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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Emily Hansel presents Study Hall, iMPACt Center for Art & Dance, San Francisco, May 16 - 18. 2024

In commercial terms, a dance performance is a product produced by an individual, or a company, and sold to audience members via a contractual instrument, commonly referred to as a ticket. The ticket buyer attends at the prescribed time and place. The show is performed and thus the contract is satisfied. This is the business of live performance. 


The creation of the product is imagined and supervised by the choreographer(s), who directs or collaborates with the dancers and the rest of the creative team, to create the performance piece.  Most audience members, or consumers, rarely, if ever, consider how daunting the task of making and mounting a production is.  What is the true cost of producing? How much time and energy is expended? What is the monetary value of all that time and energy?  The larger the cast, the longer the piece, the more complicated the movement, the larger the venue, the higher the cost will be.


The artistic medium in dance is human beings. It matters how they are treated. Do they have a say in how their body moves or with whom? Is there a belief they should sacrifice for their art? Does the system reward martyrs? If the dance company is low on funds, should employees sacrifice wages? Who has a right to see the budget?   Is it their job to promote the work, or persuade their friends to attend?


San Francisco-based choreographer Emily Hansel’s Study Hall, at the iMPACt Center for Art & Dance, asks us to consider these questions and more.  On the surface it is a simple 60-minute contemporary dance quartet. The interactions are playful and the dance flows easily, a combination of set choreography and improvisational scores.  Underneath the obvious, Hansel and company hope to demonstrate how the dismantling of the systems of oppression in the concert dance field looks and feels. Their performance has been crafted within anti-oppression frameworks of disability justice, antiracism, and feminism both in terms of the content and the processes by which it is made.


Study Hall dancers (L to R) Jocelyn Reyes, Erin Yen, Rebecca Fitton & gizeh muñiz vengel take a final bow Photo: J. Norris

Can we see these intentions? Yes and no. As we enter, the vibe is relaxed. Dancer/collaborators Erin Yen, Rebecca Fitton, Jocelyn Reyes and gizeh muñiz vengel are busy caring for their own physical and emotional pre-performance needs. Some stretch, others greet entering guests. Hansel follows the arc of chairs, which surround the performance space, distributing a Study Hall “program.” To reduce cost and waste, it is a cleanly designed cardboard square with a QR-Code to access information online.

During opening remarks, we witness Hansel’s alignment with her social justice values through the significant amount of time she devotes to thoughts on the ongoing genocide in Gaza, concluding with a demand for an immediate ceasefire.


Switching gears to informal humor,  Hansel confesses to a viewing habit of guessing at the end of a dance. Distracted, she misses the actual dancing as she inaccurately interrogates false endings.  To spare us this fate, she describes the final sequence of Study Hall complete with dancer demonstration.  (It involves two falling to the ground, while two others hug and high five, followed by lights out).  The joke is on us as this sequence occurs not ten minutes into the piece, and then numerous times throughout, though only at the end is it punctuated with a black-out.  


Nudging Hansel offstage, the quartet gets to work.  Sophia Cotraccia’s interesting but non-intrusive soundscore begins. There is a deep collegial connection between the performers. In pairs, they take turns leading one another. With a friendly arm around a waist or a soft hand on a bicep, they guide their partner, adjusting their axis or location.  How do dancers typically get moved around the stage during rehearsal? Do people speak loudly over the music to direct them? Are touches always considerate?   


Their non-verbal communication includes smiles, gentle taps, mouthed words, raised eyebrows, tilted heads and more.  Repeatedly, they seem to be getting consent or agreement for the next partnering sequence.  Dancers roll over one another, giggling at the silliness or awkwardness of using a colleague’s body this way.  This makes me wonder about how is it to be lifted by someone you don’t know well?  What does the dance look like if some days lifting just feels wrong, and rather than pushing through, we honor that?


Taking breaks, some planned others perhaps adlibbed, dancers dash in and out of the various spaces in the circle of observers.  Sometimes no one is onstage for a moment.  Dancers perform set movement together, and also offer solos of their own machinations.  One dancer puts their fists into the open palms of another while bouncing on both feet side to side. This phrase repeats periodically a cue to the repetitiveness of rehearsal processes or perhaps it is just a satisfying juncture for that pair. 


Precise unison sections don’t emerge.  No one tries to wow us with high leaps or gravity defying, back-breaking lifts.  The dancers move with their own styles, abilities, and aptitudes. Beauty is present in the way vengel corkscrews upwards or how Yen follows the line of her curving hand with her whole self.


Working at a laptop recurs.  Cross-legged on the floor, seated at a high or low café table, women type diligently, ignoring those in her periphery.  Dancemakers spend an inordinate amount of time on administrative tasks: grant writing, scheduling, budgeting, marketing, or doing paid labor for others.  We feel for the dancer who is stuck working one night, adrift on a huge raft of a mattress as her friends dance the night away, breaking out their club moves to a Prince soundtrack under Thomas Bowersox’s multi-hue party lighting.


A bright downlight reveals a lone performer.  They are soon replaced by another and yet another as each in turn maneuvers, claiming the limelight for herself, if only momentarily. Is this the metaphoric representation of competitive funding models? Is scarcity the only option?


While Study Hall leans more toward process than performative, the project’s rigorous engagement of the local dance community in pre-rehearsal workshops is to be applauded. Opening night was full of local choreographers and dancers; no doubt many participated in one or more of the six workshops focused on lived experiences, best practices, and imagining future utopia.  Hansel’s Study Hall website offers full transparency, a complete project budget, information on the workshops, and written reflections of project participants, all worth reviewing.


In school, study hall is a time built into a student’s schedule to do homework and get assistance if needed. If study hall time is managed well, the student leaves for the day without a heavy burden of work to do outside school. It is an apt title for a work which seems to have authentically honored the value of each participant and we hope allowed them to have no unpaid obligations outside the studio.


Review by Jen Norris, published May 18, 2024

_____________________


Production Credits:

Producer, Director, Choreographer: Emily Hansel

Dancers: Rebecca Fitton, gizeh muñiz vengel, Jocelyn Reyes, and Erin Yen

Original soundscore: Sophia Cotraccia


Additional Resources:

Study Hall website


Community Study Halls brought dancers and choreographers/directors together in discussion about cultivating healthy, equitable, and ethical workplaces in our contemporary dance field. The series will also functioned as source material for the creative development of Study Hall, a new choreographic work.


1.      DREAMING UP A DANCER’S UTOPIA

a.      Dancers, what do you need and want in a dance job or process?

b.      What tangible things can make our field more sustainable?

c.      What things make you feel more supported and safe?

d.      Let’s leave behind our scarcity mindset and dream big to generate a list of concrete desires.

2.      THE EMOTIONAL LABOR OF WRITING ABOUT OUR WORK

a.      What emotions does grant writing bring up for you?

b.      How do you feel about communicating about your dance work via the medium of spoken or written language?

c.      How do you talk about yourself and your work in person vs. on social media vs. for grant applications?

d.      Feelings about representing ourselves differently in different contexts

 

3.      OWNERSHIP AND CREDIT IN COLLABORATIVE PROCESSES

a.      Holding a thoughtful container for dancer-generated movement

b.      How does it feel when you’re asked to generate material in different contexts?

c.      How can we manage expectations and form sincere and clear agreements around collaboration, ownership, and credit?

d.      Examples from our experiences where we felt good about the way credit and ownership were being handled

 

4.      BUILDING BUDGETS THAT PRIORITIZE DANCER PAY

a.      Making sure our budget aligns with our values and tells a story we can be proud of

b.      Different pay rates for different artists/roles in a production

c.      What’s an appropriate base rate/minimum wage/living wage for dancers? Other benefits for dancers?

d.      How can a budget be geared toward sustainability?

e.      Compensation for choreographers/directors

 

5.      HOW CAN WE HOLD DECISION-MAKERS ACCOUNTABLE?

a.      Fostering healthy and constructive conversations about accountability with people in leadership positions

b.      How do we communicate when things aren’t working (for either dancer or director)?

c.      How to respectfully say no, and be prepared to hear someone else say no to you.

d.      Conversations across power dynamics (artist, collaborators, directors, funders, presenters, etc.)

e.      Building in checks to power, asking for and providing sincere feedback

f.       Ways to articulate inclusivity without being or feeling performative

g.      Concrete examples from our experiences where a leader has changed their practices toward equity and safety

 

6.      IDEAS FOR RESOURCE SHARING

a.      How to amplify the resources we have to support more people

b.      Collectively working as an ecosystem to share resources like space, time, money, and knowledge

c.      Planning and coordinating to minimize conflicts and competition in the project-based, freelance dance community

d.      Naming obstacles to resource sharing

e.      Bring your own ideas!

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Lighting: Thomas Bowersox

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