For years, Toni Leago Valle has watched Texas Republicans whittle away at reproductive rights.
Even before the famous Wendy Davis filibuster to stop a restrictive abortion bill in 2013, Valle was thinking about how to address what she saw happening in her artistic medium of dance.
Valle’s company, 6 Degrees Dance, is presenting the culmination of her research and development, Never Again, at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center (MATCH) this month.
“I was perplexed by how to use this reproductive-rights material in a way that people will want to see [in a dance] show,” she says, explaining her process for putting nascent ideas onto dancers’ bodies. “I didn’t want to make an angry show.”
So she sat with the ideas, continued to research, and kept watching the circus that politics can be. Then she started taking classes in aerial dance, which is commonly seen at circus shows and performed with a trapeze. “It all came together,” she says of her “a-ha” moment. “I have to do this as a circus. I have to make this the entertainment that we’re [already seeing in the political debate].”
Valle began gathering dancers for rehearsals and trying out ideas. The movement became big and exaggerated, including clownish makeup and expressions. The first pieces she developed were riffs on themes from the January 2017 Women’s March, and the common “they’re asking for it” response to rape victims.
As one might imagine, working on these first pieces created a lot of conversation at rehearsals. After a handful of her cast self-identified as gay or queer, Valle (a straight, cisgender woman) started listening to their stories of resistance—particularly the role that humor plays in LGBTQ activism. Suddenly, pieces about bathroom bills and immigration rights and gun violence started emerging. “It started out as [being about] women’s issues,” Valle says, “but working with these dancers, it’s become human-rights issues.”
And that suits the dancers just fine. Kate Rash, who identifies as queer, was particularly enthusiastic about working on Never Again.
“I just did a show about how society views women’s bodies, and how that in turn shapes how we view our own bodies,” Rash says, referencing her recently completed artist-in-residence stint at Dance Source Houston. “It was interesting to do my own show and work with women and realize that this is not part of their daily dialog like it is for me.” While recognizing the seriousness of the themes, Rash sums up working with Valle by saying, “I hate to use the word fun, but it’s really fun to do this.”
Tyler Scarberry, who has a solo addressing gun violence that uses a cracking whip as a stand-in for guns, echoes some of Rash’s feelings. “Everything that’s going on in this show, I strongly agree with,” he says. He’s been with Valle from the start of the project and notes that engaging these subjects in dance may have made him more articulate on the issues. “I don’t think it has changed [my views, but now] I can have these conversations with people.”
One of the younger dancers, Carlos Perez, grew up in Kuwait, where being overtly political wasn’t an option. “I met Toni a year after I moved to the U.S.,” he says. “I wasn’t really paying attention back then.” Working with Valle stirred some feelings he hadn’t named before. “I’m like, ‘I see your point, I understand where you’re coming from, and I can see where you’re going with this.’ I feel like [I experienced] a lot of these issues while growing up as a gay man in the Middle East.” Making an empathetic connection between his experience and women’s experiences, he was able to say, “Yes, let me stand up against this, too.”
Aerialist Davis Stumberg, who is working with Valle for the first time, says the choreography has a distinctly circus feel, using words like “angular” and “clowny” to describe the movement Valle wants. As for the show’s content, he’s very measured in his thoughts. “I think it’s very important that as Americans we have this platform—that Toni is allowed to say whatever she wants to say.” He also hopes that the audience receives the work thoughtfully. “I don’t think art should force anything down anybody’s throat,” he continues, “but it should give them an avenue to question their own ideas, and question what they’ve been told.”
Rash, Scarberry, Perez, and Stumberg are four out LGBTQ performers in a cast of 10, and Valle credits them with turning Never Again into the show it has become. She already had her circus theme, but the discussions about LGBTQ discrimination and resistance inspired her to expand beyond reproductive rights and rape culture. What Valle characterizes as “the positivity that the gay community as a whole fights with” informed many of her decisions. “We’ll fight you with rainbows and unicorns,” she says admiringly.
For more info, visit 6degreesdance.org.
What: Never Again
When: September 21–23
Where: MATCH, 3400 Main St.
This article appears in the September 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.