Reflection: Choreographer hijacks talkback, holds dancers and audience captive; Mar 3, 2023 JG Annex
Updated: Mar 17
What happens when the talk back over shadows the dance? As the lights came up on the curtain call for Keith Johnson/Dancers I was in the thrall of one of the most powerful sixty-minutes of dance I’ve seen in a long time. Forty-five minutes later choreographer Keith Johnson’s narcissistic, bellyaching, tone-deaf remarks at the post-show performance Q&A threatened to reshape how I saw the work.
Moderator Jill Randall, a last-minute substitution for Sima Belmar, sat silently as Keith dominated the conversation, largely ignoring the eight dancers to his right. The show contains graphic depictions of violence against women, as well as disturbing recordings of people discussing murdering others in very matter of fact terms. One query from the audience interrogated how the performers got into the mindset of a character like Charles Manson, but also kept sufficient emotional distance to protect their own psyches? Another asked how Johnson wished such heavy material to be received. By this point it was clear that a not-insignificant segment of the audience felt uncomfortably emotional and even unsafe during portions of the show.
It should have come as no surprise when a woman, her voice quaking, asked Johnson, on behalf of future audiences, to consider providing pre-performance trigger warnings regarding the violence against women. Johnson responded by saying he heard her concern, he should have stopped there said he would take it under consideration with his co-creators and moved on. But instead negating his acknowledgement of her point, he proceeded to state that he as a gay man was triggered all through his life when he saw male/female couples dancing. The young woman pushed back astonished that he would equate the triggering value of physical violence to that of growing up gay in a heteronormative world, after all she as a queer person also feels alienated by the constancy of male/female couples and it isn’t the same. Back and forth they went, Johnson continuing to intellectually explore what types of things need warnings and where. Another white man in the audience stood up for Johnson, as if one white man needs another to defend him.
For a moment it seemed it would end when marketing-lead and fellow dancer Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh spoke, admitting it would be easy to provide an effective warning without disclosing too much or taking away from the surprise aspects of the show. But Johnson wasn’t done, turns out he resents that in conservative communities gay content gets a warning, this includes performances at Johnson’s own university at CAL State Long Beach. His point being how do we know what to give a warning about. On and on he went his target a young person who had made a simple request on behalf of her own emotional health to be warned with something as simple as “this show contains images of graphic violence.”
The moderator and eight other persons, with whom Johnson claims to have long-term trusting relationships, sat frozen like statues, failing to take charge and end the madness. And if my refusing to let this drop seems painful to you, imagine listening to it for forty-five minutes. The only good news is that I don’t think a talk back is scheduled for Saturday night’s show. It will be interesting to learn if they add a content warning on a sign in the lobby.
I suppose it is possible that some people thought we were having a powerful and important community reflection on trigger warnings. Sadly that isn’t what we were promised when we were invited for a “short talk-back” conversation. That idea also fails to recognize the power dynamic between a white male professor sitting in a spotlight onstage and a female, person of color, less than twice his age, sitting in a dark corner. It wasn’t a fair fight and the hushed Greek chorus of dancers started to feel like part of Johnson’s cult, echoing the dynamic of a charismatic leader like Manson and his followers. None of them brave enough to speak up. I am as guilty as they, as I did not want to draw attention by exiting. It was not a safe situation and in the front row I didn’t feel able to risk leaving without permission.
My review of DRIFTER the dance will be posted under separate cover.
Written by Jen Norris in the 60 minutes immediately following the talk back described above.
Edited March 12 to make a simple correction regarding the racial and sexual identity of the young queer person who requested the content warning and then persevered in search of a reasonable response.
Edited March 17 to remove an insensitive and offensive characterization, that conflated race with a "professorial tone."
The above reflection was posted March 5, 2 days after the talk back took place. I waited to be sure I felt it needed to be shared and that no one who wasn’t in some way complicit with what happened would be further traumatized. It has been posted unedited. While some might find it extreme, it represents my lived experience and editing or polishing may lead to my unintentionally softening the experience, so I stand by this first draft. I made a simple correction on March 12 regarding the racial and sexual identity of the young queer person who requested the content warning and then persevered in search of a reasonable response.
Joe Goode Annex March 3 & 4, 2023