EDITOR’S NOTE: For the past two years Portland dancer and regular ArtsWatch contributor Hannah Krafcik has been working with a team of adult and youth performers on choreographer claire barrera’s “Grammar of the Imagination,” a dance that takes its cues from children’s play. Here is Krafcik’s inside look at how the performance, which opens May 20, came about.
Grammar of the Imagination is a thought-provoking title that cuts to the quick of claire barrera’s upcoming debut at Performance Works NW. For this work, barrera brings together an intergenerational cast of three youth and three adults for a choreographic foray into traditional children’s games—pretend, tag, rhyming, clapping games, etc. Here, they explore how play can function as a site for imagining radically new social relations or for disciplining and re-enforcing social norms.
Over the course of two years, I participated as one of the adult cast members alongside a committed group of dancers—youth Jordyn Kubernick, Nila Kwa and Paloma Barrera Rodriguez and adults Linda Austin and Allie Hankins. Our team waited out numerous waves of pandemic in order to finally give life to the curious grammar of barrera’s choreography. In what follows, I dive into a reflection on the development of this work:
From the start, my participation in Grammar of the Imagination tapped into my history and lived experience in ways I did not expect. I do not have the strongest memory, a trait compounded by my sensory overstimulation as an autistic person. I remember one socially distant rehearsal for the project that took place at the Woodstock Elementary playground. I was bombarded by the sights and sounds of a family playing nearby with their dog, such that I failed to fully retain the choreography that barrera was introducing. As a result, I found myself the first one “out” of the movement game we played together, over and over.
After rehearsal, I debriefed with barrera and Hankins about the flood of feelings that came up for me—the sting of inadequacy I had frequently felt as a young person, which imprinted on me well before I was able to grapple with my experience of disability. In turn, barrera validated my feelings, and we began to entertain alternatives to the dreaded consequence of “getting out” in a game. I realized then that barrera was not in search of a one-size-fits all solution for the challenge of exclusion in social games. Their conceptual inquiries culled up more questions than answers, leaving space to explore a range of emotions within the container of our care-driven collaboration.
As the project built momentum circa summer 2021, barrera held weekly rehearsals wherein the cast grew more familiar with one another. We began these with a collective warmup. Sometimes barrera facilitated; other times we made Spotify playlists together and took turns leading the group. Afterwards, we launched into varied explorations masterminded by barrera.
We practiced forming the many limbs of a creature and moving across the floor together. We went on walks, shared dreams and stories, and then recreated one anothers’ tales back in the studio. We learned movement patterns that became the basis of a series of games. On break, the youth would occasionally share Tik Tok dances for fun. Almost without my noticing, barrera edged all of these activities into a choreographic sequence, and, just like that, we were performing.
Getting to better know this cast—their personalities, tastes, and ways of moving through this strange process—emerged as the most rewarding aspect of my participation. But I wanted to know what aspects of our collaboration stuck out to my fellow cast members. As opening night crept closer, I decided to interview the group about what felt most memorable to each of them.
In response to my query, one dancer said they appreciated how much autonomy existed within this modern dance. “A lot of it is pretty up to you,” they mused. “There’s a topic, but there’s no specific dance move for everything.” This dancer also appreciated the free time to play and socialize before dancing together.
The social component of collaboration surfaced for others as well: A couple of the dancers mentioned that they enjoyed going on walks together and sharing their dreams with one another. Another remembered the early stages of the work, “getting to know everyones’ approach and curiosity and how that plays out when they’re improvising.” One dancer even said they liked “the first moment where everybody was in the same space for the first time.”
For barrera, the most memorable moment happened in a rehearsal when the cast began dancing the choreography in a noticeably playful way. “It made me laugh a lot,” they reflected. “And it felt like the energy was the playful stuff that we were wanting to tap into.”
In my experience, learning to perform choreographic games challenged me and took some time. The seed of play is not always easy to come by when the task at hand is to remember the dynamics of an evening-length performance. But barrera’s Grammar of the Imagination leaves space for this ambiguity, and its earnest cast holds the dance together, finding one another again and again amidst the silliness and slip-up alike. After all, we are not preparing to perform idyllic play, but, rather, to explore and conjure possibilities.
Grammar of the Imagination will take place May 20-22 at Performance Works NW: at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. ASL interpretation will be offered at the Sunday matinee.