PASJ Senior Projects Return Live to the Hilltop

A still from Nicole Adelski’s senior project “Mixed Women by Mixed Women.” PHOTO BY LIDIA VELASCO-ROBLES / SF FOGHORN

A group of six dancers huddle on center stage. Some have their arms around one another, while others’ fingers intertwine. “Breathe in the good stuff,” the leader says. “Breathe out the bad. I love you guys so much.” They hug and then head backstage to get ready to dance in what, for many, is their first performance back in the Studio Theater since the COVID-19 shutdown in spring 2020. 

I watch this scene unfold from above, sitting in the light booth. I am at the 2022 Performing Arts and Social Justice (PASJ) Senior Projects Concert for a grade in a class. These students, however, are here to tell the final story of their time at USF, to embody their identities through movement. 

11 PASJ senior students presented senior projects in the form of films and live dance performances from March 3-6. These performances are “a creative research project that reflects students’ unique artistic vision, as well as their particular understanding of the relationship between performance and social justice,” stated Eli Nelson and House Dow, producers of the concert. 

Their works expand upon social issues that span from exploitative labor, to COVID-19 global inequities, to the environmental crisis. The dancers who opened the show, after a huddle onstage, tackled the fetishization, objectification, and exotification of biracial women through Nicole Adelski’s senior project, “Mixed Women By Mixed Women.” 

In the 15-minute piece choreographed by Adelski, the ensemble of five dancers transitioned from locking each other in a formation resembling a boxing ring to pulling one another off the ground, giving each other the means and hope to continue fighting in an oppressive world. They ended in the same formation in which they stood not an hour earlier, huddled center stage, as women standing strong, together. 

“I offer this work as a glimpse into the lives and experiences of different mixed women, each with their own distinctive ethnic and racial identities, cultures, and experiences,” Adelski said in her artistic statement. “I hope that this piece, through representation, can give all mixed women a sense of belonging, of being seen.” 

As I watched from the light booth each night, working tech on the show, I could see the audience taking this message in. They seemed entranced by the world of Adelski’s creation and offered mass applause at its conclusion. 

Along with Adelski’s piece, there were three other live dance performances. However, the rest of the projects were films, a remnant of COVID-19’s impact on live performance. 

“In the past we didn’t allow video projects as a rule because the students were generally not trained in filmmaking and video production,” Eli Nelson, PASJ faculty head of the senior projects, said. 

This rule quickly changed during remote learning, with all 2021 senior projects being in video format. “This year there was still a majority of video works in our festival,” Nelson said. “It was a pragmatic thing. As the omicron variant was threatening the possibility of rehearsals getting canceled, students pivoted to video projects to avoid anyone getting sick.” 

One of these video performances was “Unpacking the Male Gaze: An Embodied Journey” by Katie Robinson. In this project, Robinson examined how sexist media tropes impacted her relationship with her femininity, combining her research with recorded theater and dance performance. 

In this personal video performance, which included elements of a research dissertation, dance performance, and acting montage, Robinson looked at sexist tropes in the media she grew up watching and how they impacted her relationship with her femininity. 

I sat backstage with Robinson before the Saturday night show and she told me how Korean dramas, better known as K-dramas, inspired her thesis project.

“I had been watching a lot of K-dramas since the start of the pandemic,” she said. “I noticed that watching K-dramas was when I was the most relaxed, and it’s because I wasn’t faced with the kinds of sexism that I faced in my real life. So, I got really, weirdly interested in the different ways that feminism and sexism show up in media in different parts of the world.”

“It inspired me to examine my body’s response to male gaze and sexism in media, and I found that it had a much larger impact on my real life behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions than I realized,” she said. “This piece is my attempt to unpack that damage through the lens of my body.”

While the piece touches on a heavy topic, it was the only one of the evening to evoke laughter from the audience. The video examined the media trope in which a dynamic, attractive female character settles for an unattractive, problematic man. Robinson referred to this as the “Adam Sandler theory,” and the audience chuckled and hollered every single night. 

“I was just making sure I talked like myself, expressing my thoughts as they came to me,” Robinson said. “I never wrote a joke. I guess it just sort of became funny.”

While the films were met with a positive audience response, Nelson hopes to move back to full, live performance for next year’s graduating class. 

“There’s nothing that can replace the joyful immediacy of live performance with an audience,” he said. 

That is what the 2022 PASJ senior projects were all about, a joyful audience interacting with the graduating class. The group persevered through nearly half of their collegiate education in an online modality, as they studied performing arts, no less. 

It was rather moving for me to watch this group of seniors share their love for performance, advocacy, and each other, after so much struggle and strife through the pandemic. Their work affirms that yes, the performing arts can be revived after its COVID-19 induced death. It will take time to become what it once was, but for now, the arts are here, both virtually and physically. These performers are going to keep creating, even as their time in PASJ comes to an end. 

Megan Robertson, a sophomore media studies and performing arts & social justice double major, is the Foghorn’s deputy news editor and general assignment reporter. She can be reached at mrrobertson2@dons.usfca.edu.

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