Highways Performance Space presented the southern California based dance collective Ground Series this past Friday through Sunday, August 17-19, 2018. Co-directors, Sarah Ashkin and Brittany Delany founded Ground Series in 2012 and they collaborated on TASK, in their words, as “a confrontation of white supremacy through dance performance”. There was satirical humor as we entered the theater to discover that every seat in the house had a RESERVED sign taped to its backrest. Reserved for whom? Only upper-class whites and the few elite “people of color”? Or was this just a play on theater ethics by stating that each and every one of us was special? Whichever it was meant to be, it caused a chuckle by almost everyone.

TASK is a wonderful work, but frankly, had I not read the program notes and the press release, the subject of white supremacy and its challenge would not have been my conclusion of what I saw onstage. Some of the dialogue and recorded text by Toni Morrison spoke to racism and white privilege, and a very repetitive movement section was meant, I suppose, to reflect on how dance in the west is predominately controlled by the white population. What came across, however, was how some dance works look the same no matter who choreographed them or what title was given to them. One repetition of the movement phrase was preceded with “A dance that only “f..ing’ white girls could get away with!” Ok, but the only difference in the phrase was the anger in which it was delivered. A valid statement, yes!

Sarah Ashkin, Brittany Delany in TASK – Ground Series – Photo: Zoe Koke

Both women were costumed in all white coveralls with a large square in the back and the lower legs area cut out and replaced with clear plastic to reveal more of their whiteness. TASK began with Ashkin and Delany standing at two floor mikes singing a cappella, a song titled LULLABY by Los Angeles-based composer and multi-media artist, Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs. It was a song that spoke to hopes and well wishes for a sweet and challenged free life. This was followed by their walking up and down stage in two paths of white light. Using this minimalist approach, they appeared to keep up with or stay ahead of the other without acknowledging that there was a competition or that they were avoiding connecting with one another.

Bitter humor was injected into the work as Ashkin walked over to two audience members seated in folding chairs and after insisting that “These are mine” she took the chairs away from their occupants. Ashkin and Delany then sat in the chairs and asked for questions from the audience. I believe that this was pre-staged but the laughter resulted after one responded “What an excellent question!” or “What a great observation!” followed by evading looks around the room and not answering the question. The one time that they did respond, harsh static-like sound drowned out their voices. This felt like how many on the “far right” respond to questions about race. They either ignore the question, answer it by bringing up a totally unrelated but self-serving subject, or try to disguise their response with spin and verbal gibberish.

Brittany Delany, Sarah Ashkin in TASK – Ground Series – Photo: Zoe Koke

I thoroughly enjoyed TASK and applaud the thoroughness of the research listed in the program, and I appreciated the result of the hard work put into creating this piece.  I would have enjoyed it even more had I not been searching for its pre-expressed and pre-published meaning. The tension was there in the structure of the work. The satire and the abstract take on social norms was clearly stated, but two white women taking on the long history of white privilege and leadership remained buried in the written word.

Ashkin and Delany co-choreographed TASK and they both gave very powerful performances. The music and the aptly irritating sound were by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs; Dramaturgy by dance artist and educator Sue Roginski and Design by Zoe Koke. Kudos to this group for including in the program a “Resource Guide for Anti-racist Education and Activism. This is something that we all should be discussing and taking action on, especially considering what we are facing with our present administration.

For more information about Sarah Ashkin, click here.

For more information about Brittany Delany, click here.

Featured image: Sarah Ashkin, Brittany Delany in TASK – Photo by Zoe Koke.