Duke Dance turned art into social change this weekend.
Artists from many disciplines came to campus this weekend for the Across the Threshold: Creativity, Being and Healing conference, which looked to art to create personal, social and environmental change. The conference, now in its fifth year, brought together artists working on social change projects, especially those regarding global environmental destruction, said Keval Khalsa, director of the Duke dance program and one of the founders of the conference.
Presenters and guests at the conference varied greatly in their areas of expertise. During the keynote panel, discussion spanned topics such as art, community, reincarnation, marriage therapy and the Rwandan genocide.
“We want to share information,” Khalsa said. “We want to celebrate with each other the arts through singing, through dancing, through meditation and more a creative vision forward and hopefully leave this conference with a real sense of community in this work.”
The listed price for student tickets was $100, but many students participated for free as volunteers. Attendees also came from the broader Triangle Area.
The conference featured four key presenters: Chris Jordan, a photographer and cultural activist who gave the keynote address about his experiences on Midway Island; Lily Yeh, a community-based artist; Ronald Brown, an award-winning dancer and choreographer; and Baba Chuck Davis, a dancer, teacher and ambassador for African American culture.
In order to show the environmental effects of mass consumerism, Jordan creates iconic images out of collages of everyday products, such as “Over the Moon,” an image of the moon made out of 29,000 credit cards in his series “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait.” These images serve as a visualization of data—for instance, the credit cards represent “the average number of personal bankruptcy filings every week in the U.S. in 2010.”
“Statistics by themselves can be kind of deadening and it can be so much more meaningful when we can see what 210 plastic bottles look like,” Jordan said. “If we can’t comprehend these phenomena then we can’t feel anything about them and I think that’s why we’re seeing this disconnect that we’re seeing now.”
He added that he attended the conference because even though culture around climate issues is changing and people are generally moved by his work he feels that public opinion is not changing fast enough.
“We need radical change of behavior on a global level and fast,” Jordan said. “I’m interested in how we get there.”
Jordan participated in the keynote panel on Arts and Activism with Brown and Yeh and also performed at the Carolina Theatre Saturday night with his group Evidence Dance Company.
Brown said he feels he has a responsibility to incorporate themes from history and real conflicts in his work. His dances deal with subjects including slavery, the Vietnam War and the war on terror.
“Dance is something we can’t really be—it’s movement, it’s visceral, so it’s kind of heart to heart or soul to soul so when people dance, it’s evident,” Brown said. “We look like all kinds of bodies. That’s this kind of accessibility dance has. People recognize themselves in the kind of work, in the kind of movement we do.” At the panel, Yeh noted the importance of recognizing that art is horizontal and anyone can create, since art is not limited to only “artists on a pedestal.” “Everyone has the creativity.... The question is, how do you get in touch with it, how do you nurture it? That’s our new hope for our new age,” Yeh said.
Other sessions during the program varied in format from panels to dance workshops to academic paper presentations.
Jenny Lee, a dancer and dance therapist from the University of Florida College of Fine Arts, led a workshop titled “Our Communities, Ourselves: Wholeness through Authentic Movement” in which attendees received an introduction to authentic movement, a form of dance therapy. Participants paired off and moved different parts of their bodies based on internal impulses to cultivate awareness of themselves and each other.
Freshman Maddie Cetlin, a pre-med student who danced in a studio at home before college, said that attending the conference helped her understand how dance can be a tool for processing one’s experiences.
“I’ve been discovering... why I dance and how much it helps you to think through things you can’t always say,” Cetlin said.
The original idea for the conference came from recognizing that imbalances in the world originate from imbalances within individuals, Khalsa said.
She and two other associate professors in the dance department, Ava Vinesett and Purnima Shah, developed a plan that focused on “embodied practices that help to transform consciousness” that went beyond just dance. In 2008, they hosted the first Across the Threshold as a day-long event, inviting others interested in cultural anthropology, religion, integrative medicine and music.
Other groups co-sponsoring the event with the Dance department included the Nicholas School of the Environment, Center for Documentary Studies, Franklin Humanities Institute, the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs and the Program on Integrative Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among others.
The academic setting of the conference held special meaning for Jordan.
“A lot of other conferences that I attend are fundamentally commercial in their nature and in this case it’s amazing to be around educators and around students who are interested in these issues purely as activists and people who want to learn,” Jordan said.