Jay Carlon’s ‘Wake’ is a dance piece for collective grief and queer post-colonial identity

Jay Carlon performs in the Richardson Dance Studio
Jay Carlon performed an excerpt from their project Wake, a queer post-colonial reimagination of traditional Bisaya rituals. (Emma Jensen • The Student Life)

Dance artist Jay Carlon is a proud Taurus and self-described kawawa-queen, a Tagalog word they translated to pity or compassion. In addition to their zodiac sign and penchant for oversharing, Carlon’s queer and Filipinx identity permeates their work as a dance artist and activist.

On Nov. 8, Carlon performed an excerpt from Wake, a “queer post-colonial reimagination of Bisaya [a Philippine ethnolinguistic group] rituals for grieving and healing” at Scripps College’s Richardson Dance Studio.

Carlon grew up wrestling and practicing Filipinx folk dance. They began training in Western dance when they started college at eighteen. Today, they think that everyone is a dancer and view dance as a tool for liberation.

“To paraphrase bell hooks, the revolution will not happen without rest, the revolution will not happen without humor and the revolution will not happen without dance,” Carlon said “I think dance is a great place to find liberation.”

Carlon choreographed “Wake” as an exploration of individual and collective grief for the loss experienced amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-colonial Filipinx grieving traditions inspired them to create their own ritual as an alternative to the novena, a nine-day prayer ceremony practiced in the Philippines.

“I was like, ‘I need a ritual,’ but the novena, this Catholic ritual, didn’t feel like it was made for me,” Carlon said. “There were a lot of pre-colonial things from the Philippines that kind of filtered in.”

Carlon is exploring ways to incorporate joyful aspects of their Filipinx identity into their dance in what they describe as a “queer liberation dance party.” Through their work, Carlon hopes to challenge expectations that art by queer and BIPOC creators must be about their pain.

One of Carlon’s goals is to stage future performances in spaces designed for queer audiences.

“There are a lot of spaces for queer people to exist, we might call them clubs, and I really thrive in those spaces … ‘Wake’ belongs in a space where queer liberation happens — a club,” Carlon said.

Destiny Rivera-Gomez SC ’24 explained that attending the performance enabled her to tap into a community of dancers of color that is often difficult to access as a student.

“I use a lot of my own identity as a Mexican woman with a mixed bicultural background in my dance and performance aesthetic, themes and topics,” Rivera-Gomez said. “Seeing elders perform and navigate that space of being a dancer is a way in which I ground myself in a community that exists but might not be accessible or within reach at this moment.”

Suzie Dawn Stitt SC ’24 attended a dance workshop taught by Carlon at Scripps on Nov. 6 as well as the artist talk. Stitt was inspired by Carlon’s ability to incorporate imagination in their work.

“One thing that [Carlon was] talking about in class is that imagination is real,” Stitt said. “That the world that we imagined together and that we work and strive for is … actually real and with us.”

While “Wake” is a ritual for collective grief and healing, Carlon was honest about the impact that performing the piece has on their physical and emotional well-being. They emphasized the importance of support systems, such as their group of BIPOC artist friends who help workshop their works in progress.

Carlon’s strategies for self-care were inspiring to dancers in attendance.

“To know that there’s a way to take care of yourself was really motivating for me,” Rivera-Gomez said. “It is a form of healing myself by seeing others go through that process.”

Kevin Williamson, the chair of Scripps’ dance department, said the department’s collaboration with Carlon was intended to expose students to Carlon’s “thoughtful and provocative” work. Williamson expressed that many Scripps students have already begun combining interests in other academic fields and passions for social justice with their dance practice.

“Lots of our students create dance works for concerts or for their thesis projects,” Williamson said. “These dance works often highlight questions around identity, community, belonging, access — various themes that they’re studying in their other courses. Interdisciplinarity is inextricably linked to what we do in the department.”

Through their work, Carlon is building a space to explore identity, grieve and experience joy. By exhibiting the process in “Wake,” they invite audience members to share in it.

“The world that we [queer and BIPOC people] live in isn’t made for us,” Carlon said. “We have to reimagine and create the world that we want to live in. Now in my adult life, I’m able to see the structures, see how it didn’t work for me, forgive myself and create a new space.”

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