Maybe it was being rejected by a crush at a school dance. Or being labeled “dramatic.” Or being gossiped about in the workplace
Choreographer Kimberleigh Holman felt certain that most, if not all, female-identifying people still remember these sorts of unshakeable embarrassments. And she created “Contradictions + Casual Self Loathing,” a contemporary dance performance staged by her dance company Luminarium, to answer the question: “What do women carry?”
“What came up was, a lot of the time, shame,” said Holman. “We’re carriers of all of those teeny tiny benign moments that actually still are cringey and awkward and terrible and they don’t go away.”
The show, with the help of its all-female team, is being mounted at Dedham’s Mother Brook Arts and Community Center, a former elementary school (read: a formative site of mortification). Vintage projectors, and a notebook-like overhead sculpture by artist Adria Arch — “all of your secrets, going boom, exploding over our heads,” as Holman puts it — complete the space.
Confronting and bringing levity to these secret humiliations is what the show sets out to do. “How can we laugh at these past shades of ourselves?” Holman asked.
The first step, apparently, is to prove how universal these red-faced recollections are, so Holman went straight to the source. Or, rather, sources. She interviewed dozens of women and worked with the show’s four dancers to broaden her corpus of cringe. Dialogue and recordings of some of these stories are woven into the performance.
“Pretty much everyone has shared that they’ve been affected in some form, by some shade of violence,” said Holman. “I don’t think I would have guessed how entirely normal some of these emotional, societal traumas are.”
For instance, in one of Holman’s interviews, a woman shared that she was scolded as a child for taking off her shirt to swim with her male friends. This anecdote inspired a dance solo by performer Jessica Chang, in which she pulls against saran wrap ropes to show how, as Holman said, “we’re bound to these social norms that are really kind of foolish.”
Holman started working on the show about three years ago, when she was doing a residency at Endicott College. After finding points of connection among undergraduate women studying dance, Holman thought the concept would be a good fit for Luminarium, which she co-founded in 2010.
“I like to make things that I feel like an expert on,” Holman said. “I am an expert on existing 34 years as a female — as somebody who is a woman, in this body, in this world.”
The pandemic temporarily stymied plans to put on an evening-length performance of “Contradictions + Casual Self Loathing.” But it gave the team more time to read texts centered on the female experience, like “Men Explain Things to Me,” and discuss them over Zoom, said dancer Katie McGrail.
The performers shared their own memories of shame, McGrail said. Some of their accounts, like the stories of Holman’s interviewees, became part of the show.
To supplement the show, dramaturge karen Krolak compiled a list of resources on women’s health, job support, and food insecurity.
Krolak was drawn to the project, she said, because it resists broad strokes. Instead, it asks “what are the tiny ways in which things fester and grow that change how people see themselves and understand their positions in the world?” she said.
Holman said she hopes she can tour the show — which was partially funded by The Boston Foundation’s 2020 Live Arts Boston grant — around New England and beyond, continuing her interviews with women. As for Holman’s mission to discover how to make peace with the weight of female baggage? That’s a work in progress.
“I don’t think I’ll ever master awkwardness or carrying around a lot of shame,” she said, “but I feel like my eyes are very open to it.”
CONTRADICTIONS + CASUAL SELF LOATHING
Created by Kimberleigh A. Holman. Presented by Luminarium Dance Company. At Mother Brook Arts and Community Center in Dedham. Nov. 5-6 at 8 p.m. Tickets $20-25. 617-477-4494, luminariumdance.org.
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org