Student choreographer Anna Kimmel’s controversial dance piece “you’ve heard it before | you’ll hear it again,” originally scheduled to be performed as part of Expressions Dance Company’s show –topia, found a new home at Princeton’s Performance Lab. Intrigued by the concept of Kimmel’s piece, which tackles the difficult subject of suicide at Princeton, I found myself sitting among a small crowd of 40-50 people, half Princeton students, half townies, gathered at the performance on April 13.
The Performance Lab is a yearly showcase at the Lewis Center for the Arts, allowing artists to display their current work and experiment in front of an audience. This year’s Performance Lab featured eight pieces from a variety of artistic disciplines, including dance, film, and poetry. Anna Kimmel participated in three collaborations representing various aspects of campus voices: “Saturate,” “Tea,” and “you’ve heard it before | you’ll hear it again.” Each of three collaborations evoked a unique and powerful emotional response that pushed me to reflect on my Princeton experience.
“Saturate” features a film of two nude dancers, Kimmel and Jessica Chambers. The sole object on stage is a wooden box covered in smartphones, with a microphone placed among them to capture the rings and vibrations produced by the phones. The film, set to Glass Animals’ psychedelic pop song “Gooey,” follows the dancers’ nude bodies as they sway hypnotically to the music. The music is interrupted frequently by the jarring buzzes and ringtones emitted by the phones on stage, creating an eerily beautiful cacophony. As the film progresses, the dancers lather themselves in metallic blue paint, representing how technology infects and saturates every facet of life. Kimmel notes later in the Q&A period that her intention was to draw the audience’s attention to the buzzing phones, reversing how artists frequently try to draw the viewers’ attention away from their phones. “Saturate” conveys the ubiquitous presence of technology and the discord it creates by giving technology a voice in the form of rings and buzzes.
“Tea,” choreographed by Sarah Varghese and performed by Kimmel, Jacqueline Kopra, Michelle Yeh, and Varghese, draws attention to a different voice: the inner voice of a Princeton student. Kimmel, who grasps a tea mug and closes her eyes, sits to the side of the stage while her inner thoughts take center-stage in the form of three dancers: Kopra, Yeh, and Varghese. The three dancers give Kimmel’s thoughts a voice—
“Why can’t you go to sleep?” “People expect more from you.” “You should have started that paper three weeks ago.” “Sometimes it feels like no one cares.”
The dancers start to talk all at once, their jumbled voices signifying racing thoughts and worries. All the while, Kimmel rests in her chair with her eyes closed. The piece ends with a dancer saying “She did make me a cup of tea this morning. It was nice.” This positive sentiment creates a hesitantly peaceful conclusion to a disjointed stream of unhappy thoughts.
While watching “Tea” and “Saturate,” I saw myself. I saw the long nights spent writing papers and the guilty feeling that creeps in when I’m not doing work. I heard the buzzes from my phone that are so familiar they are almost comforting. Kimmel and her fellow dancers did a wonderful job of recreating the inner monologue of Princeton students in an engaging way.
“you’ve heard it before | you’ll hear it again” is the powerful climax of Kimmel’s exploration of campus voices, this time focusing on the voice of university administration. The show programme features a note:
“In order to portray a candid documentation of the varied experiences of a university student, this piece includes text from university administration emails sent to the student body. It contains language surrounding mental health and suicide that some may find triggering.”
Reading the note, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I noticed the careful wording, the need to justify the inclusion of the university administration emails. Knowing only vague details about the piece, I was extremely curious how the emails would be integrated into the dance. When it was time for the piece to be performed, I was surprised when no verbal announcement about the piece’s sensitive content was made before the dance began.
The piece opens with eight female dancers dressed colorfully in flowing mesh in shades of red, white, and orange. Kollektiv Turmstrasse’s futuristic song “Last Day” provides the musical backdrop as the dancers perform a contemporary combination in triangle formation. A monotone female voice cuts through the hypnotic music and announces: “We are so pleased to offer you a place in next year’s freshman class. Please note that your offer is contingent on your academic performance and graduation from high school.” The word “contingent” is repeated for emphasis, setting the stage for a stressful Princeton experience where everything is dependent on academic performance. I began to remember my own senior year of high school, and how excited I was to attend Princeton, but also intensely worried that I wouldn’t be smart enough to do well in my classes.
Next, the emotionless female voice invokes the Honor Committee’s overbearing presence by announcing “Every student is obligated to report every suspected violation to the Honor Committee.” The dancers separate into pairs, seemingly acting out the troubled personal relationships that may result from the Honor Committee’s policy that any student who doesn’t report a “suspected violation” is culpable. Next, like the conveyor belt of an assembly line, two dancers stand with arms wide open as the other dancers cartwheel onto them in sequence. I pictured Princeton students pushing themselves to the limits to complete heavy workloads amidst the constant pressure created by the Honor Committee.
The piece powers on, driven by the entrancing beat, and the monotone voice urges students to “utilize the after-hours on-call counselor at CPS if they are experiencing signs of panic or distress that are interfering with their ability to do work.” Kimmel seems to place the emphasis on the “ability to do work,” rather than each student’s health or general well-being. A dancer in white, Naomi Lake, begins to act abnormally, erratically twirling her arms and legs with a pained facial expression, as if she is struggling to dance to the music but cannot quite keep pace. All the while, phrases like “panic”, “after-hours,” and “ability to do work” are repeated to intensify the effect. Lake is joined by Esin Yunusoglu, who dances alongside Lake until she collapses motionless on the ground. Gradually, all seven other dancers surround the motionless Yunusoglu and stare curiously at her prone form.
The stage lights fade to black and then, after a brief pause, the lights brighten again. Yunusoglu is pulled to her feet by the other dancers and aggressively pushed to join their dance at center stage. There is no time to pause at Princeton, the dance seems to say, not even for one’s mental health. The dancers sway their hips fervently as the voice makes a final announcement:
“We wish to convey our deepest sympathies to all those personally impacted by this sad news and to encourage all students to utilize our support resources if needed… It is tragic when we lose a member of our community and it is especially so for those students and fellow college residents who have lost a treasured friend and colleague.”
The sensual hip movement is a jarring contrast to the voice’s message, an excerpt from the university-wide email announcement of Princeton student Wonshik Shin’s death in December 2016. The email did not mention a cause of death, though later the Mercer County Coroner’s Office reported that the cause of death was suicide. The tension between the dancers’ movements and the voice of the seem to suggest that the clinical, professional email is an inadequate response to suicide. Similar to the way the buzzing phones compelled the audience to watch them and ignore the film in “Saturate,” I was captivated by the dancers’ movements even though I could hear the somber voice reciting the email. Was it inappropriate, I wondered, to include the email in the context of the piece?
The decision to include an email about something as intensely personal as a student’s death could be perceived as an emotional appeal that undermines the privacy of the student. Furthermore, the choice to include the email at the end of a series of quotes about contingent university admission, the Honor Committee, and university counselling services lends itself to the interpretation that these events are highly related. It suggests that the university administration, due to its emotionless interactions with the student body, is responsible for the stressful Princeton climate and ultimately accountable for student suicides. This message, though it is merely a possible interpretation, is one that I am not sure if I agree with.
The piece ends when the dancers fall to the ground in a circle, resting their heads on each other’s shoulders and still moving listlessly when the lights dim to black. It feels unfinished, as if there is something more to the story. I, and the rest of the audience, too, seem to be left with more questions than answers.
And indeed, “you’ve heard it before | you’ll hear it again” is an unfinished piece. As Kimmel notes in the Q&A period that follows the Performance Lab show, the piece was originally intended to be performed alongside Michelle Yeh’s piece that reflects on her night-time walks that are punctuated by the robotic voice that announces “Warning lights activated. Caution: vehicles may not stop” each time someone tries to cross Washington Road. Yeh and Kimmel both agree, in the Q&A period, that Kimmel’s piece feels incomplete without Yeh’s. Yeh explains that her piece continues Kimmel’s and explores the issue of suicide in more depth. Kimmel’s piece, however, was removed from the Expressions dance show –topia on the morning of the opening night.
During the Q&A section, I voiced my thoughts about Kimmel’s decision to include an excerpt from the email regarding a student’s suicide in “you’ve heard it before | you’ll hear it again”. In my view, the piece highlights the feelings of uncertainty and confusion that students feel when receiving official communication about a student’s death. My lingering question for Kimmel was: what role can and should the university play in reporting about a student’s suicide? The issue seems to be incredibly complicated: the decision to report a student’s suicide in a brief, distant manner may be the result of the desire to prevent suicidal thoughts from spreading among the student body and the desire to respect the deceased student’s family’s need for privacy. Would emotional rhetoric regarding suicide from the university’s administration do more harm than it does good? Kimmel’s piece demonstrates the tension and fragile balance of university life—would actively reporting suicide break this delicate balance and push more students to consider suicide?
“Reporting on Suicide,” a website supported by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Suicide Resource Prevention Center, and other suicide task forces, addresses the issue of suicide reports in the media. In its list of Do’s and Don’ts, “Reporting on Suicide” recommends “informing the audience without sensationalizing the suicide,” not describing the method of suicide, using neutral words to describe rising rates of suicide, and offering hope to those struggling with mental health issues. This list of Do’s and Don’ts is based on substantial research that highlights the relationship between sensational reporting of a suicide and subsequent suicides or “copy cat” suicides. For this reason, I believe the university’s detached email correspondence regarding student’s death may be the result of the university’s awareness of the powerful influence of reporting suicide on those considering suicide. Though Kimmel’s inclusion of apathetic emails about the Honor Committee and other aspects of the university administration highlights a genuine need for change, the email about a student’s death seems to avoid emotional language for an important reason.
Kimmel responded to my comments about the delicate balance of reporting on suicide by saying that she herself does not know how the issue of suicide should be addressed by the university, though she feels strongly that the way it has been dealt with in the past is insufficient. She emphasized that her piece is intended to create a dialogue, and that the piece is chiefly a personal reflection on the impact of suicide on the student experience. Nevertheless, the artistic decisions made in “you’ve heard it before | you’ll hear it again” have incited a powerful reaction among the student body that goes far beyond Kimmel’s personal response to suicide at Princeton.
Would I be able to handle receiving an email stating explicitly that a classmate had taken his or her life, perhaps with sensitive details about the situation? I am not sure. Most of the time I, like the dancers in Kimmel’s piece, try to block out the negative aspects of life at Princeton in order to keep moving forward. In order to preserve the frenetic balance of deadlines and sleep that affords me very few opportunities to stop and think. In order to preserve my fragile peace.