Editor’s note: Atlanta-based writer Obinna Morton and artistic director Sue Schroeder contributed to the reporting and editing of this article.
Europe has been deluged with refugees and immigrants spilling over the continent in numbers not seen since the end of World War II, due to the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria and unstable governments in Africa.
For Sue Schroeder, artistic director of the Decatur and Houston-based Core Performance Company, the physical as well as psychological realities of “displaced persons” are themes with which she has responded to with dance over the years.
As far back as 1994, she choreographed a mashup of Flannery O’Connor short stories including Ms. O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person.” She also recently choreographed, “Life Interrupted” a work infused by the psychological repercussions of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent interned in American camps during World War II.
A visit in May to Atlanta’s Sister City Toulouse, France, she told Global Atlanta during an interview in the group’s studio in downtown Decatur, provided another opportunity to begin a new dance creation, “Human Landscape”, on the theme of migration and exile in which she is commissioning Germana Civera, a well-known dance artist for the Midi-Pyrenees region of France.
This collaboration will bear its fruit at France-Atlanta 2017, a program that has over the past seven years brought together academic, business and cultural initiatives creating ever closer ties between Atlanta, France and sister city Toulouse.
Since Core Performance Co.’s founding in Houston in 1980, collaboration has been a main ingredient of its work. Over the years it has produced more than 125 original works that experiment with expression by human bodies in motion.
Ms. Schroeder credits the unique quality of the company’s work to its commitment to exploration and research using the human body as the medium as well as its expertise in creating site-specific, museum work and work fueled by collaboration, social conscience and activism.
“Dance is an extremely intimate art form. You hold each other, walk over each other,” she said. “And you recognize that we all have a human body in common.”
On the final day of Core Performance Company’s recent stay in Toulouse in March, Ms. Schroeder, Company Manager D. Patton White and members of the company conducted a number of workshops and conversations with the artists of l’association ALEF Productions, sharing their practices of using art as a catalyst for social change.
As the day of workshops evolved, she said, the two groups had to bridge cultural divides, especially in regard to defining community-based art, a mainstay of Core Performance Company. During this day-long workshop with the French and U.S. artists and educators, she was questioned by the French about the need to clarify the intent of the performance.
“As expected, there may be very different points of view between people and between cultures,” she said, providing the example of the artist who challenged the desire to explain the motivations behind the dance. “This is my (personal) expression,” he told her. “Why should I care about why a community thinks that I do this?”
“Dance and art in France is considered a ‘high art’ and not so involved with social activism or community based questions,” she added “Community-based art is kind of a new thing there. Art and culture are really part of their life fabric so much more than it is here where we still are trying to pave the way. ”
Nevertheless, the impact of Core Performance Company’s “Life Interrupted” and “walk,” which took place within a community-based residency in St. Antonin-Noble-Val hit a nerve with some of the refugees there who were in the process of adapting to an entirely different way of life. They were changed by their connection to each other in their week together, including experiencing the performances.
She cited the comments of an Eritrean, who had been in the St. Antonin-Noble-Val area for only six months. Following building a labyrinth, a maze-like path used for ritual and spiritual growth in ancient societies, and being part of the “walk” performance, he approached her to say that “This is the first time I have felt part of the village, part of a family again.”
But she added that she really didn’t have to go all the way to France to experience this kind of feedback. The company has experienced the same far closer to home in nearby Clarkston where Afghanistan, Syrian and Sudanese refugees have also been moved by their performances.
“You know that you have touched someone deeply when they tell you their story and say that they can’t go back because the Taliban would kill their family members,” she said. “It’s so heartfelt. It becomes real.”
The company doesn’t limit its performances and workshops to themes experienced by displaced persons. They also include performances for children with special needs and have developed movements that take advantage of the labyrinths which they have created in Atlanta, Houston and St. Antonin-Noble-Val.
“With those who have physical limitations and special needs, movement can be an entry point into something deeper, perhaps freeing” she said. “We wait, listen and see how they engage with us on a particular day. They may just want to watch us walk through the labyrinth and we may do something very simple movement wise such as having them brushing their hands on their skin. They light up at the experience.”
The recent visit to Toulouse was the third for the company, which had gone there in 2014 and 2015 during another Sister City, Toulouse Atlanta exchange. This August, the company will welcome two organizers Sarah Turquety and Emmanuel Courtin from l’association ALEF Productions of Toulouse to attend the annual gathering of Alternate ROOTS, an organization committed to art as a catalyst for social change.
The 2016-17 season is the 36th season for the Company. Ms. Schroeder co-founded Core Dance, the home of Core Performance Company, in Houston with her sister, Kathy, and opened the Decatur studio in 1986.
To learn more about upcoming CORE Performance Company programs coming up, click here.