The Dress Project: Exploring Women’s Power Through Women’s Clothes

Special Guest Post By Ophra Wolf.

Dresses from The Dress Project (Photo: Lauren Berg)

Dresses from The Dress Project (Photo: Lauren Berg)

Seventeen vastly different dresses hang suspended just off the wall, visible to passers-by through the large storefront windows of the Space Create Gallery in Newburgh, NY. There are also ashes, a photograph, and the steady, projected gaze of the women who own these articles. In the middle of it, another woman is taking dresses on and off, dancing each dress as if its story were her own.

This is The Dress Project, an interactive gallery installation and multi-media dance performance that was open to the public from September 24 – October 31, 2016.  The project brought together the dresses and stories of 20 women who live or work in Newburgh, New York, ranging in age from 19 – 79 and as diverse in ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic makeup as the city itself. What the women have in common is their presence in the city and their power to persevere and transform.

Ophra Wolf in the Dress Project (Photo: Lauren Berg)

Ophra Wolf in the Dress Project (Photo: Lauren Berg)

Poverty and Wealth in the City of Newburgh

Newburgh lies sixty miles north of New York City on the banks of the Hudson River. Once upon a time it was an affluent industrial city, a former base for George Washington and a destination for culture and trade. Today it’s best known for its crime, poverty and urban blight.

The city is surrounded by sublime nature, full of history and thrilling architecture, and it is home to a rich and diverse cultural landscape – a boon for an artist escaping from rising Brooklyn rents and cramped city life. When I moved here two years ago, I was struck by the stubborn presence of poverty in such a resource-rich community and the lack of recognition of the people who were working to stabilize and uplift the community.

The Women Moving Things Forward

I was especially impressed by the many powerful and inspiring women I was meeting, and as a dancer, I took particular interest in their composure. Isabel Rojas is a perfect example. Petite, sometimes shy, with a noticeable bounce in her step, Isabel spends her days helping violent gang members get off the street as Project Manager of Group Violence Intervention at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. The day I interviewed her, she was coming from a major drug bust a few blocks away involving State and Federal agents. As always, she was smartly dressed and entirely unassuming, her focus as fierce as her compassion.

Over and over, I witnessed an ability among the women of Newburgh to stay grounded while contending with violent crime, corrupt politics, and the effects of institutionalized poverty on a daily basis. I perceived a feminine intelligence in the way they were operating within the community, avoiding dramatic climaxes while consistently showing up at their best, graceful in precarious situations and uplifting in their presence.

Video introductions of the women were projected on a veil during the performances. This clip shows – Gabrielle Burton Hill, Isabel Rojas, Joyce Hill and Karen Mejia. 

Gathering Clues About Women’s Power

I conceived of The Dress Project as a way to gather clues about this quiet feminine power, to bring an otherwise non-material wealth to light and to bring us, as a community and a culture, into a more conscious relationship with the human resources we are relying on. I chose the dress as my lens because of its distinctly feminine connotations, and because it is something that women often wear on significant occasions or moments when our choices about our behavior are most conscious.

Each woman was invited to share one dress in her wardrobe with me. For the two women for whom the dress – or any dress, for that matter – no longer existed, photographs or vivid descriptions took its place. I audio and video recorded our interviews, which happened either at my house or at their home or office. And when available, I asked to borrow the actual dress to use in creating the dance performance and gallery show.

The Dress as a Lens into Women’s Lives

In every instance, the dress offered an amazing lens into the woman’s unique expression of individual spirit and life experience.

City Councilwoman Karen Mejia was born in El Salvador and wore dresses daily until she moved to the US at the age of 8.  After that, she never felt entirely safe in one.

Deborah Brown, Chief of Staff of the environmental group, Riverkeeper, was brought up in an orthodox Jewish family but moved fearlessly towards love when she married in a strappy and ethereal cocktail dress.

Melzina Cannigan, a young African-American woman born and raised Newburgh, realized early on she was never going to keep up with the neighborhood boys with a dress on, so she burnt hers.

And more. The stories shared provided immense insight into the daily negotiations women are asked to make about their power and into the philosophies that keep them energized and motivated in the face of adversity.

These silent portraits were shown as part of the gallery exhibition and the performance.

Performance and Installation

The hour-long show was created and set in the gallery and included video and audio from the interviews, original text and vocal work, and both choreographed movement and improvised dance scores. Many rehearsals took place in the gallery, visible and often open to the public. Integral to the performance was musician Craig Chin, a frequent collaborator whose ambient soundscapes anchored the mood of the piece.

During gallery hours, short printed summaries of the story of each dress, along with individual MP3 players of all the interviews, allowed visitors to connect and interact with the dresses in varying degrees – some would spend several hours, others came and went, many came more than once.

The gallery was packed for the performance, with many of the Dress Project participants in attendance.  The response overall was phenomenal. At least 300 people had the opportunity to see the installation, and hundreds more glimpsed it as they passed by to the café next door.

The installation grew organically from the process of creating the performance and would not have been possible without the support of Lisa Gervais, former curator of the Space Create Gallery, and Gerardo Castro and Michael Gabor, organizers of the Newburgh Open Studios tour. The performance was supported by an Individual Artist Commission from the Decentralization Program, a regrant program of New York State Council on the Arts administered by Arts Mid-Hudson.  The Dress Project is an ongoing work in progress.

The Dress Women

Women in the project included Alexandra Church, Nancy Colas, Alysia Mazzella, Dr. Anthea Morne, Deborah Brown, Debbie Duffus, Diana Mangaser, Elizabeth Crane Brandt, Gabrielle Burton Hill, Isabel Rojas, Joyce Hill, Karen Mejia, Leetha Berchielli, Lisa Berkana Gervais, Lissette Martinez, Melzina Cannigan, Naomi Fay, Ramona Monteverde, Rebekah Grohl, and myself, Ophra Wolf.

About Ophra Wolf

Ophra Wolf

Ophra Wolf is an independent dancer, performance maker, and multi-media artist. She is also an immigrant, a Jewish woman of North African descent, and someone who has spent her life moving across the world in search of new avenues for communication and connection.  She has an MA in Performance from Goldsmiths College, University of London, and a BA in Sociology and Dance from UC Berkeley.  Learn more about Ophra Wolf at her website, Force and Flow, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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