Here's the thing about monuments: they don't move. As statues or obelisks, as towering stilts hoisting aloft a former overtly racist statesman like John C. Calhoun, or even as small bronze plaque, monuments are mostly set in stone. Sedentary, stuck defiantly in time, even as times change. Dance on the other hand, is inherently fluid.
Choreographer Erin Leigh explores this blatant juxtaposition in Piccolo Spoleto's presentation of Coming to Monuments, a piece created by Leigh for Dance Matters, the Charleston-based contemporary dance company for which she serves as artistic director. The piece was inspired by the recent and ongoing controversies across the South related to Confederate monuments ("Hello up there! Dizzy yet, Mr. Calhoun?"), and the central question of how to reconcile the past and the accurate telling of history amidst a landscape dotted with what many find to be offensive and outdated odes to overtly racist politicians, soldiers, and leaders.
Topple, unmoor, remove — these options all suggest movement and involve form, the two fundamentals of dance. Rename or revise, re-imagine them in some other place/context — these suggest language, even poetry perhaps, and thus Coming to Monuments melds movement with the spoken word verse and music of Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker. Or do we simply keep moving amidst them, haunted by their shadow, continually and perhaps painfully reminded of what once was and, sadly, in many ways, still is?
With a mix of social dance (with some interactive opportunities), theater, and storytelling, including a monologue inspired by Charleston resident Millicent Brown, one of the first black students to integrate Charleston schools, the piece asks the audience to consider how Confederate monuments came to be and "the duplicity of meanings they represent," says Leigh. "We want to illuminate how Confederate memorials and Jim Crow laws were intimately connected."
Costumes, characters, and settings for the various vignettes focus on the era between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement, and the piece weaves in audio recordings and other primary source historical material. Leigh is particularly happy that Amaker welcomed use of his poetry and music. "Marcus' poems and his music help people, particularly students, identify with the action on stage and understand it as it's happening now, not just a long time ago. We're all still a part of history," Leigh says.
Dance Matters creates cross-disciplinary work that educates, engages, and inspires audiences of all ages, but is created with the school audience in mind. The company partners with Engaging Creative Minds to bring their work to local students — Coming to Monuments, for example, premiered at Burke High School in 2017. This is the first time the company has presented at Piccolo.
"We're incredibly excited for this opportunity to be exposed to a wider audience, and to perform at the museum with its obvious historical context, and because it's a great space with lovely acoustics," says Leigh, who holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and teaches dance at the College of Charleston. These questions of who determines how history will be told and by whom were questions Leigh found herself asking when she first moved to Charleston and visited some plantations, and they are questions she hopes Coming to Monuments will inspire us all to talk about.