giving names

After hosting a series of community-facing workshops on identity, choreographer Rai Marise Barnard (they/them) devised First, M.I., Last with four movement artists. Each performer claimed their full name in a personal monologue about where it came from and why it fits. Anyone who witnessed the show had to consider keeping one’s name as an active decision just as naming oneself is a choice.

Rai explored how collaborative processes might elevate a personal show about selfhood. Trans/non-binary and cis people explored their concepts of self to build the work, illuminating how the trans experience inspires self-actualization and responsibility for one’s identity. First, M.I., Last used dance sequences in a call-and-response structure to communicate the grappling that happens — or doesn’t — below the surface of a name, this thing we know first about each other and a symbol that remains after we die.

Rai’s work was supported by three rare programs for choreographers in Dallas over the past year. They shared how a residency at Arts Mission Oak Cliff enabled First, M.I., Last, and talked about some opportunities available to choreographers in Dallas thanks to an organization called Agora Artists that brought us to meet through their SEEDS incubator for new works.

The audio is excerpted from an hour-long Zoom call the evening of December 23, 2022, as part of a series of informal but intentional Q&As with artists focused on specific works. 

-- L. Taylor Knecht

About Rai:

Rai Marise Barnard is a non-binary, queer movement artist. Their dance-theatre and performance art pieces explore questions about identity, connection, and social and cultural phenomena. Through collaborative and improvisational processes, they strive to amplify marginalized voices and create interactive, multimedia experiences that are both provocative and playful. Rai graduated from UT Dallas in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in Visual and Performing Arts and a Bachelor of Science in Biology. They have over 15 years of training in a variety of dance styles, and multiple performance and choreography credits throughout DFW.

First, M.I., Last was:

Marlee Fleisher 

Timothy Amirault

Attiyya Fortune

Gabriel Maurizzio Scampini


LTK: Your show has been on my mind since I saw it. I realized it was the first time that I'd ever really witnessed a naming ceremony.

RMB: Interesting that you mentioned naming ceremony … with the whole starting point of it, and the ending point of it, even, that I eventually got back to, was the process of a legal name change for myself as a non-binary trans person, and obviously something that a lot of other trans people go through. And the significance of realizing and choosing that you want to change your name, the process of figuring out what you want that name to be, which I have found to be very different for very different people across all trans experiences.

And there was a point in the middle of the process, when I first introduced the monologues — it had a lot more structure to it. I considered basing it on suggested scripts … for someone going in for a legal name change. Like, say, “Hi Your Honor, I am an adult. I am from this country, I am this age, I am here to change my legal name.”

I had a script structure based on that, and had everyone filling in blanks there and putting in their own little tidbits. And an interesting thing came up because not everyone in the cast is trans — it turns out not everyone relates to that experience.

Because for most of the cast, their given name is meaningful to them. Like, they can't relate to the experience of wanting to go change their name and what those feelings bring up. So we altered it quite a bit. And kind of took out that context of what would it feel like if you were in front of a judge, and what you would say or argue or present why you would change your name.

And so we changed it to just be a lot more personal and a bit like less structured. We basically just had the same starting point of presenting name, gender, and place where we were born and raised, and ending with my name is ____and repeating it. And everyone just kind of went on their own journey.

Because we'd had so many discussions as a cast before that, we had all been able to at least, like identify these key points. And like, “My name means this, and, “Oh, it's from this person who's my relative. And this is what they mean to me. And this is how I carried on that part of it in me.”

I think the surprising thing for me was — well, maybe not so surprising — is that a lot of people just don't think about their names very much. It feels very like — “Hey, you might be a little bit more aware of this, you might be a part of the trans experience.” So it was cool to sit down with people that maybe had not dived into their name and its lineage as much and see what they thought about it, and go and search what the literal definition is and then dive into like, “Okay, well, what does it mean to you personally? Is it related to your family at all? Like, what's the story behind your name?”

I think it gets a lot of people thinking. It was an interesting way to have conversations around identity without talking about like, other aspects of identity so directly, like ethnicity, or gender or sexual orientation, or religion.

Imagining it being an active choice to keep your name — that was such a new idea, to me, that I had never really considered that deeply until the show.

Your work that I've experienced thus far leans toward performance art. At this point, you've done the choreographic workshop, you were a part of SEEDS, so you got a grant to produce a piece for that show. And this residency at Arts Mission. Can you talk a little bit about what it's been like to have that support and just, you know, how you would describe what Agora Artists is?

Yeah, so it's been a little bit different every time. With the choreographic workshop, it was very much community-led by the people in the room. So that was a great community-building experience for me, because it was something that came in like my last semester of college. Beyond Lauren and Avery-Jai [Agora Artists founders], I had not met anyone in that room yet. And I think almost all of them, to one degree or another, I still interact with. That’s where I met Marlee and Marlee is now my roommate, and Timothy's my friend, and they performed in the show.

So that was just a really fun time — definitely a safe space to experiment, it was very like low stakes. The opportunity to show an idea, develop it slightly, and share it with a small audience.

Doing SEEDS after that: slightly higher stakes, slightly more support. Definitely felt like a bit more of a learning experience of terms of production, which obviously ended up being very helpful going into a residency later that year. So it was great to have somebody reaching out to their community to provide professionals that can offer their expertise in costuming, or in stage management, or in lighting design or marketing, like, all of those things, all of those experiences … with the exception of maybe one or two, I would not have those people otherwise. And I would not have necessarily known how to get contact information for someone with expertise.

So it was really nice to have access to the funds to produce even a 15-minute work, but even more so, broadening the community both with the other artists that were producing for that show and the support that they brought in for those biweekly workshops.

The artist’s residency is obviously where I think I had the most freedom and the most leadership in the project, because it is a residency where it's, like, hosted through their program, but there are so many other moving elements, like funding and casting and building the show.

I think it was kind of like a nice build-up to have choreographic workshop — find some people in your community that you can connect with and present a small work — and then a step up from that [SEEDS]: “Okay, you have a little bit of money now, like here's some experts to come in and give you like some pointers on all these different ends of production.”

And the funny thing is — halfway through choreographic workshop is when I found out that I would be doing the residency. So it was nice going into the season knowing “Okay, now I can take this knowledge, I can reach out to the people at Agora for their support and like getting the [City of Dallas-funded] ArtsActivate grant,” or getting some tips on how to organize a budget and where to find stage managers, and what their responsibilities might be. And just kind of getting my ducks all in a row before the chaos started. So I think having their support to give show me the ropes a little bit, as an emerging choreographer, was very useful.

Yeah, it's like an entire ecosystem, in a way, for choreographers. And I don't see that, you know, anywhere else in Dallas.

What is your relationship to teaching now? Has it changed at all?

I still hesitate to really call myself a teacher. Obviously, I've led workshops. I have at least a little bit more experience. Pedagogy was never my focus in my dance training. So it is definitely an area that I am still looking to grow in a lot.

Realizing how I explained movement to myself in my own body and what those differences are when I am trying to explain movement to even just like a cast that is also other dancers, and then being able to compare that to like — how do I encourage and invigorate movement in a room of people that are not necessarily trained dancers? — trying to get people who have different experiences to connect to movement in a way that is just as meaningful and just as joyful — it's an exciting challenge, for sure.

I was very grateful I had someone who came to consult— Cami Holman.

So I met with her a few times. And she specifically really helped me with structuring the workshops because she has a lot more experience with teaching and did a very similar workshop-based piece for her MFA. She gave me some great ideas.

We had these eight aspects of identity that we had going on the workshops, I'll see if I can remember them all: religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, ability, and I'm going to forget one morebut yeah, that was like what we started with. And it was all about finding different ways to get people to connect to those through movements.

Sometimes it was: choose one aspect, meditate on it, and how you relate to it. And then we're gonna, like, go through our five senses and try to embody, like, “Oh, if I'm thinking about my gender, what does my gender smell like? And then how do I translate that into my body? What does it taste like? What does it sound like?”

Building that mind-body connection, I think, was a very interesting way for me to become more familiar with how to teach and share dance with others. I'm hoping to develop that skill more.

Totally. And the encouragement toward facilitation, rather than the traditional hierarchy of teaching is something that I appreciate as an example. I think that Lauren and Avery-Jai — that's sort of the way they hold the court, you know, with us, and the workshops they've facilitated.

I'm so curious about this — what you just said about these elements of identity and like a sensory relationship to those. Did you find when you were discussing these with workshop participants that anyone was sort of hesitant to use a label? And how did you work through that with them?

Like, I honestly did not directly encourage discussion. There weren't many points in the workshops where I was like, “We're gonna sit down and talk now.” It was a lot of starting out with just a very simple guided meditation, like a body scan, trying to be present in the space. And me, offering ideas. Offering like: “Here's a framework have eight identity aspects that we're working with, I would like for you to consider choosing one of those.”

Offering the choice whenever I could have, like, “Choose which identity aspects — if you want to dive into one that feels uncomfortable for you, and like you feel a lot of tension in, you have the space to do that, if you want to dive into one that you're like, I feel very secure in this part of my identity, and I can pick it apart.” 

And just ... inviting you to connect with that on this physical level. And also giving the disclaimer/invitation at the beginning of every workshop that like, you are an independent human, when you walk into this room, like you will always have the choice to not do something, you always have the choice to step out of the room, you always have the choice to observe, you have the choice to like, alter the task. I saw people take that opportunity.

And while part of me is in some cases, a friend, and in other cases, a facilitator, wants to be like, Is something wrong, do I need to go help this person? More often than not, they were willing, they were able to take care of themselves. And like I could go up to them and just check in and give some eye contact sometimes. And some people would ask, “Can I step outside?”

I tried to create the least amount of pressure in the environment that I could.

Discussion usually came up pretty naturally, as we would take breaks. Not always as people sharing, “This is what I was thinking about in my identity.” More so people bring up broad ideas like, “Oh ... I noticed I wanted to move my core move my torso a lot in this part … when we suggested changing levels, it was cool to like, feel my weight on the ground for this part.”

So I think definitely encouraging people to have a curiosity and an exploratory mindset and not feel pressured to like, dig into any uncomfortable spaces … in hopes of like helping people feel like empowered, or at least as comfortable as they could, especially for those who were going in not necessarily as trained dancers.

The idea of individual identity being explored as a collective seems like a risk and it seems like something that would be really generative for people. What was that like for you? Because you did that by doing this!

I felt that like these identity aspects run a lot deeper than I felt like 90 minutes could even cover. I found myself, like, honestly returning to gender, like that was the one I found myself drawn to constantly which, on one hand makes sense, because this is the aspect of my identity that like I've honestly spent the most time thinking about in my life.

But it also felt funny, because I was like, this is the aspect of my identity that I feel like I've thought the most about in my life.

I thought I would have like, had some closure there already. So that was just an interesting observation. But this also brought to light the aspects of identity that like, I just don't consider very much. And I feel like I should — like my race and my ethnicity, there's some more digging to be done there. About what my relationship to my race is, what my relationship to my ethnicity is. I barely know where like any of my family history comes from; I know of like one distant ancestor from Switzerland. And that's about it.

So it definitely showed me I should dedicate more time to looking into those particular aspects of my identity. Just so I can get to know myself better as a person, but also so that I can have more in depth and intentional conversations on those aspects should they come up again, because that was also a challenge. Directing the show, talking about a bunch of different identity aspects with a group of diverse performers, it was like, I don't always feel qualified to be leading these discussions. But I'm going to do my best.

Like a huge part of learning more about my creative processes — I am wanting to explore more of what collaboration looks like, and what it means because on one end, I am bored by the idea of making work that is just about me. I am literally one individual human that, frankly, has a very limited experience, in a lot of ways has like the majority experience, or at least like the privileged experience.

But at the same time, you I have to acknowledge that, like, I am literally an individual. So in some ways, like I cannot make art that is not about my own experience, because I just can't fully speak to it. So I'm very excited to continue leaning into collaborative processes and seeing different ways that can look because I would like to continue to make art because it brings me joy. But as much as I can, I want to, like facilitate or be a part of making art that does not only share my experiences. I feel like I can do more, I feel like there are more interesting things to share than just what I see and feel.

Well, it's exciting also to think about that as time goes on that you have more experiences. This idea that making work that's personal isn't static, because as you keep living, you learn more, and therefore, you can connect to more.

One of the things I've been thinking about often [h/t Harmony Holiday] is idea of taking the “I” and the “we” out of — in my case, poetry — and the idea of, you know, writing in all directions. What does work look like, what do poetics look like when they are removed from a subject and an object?

And it's really exciting because it gets to the core of work by artists like Amiri Baraka and Sun Ra and this idea of universality — what is that? As artists, we're always … trying to, you know, name ourselves, that would be one thing that's relevant to this discussion.

And so the idea of taking “names” out of it and still being present in that work is wild and exciting. When I think about your show, that's sort of what dance is [within the narrative]. That’s the writing in both directions or, like you said, what's beyond language.

I did want to ask before we get off the phone: I asked you earlier what you're grateful for this year and how that will carry forward into next year. What came to mind for you as we're kind of closing up shop on 2022?

Yeah, thinking about the show in particular, I am very grateful for the people that like agreed to be a part of it both everyone in the cast, but also the crew that we found. My stage manager came in partway through the process and was amazing at her job and was very flexible and great at problem solving and communication. And I appreciate that so much. My stage manager's name was Rachel Reiners, I will just give her a little shout-out in case anyone else is looking for a stage manager — or lighting designer, same idea, great communication, like came in, did a beautiful job with lighting design, very grateful for Caroline Hodge.

… Expanding a little bit outside of just making art: I am very grateful for my partner who has like, been with me through a lot of crap this year, a lot of ups and downs. A lot of just like things working out with like perfectly imperfect timing. I am very grateful also for Marlee, who was in the show and was also my roommate and was able to act like partially as a friend, but through that creative process and all of our creative processes. And she’s also just like a wonderful artistic friend to have.

I am grateful that my body is still functioning in the way that it does. It presents challenges to me every once in a while but they are not too great that I cannot still use it, and knowing that I am the age that I am, that will not always be the case. So I'm very grateful for my body, grateful that I have shelter. I am grateful that I'm able to like at least provide those basic necessities for myself … I'm grateful I have access to cats because my partner has three cats and I do not live with any currently.

I'm glad that I have caring people in my life and access to opportunities to continue making art, doing the things that I love, and doing art with people that I appreciate.

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