Join Forces With Me
The body is a site of gendered labor that often exhausts and isolates. In Dana Bell’s newest work in progress Join Forces With Me, formalist exercises of interdependence are seen as a vehicle of relief and rupture for the taxed body. Minimalist, propulsive drumming and a vivid, loud color palette set a tone of urgency. Struggle is interrupted by moments of mutually supported extension, uplift, and exhale around a figurative maypole. Strength is found in connectedness; Join Forces With Me is an expression of promise.
Early in 2015, I began work on a new project exploring the impact, in particular the psychosocial legacies, of gendered labor. The above statement served as the program notes to the first iteration of the piece, which was performed as part of Movement Research at Judson Church in March of this year. Join Forces With Me takes on the conception of “women’s work”, how this divisive ideological designation has manifested in our lives and on the historical body. It seeks to find points of rupture, spaces for reconstruction.
Central to the piece was the use of fabric: a signifier of hard-fought connection, the vehicle facilitating the struggle, a communal fulcrum of personal agency and liberation. While I’d previously examined the ethnology of dress, in terms of performative masquerade, recently fabric itself has become an integral prop in my work. An object with implicit potential, to be enacted upon. This has impelled me towards research on textiles, their historical roots, and the evolving material culture surrounding their creation. I’m inspired to explore how this history plays out in my choreography, video, and photography.
Industrialization began with labor-intensive industries, such as the textile and garment industry. Relying on meagerly-paid immigrant labor, mass production took what had formerly been domestic work out of the home. On the Lower East Side, workers reflected Ellis Island registries: Germans and native-born, rurally-raised Americans initially serviced the garment industry (prior to 1850), then Irish immigrants (1850-80), followed by Eastern European Jews and Italians (1880-1930), Puerto Ricans (1920-2000) and more recently Asians and Dominicans (1990-present). As I understand it, it was towards the end of the 19th Century when women joined the ranks of garment workers. First in their tenement apartments, while simultaneously tending to their families (see photographs below by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hines, the fathers of documentary social photography), and later in sweatshops. The realities of sweatshop life—long hours, low wages, crowded and unsafe conditions—united a critical mass of workers. As described by Hearts & Minds (heartsandminds.org/articles/sweat.htm):
“In 1900, workers formed the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) to organize against low wages and unsafe working conditions. In November 1909, ILGWU organized the first garment workers' strike, known as "The Great Revolt". The protest brought 60,000 New York City garment workers to the streets to fight for their rights. Women and children on the picket lines were beaten or targeted with guns. Yet, ILGWU prevailed, winning wage and hour standards and impartial arbitration of disputes.”
This, no doubt, created a more effective organizational structure, and a more germane political environment for Suffrage. The right to vote for the first time gave women legal agency over their lives, specifically their material world, and ultimately their bodies.
Choreography and costume: Dana Bell
Performers: Meg Clixby, Liza Corsillo and Kerry Davis
Music: "The Gateless Gate" by Man Forever
Played by Kid Millions, Phil Manley and Warren Huegel