Anonymous protest attacks “institutional racism and white privilege” at U of M dance program

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Currently there is a silent protest installation on display at the Barbara Barker Center for Dance, home of the University of Minnesota Dance Program. The installation, called This, features found images and messages about racism and body image. Among magazine pages featuring images of a diverse population, there are white pieces of paper displaying words such as this, privilege, and status quo on display throughout the building. The creators of the exhibit are anonymous, and in addition to the installation have created a blog about the piece.

Christopher LePlant, a U of M dance student who said he was not involved in creating the installation, said that it was his understanding that the silent protest erupted as a result of casting issues within the department. Last fall, the dance department brought in a guest choreographer, Sarah Stockhouse, from José Limón Dance Company, an internationally acclaimed dance company founded by Mexican-born choreographer José Limón.

The piece, entitled Missa Brevis, was performed at the beginning of February as part of a program called Dance Revolutions. Some of the students originally cast in the piece were eventually cut, and a few of those cut were dancers of color.

Yui Kanzawa, an Asian-American dancer who was among those cut from the piece but said she was not part of the protest, said she didn’t feel that her race had anything to do with the fact that she was cut from the final cast. “There were too many people,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t get the style down, I didn’t get the technique.”

The creators of the exhibit said anonymously via e-mail that they did not wish to discuss the casting situation with Missa Brevis, because This is not a protest of that event. They did, however, write that the post-show discussion following Missa Brevis was one of “the ways in which conversations about institutional racism and white privilege have been mishandled and silenced within the department.”

The anonymous silent protesters further wrote: “We are not pointing fingers at individual faculty members involved in a casting process. We are saying that the program as a whole needs to be more safe for discussions around institutional racism and white privilege to take place.” In an anonymous letter that the protesters posted on the wall and on their blog, they wrote: “We cannot have productive discussions about racism when you have a need to assure everyone that their voices are equally important. The pain of our fellow White students confronting their privilege and guilt about racism is not the same as the pain of students of Color dealing with the sometimes numbingly routine, sometimes shockingly unexpected experiences of being a visible minority.”

Carl Flink, chair of theater arts and dance, said that race and body image had nothing to do with casting for Missa Brevis. “It’s interesting,” Flink said in a telephone interview, “because José Limón is made up of 70 to 80 percent persons of color…and has a decades-long commitment of having a diverse company.”

Flink continued, “As you can imagine, I’m deeply concerned for finding communication with my students.” He said the department has to figure out a way to address the hard feelings, which is difficult when the protesters are anonymous. “I don’t want to negate any of the students’ pain,” he said. “That is a real thing.”

Ananya Chatterjea, director of the dance program, has spent many years as an activist for anti-racism and social justice. “It’s interesting,” Chatterjea said in a telephone interview. “For ten years I have had students that were mad at me that we have to study race, gender, and class. I have looked forward for the moment forever that students would join this work.” She said that when the installation first appeared, people assumed that the students were doing it as an assignment for her class.

“When the protest first started, I was so happy, said Chatterjea. “I thought I might be doing something right.” She said she felt the problem with the protest is the public shaming aspect, and a lack of a list of demands. “Anger can be a very powerful tool to reveal injustice, but I have learned anger is not always effective in leadership. If you want to effect change, anger won’t get you there, it is strategy.”

Since the silent protest was first installed, it has morphed through several transformations. On March 10, the protesters posted an open letter accusing the faculty of having a “profound disconnect” between the theories they teach and the actions they practice. On March 17, the day before the first day of the American College Dance Festival, which the University hosts, the open letter was moved by the faculty to the second floor, and several of the messages were moved or were taken down. On March 18, three students removed the hard copy of the letter.

Dance students’ reactions to This have been mixed. There have been both negative and positive comments on the “Thisbyus” blog. A Facebook page about the protest was also created.

Erin Jorich, a fifth year dance student, said that initially she thought it was great that the space had been converted, but she felt the open letter “took a really aggressive and hostile stance.” She said she was upset by the anonymity of the protesters.

Molly Stoltz, a fourth year dance student, said her feelings have been mixed throughout the process. “Right now, I think everyone was glad it was put up,” she said. “I appreciate it, I’ve learned a lot from the artist, and as far as the quotes, I’ve appreciated [them] because some of the teachers have had conversations about race and how it affects us as artists. That’s been really interesting.”

Jesse Mandell McClinton, a monitor (of African and European descent) at the Barker, said “I never thought a passive approach toward race accomplishes much.”

Carl Flink said he wasn’t sure when the exhibit will be taken down, or archived. “We’re really working hard to have a conversation about this,” he said. “But there’s never been a list of wants given. One of the challenge points that we have is how do we respond if we don’t know what is asked for?” Flink said that the department is thinking about having a series of dialogues. “One thing I can really say is that the faculty of the dance program all have intense experiences with social justice and antiracism; when something like this comes up, we take it very seriously.”

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.

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