Charles O. Anderson on (Re)Staging (Re)Current Unrest

October 9, 2020

We all know that to sample is to record something – to select sections and repurpose them for ourselves. But to sample can also mean to “extract” – a forceful, even violent gesture, one we don’t associate with musical mashups. But maybe we should. One of Steve Reich’s early compositions “Come Out,” samples interview tapes of Daniel Hamm, one of six Black men, referred to as the Harlem Six, who was falsely accused of murder and brutalized by police in 1964. The work, which helped Reich rise to fame, was praised for its composition and political resonance. But Hamm’s voice, and the historical context of racial injustice, is often lost to the formal innovations of the composition.

Using Reich’s music as a starting point, Charles O. Anderson’s haunting dance performance (Re)Current Unrest draws on a history of black art and protest as well as it’s sampling, portrayal, and erasure. Featuring a large cast of dancers who come together en mass, the work explores legacy, authorship, and a history of social and political unrest that is still very much a part of our present.

Charles O. Anderson spoke to Fusebox Co-Artistic Director Anna Gallagher-Ross about (Re)Current Unrest back in 2017, and in this 2020 interview they revisit their conversation from three years prior, and discuss what it means to reimagine this important work right during what has been called the largest civil rights movement in history.

Please join us for the live stream performances of (Re)Current Unrest October 16-17 2020. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and available here.

Anna Gallagher-Ross: You wrote over the summer that “the two pandemics, COVID-19 and ongoing systemic racism, have left you broke, broken and tired, yet still inspired nonetheless.” Could we begin by talking about that inspiration you felt amidst exhaustion? What does it mean for you to be reimagining this work right now?

Charles O. Anderson: I guess it almost feels a little morbid to say but, you know, with a few of my works but particularly this one, I had been trying to tour them and the response from presenters, especially back in 2018 and even 2019, was “Oh yeah, but mmm no.” But then all of a sudden Black Lives Matter resurged and because of COVID-19 and not being able to just go get one of the two or three Black “big names” that are usually the go-to for all matters Black in dance, all of a sudden the work became “relevant,” and people took a genuine interest. And also just seeing how many of my students over the years have been exposed to (Re)Current Unrest in some way, like to see how, you know, they are almost armed and ready to be able to engage with these things made me realize, “OK so this work does have something. It does something.” And, you know, “broke broken and tired” was basically because I was supposed to start touring this work around the country this fall and I lost so much this summer because of COVID, and because I had no financial cushion, and because I’d been spending money just getting the piece ready for the tour. Yeah, I was just like “OK the universe is telling me you’re not meant to be one of those touring folks, Charles. You’re going to have to do the work the way you can do the work.”

AGR: Given these financial constraints, given the exhaustion of what was happening personally, socially, and politically, how were you able to find that inspiration again?

COA: Honestly I think the project was my coping mechanism. It’s like the work in and of itself gave me a way to process what was going on. And I say it that way because, you know, it was so exciting to see the fervor, and people risking their lives literally to go out and protest, and I knew I couldn’t do that just because I am in the at-risk category, and for a second I thought Oh you’re a fraud, you aren’t really walking the walk. But then I was like, Wait a minute, I’ve been doing this work before we even knew to protest. So no, this work is my protest, so I have to do this.

AGR: That’s so powerful. I’m thinking back to experiencing (Re)Current Unrest at Fusebox Festival 2018…this work is so much about communal witnessing, and these kinetic presences and absences. What does it mean to pivot this work and choreograph for the camera?

COA: It’s been exciting. We’ve had some really brilliant conversations with our design team. It’s a new design team, and ironically I thought I was pivoting towards an all of-color design team and it’s actually a whiter design team than before, and I say it because it’s a righteous group of white people who want to do the work and know they’re contributing to something larger than themselves and so that’s been exciting. And it’s a funny thing because, you know, in the performing arts marketplace before COVID you would need these video documentations to write further grants and we already had a decent video from Fusebox. Maggie Bailey, who’s still working on the project and is the director of photography, did a great job with that video but looking at it, it’s a document of an experience, not the experience itself—it’s not the same thing.

This is an opportunity to really immerse a viewer through this medium and help people who couldn’t figure out where to look before. This will give them an opportunity to see differently, like maybe you want to look over there because that might be something you would have missed if you were in a live performance…I’m excited to see if we can really capture the effect of the live performance this way because we’ll have a multi camera shoot from all perspectives: from the audience, from me, from performers. In some cases the dancers will be shooting themselves with their cellphones, and so we’ll be using that footage as well. It is definitely (Re)Current Unrest 2.0 in terms of we’re going for as an experience this time.

AGR: That’s amazing! I love that you’re using phone footage because cell phones are the lens through which we view so much right now: not only police brutality but also the Black Lives Matter protests. So, the dancers will be providing the audience with an up-close look at their movement?

COA: Yes! So within some of the choreographic moments that were really intense, it made sense to me to use the cell phone to capture them because, like you just said, that is how we’ve been able to see half of what’s been going on in this country, so inside of the choreographic event we’ll be cutting to some of that footage.

AGR: That’s super inventive. Will the projections from the 2018 production still play a role?

COA: Yes, I’m working with Michael Bruner and Zoe Crowe, and with the amazing scenic designer Iman Corbani (who created the scenic installation at Fusebox 2018), and we are reimagining the projections, and becoming even more precise with the imagery. Some of that imagery is abstract but we’re bringing in much more documentary imagery in really interesting ways because it’s a dance film now and I feel like it’s a great opportunity to really educate people on the historical arc of things through that imagery. And I also want to give these historical moments an even stronger presence, and I’m saying that because I’m moving further and further away from the formal choreography of the piece, and that’s from just setting the piece in so many places now—the pirouette is not really what this piece is about. I’m not interested in showcasing the choreography as much as capturing the experience. I’m really leaning into kinaesthetic modalities rather than into technical sort of virtuosity.

AGR: How does it feel to create this work with social distancing protocols? Has it led to anything interesting or has it just been a challenge?

COA: You know, it is definitely leading to something interesting.It’s one of those funny things because I’m working with so many of the current UT students as well as recent graduates, and since all of UT dance is online, this is the only in-person thing we’re doing, and so the level of focus and investment has been incredible. I was not prepared for that. I’ve also tripled the cast so there are forty-something people involved, and we create these pods of people so that we can keep it moving and also maintain social distance and make sure that no one is over-exposed for any period of time.

We have had to delay the live stream due to COVID…many have dropped out of the work out of anxiety about it which has impacted casting and choreographic choices. And, you know, we definitely have had our challenges but I would say that the constant anxiety about exposure to COVID actually heightens the experience of what the work is. So even though we can’t even stand as close together as we usually do, just seeing how the tension of being in proximity in real time in real spaces charges the space in a way that I hadn’t anticipated, and in a way that I thought was going to be a loss, but it’s actually starting to become sort of an asset because everyone is just so hyper aware of one another, and this piece is about staying woke so it’s just like, “Oh – we’re woke.”

AGR: Amazing. I had not considered that aspect of social distancing, that even with every safety protocol, and with everyone tested and bubbling, that, of course, that awareness of one another and the novelty of being in proximity, would heighten that feeling. Could you say a little bit about the dancers involved?

COA: Rather than having auditions for this piece, I want to treat this like we were showing up for a protest, so everyone who’s in it, is in it because they volunteered for it. They are all showing up because they want to enact social justice, so that’s part of why the cast is so huge. And this Generation Z, which is the majority of this cast; they’re refreshing, they’re scrappy, the way they show up they are like, “Yeah, I’m here! You want me to scream? I’m down for it, I’m gonna do that!” In some ways it has been easier because rather than trying to pull people to come to that place, they’re willing to go there and it’s been helping them to make sense of what happens when they go there.

The presentation itself is sort of co-curricular because this would have been a part of the Theatre and Dance repertory season but now it’s a Dance Theater X presentation (presented by Theatre and Dance, Texas Performing Arts, and Fusebox), and so it’s drawing on UT students as well as the local community. It’s also engaging last year’s graduating seniors, who were like warriors and basically didn’t have an opportunity to perform, so I’m bringing back as many of them as I can plus Jeremy Arnold because in a lot of ways he is a co-choreographer of certain sections of the piece.

AGR: Wow, I really appreciate that you’re bringing in folks who did not have that chance to perform because the pandemic has been so hard on students. I’ve always appreciated the care with which you work with students and the kind of long time relationships you hold with them and I’m interested to know: what are you telling them right now about everything that’s happening in our world?

COA: I’m using the process of making the work to talk to them about the world in a lot of ways and, you know, some of the modalities that are in the piece, of course, they were effective already but to literally be able to watch my students have a realization of like “Oh my God this is exactly encapsulating this moment we are living in.” So we talk a lot about these issues. Along with my team of dramaturgs, we’re all co-dramaturgs in the work and so in the teaching of the piece we’re literally having the conversations as we do it. I am less concerned that we’re going to need to find the work, and more concerned that we spend more time preparing ourselves to be able to take care of ourselves while doing it. We’ve been particularly exploring the queer and feminists aspects of the work looking at misogynoir.

AGR: Yeah, and that’s the caring response to this moment, right? Process over product!

COA: I’m trying!

AGR: Now if you don’t mind I’m going to quote you to you again…In our 2017 interview when we were discussing the dance industry, you remarked “We keep being on the precipice of acknowledging what so many of us already know—the systemic sexism, racism, homophobia and classicism in the dance world. And yet, it’s still not a deliberate call to action. “ This really resonated with me.What do you think of the recent calls to action we are seeing now, and do you think they are being heard?

COA: Yes, it’s been really remarkable to watch how many organizations are saying we’re going to really look at ourselves. And I’m not being snarky about the Black Lives Matter statements but I have to in some ways because looking at these statements, I’m like well this is still the marketplace doing what it does. So many organizations are commodifying this moment to stay relevant to their audiences. But at the same time it puts in such stark relief the folks who are actually doing the work. It is happening but I’m still in a “wait and see” mode just because even with this dance film and the“interest” the lack of ability from presenters to commit in support of the work is still present. You guys, TPA, Dance Place those are clear examples to me of a shift in the presenting culture, the fact that I actually can feel the support and the humanity in the process as opposed to feeling that I’m being maneuvered, sort of like an object, which remains disappointing, and especially now that I’m involving so many of these kids I’m so hyper protective of their experience. And in my work, I don’t want to become an unintentional interloper in the communities in the city’s these organizations are in, who don’t really want to do the work with those organizations.

I have to say it’s one of those funny things, it’s usually around this time of the year that I am prepared to watch the same names be pulled out, like “Oh we’re presenting Blah Blah again.” And “Blah blah is going to receive thousands of dollars” and during this time where everything is so in flux, it’s exciting to at least hear new names being put out there in the ether and the possibility of opportunity especially for these generations younger than me. I’m curious to see how this shakes out as things maybe stabilize. Who knows. I can’t even say the word, I just laugh, it’s still 2020 we can’t say stabilize—never mind!

AGR: Let’s just omit that word for vocabulary! But speaking of, Charles, how does it feel to be premiering this work a month before the election?

COA: The point of this tour was to engage communities in person prior to the election, and while we’ll be doing this live stream before the election, the post production is probably going to go on long after the election… I’m basically just trying to focus on the Black Lives Matter part now and avoid really leaning into the political connotations and motivations behind this.

AGR: While it’s so important to vote, the issues that are at work in this piece are not just going to be solved by one election, as you say, this is much larger than that.

COA: Yeah. I mean this preexisted Donald Trump but he certainly has helped to bring it back with gusto.

AGR: And amidst all of this, as an artist, what do you need right now? I know that’s a really general question but I think people need to understand what’s going on in our industry.

COA: You know I mean it’s not that different from what I know I need as a University professor. I need for us to really take a hard look at our humanity. And I don’t mean “pity me.” I am talking about SEEING… I’m thinking a lot about a quote from Ralph Ellison’s book The Invisible Man, which I’ll paraphrase: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination…everything and anything except me.” I’m just talking about what empathy and compassion are about. I know I’m so hard on myself knowing full well I can’t control a pandemic, but but even engaging in this process it’s so difficult to not fall into pushing for a product and being driven by standards that have nothing to do with this kind of work, and the gift of this time is that we are actually forced to sit with ourselves a little bit, and that doesn’t mean something has to come out of it. I’m sitting here ill and I’m actually noticing myself in a way that I don’t usually have time to. So while I’m not enjoying feeling sick it’s just having that level of sensitivity, it is remarkable to me. I don’t remember the last time that I could be this reflective and reflexive, and soI think on a larger scale, I feel like what I need as an artist right now are people who are willing to trust that work will come but it can’t necessarily happen in the in the old formulas, and hopefully realize that that’s not a failure of ability, that is an acceptance of reality.

AGR: Those words need to be published very large.

COA: I mean it’s kind of brutal, right, but I’m also having a really good year like, in so many ways.

AGR: You’ve received so many accolades this year!

COA: Yeah, and I’m sitting here like…is this the cruel joke? Do I finally get to this place just to drop dead? But I’m saying it that way also because I think so many of these things are going on but they don’t matter right now, and that’s OK, but it’s a shock to the system to realize how inconsequential so much of this isat this moment. And when you think about racism, you know, especially when I’m engaging a lot of the Black students and community members through these satellite residencies at NCC Akron and other places,, have conditioned ourselves, and I definitely include women in this, to not deal with all of the crazy crap, and the contortions we make just to function in this world and be prepared for what might come at us. And this moment has made everyone so aware of that and this piece has been an interesting sort of practice in uncoupling that. Realizing, no, we have this document that says we’re all equal therefore we shouldn’t have to work so hard to actually protect our own lives in a society.. So yeah, that was a roundabout way of saying that I really feel like we need to do some deep, deep, soul searching and hopefully this type of work will be able to make and hold a space for that as productive practice and not as a product.

AGR: Totally, and I thank you for saying it because it needs to be said and said and said.

COA: Yes!

Charles O. Anderson is one of four artists/collectives participating in the inaugural Performing Arts Residency launched by Fusebox Festival and Texas Performing Arts. The first of its kind in Austin, the residency program is geared towards adventurous Austin-based artists who are pushing the boundaries of performance and on the cusp of new projects, as well as furthering the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the local performing arts community. This interview is the first in a series of conversations with resident artists about their creation process.

Photo Credits (in order of appearance):(Re)current Unrest, pt. 2: In D’Nile (Momentum, 2017). Photo by Chian-ann Lu.

(Re)current Unrest, pt. 3: Clapback (Fall For Dance, 2017). Photo by Lawrence Peart

Re)current Unrest, pt. 3: Clapback (Fall For Dance, 2017). Photo by Lawrence Peart