Inspired by interviews with Syrian & Iraqi refugees during their first 90 days in Austin, the original i/we was a multimedia concert we made in 2017. We wanted to explore empathy and listening in an age of polarization. The concert had an amazing cast of international musicians and artists, and won Best New Composition at the Austin Critics Table.

For I/WE 2020, ARCOS, with choreographer Erica Gionfriddo, dancers Bonnie Cox, Ginnifer Joe, Kaitlyn Jones & Oddalys Salcido, along with filmmaker Eliot Gray Fisher, recontextualize the original stories and music through movement filmed in natural spaces around the State of Texas. 

“There is a great responsibility in sharing someone else’s story.”

Says ARCOS choreographer Erica Gionfriddo.

“It requires us to listen deeply to the nuance of what we hear while acknowledging the complexity of our own experience. It requires an ability to respond, or as Donna Haraway calls it, a “response-ability.” When Joe Williams approached ARCOS to collaborate on this reimagining of I/We, we shared this value of response-ability which has allowed us to honor, not re-tell, the stories of Mai, Munel, and the Alaama family. As a white-led organization, ARCOS considers our role in this project as similar to how Joe defined his original approach in 2017; “to facilitate space.” This is not what we, as white, educated, employed and documented United States citizens approximate the refugee experience to be, but a container in which those lived experiences can be honored and shared.”

Bonnie Cox, ARCOS Dancer, on location © Paulo Rocha-Tavares [email protected]

Dancer Bonnie Cox who is working with a movement called Waiting In No Place.

“The idea of waiting for six years before you’re able to make any sort of move. It’s deep. It’s heavy. The first Spanish word you hear is esperamos. And that means we waited, but it also means we hoped. There’s no distinction between waiting and hoping in Spanish. And so, I’m trying to feel what it might be like to be waiting and hoping for six years in one place, not knowing when a shift is going to occur.”

Gionfriddo has worked with each dancer through a process of improvisations, inviting personal responses to the stories and music.

“These dance artists found their way to the project because of their personal proximity to the experiences of migration, displacement, loss of home or culture, and the erasure of lineage and history. I have asked them to look closely at the obvious and less visible ways they have been shaped by those experiences.This is a method of body-processing; an often pre-verbal, sometimes ancient state of un-knowing or remembering through movement. What comes out of them is what is needed in any given moment, not a predetermined series of steps or even an improvisation as we might understand it in dance or musical terms. For those unfamiliar with dance practices, this is an intentional abandonment of traditional choreographer-dancer or director-performer relations.”

Oddalys Salcido, ARCOS Dancer, on location
© Paulo Rocha-Tavares 
[email protected]

Dancer Oddalys Salcido, who is working with the opening movement, gave us insight into body-processing.

“I kept feeling a sensation of heat in the back of my throat. Like when you’re physically trying to hold back tears, and you’re trying to be strong, that’s where I felt the heat. The property of fire looks very similar to a wave, kind of unexpected and at a constant flow. I feel like a lot of communication is done with the body. It is constantly communicating with us. When it’s hungry you can hear vibrations deep inside. I think when there’s something to be said, and me bringing my stories and history and thoughts, and opinions–my truth–it’s going to blend in, come together with what we’re creating, and provide a different perspective, another truth.”

Dancer Ginnifer Joe is working with the final movement, I miss the soil.

“I don’t know the word for angry and sad. It’s so pointed and it’s so direct, and it really does hit you right in the heart, where nostalgia does. You can hear the experience in the tone of Mai’s voice. My first thought was: listen. Just be present and listen. I know that any interpretation will be colored by any person’s own experience. Me, imagining what I think it will look like, watching me go through this: I guess I have a desire, for myself, to see a warrior, someone resilient, with strength, in the midst of so much pain and grief, with the will and drive to continue on.”

Ginnifer Joe, ARCOS Dancer, on location
© Paulo Rocha-Tavares 
[email protected]

At its heart, I/WE 2020 is meeting in the middle. Each dancer brings her own life experience to the story and music with which she is paired. ARCOS and choreographer Erica Gionfriddo meet ACG and composer Joseph Williams and interviewer/co-artistic director Travis Marcum in the middle. Dance meets music. Artwork meets audience.

Each individual can experience this work as both a window and a mirror as themes of home, loss of home, cruelty and violence, waiting and uncertainty, and nostalgia are received in story, music, and movement.

Dancer Kaitlyn Jones is working with the second movement, I am not afraid.

“My personal connection with the phrase ‘I am not afraid,’ has a lot to do with the Black American experience. What does it mean to say that you’re not afraid? Right now in another practice that I’m a part of I’m asking myself ‘What happens if, as a Black woman, I don’t have anything to be afraid of? What if there was nothing I had to be afraid of in the world?’ And that’s a hard question. Something that came up in practice with Erica and I was that it’s hard to be unafraid. That is hard work. And when you’re unafraid does that mean that you’ve accepted that the world is full of scary things, and that’s how you move forward? Or is it that the scary things don’t affect you any more? Or are you numb to the fear? What does it mean when your very existence is a threat?”

Kaitlyn Jones, ARCOS Dancer, on location
© Paulo Rocha-Tavares 
[email protected]

“I ask a lot of questions and I think that’s my strength. And I ask questions that I don’t necessarily need to have answers to. The question I ask the most is why. Why am I ‘not afraid?’ I bring the ability to investigate questions, knowing that I may not receive answers. And I think that’s where the real work is: in the middle between the question and the answer.”

We asked Joseph Williams, ACG Artistic Director and composer of the music of I/WE, to share why he feels it is important to recreate I/WE now:

“I/WE is a response to “othering.” It’s a response to the dehumanization of vulnerable people, and a call to remember that there is no significant difference between those who are suffering and those who are secure beyond circumstance.

When we made I/WE in 2017, it was in the wake of the refugee crisis and a prevalent surge of division in our country. The space between us seemed to swell and our common ground seemed to shrink. We decided to pour our energy into a project devoted to understanding, to empathy, and to start by listening.

So why I/WE 2020? Because this invitation, this warming of the frozen parts of our compassion, this call to see ourselves in others is a continuous effort. The context is different, but the process is unending.  We never finish this work and, I believe, it is desperately needed now.”

We are profoundly grateful to the amazing musicians who brought to life Joseph Williams’ score in the 2017 debut performance that was recorded live, and is now featured in I/WE 2020: guitarists Alejandro Montiel and Isaac Bustos, violinist Jennifer Choi, cellist Louis-Marie Fardet, and clarinetist Håkan Rosengren. We also wish to thank our audio engineer, Todd Waldron, who captured the live sound, and then edited, mixed, and mastered the audio for this special feature.