Because they not only make art but take action, bringing the wisdom they’ve acquired as dancers into the lives of women whose minds and bodies house the memory of domestic violence.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Gina Gibney’s all-female company, and while other choreographers may occasionally resort to a cast of women for lack of available male dancers, in her case it was a conscious decision. “There is no other art form that was pioneered by women: Martha Graham, Mary Wigman, Hanya Holm, Isadora Duncan, Louie Fuller, Helen Tamiris,” she explains. “And a lot of them were social activists. I wanted to carry that vision forward and make it contemporary.”
Gibney’s most recent work, The Distance Between Us, is also one of her finest, taking as its subject the way people position themselves in relation to one another. Eye contact and partnering become tools for investigating trust, interaction, vulnerability, and a range of emotions that Gibney’s six dancers have been forced to confront not only in the studio but in their work beyond, through Sanctuary for Families and Safe Horizons—New York organizations that help abused women and their children construct new lives.
What is it that dancers have to offer victims of domestic violence, which Gibney calls “the antithesis of creativity and self-expression”? For starters, an understanding of how their bodies are inhabited by their emotions. The women they work with, Gibney says, “start to make peace with their lives, start to feel good about their physicality, start to believe that the creative choices they make, no matter how small, are unique and valuable.”
The workshops now number more than 500 a year and have lately expanded to include people living with H.I.V./AIDS. But just to dispel any notion that this is “charity work” fueled by a bunch of high-minded artists’ noblesse oblige, Gibney is quick to add that the women they work with are in fact heroic. “They’ve taken their lives into their own hands. And we often find ourselves in awe of them.” Inspiration works both ways.