Reclaiming the humanity of people living on the streets by telling their stories
The woman at the side of the road, holding a cardboard sign. The man pushing the grocery cart spilling over with bags, boxes, and clothing. The figure curled up asleep on the park bench. We see them all the time, these people in the midst of our city but on the fringes of our lives. We see them, but we don't know them, and because we don't know what led them to the edge of society, to a life on the streets, it's easier for us to feel that we have no ties to them, that they aren't fully human.
But we are bound to them, and when Toni Bravo came to a fresh understanding of that a few years ago, she started to do something about it in the way she has for years and years: through her art. The longtime Austin choreographer and director of Diverse Space Dance/Theatre set out to create stories for a handful of these isolated figures, stories that could be told on a stage and awaken an audience to the humanity they share with people on the streets. A Glimpse of Heaven – With Eyes Closed, running this weekend at the Long Center, focuses on characters struggling with traumatic experiences that have left them feeling cut off from others: a woman who, as a girl, was kidnapped; an older woman grieving for her husband, who has died; an immigrant in a strange country far from her homeland; a returning veteran who was a prisoner of war.
"Our characters are considered marginal people," says Sharon Marroquin, who collaborated with Bravo in the creation of this production. "And these characters search for some kind of connectedness."
The project was sparked by Bravo's growing awareness of a group of homeless youth some years ago. "One summer I happened to see all these kids on the streets – young, young, young kids," she says. "But I couldn't do anything for them because they wouldn't let me talk to them. I wasn't going to lecture them, although I wanted to – you know, the little teacher in me. But at that point, I figured out that I had to find out who could talk to them and if there was any way that I could do something through them. And that's how I found out about [the nonprofit service organization] LifeWorks and the work that they do [with youth and families]. And soon enough we offered to the little kids that they sometimes rescue a little dance class, a workshop."
The experience led the choreographer to consider how little we know about the average person we pass on the streets. "You don't know if that person lives in the streets or if that person goes someplace at night," she says. "In my head was the idea that we go on the streets and we don't know each other's stories. Sometimes people are on the streets for a reason."
So Bravo began to discover some of those reasons, in her own mind and in the work of her colleague. "The first images were these characters in my head, and then Sharon came up with a solo – an old solo that she did that was an immigrant, homeless type of person – and I went, 'Oh my gosh, these ones in here [points to her head] and that one have to meet.' Then I figured out, those are all people that are out there on the fringe, and how are we going to look at them in a different way than, 'Oh well, there she is,' and give her some money? Or, 'There she is, just walking the streets aimlessly'?"
Initially, Bravo and Marroquin explored the idea from more of a spiritual perspective – "the communication with spirits or those who have passed on and the information and the wisdom that they can transmit to us on earth," as Marroquin puts it. But since the piece was first produced last year and as she and Bravo have continued to develop it, its focus has shifted more to the earthly plane. "While [spirituality] is still an important element in this year's show," Marroquin says, "I think we've come to the realization that it's also about human connectedness right here. As we're rehearsing and we have moments when we touch each other, we're realizing, 'That's what it's really about.' It's the connectedness, whether it's with someone right here or maybe with someone up here [points to her head] or in here [points to her heart]."
The choreographers sometimes found inspiration for the stories of their characters very close to home. The elderly widow portrayed by Bravo is drawn from the dance artist's experiences with her mother, who had lost her husband as well. "My mother is very much an elderly person, and my connection to the elderly right now is very tender," she says, noting that her mother's "memories of my daddy are always creeping into our conversations." From that, Bravo has developed her character into someone "who needs more company but at the same time lives a little bit in the past, remembering the loving moments."
Similarly, Marroquin has found contact points for her immigrant character within her own past. "Because I come from a different country, I feel more strongly when I hear the plights of people who come from outside this country – you know, recently in the news the three workers who fell from the scaffolding, for example. I immediately thought: 'Oh my god, their families. I know they were sending money to them.' That kind of thing, it moves me a lot. My character lives in memory, remembering her country, her way of life, and realizing that now she doesn't have it any more. She has nothing. Maybe she was coming here for more opportunities, and something happened, and it didn't work out, so she is in the streets. So I draw from, I guess, my connection with people who have lost a way of life or who remember it and open their eyes, and it's just not there anymore."
But though these characters may be living in harsh conditions or know pain in their lives, their situations are not without hope. And the choreographers did not have to look very far to find that quality for this work. "Art," says Bravo. "We do it because it gives us hope. And being able to put it out there is a very hopeful thing. Even if we're putting out something sad, it's in hopes of something."
"It's making meaning where there is apparently none, which is what art is," adds Marroquin. Then she notes another place in which she finds hope: "Through people – the people that you meet, even if you see them once and never see them again, that's a tiny bit of heaven."
"Maybe it's also the future," says Bravo, considering the thoughts of her collaborator. "Maybe the sharing of 'Okay, now that we're here, let's look in the same direction together.' The kids that I teach are the future, and that's where my hope lies."
A Glimpse of Heaven – With Eyes Closed runs July 24-26, Friday and Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 2pm, in the Rollins Studio Theatre of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 474-5664 or visit www.thelongcenter.com.