Copperhead: Brutal Beauty

Karen Sherman

Karen Sherman

Violent crime is so common that even if you've never experienced it directly, you probably know someone who has. It's omnipresent in the news, although sensational headlines and a relentless focus on the most horrible cases tend to numb us to the deeply personal nature of violence. For both victims and aggressors, however, the brutality itself is only part of the story. For every act of violence there is the before, during, and after—and the often surprising links between them. For two years choreographer Karen Sherman has been exploring these intimate relationships through a rigorous process of research and rehearsal, culminating in a new evening-length performance, Copperhead, premiering at the Southern Theater in early October.

While Copperhead doesn't depict the experiences of actual people, two key influences on the work are drawn from real life, Sherman says. One is the book Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz, which tells Jentz's true story of bicycling cross-country with a friend when an ax-wielding man stormed their campsite. Although both women miraculously survived, Jentz remained deeply affected, and as the years passed she began to revisit aspects of the experience. Her story left a powerful impression on Sherman. Because her attacker was never caught, Sherman says, Jentz had "many questions about the incident that couldn't truly be answered because there was no one to account for them. Her friend had no memory." What struck the artist in particular was Jentz's realization that she and her attacker were now connected forever. "He transmitted his rage to her through his ax," says Sherman. "So now she was carrying all his energy and his emotion."

The transference between aggressor and victim detailed in Jentz's book inspired Sherman to seek other examples. She found them in the stories of Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and the other women who made up Charles Manson's murderous "family." According to Sherman, these women "were victim and aggressor in one person because most of them had never been on either side of a violent experience before." Somehow they found the ability to kill using one of the most ruthless means possible—stabbing. "These kinds of crimes require holding somebody, feeling their anatomy, their muscle and bone, the sensation of the blade hitting the bone," says Sherman. "I thought that within that experience there must be this two-way biological empathy for the parties. The person being stabbed must have a sense of what it is like to stab someone. I was curious about this intimacy."

Talking about empathy and intimacy doesn't necessarily equal compassion or an acceptance of violence, in Sherman's thinking. "I've had the shit beaten out of me, and because of that I know what it means to beat the shit out of somebody," she explains. "I understand it from an intellectual, biological, anatomical level. I have a physical identification with it." In a strange way such unwanted visceral and emotional experiences can lead to transformations for victims that may be positive, or at least helpful, in the healing process.

As Sherman developed Copperhead, she presented several showings of a related work, One Born Bad, in the basement of her home. The piece played with some of Sherman's research material and used partial perspectives to challenge the viewer's point of view. The audience viewed interactions between the performers through open doors, so they couldn't take in the entire tableau unfolding in a room. The action often provoked discomfort for the small audience. The all-female cast seemed secretive in their relationships, ritualistic in their endeavors, enamored with private jokes and a coded physical language.

With Copperhead, Sherman seeks a similar experience for a larger cast, which includes Joanna Furnans, Emily Johnson, Justin Jones, Hannah Kramer, Anna Marie Shogren, Morgan Thorson, and Max Wirsing. The audience will have the option of sitting onstage, and not all of the work will be visible, depending on where one sits. "Some people are privy to different information than other people can see," says Sherman, who sees a parallel to witness accounts when people observing the same event notice different things. There's also a moral layer, she adds. "Depending on where people are seated they may be more implicated than others."

Copperhead doesn't directly depict violent acts—its references are more fleeting, subtle, and dependent on one's personal experiences, values, and beliefs. "It's all about subtracting the incident and dealing with the private social experience," Sherman says. "It's also about coercion and how a group functions and how individuals function within a group. Some might not see the violence, but they may see intimidation, manipulation, or tenderness or intimacy." Such shifting was inherent in the rehearsal process. In exercises related to the material there was often no clear leader, and because no one assumed the power for long, there was no possibility for revolt. That provided a fascinating glimpse into human group dynamics.

Sherman, at times, questions whether she can rightfully navigate this difficult subject—and ultimately realize her observations onstage. "Do I have a right to explore this idea?" she asks. "I'm not claiming to represent anybody's experiences. Still, we live with the anticipation of [violence], even if it doesn't happen to us." For that reason alone we all share the issue of whether we are victims, perpetrators, or bystanders.

Copperhead will be performed October 2-5 at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.340.1725.