Christina Woodrow is a graduate of the dance department at ORU, whose director, the late Amy McIntosh, was her mentor and friend. Christina made some brilliant work while at ORU, so I was glad to hear that she’d chosen to pursue her MFA in dance at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. As part of the process of obtaining that degree, she has created a piece called “Ritual Woman,” which will be presented November 20 at 7:30 pm and November 21 at 3:00 pm at the Union 9th Grade Center (7616 S Garnett) in Broken Arrow. Admission is $10, $5 for students and seniors (cash only).
During this busy pre-performance week, Christina shared some thoughts with me about her process for this piece and about her approach to making dance.
What metaphors or images do you like to use when thinking about how you make work? Do you think of yourself as an investigator — a watcher/recorder — an editor?
I see myself as an investigator. Often I begin with movement, and I begin to excavate a metaphor from the experience of the movement. It very much feels like a ritual to me. Not in that there is ever a specific order or way of doing, but more so in the way that creating work is so often a body, mind, spirit exploration of my faith. Choreographing is the way I process life and faith. Often a work is me fleshing out something I don’t understand about life, the world, or my faith. It is always very spiritual for me. There is something so unique about processing something I don’t understand through the body, mind, and spirit. I can be quite the product of modernist thinking, but when I choreograph, I jump into the senses and my spirit. In this way, I feel I can operate as a whole person. The process may not give me answers, but it might give me new perspective, insight, or empathy. To some degree I am also very much a watcher/recorder. I often work with scores that leave room for improvisation. I dance with such intelligent and thoughtful people. To only create from my experience would feel very one-dimensional. Watching the people I move with negotiate material and learning from them opens up a diversity of perspectives and experiences in the space. It’s awesome! It’s a very wild activity this business of choreographing. I can break down aspects of the creative process, and there can be a semblance of order to that process, but the process is wild. I can try to domesticate it, but there is a certain wildness to it, because it comes from human beings. And, human beings are incredibly complicated. It’s addictive, and I love it!
Some basics: how long is the piece, how many dancers, what kind of music?
“Ritual Woman” is about 23 minutes long. It is a duet between Lexie Jo Sweeney and I. Sierra Fletcher has been by our side as well, acting as a bit of a rehearsal assistant/dramaturge/emotional support. I tend to create in waves of musical fascination. I was on a strings kick for quite a while and have shifted to some electronic stuff. I have been doing a lot of research on the period of liminality and have tried to utilize music and costumes that allows for a certain amount of ambiguity as to where and who these dancers might be. Of course it is hard to create complete ambiguity, electronic music does give a sense of time, but it does blur the context.
What were you curious about when you started this piece? Has what you’re curious about changed over the course of the project?
When I began this piece, I was curious about the ways we perform identity and how our actions create impressions of identity. These impressions are then used to create cultural categories that may or may not be utilized in creating a sense of hierarchy. Feminist philosopher Judith Butler’s discussion of gender performativity stoked my thinking in the way we perceive the sexes. I became intrigued with the notion of gender rituals and how they leave impressions of gender. Within the classification of woman, there are various impressions and definitions that sometimes conflict with one another. So then to “be a woman” is no one set thing. Exploring the “how” of this was important to me as a woman. Systems of oppression operate in various gradations in our world, and I think there is something to deconstructing cultural terms of gender, race, and other classifications. I wanted to examine this through the lens of ritual and the period of liminality. The actual product has become far more grounded in the study of ritual than I first thought it would. Anthropologist Victor Turner’s writings on the period of liminality in ritual influenced the way I handled duration, transitions, arcs, and space. I had no idea how heavily this would undergird my work.
I also began this work with a fascination with dirt as a metaphor for the body. Years ago, I started studying references to dirt in the Bible. The juxtaposition of the sacredness of the dirt and the psychological repercussions of the word perplexed me. In my faith tradition, the body was formed from the dirt. Also, there is a struggle with the body and shame, dirtiness. I felt there had to be some inter-epistemic space the dirt held with sacredness and shame. So I started using dirt in another work “Are and Shall Return” and using it as a metaphor for the body. That piece was the catalyst for “Ritual Woman.” The dirt still serves as a metaphor for the dirt, but sacredness and shame are no longer the forefront of the metaphor.
Where do you think “meaning” comes from in a dance? How do you as a choreographer make space for a viewer to tap into what you’re exploring — or is it even necessary to consciously make that space?
Meaning is such a tricky word. It can feel so nebulous, and then we know it when we know it. For me I find so much meaning comes through process. It is as much about what happens in rehearsal time with the community of dancers, as it is what gets put on the stage. When I am challenged as a person in my work, and I invite those who are in the process with me to be challenged as people, I believe meaning comes to existence in my work. With this piece specifically, I had to negotiate the idea of meaning for those engaged in ritual and those observing ritual. There can often be a disconnect of experience between the participant and the observer. This work draws so much on the senses. To invite the audience into that, we made the space very intimate. In the more gross sense of my work, I try to draw upon movement the audience knows. Not movement that they know or can identify in terms of dance, but movement that they have experienced. I try to shade my work with a study of human movement that is translatable: postures, gestures, stances, etc. It may not always be obvious or recognizable, but I believe it opens up a sense of shared experience. I am always trying to discover how dance can connect people.