Joanna Haigood is co-founding director of Zaccho Dance Theatre in San Francisco, which produces and presents performance work that investigates dance as it relates to place.
Site: place or position occupied by something; a location; a point of interest, sometimes referred to as place; identified by specific qualities and elements: traces of past events, a material memory bank. In performance, site has been used to support ritual; it has been used as material and metaphor and has been defined by its history. The body is a personal site.
From ritual ceremonies to busking to highly produced performance events, communities and artists have been expressing their experience and shaping actions in relationship to site for thousands of years. Sites are chosen for a variety of reasons—some for historic importance, some for their ability to accommodate ideas and structures, some for their natural beauty or devastation, and some for their resonance with past lives, known and unknown.
Rituals are sometimes considered the very beginnings of theater and performance. They are created as a way to understand the world around us, to appease the forces of nature, to ensure social hierarchy, and to bring together a community in spiritual practice. Evidence of early rituals goes back as far as 130,000 years and possibly earlier. It is often the intention and structure of the ritualistic action, combined with its relationship to the site, that create a powerful and transporting experience.
A compelling example of this is a contemporary ritual conceived by Anna and Lawrence Halprin in 1981. Between 1979 and 1981 David Carpenter, also known as the Trailside Killer, committed a string of murders in Marin and Santa Cruz Counties, four of which occurred on Mount Tamalpais. The dance pioneer Anna Halprin and her husband, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, lived on the slopes of the mountain and, with eighty students and community members, created a ritual meant to heal the mountain and the spirit of the community in the wake of these horrific crimes. Called In and On the Mountain, the ritual was performed in some of the exact areas where the murders took place. A few days after the ritual was performed, police received an anonymous tip that ultimately led to Carpenter’s arrest, ending the dark chapter of this beloved mountain. The ritual continues on the mountain each year under a new name, Circle the Earth, and promotes peace on the planet.
The terms site and place are sometimes interchangeable. Place is defined by experience and by memory, by the traces left behind by people, nature, and events. We assign meaning to place through association, which at times can give rise to deep emotions and insights. It can act as a metaphor.
In 2005 the choreographer Ann Carlson and the video artist Mary Ellen Strom created an installation that challenged its viewers to look at consumerism, specifically the apparel industry, and its relationship to its workers. Located at the site of a former Liz Claiborne store in Lower Manhattan, the piece featured large-scale movement-based video portraits of both union and undocumented laborers in New York’s garment industry. The workers, who have historically been invisible to the consumer, spoke about their personal experiences, shared their cultural practices, and created a poetic movement score that demonstrated the nature of their work. These portraits were placed in the areas where the clothing was once displayed and gave the viewer new perspectives on labor issues, the cultural impact on communities, and the ethical complexities that face contemporary consumers.
The land art movement redefined the role of site in art making. Art was no longer confined to the gallery, and the earth and the landscape could be employed as both the material and the canvas. Elements of the landscape were bulldozed, cut down, gathered, and removed to form a new type of sculpture with a completely different scale. Robert Smithson’s heroic Spiral Jetty (1970) is a perfect example and physically expresses the unstable processes in nature.
With the Delaware River as its site and primary material, Eiko and Koma’s elegant and poignant performance River (1995) beautifully portrays the passage of time and of life. As the light changes from day to night, we see their bodies delicately float and struggle in the water. Every movement is directed by the qualities, energy, and flow of the river in conversation with their bodies. The experience is both mundane and extraordinarily magical. At the end of the work they disappear into the darkness, into the depths of the night, and into what feels like eternity.
Site itself can create and dictate community. Rhodessa Jones founded the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women in 1989 to explore whether an arts-based approach could help reduce the numbers of women returning to jail. Whereas jails and prison are often sites of alienation and isolation, Jones used theater to create a bond among inmates. Looking deeply at their own stories as source material, inmates were given a vehicle to express, acknowledge, and get perspective on the crises that brought them to jail. Having fellow women hear and validate their experiences let them know that they were not alone. This process has produced powerful theater that is both enlightening to its audiences and transformative for its performers.
People provide the soul of architecture. They give architecture a sort of consciousness that imbues it with meaning far beyond its specific functions. Ghost Architecture (2004), which I created with sculptor Wayne Campbell, focused on the four buildings that previously occupied the site of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. During the research phase, I was struck by the 122 eight-by-ten-foot rooms that once made up the West Hotel, one of the four buildings. They were private rooms invested with private activities. In a way they were sacred places, private surveys of emotions and their various manifestations. For most of us, our rooms are places where we feel safest. They are places where we gather the courage to confront the outside and the places where we recover and recharge for the next round. Perhaps most important is their role as places where we store our memories. We put our memories in our collection of objects, in little pieces of paper that we hang on the walls—reminders. The hotel was originally intended to provide lodging for transient male laborers. Known as one of the finer residence hotels in the area, the West Hotel was sought after by single men working locally and at sea. By 1970 most of its residents were over fifty and living on modest pensions. In 1974 all the residents were evicted, and the building was demolished to make way for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts complex. The site is filled with history, personal and social. It held the story of lives disrupted and the hidden, and sometimes tragic, story behind urban renewal.
Our bodies are the repositories of our personal histories. In somatic therapy—a practice pioneered by psychologists, dancers, and philosophers—the body is considered the paramount site of mediation among our consciousness, our biological experience, and the rest of the world. In this reflective process, our layers of memories and experiences are cataloged in our movement patterns and expressed through the way we interact with the world. This embodied dialectical process is the body as site, and it is key to both understanding ourselves and finding our place in the world.
Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.
Rhodessa Jones, The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, 1989–.
Eiko and Koma, River, premiered 1995.
Ann Carlson and Mary Ellen Strom, CAke (Collecting Action and Knowledge about the Everyday), 2005. A site-specific video and performance installation exploring the apparel industry, set in an empty retail space in Lower Manhattan.
Anna and Lawrence Halprin, In and On the Mountain, 1981. Mill Valley and Kentfield, California. A community dance performance and series of rituals at Mount Tamalpais. Circle the Earth developed from the original performance.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975. A large cut in neighboring seventeenth-century houses slated for demolition to make way for the Centre Georges Pompidou.
James Luna, The Artifact Piece, 1985–87. The Native American artist put himself on display in a case at the Museum of Man, San Diego.
Back to Back Theatre, small metal objects, premiered 2005, Flinders Street Station concourse, Melbourne, Australia. Has been performed many times since in malls, streets, train stations, ferry terminals, shopping malls, etc.
The Alexander Technique, a somatic method developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s.