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  • Allegories of Passing in Bill T. Jones
  • Randy Martin (bio)

As we move we change. How could it be otherwise? The direction and consequence of change is far from assured. Dance inscribes movement in the world as a practical accomplishment. It legibly affirms, even if ephemerally, fleetingly, that some immediate difference has been made when the outcome of movement in life might still be in doubt. As a means for registering what movement can be, dance shows us how we pass from one state to another. It does this literally, as bodies configure their realms of space and time, and allegorically, as a touchstone to what it means to be passing through this world. Dance reports on the art of passing, telling us how to dwell amongst so many departures and arrivals. It also instructs us in passing as self-representation, convincing us in performance that it is dancers we see. Such a lovely tale, this. Yet in a nation of immigrants, all are compelled to move, but not all get to pass. Those who lived by the land were evicted in the name of property. Those who were designated property were affixed to the land in bondage. Others worked off their debts of passage. Still more were promised mobility from migration.

Out of these mass movements a social compact of immigration, race, and class was constructed. Braided together they shared an imaginary of passing that omitted consideration of what was lost in route. Assimilation would translate cultural distance into upward mobility. Passing from one movement state to another would achieve the choreography of the nation. Always of dubious accuracy, the past several decades have made it difficult to detect the truth of this fable as well, even as the very elastic notion of passing captures the phenomenology of the shifts in policy from welfare-state entitlements to accountability driven risk management. Where passing once referred to achieving the appearance of normalcy by hiding what one was, it has come to reference demands for standards that can never be met. Historically, dance has played its part in affirming, complicating, [End Page 74] multiplying, and countering the national mythos. It continues to do so today. Given the difficulty in discerning what follows assimilation's failures and recognizing what dance allows us to recognize in the ways of passing, we are wise to pay close attention to those instances that provide the greatest critical insight.

Assimilation as a migration vehicle offers a recipe for the disappearance of difference through the promise that the passengers would achieve citizenship with all the attendant rewards of belonging to the wealthiest among nations. Increasingly the state of security associated with citizenship is being removed such that the endpoint of assimilation, always partial and exclusionary, is itself fading as a construct and a practical opportunity. The assimilationist road was a one-way street with passing poised as a form of loss, a new life wrought through social death. As assimilation itself passes, what other prospects open for the fateful relation between the many and the we? If a unitary point of arrival and unidirectional route loosen their grip on collective migrations, passing now assumes a productive ambiguity. The question remains, how do we move on? Dance offers insight into the techniques and methods of passing; it teaches us how to move in many directions with multiple histories of the body. Like passing itself in a more critical guise, dance can re-incorporate what has been left out or behind, what opens laterally and beyond, what gives pause to its fullness and unclots the narrow passages that obtrude historical transformation. Dance offers many methods of passing that materialize tangibly on stage. While dancers, choreographers, audience, critics, producers, technicians—in short, all the people in the world of dance—come with myriad thoughts and feelings, intentions and aspirations, the ways in which dance bears social, political, and historical prospects slices through persons, places, and worlds so as to momentarily conjoin them in what could be called choreographic agency. The story of these stories, the recounting and valuing of these techniques, is what is meant here by an allegory of passing.

The braiding together of social and choreographic movement, the...


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pp. 74-87
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