The lights come up on five beautiful women in white lacy dresses, smiling sweetly and dropping into splits to Mika’s “Relax, Take It Easy.” A kaleidoscope of psychedelic images plays across a screen above them. One dancer slides her hand down her thigh as a spotlight centers on her, then resurfaces in an aggressive body roll, amidst scattered heckles and adoring cheers from the booth. This is -topia, the Expressions show that ran the nights of April 6th through 8th in Frist theater, which, according to publicity materials, “examine[s] the elision and intersection of utopia and dystopia”. The movement, the images, and the dress patterns all evoke a light summer day, a breeze playing through the flowing hair of maidens frolicking in a meadow somewhere. A few pink-dresses, pirouettes, and remixed pop-songs later, the flow of the performance is suddenly interrupted by a blackout and a dancer stepping out onto the stage with something to say. “The next piece,” she begins, “is part of a two-part work. The other part, conceived by Anna Kimmel, can be seen at the dance department’s Performance lab on April 13th and 14th.” She smiles breathlessly. “It contains language from university emails on the topic of mental illness and suicide that some may find triggering.” She announces that an on-call phone number of Counseling and Psychological Services can be found in the program, and steps offstage to a chorus of murmurs from the audience.
What she doesn’t mention in her 30 second speech is that the “two-part piece” was originally a separate piece of the performance. In fact, this piece was scheduled to open the show, before it was suddenly censored by the company at 10:00 AM the day of opening night. The censored piece in question is a seven-minute meditation – choreographed by junior Anna Kimmel. It centers on the way the University, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps apathetically, deals too formally with sensitive issues of mental health, specifically the suicides in recent years. Its soundtrack includes verbatim text from the University website and school-wide emails, while the dancers perform their movement. Part of what makes the piece so jarring is that it never explicitly mentions suicide, instead accurately reflecting the way the official correspondence tiptoes around that word. For some reason, unmodified text from official University correspondence was devastating to initial viewers—so much so, that they decided to take it out.
The process of the piece’s censorship is a sore spot for this usually tightly-knit group of dancers, who spend countless hours offstage preparing for the moment when they can present their work. But many dancers were so triggered by the last part of the text of the piece that they threatened not to go on stage at all. Anna was given an ultimatum: either censor the final paragraph of the text being read aloud, or the piece would be removed entirely. The final decision was an agreement to remove the piece completely: the piece was not performed, but an amalgamated version of the text was included in a different piece, with the aforementioned trigger warning beforehand.
That last paragraph of read text, that made all the difference between the piece’s inclusion or removal, was this:
“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.”
It reads a little like a press release, because it is one. This text was sent as part of a school-wide email concerning Wonshik Shin ’19, who tragically took his life on December 18, 2016. Even for members of the campus community who had never personally met Wonshik, the reverberations of this news were far-reaching and cast a pallor over everything for a little while. In contrast, the language of the email betrayed no such emotion, remaining at an official distance, as if Wonshik had died on the battlefield defending his country instead of alone in a dorm room. I remember reading this email thinking it bore an uncanny resemblance to the kind of email that might be sent out during exam period to low-scoring students, encouraging them to make use of the resources at McGraw Learning Center. But this is different. This is a life, not a grade.
But was content like this enough to justify the censorship of an entire finished dance piece? The decision to rip a fully rehearsed, stage-ready piece out of a performance might seem like standard student company procedure, but as a member of two student-run dance companies, I can attest that this is actually an extremely rare occurrence. In this case, it raises questions of the function of student-run dance companies, and of the ambiguous power of dance itself. What is dance allowed to say? Is it allowed to deal with serious subjects, even with rowdy audiences? What about something as serious as suicide?
One important opposition raised to the piece was the stipulation that it was disturbing enough to be a trigger for individuals who had experienced trauma in the past. The company members who raised concerns often cited the desire to remain confidential, and voiced their opposition to a SHARE peer, who then fought for those “unheard” voices. This SHARE peer and an RCA both felt that the piece was too challenging to an audience to be shown, and that an Expressions show was not the proper place to make this kind of disturbing art. The argument that there is alcohol involved also became increasingly important in shaping people’s views.
“If someone sees this when they’re drunk, it’s just going to make them feel worse,” a former company-member explains to me, reconsidering her previous positive opinion of the piece.
Expressions is also no stranger to controversy. The last time it got any substantial press was in 2015, when an ill-fated swim-team filler erupted into a nation-wide controversy over race and representation in the “Urban Congo” scandal. One prominent company member, a senior who has been involved in the company every semester, compared the possible implications of Anna’s piece to “another Urban Congo”. In keeping this piece from being seen in the show, the idea was to prevent any possible controversy from surrounding a company that is still reeling from its last spotlight moment. But perhaps this time the company members went too far in the other direction, risking relationships in their desire to preempt negative attention.
It was not only the censorship itself, but the method of censorship that threw salt into the wound. After the decision, Anna started to receive a number of emails from people that contained personal stories about suicide and reasons why they personally didn’t feel comfortable with the piece being in the show. Many of them professed their support for her project, and their private solidarity with her message. But, she confessed to me, “what none of them ever have said is, I’m sorry for hurting you.”
The company members who reached out to her never took responsibility for the arduous tribunal she faced, which lasted over four hours and spilled into the rest of the next day. Backed by the authority of people with University-given titles of RCA and SHARE peer, company members subjected her to a series of belligerent attacks on her work, her method, and her artistic freedom, and her authority to comment on suicide that drove her to an unstable place.
“We wanted to protect the company, we wanted to protect the show,” many of these support emails read, but somehow they were able to dismiss the fact that in their supposed aims to protect people, they were causing immediate harm to the person whose message was on display. Anna was forced her to justify her connection to mental health issues, to prove her authority on those issues, while her confidence and dignity were being eroded by overzealous censors.
“It’s not that I personally want an apology, it’s that I want students to recognize that [censoring sensitive content] is only one way of protecting people, and their response was equally violent,” she tells me. In the age of social justice warriors, no matter how pristine their intentions, woe betide those who get in the way.
“They affected her in the same way that they thought her piece was threatening others,” explains Esin Yunusoglu, the Artistic Director of Expressions. Esin and Michelle Yeh, one of the two Publicity Chairs, were two stalwart defendants of Anna’s piece throughout the fraught discussions. Both are opinionated, strong-willed international students who believe strongly in free speech and in the power of art to make statements. For the past year, Esin has been pushing the company in the direction of less crowd-pleasing, more artistically-complex pieces and show themes: in the fall, Expressions included live music and showcased a dazzling variety of contemporary dance styles in After Hours. Esin introduced the concept of “shaking” limbs and body parts, an idea that comes from dance department-style contemporary dance, to the company, and that influence was felt in several of the pieces in -topia.
After performing on Friday night, Esin and Michelle spoke with me at length about their disappointment in the company after the decision was made.
“I’m thinking of a quote from Ohad in his documentary,” Esin tells me. (Ohad is the first name of renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, himself a controversial figure in the international dance community). “He says, ‘To mourn a big loss – and to dance, they don’t contradict each other. It’s like they live in the same space.’ When you lose something, and you forget it, that’s a dishonor to the people you’ve lost. If we can’t face reality, that is being complicit with those forces.”
Both Esin and Michelle certainly feel the decision dishonored both the afflicted community and Anna Kimmel. “If this is someone’s way of dealing with this [suicide],” Esin continues, “That aspect of this reality doesn’t have a stage, it’s something people go through alone. To literally take this away from them is just so ironic, considering the meaning of the show.”
But what did the show mean, exactly? Michelle, who believed strongly in the message of -topia, intended it to be an honest, albeit at times fun, journey through both extremes of Utopia and Dystopia present in communal college life. “I was literally telling all of my friends that this is the best show we’ve ever put on,” she recounts. “Now looking at my piece, it feels wrong for me to be in my piece, to be in this show. It feels wrong.”
Michelle choreographed the second part of Anna’s 7-minute piece, which originally did not include text; but after Anna’s piece was removed, it was amended to include a mostly confusing poem with lines about loss repeated to ludicrous effect. The movement itself was quite powerful, however, and hushed the audience into a contemplative silence. At one point, Anna Kimmel was the only dancer to be standing, running around the stage as if chased by some invisible figure. Six dancers sprawled lifelessly in a line at the back, as she spiraled around the space, her sweat futile. I took the six prostrate bodies as a reference to the plurality of suicides that have occurred at Princeton since Anna was a freshman, in 2014. At the end, the dancers took a grave bow, and didn’t come back on for the upbeat, customary company bowing and chanting.
It became clear to me in that moment that there were two Expressions’: there was the company that screamed, “shoutout to my Ex – P!” and defined dystopia as “Thesis Life,” remedied by an inevitable deadline and hard work, and another, darker Expressions, where Anna, Michelle, Esin, and a few dedicated others kicked, shook, and slid against the silencing forces of depression, anger, and the oppressiveness of the human condition. Anna Kimmel had created a monster, but it was nothing that life itself doesn’t occasionally dish up.
The most unlikely part of this story, weirdly, is the choreographer herself. Anna Kimmel is not the kind of person who ordinarily invites attention, much less controversy, of any kind. She is the incumbent president of the Performing Arts Council at Princeton and a ubiquitous presence in the dance community, and notably is the only remaining Junior member of Expressions. Even her closest friends know her as an extremely private person, who rarely recounts details of herself and shies away from public attention, even as she takes on important leadership roles. Getting her to allow me to write this article was a process in itself, and I’m sure she secretly hopes that no one will read it.
But I secretly hope everyone will read it. Because in spite of her stated non-intentions to create a stir, and her vehement request that Expressions not be negatively affected by this controversy, she has something to say. She lets the message speak through her art. But this piece was not intended for the small, middle aged audience of Townies that usually attends Performance Lab. This message was intended for the giant crowds of students who raucously attend Princeton student-run dance shows. Because not being able to say “suicide” (and wrapping it in the more comfortable guise of “mental health” and “mental health issues”, not to mention actual University policy on reporting such incidents), is either a necessary protection or an enormous institutional flaw, and needs a larger platform of discussion, that “Mental Health Week” and “Princeton Perspective Project” cannot always provide. This year, Depression is a significant enough cause to be the focus of the World Health Organization’s 2017 World Health Day in Geneva, and important enough to be its global campaign of the year. They’re not casually mentioning mental health and asking 300 million people living with depression worldwide to “TMAYD” (Tell me about your day). Maybe these issues are important enough to merit seven minutes of an Expressions show, too.
Anna Kimmel’s piece, “you’ve heard it before | you’ll hear it again” is being performed Thursday, April 13 and Friday, April 14 at 8:00 PM as part of Performance Lab in Hagan Dance Studio, Lewis Center for the Arts.