Thoughts on Dance & Social Consciousness - Ezra Campbell

In the wake of the recent massacre at Pulse in Orlando, guest-blogger, Ezra Campbell reflects on the idea of creating Art in service to a particular cause:  

 

As a long time student of the world of theater and dance, and as an transgender artist who has spent many years working in theater for social justice, I have viewed a growing trend among artists that continues to disappoint me. The idea that art is no longer simply reactionary but also that it can and is being used to purpose other than creativity. Art being used under the guise of social justice when really the artist and/or the company is seeking monetary gain and social clout from the creation. Meanwhile, the community continues to struggle underneath the disillusioned Artist and financial backers. 

This is a perfect example of predominately why I found myself unburdened by stepping away from the world of colorguard. In fact, I can trace the pinnacle of my disillusionment with the ‘sport of the arts’ back to when I was working with an independent program that had barely scraped together the funds to go to WGI World Championships in Dayton. (a experience in hindsight which was merely a burden and not artistically rewarding in any way, something which I still regret deeply) These kids had worked tirelessly to fund-raise and were performing at show that was about more than hitting every check point and nailing that 5 with the turn underneath. I know many instructors say that about their shows, “it’s about more than just (fill in the blank)” but this show did indeed hold heavier weight. The show told the story of how high school students were infected with HIV, these young performers immersed themselves within their characters and doing outreach work within the HIV community. As a director, I am never surprised by the potential of my students and these students were certainly challenging me as a director to take them on this emotional journey. Sitting in the Dayton arena, behind the 50 and catching bits and pieces of World Class finals and there was a show about homelessness. I remember thinking to myself, “this is great, something that has a real social awareness-just like our show. Finally, some social issues will be brought to light in this art form at a highly competitive level.” I settled in to watch a show that was about hitting every checkpoint and nailing the turns underneath each 5-and with gusto, otherwise of course, why would this guard have made it this far. I do not discount the work required to make such art, as there is always respect in creating art. The disillusionment came with the $200 costumes, and then custom floor, and the meticulously designed custom flags. I began to honestly question the allocation of funds to provide breathe life into this art and I felt suddenly heartbroken. As if somehow along the way, the point had been lost entirely. The political discourse, the issues of mental health that surround homelessness, the estimated 1.6 million to 2.8 million homeless youth in United States, the portion of the homeless youth population who are gay or transgender- 20 to 40 percent compared to only 5 to 10 percent of the overall youth population, ect. 

There is often the joke that in colorguard it has “all been done”, perhaps better even, (I’m talking about some classic WGI, Forte 1995 realness-how important it is to know your history) and of course this is most often the case. To take the joke further, the basis of all shows are merely theme parties that have already been or are yet to be thrown. This show felt to me like somebody was using homelessness as a theme party. So often is this absolutely true. The struggle being an afterthought, the community left to suffered underfoot of the Artist. 

I understand the allure of creating a piece for the greater good, to demonstrate ideas without the need for the complexities of words using movement, color, and space. This is the art that I love, transformative for performer and audiences, the art that inspires me, that many times has moved me forward in my own life as I have embarked upon my own transformations. Human transformation is absolutely a universal theme and certainly an inspirational idea of overcoming adversity. With the emerging events challenging the LGBTQIA community it is understandable that these events will begin to see themselves rise to the top of the Artistic consciousness. Bathroom bills and mass shootings make for some terrible theme parties, but artists will continue to create to fuel dialogue about these events.

But, even when the heart of the artist is well placed within the work itself the message can be lost in translation. While creating dialogue for and among cisgendered individuals to promote acceptance, it is vital that it is not being done at the expense of transgender folks. Art created by cisgendered individuals meant for the consumption by other cisgendered individuals in an effort to discuss transgender narratives is not in fact, the transformative art that I spoke of previously. Simply speaking to multiple transgender individuals who coincidentally support your cause does not allow for the artistic license that many feel that they have been granted.

I sincerely hope that transgender voices are being centered during this extremely challenging time for myself and my community. Particuarly queer and trans individuals of color. I hope that dialogue among artists who will continue to respond to HB2 (as is expected, as artists we create as a way to process that which surrounds us) will involve questioning their own motives and whether they are being exploitative of those they are hoping to help through their creative representations. I hope that the cisgendered community of allies can learn when it is appropriate to be in the audience showing support, whey they should step offstage, or simply when it is time to let others dance. I understand how challenging that learning the dance of ally-ship can be at times, the variances in tempo and rhythm, the discordant music and then the silence, frail costumes, and ever changing partners. But still, I hope that the struggle of myself and of my community is not being used as a vehicle for artistic, social, political, personal, or financial gain. I hope that transgender voices are not being silenced in the pursuit of artistic endeavors. And I hope that the final bow leads to a standing ovation for transgender equality.

“We are part of each other and part of something bigger than our own egos. An artist should… bring into the world some vision. Dancers should ask, "What is their work in the service of?” -Bill T. Jones