Wonder and Wondering… the story of Keshet and community power.

This weekend, the Keshet Center for the Arts concluded its first run of a rendition of Alice in Wonderland entitled Alice…an adventure of wonder and wondering. In the words of Keshet Founder, Artistic Director, Shira Greenberg, (and choreographer of the Alice performance) “this is NOT Alice in Wonderland! This is Alice’s adventures Keshet-stlye!” Based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Keshet has become one of my favorite organizations, and their recent show justifies that admiration in spades.

The show follows the titular Alice (also inspired by Greenberg’s grandmother) as she passes through the threshold into the Looking Glass World. Instead of evading head-lopping Queens and spear wielding cards, she is folded into a garden of living plants and teacup bearing citizens who would rather have a fashion show than trot off to war. Far from being some cliché of happiness, the performance swells with blissful melancholy. Their use of Stevie Nicks and Queen along with bluegrass and guitar-rendered gospels shows how contemplative and multi-dimensional sadness and solitude can be. We expect Alice to enter a world of darkness, and yet, the show points her in another direction. Who would think that a 19th century book built largely on the violence of language and the terror of the unknown would find a place where cast and audience can celebrate our own personal Jabberwockies. Our vulnerabilities are virtues in Greenberg’s production and we learn some powerful lessons along the way.

The cast members are a mix of professionals from around the world mixed with community members at various ages and levels of exposure to dance. This is due largely to Keshet’s mission – since 1996 “to unite community by fostering unlimited possibilities through dance, mentorship and a creative space for the arts”. The first time I met Shira, she shared her frustration with how we segregate skill from community. Each Keshet performance allows the public to take part in the apprenticeship of all who see and sense the show. This is testament to many of Keshet’s other programs which include nation-wide outreach to incarcerated youth (their M3 program among others) and its support of the entire Albuquerque metropolitan area to have access to the power of performance as a vehicle for authentic community engagement. In our first conversation, she mentioned that when you see a body that does not fit society’s mold for dance, you break that mold and you remind people that everybody is a part of all movement, everywhere, all at once. You will find people of all shapes and sizes in this rendition of Alice, but you will not find them presented as some token, superficial image of diversity. On the contrary, there are parts of the performance where the dancers hold hands, prop each other up, and share each other’s hats and coats and wheelchairs. None of those things belongs to anyone in Wonderland. They belong to everyone. That bears some serious reflection.

In my own scholarship, I have used Alice’s journey through wonderland as the urtext of living in contemporary global civil society. I have often said publically that we share in Alice’s struggle, in the reality that despite our best efforts we are never the right size. What Keshet’s Alice proposes is just the opposite – we are always the right size. This is precisely what we need right now. We need a cacophony of voices that are jubilant in the face of a growing sense of fatalism – a direct result of bigotry and hatred convincing others that the world is against us. We need organizations like Keshet who are willing to take back the notion that perception is reality, and that we have the power to conceive a world that is not born in antinomy but in the unabashed power of creativity and make-believe. In a world where make-believe is abused at all levels of power, Keshet’s message of meta-empathy is an inspiring call to take back those powers. Awe and Wonder is yours despite privilege and it is the ultimate defiance to tyranny. Every body of every shape and size is cause for jubilation and it is the source of our sovereignty.

New Mexico, like Keshet and many places in the world, can be a land for “misfit” toys. It is a place where people are in-between the then and now, and it is a place I proudly call home. Someday, New Mexico will be known as part of an increasingly vocal majority of people worldwide who live impossible things every day. As Lewis Carroll famously noted “Imagination is the greatest weapon in the war against reality.” It is a big part of what I presently call “enchantment economy,” and like Alice I am certain that we will one day find our latitude and longitude… if we knew what those words even mean.

I anticipate that the Alice show will continue due to its popularity. I invite anyone who reads this to support their efforts – both through support of the show and in support of their hard fought efforts nationwide to promote their powerful and timely message.

Visit Keshet Center for the Arts at their website, and donate to their cause here.

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