DANCE: Intimate Attacks

Lightsey Darst offers a revealing, eloquent preview of Karen Sherman's provocative new dance performance, "copperhead," on stage at the Southern October 2-5.

1Photo courtesy of Karen Sherman

Karen Sherman’s new performance, copperhead, opening this weekend at the Southern, spins out of years of research into violence into assault, hand-to-hand violence, group violence, and the Manson Family murders. What sort of dance comes from this material?

Sherman is a small, tightly-muscled woman with oak-steel hair cropped short. Behind mirrored sunglasses she becomes a sphinx: any question relating to the genesis or desired impact of copperhead lands somewhat short of her. She will talk with great energy about the research that led to copperhead. But copperhead itself is mysterious, in her accounting of it. Certain elements of her research show in certain actions, and particular ideas that she gleaned from her research inform the relations of the dancers on stage. But copperhead isn’t the sum of Sherman’s thoughts on her research; it isn’t Cults: A Dance Investigation (and it’s even less The Dancing Manson Family).

copperhead isn’t merely the sum of Sherman’s thoughts on her research into violence; it isn’t Cults: A Dance Investigation (and it’s even less The Dancing Manson Family).

The metaphor that I ought to use now is that of the oyster, which takes in a little bit of grit—–doesn’t matter what it is–—and over time mulls that bit of grit into a pearl. But the metaphor is misleading. The oyster rounds off the original object, dulling its outline, lapping it with opalescent nacre until it’s a beautiful smooth thing that any banker’s wife can love. Artists like Sherman, though, refract and carve away at their originals. Like the oyster, the artist completely transforms the seed, but the result is never simple or easy.

Instead of telling a story or conveying a central thesis, copperhead sets off flares of scenes and thoughts, moments and associations. It is, as Sherman says, “a series of images and states.” Two fingers flatly clapped against an inner forearm made me think at once of needles and veins, of the sick feeling that often arises when we contemplate our insides as a nest of wormy seethings. One dancer runs at the mass of others and is caught in a crucifixion jump; several dancers bourree (shuffle on tiptoe) in poses of Christ-like ennui. Later I see St. Sebastian’s twisting, helpless, languid body–or the limp necks of Audubon’s beautiful birds (they wouldn’t make half such obedient arabesques if they were alive). Piled bodies evoke The Raft of the Medusa, or worse: when dancers push each other’s bodies in front of them, I see that footage everyone needs to see only once, of bulldozers plowing bodies at the concentration camps. All these images collect together in my mind, the horror of one jamming up against the sleek beauty of another, and all catching on the real human forms in front of me. I admire the ingenuity of a group walk even as it puts me in mind of the most frightening passage from Algernon Blackwood‘s “The Willows”:
         There… something was moving.
                   … It was neither a human figure nor an animal…
         as large as several animals grouped together, like horses,
         two or three, moving slowly… shaped and sized like a
         clump of willow bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all
         over upon its surface… coiling upon itself like smoke.

That group-walk reflects a key feature of copperhead: its play with communality. Dancers are continually watching each other, leading or following, waiting to sense the mood of the group. This groupthink is creepy; it gives the dancers a half-there look, as if they were only amateur humans. Dancers along a vee form halves of a pose that comes together only in the central pair of dancers; it’s as if they don’t know what they’re doing, they only know to do it. Elsewhere, they pile up on each other in a sleep-heap, the sort of lovey-dovey limb tangle that most of us learn to distrust.
         It comes to me as I’m watching, though, that the communality of copperhead isn’t all that different from the usual communality of dancers. All that bodily intimacy, all that time in rehearsal, all that cooperation breeds a collective spirit that most non-dancers would find suspicious. Dancers stroke, share, and touch, often treating each other more like litter-mates than professional partners.
         When I mention this to Sherman, though, she points out the communality of audiences, which may be even odder. Dancers cooperate to make works of art; audiences sit still and silently in rows in the dark so that they can individually partake of a vicarious experience. Audiences agree to be helpless, unresponsive, unreactive, to be less than human, less than themselves, all in the service of a putative higher experience.
         In fact, giving up something of one’s selfhood for a greater good is a deep theme of human culture. Every Utopia, every Eden substitutes common good for individual desire, smoothed-over perfection for personal quirk. Education and re-education, breaking old patterns and abandoning old prejudices–these are the usual route to cultural- and self- improvement. Groups and groupthink are dangerous, we’re often told, but our world is full of groups that are, if not completely harmless, at least nothing like the Manson family.
          “”I’ve met a lot of beautiful people here,” one character writes home to his parents and we feel the creeps instantly, but why? What makes the copperhead community appear so cultish, and its re-education–like a nerve impulse that continues to travel down an arm after its emotional stimulus has ended, resulting in a floppy, uninhabited movement–so sinister? Perhaps a community’s formation provides a key to understanding its later acts. In copperhead, the community is held together by strange little transgressions of personal space one person putting food into another’s mouth. There is play that looks a little too rough. Barriers are consciously ignored; the community members see what they can do to each other. They ride each other, slap each other, lick each other’s hands. It’s this volatile mix of abuse and fondness that keeps them devoted to each other.
         But if the copperhead community is dangerous because it is formed in violence, this should be no comfort to us. How many communities, after all, don’t depend on violence of one kind or another? Deadly force, the electric chair, corporal punishment in families, even the NFL, with its ritual combat, horror movies and thrillers, gore-splattered—all affirming the borders of acceptable conduct.

Every Utopia, every Eden substitutes common good for individual desire, smoothed-over perfection for personal quirk. Groups and groupthink are dangerous, we’re often told, but our world is full of groups that are, if not completely harmless, at least nothing like the Manson family.

Mostly, in the midst of all this, we stay peaceful, just as the dancers stay self-involved throughout copperhead— save for one moment when they suddenly gather together, stamping, and turn their thousand-yard stares on us. What will they do?

One in six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, according to RAINN. Sherman points out what might not immediately strike you about this stat: that any given audience will have its share of victims—and its share of attackers. Consider, too, the 6.1 million crimes of violence the Bureau of Justice reports that U. S. citizens suffered last year; consider the millions of crimes of violence in each previous year; and you have, everywhere you look, victims and attackers.

Terri Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise, an account of the aftermath of a violent crime, fascinates Sherman because of the link Jentz feels with her attacker. The crime is a memory that only the two of them share; what’s more, the attack’s hand-to-hand violence created a bodily intimacy. For Sherman, this rarely stated idea rings true. It resonates with her research into the Manson women, who have to live with the memory of a horrific crime, who are traumatized by the murders they’ve committed. It resonates with her own experience, on the victim’s side of things. And it makes sense: you couldn’t cut into a body without using your whole force or without using your knowledge of how your own body is constructed. Barring extreme psychosis, which Sherman isn’t interested in—–that’s why she’s focused on the Manson women, not on Manson himself–—you couldn’t hurt someone, close up, without being aware of the human mirror of your victim.

This isn’t sympathy for the devil. Sherman doesn’t believe that people are evil, to begin with. Second, it’s not quite sympathy that she feels. It’s more the belief that, in the moment of the crime, the attacker couldn’t help but feel the humanness of the victim, the attacker couldn’t help knowing whatever he or she went on to do. Is this hopeful? “”A little bit hopeful,” Sherman says. For a victim, it’s the idea that the attacker shared in the fear and pain. That, up close, we can never be just objects to each other, no matter what we do.

Put all this together, and it’s enough to make you wonder what violence is, and how you can ever get away from it. Communities bind themselves together with institutional, ritual violence; but spontaneous violence also erupts, changing communities, creating new ones. It’s as if violence is a point we keep passing through not the far edge of some continuum, but one point on a circle. We are constantly near it. Sherman wonders how many of us have walked by trouble, either lucky or sensitive enough to see that we shouldn’t sit next to that guy, shouldn’t talk to that woman. I wonder how many of us have nearly been trouble ourselves.

How to Recognize a Predator:

  1.  She likes to define you, to take control of your identity: “”You don’t look like an Anna,” she might say.
  2.  He wants to talk about your shared past. He takes command of shared memory, reinterpreting past events for you.
  3.  She puts you in her debt. She may seem generous at first, insisting that you share her possessions.
  4.  He brings up your faults, then dismisses them; he forgives you.
  5.  She just wants you to lie still.
  6. In most things, he seems ordinary, even banal. Perhaps he is ordinary and banal.

My older brother and I used to play with the kid next door. No one in the group was a natural leader; we could never think of much to do, could never think of anything but the same old games to play. Then, one summer, the kid’s cousin came to stay with him: Tanya. Tanya was older than us, taller, beautiful. In my memory she’s a teenager with long golden hair, slim, ready to pose for a jeans or cigarette ad. In reality, she couldn’t have been even twelve. Still, she was a star to us. Beautiful, smart Tanya had endless ideas for us, and she could have done anything with us, could have led us anywhere. But all she did was teach me to close my eyes. Up until then (I must have been about seven) I’d squeezed my eyes shut for hide-and-seek and other games. I hadn’t known that you could just let the lids drop, doll-like, with a smooth face, until Tanya taught me.

What goes on in copperhead? There are some seeming deaths. But it might be all play. As Sherman says, “Nothing horrible might happen to anyone.”

What: copperhead by Karen Sherman in collaboration with the performers
Where: The Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN
When: October 2-5, click here for specific performance times
Tickets: $19 (pay-as-able Friday, 10:30 pm)

Lightsey  Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer and critic based in Durham. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for both literature and dance criticism, as well as a Minnesota Book Award. Her books of poetry are Find the Girl and DANCE (2010 and 2013, both from Coffee House Press). Her criticism is online at,, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut. …   read more