Politicizing Dance: A choreographer brings empathy to the debate over immigration

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By Celine Khuu

Monique Meunier, a ballet dancer and UC Santa Barbara assistant professor, felt a need to respond to the polarizing, divisive presidential election of 2016, believing that national solidarity is more important than ever.

So she choreographed and directed a Fine Arts and Performing Arts collaborative performance titled Still We Rise, for UCSB students to come together to support those whose futures are imperiled by proposed changes to DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was begun during the Obama presidency.

The performance premiered last winter to 120 people over two nights.

The show previewed “Staging the Daffy Dame,” a performance about the frustration of immigrant children not being able to speak the native language, which had its premiere in March. Rick Benjamin performed poems in between dance and music performances, at one point referencing Adrienne Rich’s poem “Perspective Immigrants Please Note.” The show concluded with ten dancers coming together at center stage to recite poet Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

Born in Hollywood, California, Meunier has taught and rehearsed for The George Balanchine Trust, Karole Armitage, The Washington Ballet, and Youth America Grand Prix. She has choreographed for the Lake Placid Center for the Arts and the Columbia Ballet Collaborative. In 2016, she was appointed to the School of American Ballet’s alumni advisory committee on diversity and inclusion.

Meunier joined UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance in September, 2017. She recently spoke to HFA about Still We Rise and her approach to dance.

Q. Was this a special event because of the news or was it a topic that you chose for a regular performance schedule?

A. It was partially because of the news, but my parents were immigrants. My dad is from Cuba and my mom is from Ecuador. I think everyone deserves an opportunity. I can’t change the laws, but I can showcase the artists coming together in support of DACA and Dreamers. The museum director Edward “Bruce” Robertson, an art history professor at UCSB came to me with this idea which I also had, so it ended up working out. I also worked closely with Leticia Garcia, the Programs & PR Manager at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum who was instrumental. Elisa Gonzalez was also helpful. And I wanted to showcase what was going on.

Q. Tell me about the audience and the performers for Still We Rise?

A. This is my first time doing a show.[at UCSB]. It was a nice mix of students and professors. The chair of Chicano Studies came with his daughter who’s 13 and is taking ballet. Some of the parents of performers came. They invited student violinists to perform and play music for the dancing. I wanted to put art, music, dance, theater, and dance together in conjunction with the museum. I selected the dancers, poets, musicians, and students, and I choreographed and chose the music. I’m fairly new so I’m trying to get to know people. Lee Rothfarb, Dean of music, helped me sign the violinist and the cello. The dancers I know, so I picked them.

Q. Who did you hope to reach with the show?

A. Anyone interested in attending could come. It was about speaking up. People who came could leave the show inspired and talk about it and spread the word. If you reach one, you reach ten. That’s my main focus: to spread it. It is it important to come together. I named it Still We Rise after the poet Maya Angelou.

 A student dancer performs in   Still We Rise,   . choreographed by Monique Meunier of UC Santa Barbara's Theater and Dance department.   Photo by Lianna Xiaokui Nakashima ,  LXNPhotography.com

A student dancer performs in  Still We Rise, .choreographed by Monique Meunier of UC Santa Barbara's Theater and Dance department.  Photo by Lianna Xiaokui NakashimaLXNPhotography.com

Q. Do you see dance as a way to bring empathy to political issues?

A. For sure, dancing is emotional. Even though it has no words you can do a lot with the body and movement. If people know the theme they can relate to it. They feel and internalize it. You have to feel it rather than hearing words. 

 A student performer  in Monique Meunier's  Still We Rise  dances to live music at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum .  Photo by Lianna Xiaokui Nakashima,  LXNPhotography.com  

A student performer  in Monique Meunier's Still We Rise dances to live music at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum . Photo by Lianna Xiaokui Nakashima, LXNPhotography.com 

Q. What was the motivation behind the performance? Is it because of what Trump has said about ending DACA or it is because of your desire to see change in our community --  more diversity and more compassion in others?

A. Both. We were going to invite Misty [Copeland, a dancer] who’s coming back next year. I had to cancel it because of the [Thomas] fire. We’re working to diversify ballet. We need to come together with what’s happening and push through those moments.

Q. In times of change, people use and are drawn toward art as a medium to speak out and show their resilience. How did you use your experience of growing up as a daughter of immigrants influence your choreography for this performance?

A. I understand the pain and anxiety of coming to this country. I know that hope can steer you along. For this choreography, I used those feelings I had growing up. That was my upbringing. I don’t know if I can explain with words… With contemporary dance, it expresses more emotions.

Celine Khuu is a UC Santa Barbara Sophomore, majoring in Film and Media Studies.

 Dancers came together at the end of  Still We Rise,  a performance in support of DACA recipients at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum.  Photo by Lianna Xiaokui Nakashima,    LXNPhotography.com  

Dancers came together at the end of Still We Rise, a performance in support of DACA recipients at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum. Photo by Lianna Xiaokui Nakashima,  LXNPhotography.com