People living in the disparate municipalities of St. Louis often struggle to relate to each other. But members of a local dance troupe believe the first step toward having meaningful conversations can be taken without words.
On Saturday, MADCO will hold a free community performance at Central Studio, 5617 Pershing Ave., designed to get people with opposing views and politics to talk to each other.
MADCO’s “The Unity Movement” began with listening to people open up about their communities. The company worked with Washington University researchers to go way beyond the stereotypical, “Where did you go to high school?” Managing Director Emilee Morton said.
“We’ve been asking people around the city, ‘What are you hopes, what are your dreams, what are you afraid of?’” Morton said.
Members of the Modern American Dance Company hoped its inquiries would lead to common ground.
“Are there things within those questions that people do actually think similarly, as opposed to differently?” Morton said. “And do some of our differences that we have actually make us stronger?”
People in East St. Louis, Tower Grove and Clayton live in different worlds. But they have many of the same goals and concerns. They all said they enjoy free attractions like the Zoo, and that they’ve feared for their kids’ safety as they walk to the school bus.
Choreographers transformed the information into movement for a trio of dance pieces. One, called “miles(dia)logged,” includes an unusual number with dancers moving—not to music, but to the words of a Ted Talk by national radio host Celeste Headlee.
The piece, based on Headlee’s talk about having better conversations, includes advice about how to talk and listen. “There’s no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are, in fact, paying attention,” she said in the talk.
It will resonate with anyone who’s tried — and maybe failed — to connect with another person, choreographer and dancer Darrell Hyche said.
“[They will think], 'Oh yeah, I do tend to talk to my kids like that, you know, repeating something over and over to my children' … or to your co-worker,” Hyche said.
When creating the piece, choreographers decided to strip the performers of as much identifying information as possible.
“We wanted to erase male/female; we wanted to erase socioeconomic status,” Hyche said. “One of the things that we are going to do with this piece is that everyone is essentially in the same outfit, so that it puts everyone on that equal playing field; everyone is the same.”
‘We All Belong’
Some identifies aren’t as easily erased. During an after-show conversation following a recent performance, an audience member asked whether choreographers considered race in their casting.
Members of the dance company went out of their way not to do so, said dancer Belicia Beck, who choreographed the piece along with Hyche and another dancer.
“We for sure didn’t start off as, ‘OK, so we’re talking about racial inequality, so we need to start with a white woman because white women are blah-dee-blah-blah, and then we’re going to … do a black man last, and then the music will fade,” Beck said. “We didn’t have those kind of conversations.”
MADCO leaders did discuss how to draw a wider crowd. Taking these performances out of theaters and into public spaces makes more people feel welcome, Artistic Director Nicole Whitesell said.
“Not everybody feels that they belong; not everybody can afford to go to the theater,” Whitesell said. “By opening up these community performances, for free, we’re just hoping we can get more and more people feeling invited and included, because they do belong — we all belong.”
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org