Marsha Parilla, artistic director and lead choreographer of the Boston company Danza Orgánica, will perform on the Inside / Out Stage at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket tomorrow, July 7. I spoke with her in the winter she she brought a performance to Pittsfield in partnership with Jacob’s Pillow. It was a powerful conversation, and I am offering it here with thanks to her for taking the time.
Ayana Aubourg’s father was incarcerated throughout her life, for 18 years. She wrote to him all that time and kept his letters. And she wrote a book of poems she showed no one, not even her mother — until she began to dance.
Aubourg met Marsha Parilla, artistic director and lead choreographer of the Boston company Danza Orgánica, as Parilla began a new work, Running in Stillness, a piece on the effect of mass incarceration on women and their families.
“The work we do on Danza Organica is mostly focused on social justice concerns,” Parilla said, “and in the past few years we have been focusing on women and things that affect women directly.”
Her focus is on dance theater with deep research, and she began this work by reaching out to Families for Justice as Healing, an organization in her neighborhood that works with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and girls, and Sisters Unchained, a program for young women who have been directly affected by incarceration.
Through them she met Aubourg and Monique Sadberry, a woman formerly incarcerated, in and out of prison for 30 years, who has now come into society. Parilla interviewed both of them.
“They were very generous,” she said. “They wanted to be part of the project. They wanted people to hear their stories — wanted people to know this exists, and this happens behind those walls.”
They became involved in the work from the beginning, she said. They met the company, and the dancers became familiar with their stories and responded to them.
“We also delved into our own biases or experiences we’ve had with incarceration, or family members of company members who have been incarcerated,” Parilla said, “so it was very broad. It was a topic that touched many different parts of us in different ways.
I would say for first three or four months of the creation of the work there was a lot of tears, a lot of pain and sadness … in order to move together.”
Aubourg shared letters she and her dad exchanged while he was in prison.
“One thing that I realized when I first met her,” Parilla said. “She was incredibly smart and bright, and she had been learning about the prison industrial complex since she was a newborn, not only reading about it in books, but because she has been going to prison since she was a baby. And so this is the first impact of incarceration on the family, that when you incarcerate somebody you don’t only incarcerate that individual. It affects the entire family, so the whole family has to make that effort to go visit the parent.”
The family had to travel to different prisons, often far away, and the visits were very short — and relentlessly public.
“While you’re in the visit, the prison guards are staring at you’” Parilla said. “Everyone is staring at you. It’s not private. Everyone knows each other’s business during the visit.”
So Aubourg had grown up knowing what prison feels like and carrying it with her outside the walls.
“Because she has been going to this place her whole life, her body has assimilated what it means to be looked at with disdain,” Parilla said, “and she has internalized what it feels like to see your dad treated in an unfair way. She talked a lot about how they would talk about him in court, for example, and how the guards would look at him, talking about him like he’s a danger to society. In her mind she knows who her dad really is, and so she has this constant struggle with what she sees every time she goes to prison, this image of who this man is, and who she also knows him to be based on the letters and the visits.
“So that in itself is something nobody should be dealing with from the moment of their introduction to the world.”
When she came to Danza Organica, she carried all of that trauma in her.
“She was training with the company, and her body was very closed,” Parilla said. “Her gaze was down all the time. Those were things that I started to point out to her during training, bring your chin up, open out your chest. She had never realized this was something she did. And because she’s such a smart, bright person, she started to make the connections of how she was always closing in when people were looking at her, because it was how she has trained to be when there are other authority figures around her.”
Parents separated from their children live with that pain, like Aubourg’s father. Sadberry has three children and spoke about losing contact with them. The youngest was a baby, Parilla said, and she could not breastfeed. She did not see her children grow up.
And the conditions she lived in could be dehumanizing even in daily actions.
“She is very open and vocal but the atrocities that happen in prison,” Parilla said. “Basic things for women such as feminine care, just that, even something as simple as that is a struggle. It’s not accessible — you have to pay for your feminine products, and what they give you, even toothbrushes and what they give you for your hygiene are mediocre if any.”
Parilla learned the feeling of complete lack of privacy from the inside when she spoke with Andrea James, a lawyer imprisoned for a year who has devoted her life to women’s rights in prison. James spoke of a constant sense of intrusion.
“There is no sense of privacy ever,” Parilla said. “Whenever you go anywhere the guards are checking you. They’re touching you everywhere, inappropriately, very uncomfortably, and especially to women that’s an issue. And one of the issues that I find the most disturbing is that women who go into prison and are pregnant get shackled during birth. That’s inhuman.”
James has fought for a bill that bans that practice, Parilla said, and that bill passed in Massachusetts. But it may not be the hardest treatment women face in prison. Women have experienced physical and sexual abuse. Conditions can become traumatic and seem inescapable.
“It becomes so extreme that when it’s not as extreme it feels like it’s better even though it’s still horrible,” Parilla said.
“There are many many issues women in prison face that are not talked about. And a lot of them end up feeling like they deserve it, because it’s all they end up receiving all the time, and they are so isolated, they don’t think people in the outside world care. That was one of the things Monique told me. She said ‘I want people to know we are human. We are like you and I. And I want people to know there’s hope for women like me.’’
Sadberry also shared friends she met and things she learned while in prison, Parilla said, and they wanted to create a project that showed who these amazing women are.
“I wanted to show the humanity,” she said. “I wanted to show the struggle, but I also wanted to show some sense of hope. The hope is not not liberation in the piece — it’s not suddenly everyone is free — but there is a sense of hope in fighting for what’s right.”
She and the company have spent two years working with these intimate and deep issues in movement, as they developed the piece. They have embodied Sadberry’s story in many forms.
“Monique revealed so many aspects of herself,” Parilla said. “She was very open about experiences she had. And one idea I had, because I wanted to represent her accurately but it was so much interesting material. I decided to break that character into different characters … the motherly woman, the woman who is angry, the woman who feels frail and fragile.”
Each dancer has taken on a character from the beginning and held it as the company has worked on the piece and reworked it, letting it grow.
“The movement to me comes in a very organic way,” Parilla said, “because I did not grow up with ballet. So when I think about movement I don’t automatically think about glissage, jeté, assemblé, pirouette. That’s not how I think about movement. It comes from a different place. So I spent a lot of time in the studio … seeing how different sensations felt in my body, how different stories felt in my body.”
They perform to music that has grown alongside the dance. Parilla reached out to two old friends, composers Shane Shanahan and Ricardo Gallo, for rhythm, piano and melody. Shanahan is a percussionist from the Silk Road Ensemble, and Gallo, a Colombian musician and composer based in New York, performs several groups.
One of the highlights of the piece, she said, is the poem.
“When Ayana shared with me the letters from her dad and the things she wrote, she had a book of poetry nobody knew,” she said. “Even her mother did not know she had it. This was the first time she opened it to somebody else There was a lot of trust-building between all of us, relationship-building for us to get to this place. The poem that she wrote was absolutely gorgeous.”
Her poem comes at the center of the piece, as she dances a solo that she and Parilla created together.
“She had never danced before,” Parilla said, “and she moves absolutely beautifully.”