Karin Fenn on Trauma and Choreography

The following is a reflection on creative process by Salt Lake City choreographer Karin Fenn. Fenn’s new work Girl Child, will be performed May 16, 17 and 18 at the Salt Lake Arts Academy Black Box. Tickets are $15 at the door or online. Girl Child is a dance/theater production created by Fenn in collaboration with Emily Haygeman, Ai Fujii Nelson, Corinne Penka, and Eileen Rojas, with original music by Wachira Waigwa Stone. Fenn writes, “the diverse cast unravels stereotypes of femininity to create more nuanced and authentic reflections of womanhood.” The project is fiscally sponsored by loveDANCEmore.

Rehearsal for “Girl Child”

The nexus for Girl Child arose from submerged trauma, and a desire to unshackle my physical and emotional being from its grip. As I reflected upon my experiences and the anger I still harbored, I was curious to discover in what ways other women’s experiences ran parallel to or diverged from my own. I wanted to create work that might validate and give voice to the challenges and joys of surviving womanhood. I was also hopeful that the creative and performative processes might give the performers, the audience, and myself another path to embrace and dissolve the past.

I was unsure how to create a piece that married movement with dynamic emotion without becoming self-indulgent or trite. I initially imagined a process that paralleled my own work as a performer in which I mined my own experiences to imbue abstract movement with meaning. I poured over Pina Bausch’s choreography. I read Pina Bausch, by Royd Climenhaga, which analyzed her work and provided templates through which movement and relationship could be created. I also recollected engaging with Stephen Koester’s choreographic process when creating his Bausch-inspired piece “What the Flesh Remembers.” My experience in his work was that he somehow mined my deepest thoughts without asking questions. He created juxtapositions of movement and text that were disarmingly poignant. I wanted to create work that was similarly evocative.

Eileen Rojas rehearsing “Girl Child”

I explored a variety of ways to access movement and layer it with text. As I mapped out different ideas to explore, I often first guided the dancers to write about a personal experience or memory. From this place, key words or concepts were parsed out of a longer text and used to suggest feeling states from which movement arose. I worked collaboratively with the dancers to find the physical manifestation of an emotion or memory. At other times, the dancers and I created a dialogue of text written next to a spatial map that indicated where they were to travel. Both the words and map were used to generate movement. Yet another approach was to identify traumatic events and create a feeling state to which the dancers responded. Some of the prompts: imagine you are numb, or imagine you are in a very small confined space. Through a guided improvisation in these feeling states movement material arose that suggested the emotional content without being overstated. I also experimented with repetition of physical activity that had a strong visceral impact upon the dancers.

The creative process has been informative and also at times painful as old trauma was triggered through physical action. I have learned a great deal about the delicacy of wading through memory and trauma. I have welcomed the direction and at times admonition from the dancers. In the end, movement does not lie. When and if the performers allow themselves to be fully transparent and vulnerable in the moment of each movement, the potential to unleash authentic experience seems unlimited. Then it is left to create a choreographic structure that allows the authentic experience to emerge. To be honest, as I prepare for the performance in May, I am not sure how successful that structure is nor how it will impact the audience. I will not know until the first performance. But I am grateful to the dancers for their willingness to engage in a process that has been powerfully informative, painful and healing.

A map from the rehearsal process for “Girl Child”

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