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Meet Sarah Ashkin

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sarah Ashkin.

Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I wasn’t even told it was an option to be an artist in the dance field until I was 19 years old.

I had trained in ballet, jazz, and modern dance intensively since I was six years old, and all that time my focus was on following directions, increasing my flexibility, hitting my turns– making my body into something pliable for my teachers to mold. In high school, I became interested in feminism and the anti-war movement but felt like my dance training was totally at odds with my new politicized self. I started to wonder why in one part of my life I was cutting holes in my fishnet costume, stuffing the bra of my leotard as my dance friends puked up their lunch in the dressing room bathroom, while in the other hours of my day I was organizing student demonstrations against the Iraq War and arguing pro-choice in debate class. I realized I was being rewarded in my dance training for compliance and self-hatred. Though I had put in 25 hours a week training in dance since I was 12, by senior year of high school, I was over it. I was off to college to study what I thought would be Spanish Literature or Political Science and wanted to leave behind my identity as a dancer.

Purely for physical fitness purposes, I decided to take dance during my first semester at Wesleyan University. Walking into my first dance class, I was shocked. My classmates were fat and hairy, and queer, with no ballet training, and my teachers were gay immigrants adorned with tattoos and piercings. We gave each other guided bodywork as warm up, and we improvised about our readings in cultural theory. My classmates were making dance work about CIA torture policies, black queer aesthetics, and rape culture. My mentors Pedro Alejandro, Nicole Stanton, and Katja Kolcio told everyone in the classroom, that they had a rich body story, and that our choreography had the potential for political and social change. I was floored.

With my political self and my dancing self offered a space to thrive in tandem, my newfound identity as an artist and choreographer deeply took hold. I went on to make work about the body as an archive, the groundskeepers on campus, and the impact of capitalism upon the female body. I studied for a semester with Headlong Dance Theater’s Andrew Simonet, David Brick and Amy Smith in Philadelphia and trained in theater, clowning, composition, and advocacy. I worked with Anna Halprin, Eiko and Koma, and Ishmael Houston Jones. I took up new tools of contact improvisation, release technique and performance art. I became fascinated by dance theory and began to dive into phenomenology, auto-ethnography, and political philosophy as lenses with which to understand dance.

After graduation, I formed GROUND SERIES dance collective with my long time Wesleyan collaborator Brittany Delany. We started making work, experimenting with curation and community practice in Santa Fe New Mexico and the Bay Area. Our goal in forming GROUND SERIES was to erode the elitism and alienation often surrounding postmodern dance, and create work and events in which dance could be shared as a neighborhood resource. We made work in arroyos, in parks, in dilapidated foundries. We hosted gallery nights, films, talks, and salons.

I moved home to Santa Fe to start a teaching job at an arts high school, where my life as an artist would take another important turn. I was invited by DNAWORKS co-director Adam McKinney to co-design and implement a site-specific social justice curriculum with high school dance students. The students chose a public space where we would conduct historical research, interview community members, and develop original choreography. Based often on confronting the colonial narratives of the Southwest, the dance works focused on unearthing the stories that lay beneath the surface. This experience — co-creating communal arts healing with, for, and by young people — set me on my path for the rest of my career.

As the content of my work took on a social justice mission, I began to turn a critical eye to the processes and practices I was taking part in as a dance educator. I began to see a pattern that my students of color were being targeted by their older white ballet teachers as “not good enough,” or “not meant to be dancers.” It became clear to me that the injuries sustained to my students’ hips and backs, ankles, and feet, were because of their desire to crank their bodies into the shape of the perfect white ballerina.

When one of my Latino students was shot and killed by the police for having an emotional break down on the sidewalk, the power of racism against these young people became unbearable. As their teacher and mentor, I was supposed to be a protector and guide in their lives, and instead, I was complicit in my silence and my ignorance to the ways in which I, as their white teacher, was doing them harm.

I left for graduate school to research dance education and critical whiteness studies at the University of Roehampton under the mentorship of Colin Poole, Cristina Rosa, Avanthi Meduri, and Simon Ellis. It was at this point that my work as a scholar and choreographer became all about confronting white supremacy in myself, in Eurocentric dance education, and western concert dance infrastructure.

After graduate school, I moved to LA, where I have been teaching dance full time and making work with GROUND SERIES about racism, gender, and colonialism. I now see, ten years after I decided to step into my identity as an artist, that the titles of artist and non-artist are actually tactics of cultural oppression. We are all expressive beings, with stories and bodies laden with truth and value. I understand my being an artist with the means to share my work with the public is a profound privilege steeped in responsibility.

Please tell us about your art.
I make multimedia hybrid performance. There is often speaking, joke telling, singing, objects, projections, and live music in my work. The body is always central. GROUND SERIES dance collective’s mission is to use performance as an embodied intervention. By this, we mean that performance has the potential to disrupt the status quo. When we literally lay our bodies down in the arroyo, the gallery, the park, and the theater, we ask our viewers to consider the slow vulnerability of our fleshy forms, or how we use the gathering of audience as a critical opportunity to talk, and think, and feel about racism, or colonialism, or our climate crisis. Since its inception in 2012, GROUND SERIES has created over 20 original works performed throughout Northern New Mexico, the Bay Area, Southern California, Philadelphia, New York City, and London UK.

GROUND SERIES’ creative process engages in site-specific praxis, collaborative making, inquiry-based research, and somatic interdisciplinarity. Our work is often free and/or in service of others. We endeavor to create work that requires presence, openness, and criticality from our viewer participants. GROUND SERIES aims to create a performance that is an invitation into ourselves, our communities, our history, and our shared power to create a better world.

In 2018 I was privileged to present two new works, “task,” and “no grounds.” “task,” was an evening-length dance theater duet, co-created with GROUND SERIES co-director Brittany Delany. The work used the platform of the proscenium dance performance as a public confrontation of white supremacy. For a weekend long run at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica this August, “task” took on the theater and western concert dance as breeding grounds for whiteness, as well as the Beckys of the stage. Using song, satire, improvisation, and character work, we marked our dancing bodies as white, as privileged, and as potential weapons of white supremacy, we used philosopher George Yancy’s call for white people “to tarry with the idea with white supremacy as a white problem” (2012) to drive “task”.

“no grounds,” was commissioned by curator Erin Elder for the 2018 Paseo Festival in Taos, New Mexico which took place this past September. The free outdoor media festival draws thousands to partake in interactive art. Based on my research of Taos Pueblo’s stolen lands, colonial trauma, and whiteness, “no grounds,” was a durational performance in which I arrived with my wagon full of cones and fencing materials to mark off a new “parcel” in the festival grounds. Calling on onlookers to help me sanction off the parcel, and then build a fence around my new land holdings, I used my pantsuit, smile, and approachable demeanor to seduce participants into colonial activities like land seizure and border drawing. Everyone who participated was given “my business card,” which explained Taos Pueblo’s legal battle for their sacred lands and how to be apart of reparations. Once the fence was built, I tried to rest and sleep in my newly claimed parcel, but was wrought by a thrashing nightmare within what had become my cage. At the end of the dance, a loudspeaker announces it is time to pack up and move on to a new parcel. The “no grounds” cycle took place for four hours for the two consecutive nights of the festival.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing artists today?
Overcoming a fear of failure seems to be at the root of my challenges. There is failure and hypocrisy built into my work as a white antiracist artist. I do fail. I do make mistakes. I do offend my audiences. I am not always clear. I am often wrong. This cycle of failing, taking accountability and trying again feels critical to putting my privilege on the line. If I am not willing to put my skin in the game, to lose something, then why do the work? However, I know that in fact, it is my privilege enabling me to even make such “risky” work in the first place. I would say that my biggest challenge in my work and my life is to find the courage to risk more, fail more in order to more meaningfully destabilize the oppressive systems from which I benefit.

But here is my answer to part of this question: “What can cities like ours do to encourage and help art and artists thrive?”

As LA public school teachers get ready to strike for smaller class sizes, fair pay, more funding for books, and a robust arts curriculum, I would say that now is a critical moment for LA to invest in our young people and their contribution to our future as a creative city. All students should have the opportunity to express themselves, tell their stories, and learn a craft that could change their lives and our community. We will be voting in 2020 for public school funding, for new school board officials, and if there is hope for a thriving future in the arts in Los Angeles, then we need to get funds, teaching artists, supplies, and access to the arts into every classroom.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
On January 26th, 2019, GROUND SERIES will be presenting our newest work, “Our Bodies Warm in the Sun, Unsettled,” as part of Mountain House’s interdisciplinary community programming, Sutured Shelter. This new site-specific work will take place in in the San Gabriel Mountains along the Gabrieleno Trail in the Chantry Flats Recreation Area. “Unsettled,” billing itself as a part nature walk, part dance performance, is a critical reflection on white people in the woods. Interested participants are invited to meet at the Chantry Flats parking at 1 PM for a 5-mile hike, and ensuring performance in the land known as Aleupkinga, Tongva Territory.

“Our Bodies Warm in the Sun, Unsettled,” attempts to create a self-reflexive framework to confront the complex histories and present-day practices of settler colonialism embedded in our experiences in nature. The script, choreography, and participatory action that make up “Unsettled” result in a collage of collision. The legacy of Manifest Destiny overlaps with the voices of the performers’ mothers recalling beloved natural places. The outdoor gear industry is flooded with pioneers’ tea sets and grandfather clocks. Audience members square dance with John Muir and the National Park System. And the genocide of Southern California’s Native peoples is understood in the context of contemporary battles for tribal recognition. “Unsettled” invites and challenges our audiences to join us in asking: For people who are deeply nourished by the natural world, what does it mean for us to play, hike, and heal all on stolen land?

For more information on attending “Unsettled,” and to officially RSVP please e-mail reachout@mountainhouse.family. “Unsettled” will be performed again in the Spring of 2019 at UC Irvine as part of the Mountain House’s exhibition for audiences interested in experiencing the work, but not in the hiking.

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Image Credit:
Avi Farber, Angie Rizzo, Melinda Buckwalter, Eric Bissell, Zoe Koke, Alex Reid

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