Mayfield dancers share their vision of "Matriarchy"

Yesterday was the opening night of the spring dance concert, “Matriarchy.” The show features choreography by three professional guest choreographers, as well as the artistry of 43 Mayfield dancers, lighting designers, actors, writers and visual artists. “Matriarchy,” an interdisciplinary performance with high-powered dance at its center, asks the audience to imagine a world where women lead, where women are guaranteed equity and safety, and where women are valued for their strength. We sat down with the Director of Dance Conservatory, Sarah Alaways, to discuss how this project came into being.

What inspired the theme of this show?
Honestly, the conversations that we were having in Conservatory about what mattered to the dancers in their world inspired the show. At the beginning of the year, I was really thinking about what I wanted this show to look like and what the of overarching theme would be, and the dancers’ struggles and what they deal with on a day-to-day basis, in regards to being a young woman out in the world today. This kept coming up while we were rehearsing. I started thinking about what they're learning in the classroom and how I could bring that into what we were doing in the dance studio. I reached out to the English, History and Theology departments. I asked for their class material that was specifically related to womanhood and feminism. I read a lot of poetry. I looked into topics that they're learning in World History. And I also read a lot of articles from the book that they use in senior Theology: “Faithfully Feminist.” That really inspired my vision for the show.

How did you arrive at the name “Matriarchy?” And how does the name influence the structure of the piece?
It went through a lot of versions! I couldn't find a way to say “women empowering women” that wasn't cheesy until I thought of the idea of matriarchy. Why is the word “patriarchy” so easy on our tongues? Why aren't we talking about our matriarchy? The more we talked about what it means to have your voice heard, the more they realized what women-empowering-women really looks like. It was highlighting where it was good in their lives, but also showing them where it could be better. There were a lot of conversations around holding multiple emotions at once. How can we hold the reality of this and also work toward something better? I think that also shows up in the three sections of the work. Part one is called “Power,” part two is called “Resilience” and part three is called “Paradise.” Part one is when they tap into when they feel most powerful, part two is really more about the struggles that they are dealing with now, and part three is imagining freedom and paradise. Something that kept coming up for them—of what they wanted from the world—was so simple. Like: I want to be able to walk to my car and not be scared. I want to run at night. I want to be able to walk around without getting cat-called or harassed. I want to live without fear. They're not asking for anything ridiculous. This “paradise” is so, so simple.

There seems to be a lot of text incorporated into the production. How did you devise this script? 
We did all these writing prompts and the dancers from both Foundation and Conservatory wrote what built the text. I just arranged it. There's also some purely student work from creative writing that was created independently of what we did. And I threaded it in. I reached out to arts teachers for things like that. I reached out to creative writing for poetry, I reached out to visual art and photography for projections, and I reached out to theatre to get names of actors that would want to do voice overs. Everything is read by students. I just put it together.

How did the guest choreographers play a role? Why were they selected and what came from their involvement?
I just wanted the dancers to get a really big range of experiences, so that's why I chose the people that I chose. I looked at where the dancers had strengths and brought  in choreographers that really would cater to those strengths, but I also brought in choreographers that would challenge them in areas that they could be challenged in. I chose choreographers that would represent a very wide range of the dance world. I also wanted the dancers of Mayfield to see people who maybe don’t really fit the “typical” idea of what a “dancer” or a “choreographer” might look like. I knew these choreographers would do a really excellent job, because they are people who I really trust and have experience with. They were also really invested in the subject material. I just leaned into what I thought the dancers could grow from.

Since the students were the co-creators of this text and this overall piece, what do you think they want their audience to get from the experience of watching this?
They felt like the way that everything was coming together would make people reflect and ask questions. And I think that staying on one theme for the entire show—45 minutes of continuous dancing without intermission—they felt like people would actually have time to get engaged with the material in a way that would leave them with questions and things they want to research. And honestly, the dancers want people to ask hard questions. I think that that's how putting the whole show together made the dancers feel: this production has meaning for us. And it feels like the audience will reflect on the subject matter in a way that you can't really do in a three-minute dance piece. The dancers also really want their peers to walk away empowered. Feeling empowered and feeling supported and feeling like they were represented in the work. They want their peers to walk away feeling seen and hopeful for the future.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.