UNARMED: Realizing Race and Racism at Fringe Festival 2015

Republished by kind permission from the FringeArts blog.

“Before we even get to move, the bodies just existing together in space is getting at American politics.”


Bodies reflect history. They carry remnants of slavery, disintegrated yet still existing walls of segregation, and the weight of World Wars in their bones and postures. Bodies reveal upbringing, education, the houses they grew up in. I recently reached out to choreographer, Arielle Pina, to talk about what happens when our volatile bodies burst into movement. Pina choreographed UNARMED, a dance coming to the 2015 Fringe Festival, about race relations in America. She describes the general parts of her work, which will be performed at Shiloh Baptist Church in South Philly, and says, “The roles are the fallen black man, cultural reformist, cultural influence, appropriator 1 and appropriator 2. Specifying each body in this way allows us to explore stereotype and racism.” UNARMED strives to expose and explode America’s destructive power relations and racial barriers. “The piece is about the black relationship with white America and many frustrations that the cast and I are trying to air out.”

UNARMED did not begin as a dance. In response to the Michael Brown incident, Pina created UNARMED, a photo series installation presented at Headlong Performance Institute’s final show (to see the collection of photos click here). The spectators of the installation responded to the photographs of individuals standing with their hands glued behind their heads in the dark. After the photo exhibit ended, however, Pina transformed her images into movement. “The work is so relevant to the time that it felt absolutely necessary to continue. So I registered for Fringe and created a cast of people I felt could dive into something almost impossible with me.”

The movement of UNARMED embodies specific rituals and tasks. “If I were to describe some of the states the bodies go through I would say: jam, DSC_0045exhaustion, intimacy, superiority, death, and mourning,” Pina expresses. She also describes gestures that are embedded into mundane life experiences as roots of her choreography: “I created the movement by putting the bodies in a specific context. For example, what does a body do at funeral or when it is in mourning? We bow our heads, hold hands, pray, cry. And then we choreograph what that is.”

By using familiar movement, Pina’s goal, “is to spark community dialogue about race and issues of difference. I’ve learned that everyone has a lot to say but it takes a certain environment, or specific question to get people talking.” Of the venue, Shiloh Baptist Church Attic Studio, Pina adds, “The space is a bit haunting in vibe so this definitely amplifies the content we’re exploring.”

DSC_0047Rehearsal is a collision and a celebration of experiences. Pina’s project is complex. Rehearsal is not necessarily marked by constant dancing or music playing, but instead, discussion. “We spend a lot of time talking and unpacking our belief systems around race and privilege.”As Pina works on the music and the movement, she also carefully considers multiple experiences of social difference. “I’m working with musicians and dancers so it feels like I’m speaking multiple languages when we’re all together. Whenever someone has a video or survey, we all participate collectively. I think the work feels challenging and very important to all of us. . . . It is also terrifying.”

2015 Fringe Festival
Arielle Pina
$15 / 50 minutes
Shiloh Baptist Church
2031 Montrose Street
September 11–13, 2015, at 7pm


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