What does a collection of plastic shopping bags have to do with choreographing a dance? For me there was a powerful connection—and in this post I want to explain how a material we associate with waste richly fueled a creative process.
In the fall of 2018, as I began working with six other dancers on a new project, I felt pulled towards incorporating physical materials other than our bodies. My curiosities and questions arising outside of my time in the dance studio often end up dictating the process through which I make performance works. And at this time I had a growing fascination with plastic waste and reducing my plastic consumption.
I think in part this was sparked by a plastic recycling program at my Food Coop, which hosts a soft-plastic recycling drop-off two times a month in partnership with Terracycle. For several months I had saved up all my soft-plastic, from both my grocery shopping at the Coop and from my day-to-day life. When I was finally able to schedule in time to go to the drop off, I was saddened to learn they would only accept the plastic waste that was from the Coop. I was left with a huge bag of plastic waste that could not be recycled and, in turn, I had to dispose of elsewhere. (I ended up dropping it off at a CVS plastic recycling drop-off).
This event prompted my fascination with my growing collection of soft-plastics, and more specifically, the items that can not be recycled, reused, repurposed in the traditional (and failing) recycling system. This was when I began saving articles of plastic waste that were at the end of the consumer use phase of their “life cycles” and were headed for the garbage can.
Not knowing what to do with my burgeoning inventory of non-recyclable soft-plastic items, I brought them into the studio space and asked my collaborators to bring in items they had collected as well. Pretty soon we had a GIANT trash bag filled with our precious props of plastic waste, each item appreciating in sentimental value. Most of our non-recyclable plastic waste was soft, see-through, and malleable, which allowed for a lot of creative potential.
Initially the plastic served as a means to deepen our explorations of ourselves and each other. It then became a bridge, allowing us to enter into other states of being or modes of experiencing. At times the material served as a lens through which to look at each other and the world around us. The plastic allowed for simultaneous isolation and connection, depending on which surfaced at the current moment.
The plastic puts a lot of energy into the room that enables instantaneous creativity, provides inspiration, and aids in a level of playfulness. The presence of abundant plastic provides a solid and continual “jumping off” point. It enables constant creativity without a dull moment; there is so much to play with, to take in, to feel on our skin, to sit with, etc. – dancer Chris Cahoon
Anna guides a group of dancers into a massive heap of soft plastic and witnesses our germination inside of this ecosystem. One of the most spacious and expansive processes I have ever been a part of, we spend hours cocooned in the plastic that it is at once a dumpster and a womb. Mundane and otherworldly. We shift through relationships with each other, with specific pieces of plastic, with the space as a whole, with our skin, breath, sweat. – dancer Maddie Leonard-Rose
A realization, and some questions, emerged as we immersed ourselves in the heap of plastic we had assembled. An unstated assumption beneath my experience became clear: plastic is a waste item, something overused, dis-valued, ultimately to be discarded. But, I began to wonder, can it also be sacred, special, necessary, crucial? Can the same object – a ubiquitous, wasteful, discarded item, be transformed into a crucial, unique, item of inextricable value?
Something of that transformation began to happen in the dance studio, as a kind of response to my reflections on waste. In our society we depend on objects so heavily, and we dispose of them so quickly; we produce massive amounts of waste living our lives. Here materializes a bizarre sentiment of abundance – an inversion of the abundance of goods that surrounds us. But as my dancers’ movement research progressed in the studio, we cultivated a very rich sense of abundance in ourselves, in relationship to each other, and to the discarded plastic that surrounded us in the space.
Which led me to wonder further: is there a hierarchy of abundance? Is abundance produced without leaving a footprint superior to one that creates waste? Can we do more to evoke abundance – that does not involve products, and therefore does not produce waste? Could our sense of shared abundance, as a dance unit, be shared with our spectators? And if so, what would that experience be like?
The answers that began to emerge from our movement were informed by some insights offered by Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian-born philosopher and psychoanalyst. In the film “Examined Life” (2008) Žižek talks about the human relationship to our current ecological condition. Only once we are able to see it clearly, he argues, will we be able to enact any sort of change – personally or societally. Thus he encourages us to cut ties to spontaneous nature (the idyllic image we are obsessed with) and to “become more artificial.” Instead of engaging in a false sense of nature, he suggests we embrace the notion that our true nature is an artificial landscape of trash and waste. Can we find poetry and spirituality within this new dimension? Can we unearth beauty in trash? Can we encounter a true and pure sense of love? We all know that loving means accepting what a person or thing is; for Žižek, to love is to find perfection in imperfection. Can we find perfection and acceptance within the landscape of waste we have produced?
In the dance studio my collaborators and I had an inkling of how these possibilities might be realized. Through our juxtapositions – with other dancers, and the waste objects around us – associations arose between our fleeting tender relations with each other and with the material. Suddenly, being deeply tender towards the plastic began to depict alternatives to how we can treat and be in relation to each other. A playful moment with a piece of discarded bubble wrap engulfed me, and allowed me to drop down into a state of childlike play, which in turn spread to my collaborators. Soon we were all jumping up and down like children, laughing and tossing pieces of waste in the air and at each other. I found myself rubbing a discarded bag across my face and body, enjoying the sensation of the material on my skin, indulging in pleasure with this piece of waste, allowing myself to surrender to this totally odd and deeply tender moment. Later, I noticed how this moment resonated with me as I encountered trash on the street, noticing a tender feeling towards the chip bags, cigarette wrappers, and even gum splatter on the New York City streets.
I hope that some of what I felt was available to the audience when we presented the initial version of our work in Spring 2019, under the title “I already am, all the time” (click for a five-minute set of excerpts) Let me make clear, though, while my dance reuses plastic waste, I am not holding it up as a sustainable process for solving the plastic waste problem. I do, however, think the way in which my collaborators and I reused our plastic waste, creating a step between use and trash/recycling, allowed us to offer our audience an experience of plastic in an interesting limbo state. They saw bags no longer used as bags, packaging no longer protecting goods; they saw plastic in a state in which it served no “useful purpose.” But these pieces of waste were charged with the memories of the roles they played in daily life. In just the way Marit Hammond discussed on this blog, I’d like to think that my creative process pushed the spectators of this performances’ understanding of waste, and perhaps created a conscious pause and moment of reflection in the seconds before dropping a piece of plastic into a garbage can.
I am now working on a new rendition of this piece and process. We are calling the work “Embrace(d)” and it will be performed in part of a larger climate justice event I am producing called W A S T E in S P A C E. Please click on the poster below for more information.