By JAMUNA CHIARINI
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2010, an estimated 12.3 million adults and children were in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution around the world; 56 percent of these victims were women and girls. As many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the United States.
With “Broken Flowers,” Agnieszka Laska, a local Polish expatriate and choreographer, has brought attention to the situation of this problem. Her episodic, 53-minute dance depicts the devastating psychological effects of being forced into sexual slavery. In collaboration with her composer husband Jack Gabel and nine dancers, she has explored the inner workings and personal relationships inside the world of human trafficking. “People are born to be loved. Things are made to be used. Lives go wrong when things are loved and people are used.” (program notes)
Through dim lighting, a creaky bed, one long wooden table, 3 stools, mirrors and a row of clothes taken on and off, Laska (whose previous dances have dealt with 9/11, the wars in the Middle East, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and airport body scanners) creates a lonely, bleak scene where eight sex workers and one pimp tell a story of dependence, physical abuse, rape, innocence lost, isolation, exploitation, slavery and oppression.
“Broken Flowers” is a series of connected solos, duets and group dances that tell the story of a group of women trapped in sexual slavery by one man. It opens in a very theatrical way with one dancer sitting alone in a spotlight in the middle of the floor while the others are scattered around the dark edges of the stage suggestively lounging across a bed, a table and some chairs.
Reminiscent of a Broadway musical, I half-expected someone to break into song and sing a sad lonely tune about her plight. Using ballet as its base, the choreography tells the story of a young woman new to the game of selling herself and reluctant to fully submit to her new life. The other sex workers try to cajole her and her pimp beats her. She desperately tries to hang on to dreams she once had but is eventually beaten into submission and falls in line with the others.
There are subplots: an older woman has a confusing love-hate relationship with her pimp and a young girl hides under the table with her teddy bear and is dragged out periodically by the other women and abused. In the end, the older woman is forced to undress publicly one article of clothing at a time and is beaten and tossed aside. While she lies deathly still in the corner the other women are forced back to “work” and end dancing as a group in rhythmic time to the song “Coco Jumbo.”
The production grows in complexity after the Broadway beginning. The story gets thicker and the dancers grow angrier as time goes on. Still, the dancers in the production are beautifully trained but very young. And their energy and commitment to the piece doesn’t replace the emotional breadth and depth to bring this dark story to life.
For a subject like sex trafficking I really wanted to see more risky, boundary pushing choreography, the dark, grungy, street walking at 2 am in the freezing cold with nothing to eat, and in general movement and storytelling that explored the contrast between the public and private lives of the pimp and the women. Ultimately, what I wanted to see is perhaps unwatchable: deep despair, desperation, chaos and violence. Occasionally in the duets I saw moments of more dynamic movement outside of the ballet vernacular; the use of angry push pulls, throwing, and grabbing of bodies convincingly captured the confusion, anger and frustration these characters (and the real people they represent) must feel in their everyday lives and relationships.
Because of the subject matter, it was hard to clap at the end of the performance. As the lights were coming up I could hear muffled crying and I saw people wiping their eyes. I don’t normally see people so emotionally moved after a dance concert, and that by itself made this a very successful performance.
The talented cast of dancers are Niqi Cavanaugh, Karissa Dean, Sissy Dawson, Allie Fahsholz, Timothy Johnson, Sharon Lane, Heidi Nelson, Lauren Richmond, and Marcella Sweeney.
Broken Flowers is supported in part through a RACC Community Cultural Participation Grant. It was also funded through a very successful Kickstarter campaign that ran last month. The company takes the show to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, next weekend.
The “Broken Flowers” project includes dance workshops and art therapy for victims of sexual trafficking and sexually exploited children. Laska feels that dance can be used as therapy and a way to bring awareness to our communities about sexual exploitation and the vulnerability of women. It is also a way “way for women to work through their physical and mental memories of trauma.” (program notes)
In the question-and-answer-period after the performance an audience member asked if performing a piece like this took a toll on the dancers? “Absolutely,” Laska said. And, every performer in the piece has a personal connection to the material as well. One audience member said the piece was courageous and very profound and seeing this performance made her want to do something about the problem. Laska hopes to show “Broken Flowers” to more audiences in the future in Portland.
If you are interested in fighting this issue personally Laska recommends volunteering with a local organization called YES, Youth Ending Slavery. If you would like to see more information on the worldwide problem of sex trafficking check out Half The Sky, a documentary recently shown on PBS.