Arts feature: On Board(hers)

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

This is what immigration looks like, and what immigrants look like. It looks like a group of women from all parts of the world coming together to buttress and affirm one another and, in the process, display the diversity and complexity of the immigrant community.

On Board(hers) was started by Ohio State University Newark Assistant Professor Lucille Toth as a way for immigrant women to bond over shared stories, mutual support and movement.

“My medium is dance, so I knew this had to be about movement. I know the healing power of movement,” said Toth, a recent immigrant from France who teaches French at the OSU branch campus but who also has a lengthy history as a dancer and choreographer. “We are in a time when, apparently, talking is not enough. We've been talking, and there are a lot of words, a lot of narratives out there. Sometimes words are too charged and saturated. Maybe we need to find another way to cope with this, by using movement.”

“This” is the isolation, othering and oppression felt by many immigrants, especially women. Using prompts and improvisational choreography techniques under Toth's direction, the women (there are now about 15 participants on the group) spend time together talking, writing and, most importantly, dancing.

On Board(hers) is not a dance company, although the collective will present its second open rehearsal on Thursday, March 28, in CCAD's Beeler Gallery. And On Board(hers) is not a support group, although the assembled women do provide friendship and encouragement to one another, despite their varied background and immigration stories.

“Our languages are diverse and our bodies are also diverse. We have ages from teenager to senior. [There is] a pregnant woman. … So we are also diverse in the bodies that are sharing the space. That adds another layer of dialogue and conversation and makes it powerful because of that representation,” said Bita Bell, a Master of Fine Arts dance student at Ohio State.

A native of Iran, Bell was unable to return to her home country after studying at an international high school in Hong Kong. She came to the U.S. first as a student at Earlham College and now at OSU. It has become increasingly difficult for her to obtain travel visas to see her family, and they can't visit her here because of the travel ban implemented by the Trump administration.

“We are less about dance technique and more about expression and being creative,” Bell said, downplaying the need for the kind of training she has had among other members of the group. “We reflect on a history, or story, and from that derive movements on our own. Sure, if you have more dance experience, maybe you're quicker, or have some vocabulary, but this is more about what happens when our stories are put together.”

“There is a quote from Martha Graham that says, ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul.' I feel like that is the language we use to connect to each other, the language of movement,” Haryjot Singh said.

Singh came to the States when she was 6, her family given visas because her grandparents were U.S. citizens. Health issues experienced by her grandparents and her father resulted in them overstaying their original visas, and Singh is now covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Her experience in dance is less formal, having learned a variety of Latin dance styles from a friend with whom she grew up.

“We've had some women come and go since the fall, but the dynamic of the group hasn't changed,” Singh said.

“It's a safe space and we are ready to go whenever we are together. Even though not all of us have dance training, we are ready to go wherever that emotion wants us to go, honestly, whatever that body feels at that moment,” said Yildiz Guventurk, a native of Turkey.

Guventurk is here on a student visa, the clearest way she could find to continue dance work she began here as a tourist.

“Right now, all of us happen to have one legal status or another. But there is so much terminology. What we all feel, no matter where we came from or how, is that, as an immigrant, you are torn in two. You have to reconcile those parts,” Toth said. “We work on the memory of the body, because the body remembers a lot of things. A lot of trying to heal addresses what the brain remembers, but not what the body remembers.”

The March 28 open rehearsal will feature the group's members moving around and with an actual wall, so perhaps this universal, nonverbal language will have a bit of obvious metaphor.

“There is this narrative about a wall, and I wanted to see what happened if we had one and engaged it, played with it, and could maybe see the burdens it created and try to negotiate this relationship,” Toth said. “Maybe movement is a way to reconcile this being on two sides of the border. So with this project, we are learning stories and using bodies so we can reclaim our voices.”

6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 28

60 Cleveland Ave., Downtown

CCAD Beeler Gallery