Disposable Bodies
Disposable Bodies | Photo by Paula Meninato |Cardell Dance Studio

Art & Activism, Silvana Cardell premieres Disposable Bodies

Philadelphia-based choreographer Silvana Cardell is nearing completion for the premiere of a multimedia dance piece titled ‘Disposable Bodies’ which will have its first performance run at Taller Puertorriqueño, a co-presentation with Philadelphia Dance Projects this fall. Cardell is a 2022 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship Grant for her work, and it is the culmination of her six-year creative journey that she says “has changed my life.”

At Cardell’s Dance Studio in Fairmount, Cardell discussed the intent of her dance-theater-visual arts piece that she hopes will lead to a broader discussion about animal and human rights.

By mid-August, Cardell was still developing choreography and had just finished a rehearsal with the dancers William Robinson, Makenzie Morris, Muyu Yun Ruba, and Tyler Rivera. Dancer-choreographer Merian Soto and performers Ama Gora and Megan Midgley were not present at this session but will be performing.

“In 2016, I became very interested in animal rights,” Cardell said. “My daughter, Paula Meninato became a vegan and was involved in that movement. Every time I cooked a chicken, she told me why I shouldn’t do it – the animal suffering and environmental impact. And, I learned”.

She watched documentary films about the inhumane treatment of animals in meat processing. “This is slow violence. I stopped watching the documentary footage because it was unbearable to see. I started to do my own research. I read philosopher Michel Foucault, which led me to Judith Butler’s fundamental questions of the value of bodies and what bodies are vulnerable, and the human bodies that are animalized.”

“The research changed me. I became vegan because I can’t see how slaughtering animals on such a scale could be good for us. I thought that dance would be the perfect medium to express these ideas – which lives are more valuable, and who is disposable.”

Cardell chose pigs to represent the issues of inhumane conditions of mass-produced meat products. She notes that they are sentient as dogs and recalled that her maternal great-grandmother raised pigs in Spain. “They were part of the family.” The old methods of raising farm animals for food are far from the brutal conditions of how pig farms are run now.

She said that animals depicted in this work are symbolic, but analogous to conditions that deem humans “as essentially disposable in the way they are sent to prisons, separated from family as refugees at the borders, or discarded in wars.”

Silvana Cardell
Silvana Cardell , Photo by Michelle F. Smith

THE GRANT DANCE-QUEST

As Cardell’s conception of ‘Disposable Bodies’ expanded, she started writing grants and, in some cases received incremental stipends to continue developing the piece, along with strong and positive feedback. 

“I was encouraged and had many colleagues and artists helping me with letters of recommendation. But I had people telling me that it was too heavy a subject and that I should pick another theme. I said, no, this is what I want to say.”

However frustrating it could be, Cardell pressed on for funding, admitting that she “became obsessive about this work.” She worked on the various grants in between her job as Associate Professor in the Department of Dance at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. All this in addition to opening her dance studio in Fairmount, and working as a movement choreographer at the Wilma Theater for several productions.

Last fall, after many tries, Cardell once again, for one final attempt, applied for the Guggenheim Fellowship, thinking it was futile. But, in April 2022, Cardell got the initial email that indicated she was in the winner’s circle for a Guggenheim. “I screamed so loud. My husband thought I fell down the stairs, but I still thought I wouldn’t win.”

Eventually, it was confirmed by formal letter that she had indeed won grant money.

DANCE AS A SOCIAL POLEMIC

Two months from Cardell’s premiere, composer Maria Chavez is collaborating on the sound design for the piece. The other multimedia visual elements, including film/video integration, were shot by Cardell. The inflatable sculptures were designed by Daniel Cardell (her cousin in Argentina), and her daughter Paula Meninato did the prop designs.

Even with all the design elements now in place. Cardell continues to develop the choreographic template. One technique she employs is structural moments, ala Cunningham, giving the dancers improvisational choices during specified passages.

“I create this environment, I will shape it, make it fluid and all done in the moment. I then layer choreography on top of those improvisations.”

She considers her dances as collaborators in this work. “I need them to interpret certain moments. I design the form and structure. Within this form, they are in a situation and have action, gesture, or movement choices.”

“Creatively, it’s like a game, and I massage it and shuffle things. What I love is making it. I don’t want to finish it. It’s such an important project for me.” 

Driving Cardell as an artist is wanting to confront the “increasing civic and social justice crisis,” adding, “but I’m hoping this will start a dialogue about these issues. This was something that I had to do now.”

To that end, there are already preliminary talks with environmental organizations about touring ‘Disposable Bodies’ next year.

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