,” “yelling,” and making him “uncomfortable.” As dancers started to respond, it became quite clear that the discomfort was about being a white person witnessing the anger and pain of black peoples about the “afterlives of slavery,” as the title of the piece calls it. Two dancers spoke eloquently about the offering that they think the piece is about—toward reconciliation, toward resilience and joy. But it seemed to have no effect on this particular viewer.

I’ve been thinking what I might have added to the conversation if I had been there. If I had the benefit of reflection, I might have spoken about inheritance. Paramodernities is all about this—about what dancers learn in their bodies of previous dance practices even if they do not take a specific course in Graham technique or do not ever dance a work by Alvin Ailey. But it’s also about pairing those embodied inheritances with ideological ones, and the words and speaker in each piece are there to bring out those. Carol Ockman speaks of trauma and feminist philosophy in Martha Graham’s Night Journey; Mara Mills and Georgina Kleege turn George Balanchine’s Agon into a meditation on rehabilitation and disabilities. One of the many inheritances discussed is that of slavery, a system of inequality and brutality based on white supremacy that built the country into which I was born.

We don’t get to choose our inheritances. I inherited the benefits of slavery, of being able to vote (at least after the 19th amendment granted that right to women), to go to school, to accumulate wealth (including the wealth accorded to the “property” of enslaved black peoples), and to pass that wealth on to the next generation of my family. All of those benefits also were indelibly tied to the inheritance of the ideology of white supremacy.

That’s not an inheritance I want, or believe in. To disavow that inheritance—to ensure that my child does not have that inheritance as well—I have to be a part of dismantling the ongoing impact of slavery. This is a daily, viciously active battle. It includes acknowledging my own implication in the ideology of white supremacy, recognizing how and why I benefited from a system I might not have chosen but has clearly impacted how I have lived. That also means being uncomfortable in the face of continued discrimination and oppression that black folks face every day. And, for me, dismantling the afterlives of slavery means listening more closely to the experiences of people most harmed by it. I must be made uncomfortable for this inheritance finally to end.