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Dancing to a Feminist Battle Cry in SF, Nevertheless

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Dancers Mallory Markham and Madeline Matuska of ka·nei·see | collective. Photo by Rob Best

By Kate Haverson

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Tanya Chianese and Heather Arnett, the brilliant minds behind the direction of Nevertheless, an original evening of song and dance aimed at addressing the issue of gender-based violence and harassment.

Under the direction of choreographer Tanya Chianese and Heather Arnett, director of the Cat Call Choir, about 16 young women will take the stage at CounterPulse in San Francisco, April 19-22, to tell their stories with humor and candor.  This event is presented with the hope that audiences can have smarter conversations about consent than some of the hurtful discourse that followed in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Mark Your Calendars for April 19-22: Nevertheless Hits CounterPulse With a Unique Story on Gender-Based Harassment

How did you both get started in the arts? How long have you both been involved in the arts?

Tanya Chianese: I have been an artist in various mediums since I can remember. I have been a working artist for eight years, with a degree in Modern Dance as well as Art History behind that. I have worked as a choreographer, teacher, performer, grant writer, non-profit administrator, and the Artistic Director of ka·nei·see | collective since we debuted in 2014.

Heather Arnett: I’ve been a dancer and performer since I was a kid, but Cat Call Choir was my first foray into making politically inclined art. The seed for Cat Call Choir was planted in 2014 when I began documenting personal street harassment encounters in the Bay Area. I collected over 4 months of data including location, what I was wearing, what was said, my response (verbal, physical and psychological), and the gender, race and perceived age of the person addressing me. I wrote the first few verses of Lick You Lullaby from that data and, from that point forward, Cat Call Choir seemed to create itself fueled by the need to do something with my anger and frustration and from a desire to provide other women the opportunity to do the same.

Dancers Mallory Markham and Madeline Matuska. Photo by Rob Best

What speaks to you both specifically about this project? Do you have any personal stories you’d like to share about what connects you to feminism and the anti-street harassment movement?

TC: Since 2016 anytime I have mentioned this project to someone of any gender, even strangers, they have felt compelled to tell me a story. While choreographing this show I have been scared and self-conscious multiple times – I never thought I would produce a show where we grab each other’s crotches onstage – but I am continually reminded of the need to discuss and share stories surrounding this topic. Personally, I do not know any woman who has not experienced street harassment, discrimination or microaggressions in her life, and I bet most readers don’t either. Our mom has, our sister has, our roommate has, our coworker has, our friend has – and possibly just this morning! Thinking about this makes me sad, but what makes me livid is having to argue the fact.

My personal stories have been embedded in this show, as are those of the performers’. As part of this rehearsal process we gathered stories from other women as well as ourselves, and then we either put these stories verbatim in the production as lyrics the choir sings or we used them to generate abstract movement the dancers perform. Many of the stories we were given were incredibly difficult to digest. What surprised me were the stories from close friends who found a safe space to tell me some exceptionally personal stories of assault they had “never told anyone before” because they were embarrassed. I was both devastated that they felt embarrassed by an experience that was not their fault, and horrified these things happened to those I love. I do not think many of us understand the magnitude of sexual harassment.

HA: I have always envisioned a singing, dancing, all-genders Cat Call Choir. The a-cappella all-women choir we are today was a manageable slice of that artistic pie. When I saw what Tanya was working on in 2017, and listened to how she talked about the work, I immediately wanted to collaborate. The common denominator was that we were both tackling the subject of harassment with no intention of prescribing solutions or shaming harassers. Instead, we were both looking for an accessible, intriguing medium for storytelling so that we could let women’s lived experiences speak for themselves.

I would like to clarify that although Cat Call Choir was borne of a response to street harassment specifically, our repertoire has and continues to expand to encompass all forms of gender-based harassment, from the workplace to youth settings to online. Our holiday song, Tweeting Bells, tackles sextortion and revenge porn, while Itsy Bitsy Titties illustrates cross-gender body shaming.

Can either or both of you talk about the background and origins of this particular show, how it was inspired, and how you got involved?

TC: This project started as therapy immediately following the 2016 presidential election. I was inspired by Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and was curious what it would be like to juxtapose women grabbing each other’s crotches with beautiful movement to explore the gross concept of “pussy grabbing” on stage. We were met with wild enthusiasm and some expected internet trolling. As the women’s movement gathered steam in early 2017 I was shocked by how many people seemed incredulous to the idea that sexual discrimination exists, and also that most, if not all, women in this country have experienced it in some capacity. In rehearsals, the women of ka·nei·see | collective and I began to investigate the daily microaggressions against women that society has become insensitive to, such as being told to smile, interrupted in conversation, or discounted because of politeness. After we presented a work-in-progress showing during International Anti-Street Harassment Week in 2017, Heather reached out to me and proposed a collaboration. We have been knee-deep in an emotional creative process ever since! When the Harvey Weinstein case made headlines and #metoo gained steam bringing the topic to the forefront of everyone’s minds we were shocked to be a part of an intense and inspiring movement, and we do not plan to stop here.

Do you think there is a special connection between the arts and politics? How do you think artists can make their voices heard through their work?

TC: Absolutely! While it’s easy to forget, history has shown us time and time again that art and politics are entwined. Pick up any art history book and one might be surprised by how many movements through the ages have been shaped, manipulated or inspired by the art of its time.

It is not a matter of artists’ voices being heard through their creative work since the creative work itself is their voice, but rather having anyone there to listen. We need audiences. We need you. Also, it is not a one-sided conversation, but rather we as audiences have permission to interpret the art through our own lens of experience and have an opinion. To me, art poses questions – it is up to us to “listen” and contemplate the perspective given and then respond. Sometimes the question can be hard to decipher, but that’s the fun part. It’s like playing Where’s Waldo?; the searching for the meaning or story in the abstract composition of the art is like solving a fun puzzle. But unlike Where’s Waldo? art has the power to inspire, too. (Unless, of course, you find red-and-white striped shirts and beanies thrilling enough to spark social change! Anything is possible).

Cat Call Choir, “We’re just here to make you think.” — Ali Marie Toia, Bhumi B Patel, Chelsea Brown, Rosanna Chiu and Meekers Banks at CounterPulse.

HA: I am exasperated by the dogmatic criticisms of entertainers and athletes who utilize their industries’ stages as political platforms. If an NFL player kneels on the field in protest, interrupting only the pre-game, along with the image of masculinity as stoic and pitiless, fans want suspensions and fines. If an actor uses the awards stage to engage in a global effort to fight fear-based hate, viewers accuse them of self-righteous disruption of a party and consumption of air time. The pockets that fund live art are much smaller than those that fund Hollywood and professional sports, and with that money often come expectations that the provider will benefit from the act of providing. Nevertheless is lucky to be supported by organizations, such as Zellerbach Family Foundation and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, and individuals who believe in art for social change.  Art is often used to disseminate political messages not only because of its ability to capture the human experience, but also, sadly, because it does not suffer the same burden of pandering to the pockets of its funders. Unfortunately, money is tantamount to visibility. As non-commercial artists we must make the work that compels us, actively seek out support and ask assertively for funds, and remain vigilant for artistic partners who shore up our mission. Or, perhaps we should just bribe a celebrity to tweet about us.

How are you using comic elements in Nevertheless to address such a weighty topic as street harassment? Do you see any risks inherent in mixing the two?

TC: I have always found humor to be a vital tool to discuss weighty subject matter. A tough conversation is more accessible if we ease into it with comedy and laugh at the thing that scares us. There are some truly hysterical moments in this show that point out the absurdity of some, especially every day, acts of sexual harassment, and it is therapeutic to laugh in solidarity about them. By making fun of these true stories (those in the show are based on actual experiences) we strip away the aggressors’ power. Perhaps if harassers are “called out” in this manner more often they won’t feel as comfortable to do “it” – whether “it” be to cat call, interrupt a conversation, or touch someone without invitation.

One of my early curiosities in making Nevertheless was how normalized it is for young girls to receive safety devices (I was once given pepper spray as a gift), or how it is common knowledge for women to walk to their car with their keys already out. I once imagined what it would be like to see a person’s arm waving out of the back of another car, an idea based on the self-defense lesson that, if shut into a car trunk, you should kick out the tail light and wave frantically). In rehearsal we choreographed gestural movement based on self-defense moves and gadgets as our first step to composing an abstract section about assault. As a prelude to this emotional vignette, there is a comedic section where one performer teaches self-defense moves in a fun, aerobic manner to Amy Winehouse’s Girl From Ipanema. The dance subtly transitions to a more uncomfortable place, and we are left with a feeling that maybe we shouldn’t joke about and normalize the fact that women have to equip themselves for safety starting at a young age.

Humor is therapeutic and poignant, and we hope our audience feels comfortable to slap their knees and pee their pants with us.

HA: Timing, tempo, and repetition are all very important, but my favorites are irony, sarcasm and sardonicism. The irony of women singing verbatim the harassment that plagues them daily is, at first, somewhat confounding for the audience. When coupled with facial expressions that vacillate wildly from approval to disdain, sardonicisms are introduced. Sarcasm and repetition come together in a moment in The Thank You Song when half of the choir sings “I’d like to knock around your boobs”. They are answered by the other half of the choir who claim, “We like showing off our boobs”. The two choir halves go back and forth, call and answer style, in a primitive dance of alpha dominance. Another fun sardonic moment happens at the beginning of Heart Your Parts. The choir lounges on the floor by the audience facing the dancers. As the dancers wedding march-step toward the choir, the choir sings joyfully to the tune of Mary Had A Little Lamb, “Hair, Lips, Legs, Hands, Tits and Ass…” The dancers continue toward the choir with dead expressions while moving their mouths open and shut mockingly in time with the delivery of the lyrics.

I personally see more risk in not using humor to tackle harassment. Last month we were in a combined rehearsal working out a choreographic dilemma. The choir members stood stoically with their hands behind their backs. The dancers, directly behind the choir, thread their arms underneath those of each singer and touched, pinched, petted and groped the singer’s bodies as if they were their own. The choir attempted valiantly to stay on task singing an impossibly long string of verbs associated with assault including poke, punch, bind and gag. When the song concluded, all of the performers exploded in laughter, high-fived, hugged and pantomimed putting back the parts of each other they had disturbed. It was a beautiful moment of connection and trust.

What do you hope to achieve?

TC: It is both ka·nei·see | collective and Cat Call Choir’s intention to provide a safe space for women to call out these incidents in solidarity, with both humor as well as poignancy, in live performance in order to encourage healthy responses to being harassed. By addressing these important issues in an accessible and non-alienating manner for our audiences we hope to inspire awareness and productive discussions about all types of gender-based harassment.

HA: Concerning Nevertheless, I hope the fusion of literal and abstract messages about harassment resonate with a wide variety of audiences. My confidence in this possibility is corroborated by an early observer of our creative process who attended our first combined rehearsal. She commented that her favorite part of the show was watching how each performer experienced the material, and that she was surprised by how differently each reaction manifest. She went on to say that the combination of recorded and live music, interactions of the performers with the audience and each other, and the obvious internal struggle of the individuals on stage were compelling.

For more info on the show, visit kaneisee.org!

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