Last semester, through a series of happy coincidences, I was invited to join a faculty planning group for a new UNC/Carolina Performing Arts initiative called Arts@theCore. When I was invited, the convener said, “Maybe you want to think about it. See if it fits in your schedule.” No way…I said yes immediately and have been looking forward to it ever since. Last week was the first activity, going to see a performance of ” A Meditation on the Rite of Spring, ” a new work commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts by the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane dance company and SITI Company that re-imagines the original Rite of Spring. Bill T. Jones, the choreographer, and Anne Bogart, the director as well as the dancers and actors spoke with the audience after the performance.
You should know that what I know about Stravinsky’s, Rite of Spring, consists of about three facts: Dissonant, started a riot, dance and music – yep, that about covers it. And as I was walking across campus last week to the performance I found myself thinking how great it was to have free tickets to this event and how I love to do things with faculty members in the humanities and… how I had not the slightest idea of how I would ever incorporate modern dance into my teaching or my research.
O me of little faith…The subject matter of “the rite” concerns a sacrifice for the community’s benefit. In the original, the sacrifice was a virgin girl/young woman. In the re-telling, the sacrifice is a soldier, a WWI soldier who becomes, through the course of the performance, all soldiers who are offered up to protect their communities. That alone is fodder enough for class discussions in multiple places in our MSW curriculum. But there was something equally compelling, a sort of meta-message, that really got me thinking.
This performance was unusual in that it incorporated a dance company and a theater company. The two groups have never before performed together. Part of their task in creating this “Rite” was to learn each other’s trade. Their goal became for the audience not to know which performers were “dancers” and which were “actors.” Instead, they called themselves “dactors” and set out from the beginning to take the point of view of the other discipline. The dancers used the actors warm up routines and vice versa. The actors had to learn to “speak” with their bodies while the dancers had to open their mouths. They reflected on this process during the audience “speak back” session. They talked about the vulnerability required to do something for which they had not been trained, the admiration they had for one another’s abilities, the fear that what each discipline brought to the table was not really needed by the other. If the text was good enough, do the actors really need the dancers? The choreography and the dancers are so powerful, don’t we cheapen it with our talk? Bill T. Jones nailed it. “There is a selfishness to it [that gets in the way of collaboration].” “What if they don’t need us?” The answer –and this is me, not Bill T. Jones — we have to prove they need us and next thing you know, exit collaboration stage left and conflict takes center stage.
Now those are issues at the heart of social work practice. We are a profession that works at intersections: between disciplines, between professionals and individuals, between generations, between person and environment. Collaboration is a topic on my syllabus every fall semester and my approach has generally been to ask my students, through some series of exercises, to take the perspective of one of the myriad professions, patients, and caregivers represented in a health care environment. Then they read the habits of highly effective collaborators – or something – and we all go home. The teaching evaluations aren’t bad- but surely there’s something more compelling. How much more powerful would it be to have them experience what I did last week? To have them listen to two groups of individuals that have worked for a sustained period to accomplish something challenging, draining, exhilarating, and difficult that cannot happen well in the absence of true collaboration. And, what if this conversation happened with other students in the professions with whom we most often collaborate? Wow!
Of course, all of this applies equally to research. Interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity – call it what you will – it’s where it’s at from a funding perspective. But boy can it be difficult and for all the same reasons. We allow our fear and our selfishness/ self-doubt to get the best of us. Maybe they can do this without me/my knowledge/expertise. They are so good at everything. What do I have to offer? And the reverse, I could probably make this work without their knowledge. I know enough to figure it out. Exit collaboration – enter conflict.
I’m not really sure how to end this post and perhaps I won’t. I’ll consider it a beginning, act one, of thinking about Arts@theCore and sharing those thoughts with you. See you at Memorial Hall.