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Dancers illuminate the night sky as they dance in an empty field where the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam once stood.
Local choreographer Killian Manning’s dancers perform at the empty field where the Confederate Monument known as “Silent Sam” once stood. (photo by Donn Young)

An artist’s statement by Heather Tatreau; photos by Donn Young

As a modern dance choreographer, I have always been interested in how we show our humanity and tell our stories through movement. However, the location of a performance tells its own story.

Heather Tatreau stares through two sculptures, her body framed by the closeup of the sculptures.
Heather Tatreau at a rehearsal in the Student Body sculpture garden outside Hamilton Hall. (photo by Donn Young)

Over the past 20 years, I have created and performed dances on traditional theatrical stages as well as in art museums, Italian piazzas, parks and even on an old resurrected sunken ship in a New York City harbor. Each unique location led to movement choices and contributed to an implied narrative. Our physical landscape informs and reflects our values as a community. Site-specific performance brings awareness to these values and offers an opportunity for diverse perspectives to be considered and for hidden truths to be uncovered.

Student dancers dance amid the sculptures in the Hamilton scuplture garden.
Tatreau says “site-specific performance” offers an opportunity for diverse perspectives to be considered.” Her students rehearse in the sculpture garden outside Hamilton Hall. (photo by Donn Young)

Once a site is identified for a performance, the artist may spend a considerable amount of time researching the history of the location through archives and conducting community interviews. This is part of our research in the creative process. The artist also spends time at the site making observations of the physical surroundings. Not only is the architecture of the space important, but safety concerns like uneven dancing surfaces and lighting must be noted. The process of creating the performance is often highly collaborative among the performers, with many discussions of implied meanings and vantage points. Since there is a more intimate relationship between performers and audience members due to proximity, the audience’s perspective is continually considered. If the performance has been successful, audience members will leave with a transformed perception of that site. We can gauge this effectiveness through post-performance discussions and feedback questionnaires.

Dancers rehearse at night for "Affordable Housing: The Musical" on a local basketball court.
The cast of “Affordable Housing: The Musical” rehearses at a local basketball court and park. (photo by Donn Young)

In 2018, I began a quest to understand the history of UNC monuments through the creation of a site-specific performance that took the form of a silent, contemplative walking tour of campus at night. This tour guided audience members to five historically debated sites on campus and used performance to expose and question the truths of these sites. The performance asked: What can we learn when we are quiet and let the voices of the past come into conversation with the present? Can we create a space where every voice belongs? Who has been left out of our community’s narrative? These are questions that members of our Carolina community have been asking more and more as we reconcile with our past.

Dancers dance with flashlights at rehearsal at ballet school studio.
Artist Killian Manning’s dancers rehearse with flashlights at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill. They performed at the empty field where the Confederate monument once stood. (photo by Donn Young)

The next iteration of the walking tour took place last week on Nov. 5 and 6. Voices: A Walking Tour was the first live performance in the UNC Process Series since COVID-19 shutdowns of performance theaters nationwide, and it opened our 2021-2022 season. After a year and a half of increasing turmoil, this performance offered an opportunity for the community to come together, contemplate and imagine a more just future. About 100 audience members came to each night’s performance.

A tour guide talks to audience members in the darkness at the Old Well.
Tour guide Meredith Haggerty, a local artist, opens the “Voices: A Walking Tour” performance as she talks to audience members. (photo by Donn Young)

As a producer of the Process Series, I am interested in whose voices we prioritize. As an artist, I choose to open that space and invite other voices to contribute to my own work. And I always involve my students in the creative process. I collaborated with a dynamic and diverse group of artists who challenged the audience to see their everyday surroundings in a new way, considering multiple viewpoints through song, spoken word and dance.

Heather Tatreau holds up a flashlight as community members leave a performance at The Gift scuplture near the Student Union.
Heather Tatreau illuminates the path for community members as they leave a performance by the Carolina Indian Circle at The Gift, an artistic walkway outside the Student Union. (photo by Donn Young)

The tour, which began at the Old Well, included Chapel Hill poet-laureate C.J. Suitt at the Unsung Founders Memorial, the Carolina Indian Circle at The Gift near the Student Union, my “Intermediate Modern Dance” students at the Student Body sculpture garden outside Hamilton Hall, local choreographer Killian Manning’s dancers at the empty field where the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” once stood, George Barrett’s cast of Affordable Housing: The Musical at Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street and local artist Meredith Haggerty as our tour guide.

A poet stands inside a gate surrounding the Unsung Founder Memorial as he recites a poem at night.
Chapel Hill poet laureate C.J. Suitt recites a poem at the Unsung Founders Memorial. (photo by Donn Young)
In a black and white photo, poet CJ Suitt sits alone in front of the Unsung Founder Memorial, which is covered with flowers.
A reflective moment for poet C.J. Suitt at the Unsung Founders Memorial. (photo by Donn Young)

Issues of silenced native voices, student mental health and racial injustice were addressed in this series of site-specific performances. When strung together in a touring format, they created a rather troubling narrative and a call to action. Site-specific performance has the power to create social change through lasting awareness. There are plans to perform Voices again, and to once more note changes in our landscape, each time asking the same question: What kind of community do you want to create here at Carolina?

The cast of "Affordable Housing: The Musical" performs at the Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street.
The cast of “Affordable Housing: The Musical” performs at the Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street, offering a bridge between the campus and the town. (photo by Donn Young)

Tatreau (psychology/women’s studies ’98) is a teaching assistant professor of dance in the department of exercise and sport science in the College of Arts & Sciences and the producer for the UNC Process Series. She received an MA in dance education from New York University in 2002 and has been teaching in higher education since 2003. The performance was supported by Humanities for the Public Good, the Orange County Arts Commission and the North Carolina Arts Council.

C.J. Suitt and Heather Tatreau share a hug and smiles at the Peace and Justice Plaza.
Artists C.J. Suitt and Heather Tatreau after the performance at Peace and Justice Plaza. (photo by Donn Young)

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