When visual artist Emily Mast found out she was pregnant, she was terrified. Having just found what she felt was an “artistic stride” and having achieved hard-sought recognition for her work, she felt the sudden precarity of her situation. She had not planned to become a parent, and, among a host of emergent concerns, she worried that motherhood and “serious” artmaking would be incompatible for her. However, rallying her courage, she made up her mind that she would refuse to see her pregnancy as a crushing reality to which she must adapt. Instead, she challenged herself to lean into her creativity and artmaking by approaching her pregnancy as a problem to work out via creatively re-imagining and re-framing her pregnant body and its significance. She went about conceiving the solution of a durational physical praxis that would mark, monitor, and document nine-months of individualized creative physical labor (E. Mast, in discussion with the author, August 31, 2017).
In tandem with deriving her plan for artistic research, she sought out ways to educate herself about her changing body, as many pregnant individuals do. She also sought physical exercises that would prepare her body for the labor and birthing processes. However, unlike others in the US who might log onto BabyCenter.com, pick up a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and sign up for Lamaze class, she decided to make and diligently rehearse a “dance.” Why a dance? She really couldn’t say. This choice was curiouser still because as an artist, Mast had never formally danced before, let alone choreographed a dance. So, while she felt a strong, albeit peculiar, draw to dance, she didn’t know how to start dancing.
To get moving, she called up a choreographer friend of hers, Hana van der Kolk, and asked if van der Kolk would be willing to prescribe a “movement ritual” that would allow Mast to learn about her changing body through her changing body (Herbst, 2013). Van der Kolk (who identifies as gender queer and prefers the pronouns they/them), agreed to help. At the time, van der Kolk was living on the other side of the country in a queer separatist community, but they would join Mast regularly over Skype to observe her practice and pose queries rooted in physics and phenomenology (Herbst, 2013). Finding Mast enthralling to watch, van der Kolk encouraged her to perform her “dance” for a bigger audience. Mast agreed to perform, but not solo. Her stipulation was less out of shyness and more because, from a performance art standpoint, she could picture the wonderful absurdity and visual impact of a fleet of pregnant dancers being greater than what she alone could affect. Upon later reflection, she remarked, “The idea of bringing a group of awkward, unbalanced women together to move delighted me” (Herbst, 2013).
To recruit collaborators Mast (Los Angeleno that she is) put out a casting call, soliciting individuals who were “super pregnant” with their first child and interested in exploring something “completely new and vulnerable” (E. Mast, in discussion with the author, August 31, 2017). She was flabbergasted by how quickly interest circled back to her. Soon, she had assembled an eclectic, enthusiastic group with due dates very close to her own. The unique ensemble was composed of a gallerist, a musician, a graphic designer, a pole dancer, and a Cinderella working at Disneyland. Each week, this cast would meet in Mast’s living room. They would begin rehearsals by rolling up the carpets, moving the furniture, sitting in a circle for silent meditation, and awaiting van der Kolk’s Skype video call (Herbst, 2013; E. Mast, in discussion with the author, August 31, 2017).
Once virtually connected, van der Kolk gave the group what they defined as “simple” kinesthetic assignments to tackle, and cued strategies for sensory awareness once the cast got moving. Van der Kolk’s prompts were meant to evoke curiosity in pregnant anatomy through offering participants the chance to repeatedly “get to know” their bodies (H. van der Kolk, in discussion with the author, July 13, 2017). For example, they might say, Balance on one leg. Try different ways of balancing. Hold your lifted leg low close to the ground, or higher up. Hold your raised leg in front, beside, behind you. Test your balance. If you lose your balance you could switch legs…you can switch legs whenever actually (Herbst, 2013). Participants noted and discussed sticking points and changes in the practicability of prompts from hour to hour, week to week, and body to body. They also exchanged and brainstormed strategies for how to approach or adapt tasks until each participant found points of access and felt engaged sensorially and empirically in her practice.
Each week, prompts were reviewed and reconsidered, and new ones were introduced. As due dates approached, van der Kolk proposed an order of tasks and tableaus informed both by their vantage point as a spectator and participants’ expressed interest in what they wanted to show audiences about their lived experiences of pregnancy. Van der Kolk stylized and shaped these into a “community event,” which the group agreed would be performed publicly as a “dance” and for the purposes of an art film (H. van der Kolk, in discussion with the author, July 13, 2017). The half dozen pregnant participants, each seeking individualized expression in collective solidarity, feeling their consciousnesses multiplied at both inter- and intra-personal levels, wanted to create a title that felt fitting to best describe their combined performative work. Consequently, they came to decide on Six Twelve One by One—six dancers, twelve energies, each presence unique, significant, and worthy of attention.
While there are many aspects of both the process and performance of Six Twelve One by One worthy of analysis, in this article, I explore the work as a liberatory, pedagogical, and theatrical model. By this, I mean that via theatrical gestures and imaginative acts, the artists collaborated to liberate their own thinking. Moreover, as individuals with lived experiences of pregnancy, they wrested control from those with formal social authority on gestation (such as physicians) to educate others about the phenomena and significance of pregnancy for the individual. In this way, they owned and communicated their personal experiential “truths.” I view the liberatory, pedagogical, theatrical tactics of Six Twelve One by One as akin to social activists Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal’s liberating structures and praxes. Thus, in my discussion of Six Twelve One by One, I will examine it through Freirean and Boalian lenses so as to better understand how and why those involved found it freeing, empowering, cathartic, and on-the-whole beneficial.
Pedagogue Paolo Freire (1972) and theater director Augusto Boal (1985) believed that education and the arts can and should be focused so that communities that are the most spoken-over and -about have the opportunity to be at the forefront of new “knowledge.” They argued that through using education and the arts to generate knowledge, thinkers and makers can refute what is traditionally taken for granted and disseminated about them by “dominant” society, and instead define and announce their own senses of the “truths” of their lives (Boal, 1985; Freire, 1972). Freire and Boal felt that what they termed “oppressed” communities should resist a status quo filled with pre-digested “answers” since these answers allow inequities and misrepresentations to endure as seemingly “natural” parts of life (Boal, 1985; Freire, 1972). They perceived the world as full of predicaments to be defined then creatively, communally, and cooperatively addressed. Ultimately, they facilitated opportunities to bring entirely new, collaboratively realized understanding and solutions into being.
Now, in evoking Freire and Boal, I am not suggesting that individuals inevitably experience pregnancy as oppressive. Also, to be clear, Mast and van der Kolk were not intentionally engaging the techniques of either Freire or Boal for their work. That being the case, the overlay of a liberating structures’ lens on Mast and van der Kolk’s process is entirely my analytic. I examined these works in this way to better understand what the pregnant participants felt was un-expressed, under-expressed, or inexpressible via verbal means, as well as what could not effectively be experienced somatically about pregnancy using available social sign systems and models (such as biomedicine, feminism, social media hashtags, or current politics surrounding women’s reproductive health and freedoms). With this writing, I hope to join these performers in propagating new knowledge about pregnancy that is inclusive of more reproductive experiences; representational yet unobjectifying; and revelatory of how dancing bodies can know, show, and connect fresh ideas.
Rehearsals for Six Twelve One by One were explained to me, quite incidentally, in very Freirean terms: they were described as a means to imagine and enact a loving, conscious, equitable community in which everyone understood that “answers” about themselves were not facts they should receive; they were ideas they would create together. As participants described it to me, the key to the “success” of this creative process was their mutual concern for one another’s well-being and desire to take care of each other. From the outset, Mast and van der Kolk were adamant that there be no hierarchy within the community of participants, and they embodied this in rehearsals through practices like sitting in a circle for discussion and letting everyone speak to their experience of each exercise.
Mast explained that van der Kolk never thought of their work as “directing” the pregnant individuals; rather, they were there to protect, nurture, support, and gently shape a flexible and compassionate practice with the participants (H. van der Kolk, in discussion with the author, July 13, 2017). While van der Kolk charged participants with tasks, the choreographer also worked through problems with them and made sure that they stayed in places of power and agency, even as they confronted challenges. Upon presenting an experiment, such as lay down on the floor, get up, do it again as many different ways as you can, van der Kolk would repeatedly ask, “So, what’s working? What is possible?” and invite them to share tactics with one another as co-investigators in supportive dialogue (H. van der Kolk, in discussion with the author, July 13, 2017). In this way, everyone accessed new resources, and the choreography of a dance began to take shape through this open network of communication. Mast described to me why the constantly evolving choreography mattered to her: “You have to keep changing the movement and this makes you realize what is changing in you” (E. Mast, in discussion with the author, August 31, 2017). Such realizations provoked awe and respect for her body. They inspired fascination as opposed to fear, which made “letting go” of familiar experiences of self more possible. Pregnancy was no longer happening to her in spite of her. She was participating in it, interacting with it, and in dialogue with its processes.
As previously mentioned, I utilized Boalian interpretation in my analysis of this choreographic project, and key elements of Boalian theater can be seen in Mast and van der Kolk’s process. For example, essential to Boalian theater is the figure of “the Joker” (Boal, 1985). Jokers interface between performers and the “real world” through their polyvalent roles (including master of ceremonies, interrogator, and provocateur). For Boal, the Joker must always be both inside and outside of the community who is making and performing the theatrical work (Boal, 1985). In Six Twelve One by One, van der Kolk was a kind of Joker. They were unmistakably outside of the performers’ community. They were geographically, technologically, and biologically distanced from the cast. They were not, nor had they ever been pregnant. Also, as can be said for many individuals whose bodies might be labeled biologically “female,” they did not see themself as part of a special sisterhood, united under a common experience of womanhood.
However, these differences did not mean that they felt disconnected or disengaged from participants’ experiences. In fact, when we spoke about the project, van der Kolk told me they enjoyed working toward kinesthetic empathy with the pregnant participants. They appreciated the imaginative work of fathoming with their own body what it is to have a “big belly,” as well as physiological conditions to which they were not experientially privy (Herbst, 2013; H. van der Kolk, in discussion with the author, July 13, 2017). Additionally, doing work about pregnancy felt inside their ongoing research question of “what all can the body do?” As van der Kolk is deeply interested in what they call “bizarre abilities” of the body, they described what a “kick” they got out of seeing the pregnant women follow the prompts they gave them (H. van der Kolk, in discussion with the author, July 13, 2017). Also, they felt like the dancers’ ally because personally, they had had lots of “whacky” and mysterious body experiences of their own (such as digestive issues, skin reactions, and chronic fatigue). These physical “disorders” allowed them to identify with being in a body that was “weird and different” from “normative” bodies and one that required consciousness, but one that was also fascinating. To them, pregnancy was essentially another “whacky” body experience (H. van der Kolk, in discussion with the author, July 13, 2017).
With such reasoning and as Joker, van der Kolk cultivated an environment of thoughtful playfulness. Mast herself later reflected that the cast loved the “opportunity to not take [themselves] so seriously while seriously considering ideas around femininity, feminism, physicality and awareness” (Herbst 2013), making humor a critical component of the performed piece. For example, the dance contained what the cast lovingly called the “meerkat moment,” in which the participants slowly and with great solemnity coalesced into a heroic tableau in which each woman rested her forearms on her belly, letting her hands hang limp, creating the illusion of shortened arms with paws. This was but one of many instances of physical humor by which performers reminded the audience that they were in control of what their bodies signified.
In another moment, the cast poked fun at the audience by mischievously, according to Mast, “giving them what they wanted” (E. Mast, in discussion with the author, August 31, 2017). In this instance all of the women began to heave and wail and rock their pelvises as if they were going into labor. With bellies bared, they played up the melodrama of this scenario to bombastic proportion, hunkering down and howling, intending to show viewers ‘This is what you thought we would want to show you! This is what you thought our “performance art” would be! We’re sorry, is this making you uncomfortable? Is it a little too real for you? A little too close to you?’ (E. Mast, in discussion with the author, August 31, 2017).
The piece also included choreographic quotations of famous postmodern dances like the “stack up” from Trisha Brown’s celebrated Spanish Dance, in which a line of dancers do a repetitive stepping pattern across the stage, gradually pressing together until there is no negative space between one body and the next (Herbst 2013). It provoked laughs from the audience as bellies got in the way of Brown’s signature configuration. While to an extent, such quotations were in good fun, they also drew critical awareness to the types of bodies that don’t easily fit into postmodern art. Admittedly, such references were funny, in part, because of the seeming absurdity of semantically overburdened bodies functioning formally as neutral, sculptural elements.
As the instigator of these humorous and poignant scenarios, van der Kolk walked a fine line between providing a structure (being responsible) and refusing authority (not providing any definitive answers). This begged the question—Was van der Kolk in on these jokes, or was the choreographer, like the audience, outside, laughing while also suspecting the jokes were on them? That being said, as the Joker, and thus the liaison between performers’ and audiences’ worlds, van der Kolk amplified and framed the pregnant individuals’ exploration into forms that would allow the audience to grow their understanding of pregnancy in ways deemed important by those directly experiencing pregnancy.
In conjunction with the moments already discussed, Six Twelve One by One incorporated endurance tests such as participants holding their arms straight out at shoulder height for minutes on end. In this way, the dancers used theater to practice real focus, patience, concentration, stamina, resolve, and resilience. In addition to helping them rehearse skills they hoped to employ in labor, these endurance tests gave them the opportunity to be respectfully witnessed both in their struggle and in their power.
Throughout this creative process, the cast experienced pregnancy as a series of experiential conundrums, thus it made no sense for their dance to present any kind of tidy solution or take-away. Instead, like Freire and Boal, they allowed things to remain complex, suggesting that in life, as in this work, paradox can be and is lived, that truth can exist in potent in-betweeness, and that embrasure of ambiguity and contradiction can be strategies of resistance. In the interest of making space for fresh interpretations of pregnancy, performers did not attempt a linear narrative or the enactment of decipherable and recognizable characters. Instead, efforts were made to create chaos through stylistic eclecticism. In the face of a social context that might objectify pregnant bodies and depict them symbolically to serve various agendas, the choreographed piece presented pregnant bodies in ways that could not be easily categorized. This dance never let the idea of pregnancy outshine individuals’ experiential knowledge of it.
In the end, Mast said that her favorite aspect of pregnancy, as she perceived it through her dancing body, was that it helped her to recognize and cultivate a “different sort of love,” a “mother’s love,” which she described as “the privilege of helping another person figure out who they are” without losing her sense of who she was (E. Mast, in discussion with the author, August 31, 2017). Indeed, the project of Six Twelve One by One involved exploring and redefining what it meant to each participant to “mother.” By collectively inventing praxes for un-selflessly mothering one another, they confronted and dismantled the archetype of the self-sacrificing and boundlessly giving-of-self mother, which, for Mast, was liberating. To sum up, making this collaborative art project allowed participants in Six Twelve One by One to stay curious and flexible in their interpretations of what their bodies meant and what they could do. Through their dance, they realized ways to appreciate their changing bodies; to accept each other’s support; and to know pregnancy as an intricate, irreducible constellation of experiences. By interacting with their fears surrounding pregnancy, they were liberated to begin transforming their realities, using art as both revisionist representation and rehearsal for real life.
Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Penguin.
Herbst, R. (2013). “In Utero: Six Twelve One by One.” KCET Artbound. Los Angeles, PBS.
Mast, E. (2017). Telephone interview with author August 31. J. Kirk.
van der Kolk, H. (2017). Telephone interview with author July 13. J. Kirk.
van der Kolk, H. and E. Mast (2013). Six, Twelve…One by One. Los Angeles.