If the picture above looks familiar, it might be because you’ve seen press shots of Alcatraz’s blockbuster Ai Weiwei show At Large. Above is a production still from a lesser-known art intervention on Alcatraz; it shows the filming of Well Contested Sites, a choreographed performance for film made by former prisoners.

Before the Weiwei’s dragon a hall’s-worth of (brilliant) lego portraits, the “gallery” spaces of Alcatraz were host to Well Contested Sites a 13-minute dance and theater collaboration between a group of men who were previously incarcerated, performing artists from the Bay Area, choreographer Amie Dowling and film maker Austin Forbord.

The performance and film draw on the experiences and physical memories, or memories of the physical.

“Using a metaphorical, movement-based aesthetic, the film explores the effect of incarceration on individuals and suggests that the imagination can thrive even while the body is behind bars,” says the makers.

 

I know next to nothing about dance, but I was moved to write about Well Contested Sites because it achieves several things, responsibly and simultaneously. Firstly, the sound production and the performances are expertly crafted. The thump of bodies and body parts against the confines of the prison and cells is effective and sometimes nauseous in its sickening repeat. Very powerful.

The clap, the slap, the thok. These are visceral sounds that rattle your chest. Listen to the opening credits of any “gritty” TV show intro (Deadwood, True Detective, Rectify, and many more) from the past decade and you’ll hear these same morose and punching drums and woodblocks. They’re designed to drill you into your seat; they create instant alert and a readiness for drama. It’s just a blessing that Well Contested Sites delivers respite with quieter closure. Interestingly Sister Gertrude Morgan’s folk songs are introduced and they have the same cantor and percussion, but nothing like the earlier oppressive audio.

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Secondly, this is a form of art therapy for the formerly incarcerated. Well Contested Sites represents the highest production that Amie Dowling and her team have brought to a project but they are, regularly, delivering dance and theater classes in San Quentin State Prison and the San Francisco county jail system. What begins inside can continue outside.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly,  Well Contested Sites goes beyond a one-off performance. This is the anchor to discussions about mass incarceration and arts role in bettering the lives of men and women inside. The performers and makers have travelled the country (see the Facebook page). It is the starting point for discussion led, in some cases, by formerly incarcerated individuals to educate the public. Now there’s many projects that attempt and achieve that but some are more successful than others. The most successful projects are those that grip audiences attentions by confounding expectations, by showing them something truly different.

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Like I said, I don;t know a lot about dance, but I know a fair bit about prisons and it’s a rare and special thing to craft a professional performance as that we see in Well Contested Sites.

I asked Amie recently to share the new projects she was working on and she sent over Peter Merts‘ photos of a November 2015 performance of Faultline, by the Artistic Ensemble at San Quentin Prison.The Artistic Ensemble is a rigorous, creative group that explores personal narratives and their experiences with systemic forces of poverty, violence, power, and incarceration.

Current Artistic Ensemble members include: Adnan Khan, Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong, Antwan “Banks” William, Belize Villafranco, Chris Marshall, Sr., Eric Lowery AKA Mike Lowery, Gary Harrell, Gino Sevacos, Ira Perry, Julian Glenn Padgett (Luke), Juancito, Lawrence Pela, Le’Mar “Maverick” Harrison, Maurice “Reese” Reed, Neiland Franks, Nythell “Nate” Collins, Richie Morris, Rodney (RC) Capell, Rauch Draper, Upumoni S. Ama, Sebastian Alvarez, Amie Dowling and Freddy Gutierrez.

It seems to me that these photos confound expectations; they open up new possibilities for how we envision prisoners. The physical contact involved in choreographed movement is coordinated, mutual and supportive. This type of organisation of bodies in space in this prison chapel doubling as stage demonstrates the vulnerability, the bonds and the daring of men who contemporary society has all but condemned to cruel and unusual existence. But here they are, showing up and announcing themselves. And here’s me, respecting that greatly.

I need to go and learn more about dance. Perhaps the folks at Well Contested Sites can help me with that?

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