By Ellie Wong
“Why are you making me feel like I can never be comfortable in the body that I have?”
Last Friday, Brianna Peet ’21 performed ‘Black Bones’ — a self-choreographed Honors in the Arts piece that discussed body dysmorphia and mental health.
Using recordings from interviews with professional Black women dancers, Peet worked with composer and sound designer Barbara Nerness to create a unique soundscape that included electronic music and cello played by Seth Parker Woods.
In a short Zoom Q&A session moderated by her mentor Anna Kimmel, Peet mentioned how interviewing multiple Black women dancers opened her eyes to the “combination of very similar shared experiences…even though we come from different backgrounds.” Indeed, the soundscape was punctuated by multiple testimonies with similar ideas:
“I would hire you for the company if you had thinner thighs.”
“I’ve never been big. I’ve never been fat. I’ve never been obese. These are things I tell myself often, because this industry will make you think that you are.”
As both a scientist and a dancer, Peet’s dual identities offer valuable paths of inquiry to a question she has wanted to answer even before coming to Stanford: How do eating disorders and mental health disproportionately affect Black women within the dance industry? From working in an eating disorder clinic to performance ethnography, Peet aptly describes how using her frontal cortex (for higher-level cognitive function) and limbic system (which controls emotional responses) are both useful and unique ways of approaching the same problem.
Peet, who began her dance training in classical ballet and competition dance, described how it was “difficult to break out of the rigorous structure of codified technique.” She uses her ballet foundation to guide her contemporary style, one characterized by exploring “really interesting and new avenues of movement that aren’t necessarily pretty and perfect.”
Peet begins her piece in a defeated, weary form of motion that mirrors the negative experiences and comments provided by her interviewees. She continues to map the movement of her choreography to the emotions of the soundscape’s language: breaking down the balletic standards with the line “ballet was derived in African aesthetics and African principles” and becoming more expansive and fluid when voices repeat, “Black women are the foundation of dance.”
Peet says the ending is a “full acknowledgement that you’re going to ignore the oppressive standards of the industry you have entered because you have the privilege of telling the Black woman’s story onstage.”
When asked the inevitable question of how dance will continue to play a role in her future, Peet acknowledged the physical limitations of her body (“After filming, my knee — shot. My back — out of commission.”) and her academic career. Peet hopes to become a doctor and was even studying for the MCAT while conducting interviews for this piece.
At the end of the Q&A session, Peet acknowledged that “the dance industry has not changed because I made this video. There is much work to be done.”
However, she’s sure of one thing: “I don’t ever anticipate giving up dance. Movement colors the way I see the world.”