Research Trip to Panama City

Offering a window into the research process behind her latest work, The Clay Duke, choreographer Dayna Hanson describes her visit to a Panama City school board meeting during her May 2013 residency.  Hanson and her collaborators observed the board members involved in the 2010 school board shooting that led to the death of Clay Duke.

“...we were visiting a place that, for us, was locked in a previous time: specifically, seven minutes in December 2010, when Clay Duke interrupted the Bay District School Board meeting with a horrifying, ambiguous agenda of his own. We were going to observe a normal meeting, two and a half years later, but subconsciously we were expecting traces of that past moment.

Dave, Wade, Thomas, Sarah, Peggy, Andalyn and I entered the meeting room and as in a childhood memory, it was smaller than it looked to us on YouTube. The same school board members sat behind the podium. The dais, the seating, the walls were all the same, though signs of Clay Duke’s presence were conspicuously absent. We were slightly awed to be in the presence of the people we’d studied closely for more than a year. For the next two hours, we listened to their speech patterns, scrutinized their body language and watched for some acknowledgement of what had happened to them in this room two and a half years ago. In the process, they became human beings to us.

The impressions we’d formed of the people in that room were narrow. We’ve made a conscious choice in the research of this dance theater piece to limit ourselves to a specific range of source materials: We’ve looked incredibly closely at the footage of the event and categorically dismissed other sources, including a whole host of media interviews. (Those mediated sources are so accessible, but they’re also excessively stylized and editorialized; it’s hard to take that material in without also taking on some monstrous facets of the media as well.) Somewhat naively, we’d come to feel as though we know those people.

Given that our primary source material is on YouTube, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to supplement our research with those network interviews. Instead we took all of day two of our MANCC residency to go to Panama City—not to interview the board members, who have spoken out already and who have evidently chosen to move on from and not be defined by their harrowing experience—but to discreetly observe them in their element at a very routine school board meeting. Nothing could have de-objectified them more. As deeply as our 11 days in the Black Box and Studio 404, our day in Panama City has imprinted our work, brought us into closer relationship with it. Though the experience of December 14, 2010 is ultimately unknowable, we left the meeting as you do a conversation in which your understanding of the other person has grown, leaving you humbly more empathetic. If we can embed the essence of this encounter into The Clay Duke, then we may be successful as artists."