Dallas — “Unsettling” was the first word that came to mind as I watched Danielle Georgiou Dance Group (DGDG) rehearse War Flower, Georgiou’s latest theatrical dance work, which explores the inner workings of animal societies such as honeybees for insights into the human condition, at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas last Friday evening. The heavy electronic beat Donovan Jones plays in the beginning helps set the pace for performer Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso’s passion-filled monologue, which starts with the line “The bees came in the summer of two thousand and whatever.”
Dressed in a modest, floor-length cream dress with a wreath of flowers on top her head, Jasso moves purposely around the minimally adorned space (strips of artificial grass, white plastic chairs and a whole wall decorated in vines with “The Hive” spelled out in twinkling lights) as she tells the story of man’s creation using verses from the Bible. She finishes up by saying “welcome home,” which was the cue for the other 15 performers, all dressed in soft, floral-printed tops and dresses, to come in running and screaming like cavemen. The primitive movement, i.e. concaved shapes, heavy tailbones, rolling and crawling around on all fours, is right in Georgiou’s wheelhouse, along with theatrics, videography and soundscape.
War Flower is Georgiou’s grandest production to date with a cast of 19, including Georgiou, sound specialist Donovan Jones, conceptual designer Justin Locklear and lighting designer Lori Honeycutt, and also features a number of moving parts, including live music, video and small machinery. When asked about the large cast Georgiou says, “I wanted a large cast for the work to help visually build the idea of a community and demonstrate the rituals acts in the piece.” As for performing in her own work, something she hasn’t done in the last couple of years, Georgiou says that was a natural decision.
“When I started working on movement for War Flower in February of 2016 for the faculty dance concert at Eastfield College, I was working with a cast of four dancers, and I slowly began to find myself in the piece with them. Then when it became time to bring in the full cast for the premiere production it just made sense to remain a part of the show. As a dancer I was intimately connected with the work and I almost couldn’t take myself away from it.”
Back to the rehearsal. After the caveman dance, Dallas actor, director and playwright Ruben Carrazana steps forward and begins explaining the finer points of being a honeybee, including the fact that they live to die, to newcomer Vinay Naik. And similar to how Virgil leads Dante through the nine circles of hell, Carrazana then leads Naik through the social and political hierarchy of honeybees while also touching on some of the most controversial human belief systems in the U.S., including Catholicism, Scientology and the Democratic Parties.
Georgiou is known for tackling controversial topics such as sexuality and gender roles in ironic and poignant ways and War Flower appears to be no different in this aspect. Her clever use of metaphors and pop culture references allow viewers to enjoy the show even when their politics don’t align. For example, the text she uses in the show includes sections from The Bible, The Federalist Papers, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense as well as lyrics from popular Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj songs. Her decision to center the piece around the lifecycle of honeybees stems from her readings of Honeybee Democracy by animal behaviorist Thomas D. Seeley. Part of the book synopsis reads, “Honeybees make decisions collectively and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate and consensus building.”
Georgiou describes these tenets through a series of repetitive movement phrases that are executed singularly and collectively while someone is reciting text or performing a ritualistic action such as administering the Kool-Aid to a new cult member. There is also a scene where Carrazana asks Naik a list of yes or no questions in a rapid fire manner while Georgiou checks Naik’s body for signs of stress. This scene is eerily similar to the auditing sessions I recently saw on Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which Georgiou did confirm later was her inspiration for the section. She also told me that she got the list of questions from a personality test for Scientologists and a questionnaire that determines your political party, both of which she found online.
Most of the movement in War Flower is simplistic in nature – a lot of pedestrian walking and gesturing, pivoting body isolations and loose hips – but when performed in unison by the group easily captures the essence of the hive mind mentality. Georgiou explains, “For me, the hive mind mentality occurs when a group of people come to the same thought at the same time. Or when people act in unison without any foresight, communication or practice. It’s something instinctual and real. It’s a raw response; a decision made from the heart and gut, not the head.”
She continues, “It’s the group mind at work and that’s what really interested me. How we can make decisions in our hive without ever talking or without ever really knowing each other. It’s both terrifying and enticing. How we act in unison with our social groups, our friend groups, our families, without ever really being aware of where the initial inspiration came from.”
War Flower runs Jan 19-21 and 26-28, at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com