Arizona-based Sara Malan-McDonald recently presented Birth! at Sugar Space Arts Warehouse. The work was created as a therapeutic response to an experience of “obstetric abuse” in which Malan-McDonald was forced to have an unnecessary C-section and her “baby was assaulted… result[ing] in extreme, morbid postpartum depression and [PTSD].” “Birth!” promised to “discuss how babies are born; how it affects mammas, babies and society; and why it matters.”
Upon our arrival in the space, several lab coat-clad “doctors” greeted and steered us into the small theater – or rather, waiting room. We were each given a "new patient form,” which turned out to be an extensive, themed program I was unable to read until after the show. Although we were early, a dance was already underway. A pregnant woman stood mid-stage in black, using her arms and hands to fashion winding and sculptural pictures. A New Age-y woodwind track played as her limbs slowly pushed and retracted, held something small, and created a rounded belly and ovaries with a sprinkling of seeds.
In a following dance, a second, also heavily pregnant woman told us the story of her previous four children’s births, using speech and corresponding narrative movement. The clarity of her storytelling was excellent, piqued with humor and personality. I was delighted. When the first woman returned to reprise her dance, she seemed like an otherworldly intermediary. I wondered if we might get to see a series of personal narratives, transitioned through coiling imagery. Regrettably, the show took a different track and didn’t return to those curious stories.
After a pause, two more snappy, faintly condescending “doctors” arrived, signaling the start of Birth! They brought up the house lights and engaged with us, requesting we fill out the medical history questionnaire included in the program. They also insisted we as an audience produce 2-4 volunteers to share a personal story of trauma. There were a few, a range of reopened wounds that hung around uncomfortably after our hosts’ swift consolations - “We’re so sorry, thank you for sharing today.” If the intention was to create an atmosphere where the audience would feel defensive and pressured the way you might in an unfamiliar or hostile medical environment, I’d say they succeeded. I didn’t find it to be a choice especially reflective of Birth!’s key themes of facilitating healing through empowerment and reclaiming agency over one's story.
Resetting for a third dance, four dancers introduced themselves, three quickly fading as my attention was drawn to Sara Malan-McDonald. Her progression of movement was dynamic and violent. Quaking and convulsing, with eyes stretched wide, she lurched and tumbled forward to tell us about her most harrowing experience. Like the earlier birth solo, this one told a vivid story through openly descriptive movement. Things that might have been cheesy, like a recurrent accusatory finger pointed out over our heads, were bolstered by intense sincerity. Throughout most of the show, I noted the video screen on the left for its flashes of technical error, but the anatomical drawings of women projected during the solo were a good supplement to her portrayal of being dehumanized, laid out, and cut open at the mercy of indifferent actors.
Malan-McDonald’s excellent solo was choreographed by Jodi James (and the program didn’t specify who had choreographed the prologue), but from then on the show felt markedly different, drawing mostly from familiar standbys of modern and lyrical contemporary dance. Ambient hospital sounds mixed with dramatic orchestral scores. A strangely-placed and syrupy Tori Amos song jarred with a heavy emphasis on declarative statements from the dancers. Giant placards with words like “fear” and “depersonalization” were held up as they spouted a stream of statistics about C-section rates and decried a suspicious prevalence of the operation in the U.S.
However, I did note a conspicuous absence of meaningful analysis or calling out of the systems and people responsible. At one point there was a cry for women to forgive themselves for having a Cesarean delivery. It was an odd moment that both lacked set-up earlier in the work and smacked slightly of victim-blaming. Preaching for self-love and against stigma isn’t quite the same as telling women to forgive themselves for the abuse someone else perpetrated on them (thereby implying that what happened was partially or all their fault). Although decently well-executed, the remainder of the show felt anti-climactic and too safe, missing a lot of good opportunities to scrutinize its topic more fully.
Seeing diversity of age, body, and ethnicity represented in the cast was wonderful, but accentuated the narrow viewpoint of Malan-McDonald’s production even more. Her story was the only one represented, the extremely personal generalized to suggest a universal certainty: disconcerting in a show that attempted a nearly even split between lecture and dance work, and broadly promised to discuss “how babies are born” and the societal impact thereof. None of the profuse statistical scaffolding applied an intersectional lens, watering down its authority for me immediately. No other common issues concerning maternal and fetal/infant distress and death were touched on, of which there are many. And there was no reference to the larger issue of the systemic failures, obstruction, and manipulation women face in seeking medical care around the world. Simply “taking back control” and seeking a different, better hospital or hiring a doula out of pocket to skirt these challenges is not an option all women have access to. The erasure of interrelated issues, individuated experiences, and the experiences of women in marginalized communities was troubling.
Afterwards, a woman who identified herself as a practicing physician assistant took the stage. Underprepared for her lengthy speech, she did not end up providing the much-needed professional analysis I was hoping for. Throwing out a few more scattered stats, she called on “both sides” of the provider-patient relationship to “be better to each other.” Declining to “get political,” she went on to tell us that women need to "take more responsibility" and just "trust their provider" more. Her outright refusal to talk about the root issue of deeply-layered systems of institutional prejudice that keep women marginalized and unheard, or to advocate for any meaningful justice or change, was disheartening to say the least. Having a credible person of authority with nuanced vision come out to speak after the show could have fleshed out some of what was missing, brought us full circle, and turned the closing moment into an affecting call to action. Her waffling closed that door, however, and I left the theater thinking that Malan-McDonald should have dropped the scaffolding, the ensemble, the stage-dressing and speeches, and let her story speak for itself.
Emily Snow holds a BFA in ballet from the University of Utah and has spent several seasons dancing with Central West Ballet in California. She currently performs in Salt Lake with Municipal Ballet Co. and with 3-member band Durian Durian.