A young woman stands up slowly to face the day. In the fall sunlight, she is holding pain in her body. She has survived an attack and a violation. And now she is surviving every day after it.
Around her, four young women reach out, sometimes with casual agility, sometimes dismissive and even hostile. She is spun. She pulls away. The music rises in a raw edge, and she is collapsing in on herself with her head in her arms.
And then one woman moves toward her, quietly, and kneels to touch her back, moving softly until she accepts the touch. And the language of movement changes.
Five young women in the Young Choreographers Initiative at Berkshire Pulse have created their own work on the theme of sexual assault. And they have caught national attention.
On Saturday (Nov. 2) they have headed to the National Young Artists Summit in Austen, TX. The Creative Youth Development National Partnership has invited them to perform.
This year’s Summit focuses on arts entrepreneurship, art making, creative expression, arts activism and leadership, says Susan Quinn, Young Choreographers Program Director at Berkshire Pulse, and the dancers in YCI are one of only 10 groups chosen across the country.
On a Saturday afternoon in late October, they sat together in Pulse’s studio by the Housatonic River with the maple trees in full fall color, and they talked about their work.
Rubielle (Rubi) Nejaime from Lee and Paige Lussier from New Marlborough, twin sisters Stella and Pearl Wright from Great Barrington and Cecelia Kitross from Lenox are all between 14 and 16, in high school, and they have danced together in Berkshire Pulse classes for at least five years.
They have joined Quinn in the Young Choreographers Initiative in its the fourth year, and they are drawn to a place for their own creative expression, Nejaime said.
“It is centered around activism,” Lussier said, “and on how to speak our minds through movement.”
“It’s a way to learn what’s going on in the world and mold that into dance,” Pearl Wright said.
“And we’ve learned to take inspiration from other places,” Kitross said.
Last year, the group drew on visual art and writing in their work, and they met young people involved with Artists in Recovery for Youth (AIRY), a suicide prevention program in Pittsfield for people ages 13 to 26.
They talked about the stigma around people who have survived pain and trauma, and about celebrating when people survive instead of treating it as shameful. Artists in the program showed them poems and paintings of contrasting emotion — water under a sunset sky and textured paint scratched through with a fork in red and yellow.
This year’s piece has involved AIRY too, from early on. (ICY choreographers and dancers began work on it last winter and spring, and some of the original dancers have since graduated.)
“It began after a brainstorming conversation on what keeps us up at night,” Lussier said. The Kavanaugh hearings were in the news then, and the #MeToo movement was growing.
The dancers researched sexual assault, Quinn said. They talked about what sexual assault means, and who it affects. They talked about consent, and they learned that Massachusetts does not have a clear legal definition for it. They talked about what consent looks like in real situations, how to talk about it in a relationship, and how it might feel to be free to stop or change your mind or talk about what you do and don’t want.
“We talked about a woman’s physical self and her presence,” Lussier said, “and how her body can have no boundaries in physical space. If someone’s touching her, there are no rules, and she has to deal wtih the consequences.”
They talked about what it means to be a woman, and they came up with words like invisible, controlled, ignored, always having to be ready to justify yourself, having to be quiet and polite, having to be sexy but not too sexy, having to smile.
And then they talked with people who have survived assault, and with people who work to support them.
It was important to them to talk with people who know this kind of experience from the inside, Lussier said, because although they have dealt with catcalling and what she described as a more everyday kind of harrassment, they have not experienced assault themselves. They are trying to understand it do justice to the courage of surviving it.
Nejaime dances the role of the survivor in their work. She goes through the same day more than once, as Jessie Reyez’s Figures plays in the background with a raw ache. She remembers the violence. She thinks of ways she could have prevented it. People around her try to move her or move on.
“In the circle piece it escalates,” Nejaime said. “You see agression, attacking, overpowerment. It flows into a lift where she has no power over herself.”
She is surrounded and held down as she tries to escape.
And then the day begins again. Stella Wright makes the first move to come to her. Touch becomes support. The dancers surround her as friends. They share her weight.
In this movement, they looked to a conversation with Jenn Wahr, who was then LGBTQ Counselor/Advocate and Violence Prevention Educator and is now in graduate school at Smith College. She led a workshop with the ICY dancers, and Nelaime recalled clearly an activity illustrating different ways people may respond to a friend who has dealt with sexual violence and pain.
The dancers formed a circle, and Warr stood in the center, holding ribbons. Each of the dancers held the other end of a ribbon, and each of them had a two-sided card with possible responses. I’ve got to tell your mom. But he’s such a nice guy.
If the response put pressure on the woman who has been hurt, or blamed her, or supported the person who had attacked her — if it shut her out or asked her for comfort instead of giving it — then she would let go of the ribbon.
At performances, they ask audiences to believe and support survivors, Lussier said. And they ask parents to teach children about the idea of consent in general. People can learn what cheerful and willing consent means, that someone else agrees and wants to share something, long before they grow up and face it in a sexual relationship.
The choreographers showed the work in progress to people at AIRY, and in the conversation that followed they developed the ending.
The AIRY group wanted to see the survivor stand on her own, Kitross said. So she rests in her friends’ arms for a beat or two and then walks on, quiet and firm, into the new day.
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle feature pages in early November 2019. My thanks to Features Editor Linsey Hollenbaugh.