Beyond the Pale

Choreographer Morgan Thorson examines racial privilege through flying silverware, sniffing dogs, and prancing puppets

Four dancers slice through space in big, clunky lunges--ducking, spinning, lurching about, almost continually off-balance. Their dancing looks improvised, a little desperate, except that they move (roughly) in synch. Choreographer Morgan Thorson explains that the phrase was created when she videotaped herself dodging the knives, forks, and spoons she had asked her dancers to hurl at her, then reconstructed the movement without the cutlery. Now the dancers--Jeffrey Duval, Sarah Gordon, Emily Johnson, and Arwen Wilder--struggle to perform the phrase with precision, while maintaining the spontaneity of the original action.

Rampaging cutlery plays a significant role in Toe the White Line, a new work about racial privilege that Thorson will present at the Southern Theater this weekend. "For me, silverware is a symbol of etiquette, the kind drilled into me growing up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Connecticut," says the 37-year-old Thorson, who relocated to Minneapolis from New York City in 1992. "My parents trained me to look for other people like me--same color, same values, same table manners."

Thorson credits Eleanor Savage, her partner in life and in this collaboration, with giving her new insights into class structure. "Eleanor is from a working-class background, very unlike mine," she says. "Partly because of our differences, I've started examining how my brand of 'whiteness' informs my behavior."

Settling debates by scrum: Morgan Thorson (right of center) and Dancers in Toe the White Line
Settling debates by scrum: Morgan Thorson (right of center) and Dancers in Toe the White Line

Thorson elaborates on having experienced the effects of privilege from both ends, recounting a performance she had at a prestigious dance venue in New York. The presenter there refused to allow Thorson to rearrange the seats until he discovered that they had attended the same boarding school. "After that, he totally changed his tune," says Thorson. But her experiences as a lesbian have also given her some sense of being an outsider. "I'm not welcome in communities like the one where my parents live," she asserts.

The new composition that confronts these issues is a real departure for Thorson, a dancer of ferocious physicality known primarily for her movement-based improvisation. "The ideas examined in Toe the White Line are usually debated in an intellectual arena. I wanted to bring the discussion out of my head and into my body," says Thorson. The notion of "privilege" immediately suggested to the choreographer certain physical parallels: etiquette as a constraining force; corporate culture as a type of lock-step conformity. But it also conjured up images of dogs--her two pit bulls, to be precise--which are, as Thorson puts it, "creatures of dominance that can be trained to jump through hoops." Pondering dog behavior led to a section in which the dancers scratch and sniff their way through corporate hierarchies--looking for loopholes, scrambling for a critical edge over the next feral executive.

In Toe the White Line, Thorson is determined to confront head-on the advantages she has accrued by virtue of race and class--even scaling back the abstraction that has guided her pieces directed at more typical dance audiences. "I tried to eliminate obscurity. You know--not make it so subtle that only the privileged would catch on," she quips. Clearly ambivalent about art as polemic, Thorson seems aware of the risks she is taking by venturing into the territory of the politically and aesthetically earnest. "Vague images are just as maddening to me as didactic work," she declares.

But Thorson also maintains her inalienable right to explore the familiar terrain of identity art her own way. "Okay--this is my catharsis," she wryly insists. And to ensure that the message goes over, Thorson has decided to leave nothing to chance, incorporating a puppet show into the mix. "I want people to get it," she declares. "If the movement doesn't deliver the message, the puppets certainly will."

 
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