What Americans Missed: Cancer, Choreographed

by Catalina Florina Florescu

Abstract: This is a reflection post performance of the last piece of my trilogy on breast cancer. The views expressed here are solely mine.

Keywords: (breast) cancer; choreography; joie de vivre ; community.


 Part 1: Anatomy of a word

When I first heard the word cancer, I was a teen. I was accompanying the one who was not only introducing me to the word cancer, but also experiencing it inside her body. At that age, my own body was developing. At that age, as a teen, I was occupying my mind and body with kisses, embraces, and wild dreams. I was not thinking about serious topics! Let’s be real – for once.

Part 2: Definitions

Chaos is typically related to narratives where something big is undergoing. Creation is linked to chaos. Diseases, earthquakes, pandemics are connected to chaos. We are conditioned to thinking that, after a chaotic phase, things will be calmer, settled, and we could have a period of well-deserved rest.

Part 3: Why?

“Cancer, Choreographed” is the last part of the only trilogy in the world on this subject. I never planned on writing a three-part piece on the topic of breast cancer. Once I was done with my doctoral thesis in 2007, I went on raising my child and being a full-time mom. I knew that I wanted to develop a character that spoke about femininity and motherhood in the context of breast cancer, but I did not know if I knew how to do that. By 2011, I completed the first draft of my play. In original, it was titled “Transitional Object” because I was playing with a toddler in my own life and because, like Susan Sontag, I was also searching for that perfect metaphor to talk about a type of cancer that ravished me profoundly. Seeing my mother dying because of it, witnessing the silence that was wrapping our home like a doomed cocoon of despair and ignorance, being left to figure out my life without her – this was tantamount to a load of trauma I had to carry on my shoulders (because back then I thought I did not have a choice).

Part 4: Intermission

Dear mom, just so you know, there is no one here. You may undress so I can touch your heavily disfigured breast and armpit. Let me see that part of your body. Do not hide it anymore. Yes, I promise you, it is just us. Yes, I promise you, we will dance afterwards.


Part 5: Technicalities

During an entire decade, from 2011 until 2021, I revised all three scripts many times. I added two more because breast cancer does not happen only to women but also to men. I was thrilled that I found someone to publish my plays. Caridad Svich is a name in the industry, and she knows that not all plays will end up being performed. Even when then they are performed, not all of them are reviewed in prestigious magazines, therefore, so much material is lost.


Part 6: Performances

In 2020, during the first year of the pandemic, “Snowdrops and Chlorine” was performed in Zoom. It had a stellar cast, and we completed a project during one of the worst periods of our lives. In 2021, “Mia” had its debut at HERE: Arts Center. After years of workshops and revisions, we finally offered it to the public.

Part 7: What Americans Missed

“Cancer, Choreographed” had its debut in Bucharest – the same place where my mom told me she had cancer. I was not there because I could not split myself in half. I wish I did! Both performances were sold out. Local NGOs that facilitate dialogues between hospitals and the patients and their families and caregivers got involved and managed to bring them to the performances. The venue was packed. The joy was palpable, and I could sense it even miles away via a computer screen. The performers were satisfied and energized by the public’s energy. By contrast, the American public was very cold. I know that without the right budget, a publicist, a manager, etc. an artist could sadly bury their own hard work. Still, what I have a difficult time understanding and accepting is why the otherwise open-minded, risk-takers, uninhibited and willing to participate Americans missed the huge celebratory component of the performance.

When I first came to this country, 25 years ago, and I landed in Indiana, part of the cultural shock was this Western type of joie de vivre that was so different than the one I was used to. Romanians like to party, but not daily. We party when there is an occasion. We do not fabricate joy because that may/will backfire. By contrast, here, teaching was fun, learning was fun, eating was fun, literally everything was fun. So, guess what, when everything is sold as fun, there is no room for realness! I found myself entrapped in a bubble of unsolicited fun, which of course was an illusion. But, for the first years of my life in the States, I thought people were genuinely having or trying to have fun. During that time, I was also exposing myself to expressions such as “Don’t worry, it will pass,” “Time will heal,” or “Everything will be fine.” My Balkan disposition and makeup, my father’s inherited stoicism and laugher as coping mechanisms were not exactly fond of these idioms. Furthermore, since I was an immigrant, I thought I was also in a glass case listening to muffled sounds that were all around me, debating whether or not I had to adopt that mentality and lifestyle, or run for my life.

So, when this performance travelled from Bucharest to the east coast of the US, few people came to participate in the experience. Of course, the title is scary. But one of the choreographers explicitly asked the US collaborators to advertise the event as having many several parts, one important being a birthday qua dance party. If this aspect were heavily promoted, we could have had a better/more involved audience. Think like this: when you attend a party, chances are you will somehow catch the celebratory vibe and, at least for that time being, forget about what worries and/or pains you.

As the guests were entering the space, they did not quite know they were participating in a birthday party and that their roles would not be confined to their seats. My script qua dance was not envisioned as a long, crying, overwhelming procession, but as a combination of complex forces. When asked several times why there was a comma between the words in the title of my piece, I never provided an answer because I wanted that to be revealed during performance qua participation and involvement from the public. Now I feel like I must fill in the gap: When you hear cancer, how do you react to it? When you think about cancer, what do you do? Do you do something for yourself, someone else, and/or your community? How do you motivate others to take cancer seriously while at the same time lessen its unavoidable, fearful burden?

In the original script, there were 11 characters: one man, the patient of breast cancer, and a chorus of 10 women. For logistical and monetary reasons, we had to adapt the original script. So, one performer had on their shoulder the task of playing various roles from this original chorus. At one point during the performance, the performer says: “I need volunteers to help me create a healing dance. Without your participating, I cannot continue. The show cannot continue.” The implication here is or at least we thought it would be quite easy to grasp: We need the other to start and accelerate the process of healing. The implication here is that next time when the public goes to see their doctor, they could perform a rudimentary dance at home and ask their dear ones to participate as well. We are stuck into these dangerous routines, we also rarely use the public space to erupt in joyful, however short-lived, communal experiences, we think a disease is exclusively personal, and thus we continue a hurtful mistake of our civilization. In other words: we are afraid to be free and happy. We choose to be … civilized and disciplined.

Part 8: The Comma that Unites/Divides Us

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke candidly about healing. Her take on a broken femur that eventually healed is relevant to this day because of one simple reason: it is true. This example of healing is an irrefutable indication that we can’t heal in isolation, incarcerated physically and/or metaphorically. We need the other to tend to someone’s wound, listen to their sighs and cries, caress, bring a glass a water and offer a heartfelt embrace. Mead spoke about collective healing. I think she did more than that: she brought hurt back home, made it visible, address it publicly, so that we reflect on what love and communities are. While we do that, we stand up, move around, maybe even dance.

Videoclip: https://youtu.be/jSdbRzHV79Y

Videographer: Ryan Brooks

Photographs: Romanian Cultural Institute

Thank you, Cosmin, Cristina, Alexandros, Sabina, Cinty, and Michael.

Partners: Jersey City Theater Center, Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, Arcub, AFCN.

In memoriam: to Rodica, Gabriela, and Marijo.

A special thank you to my family and friends.

Dr. Catalina Florina Florescu

Affiliation: Pace University, New York

E-mail: fflorescu@pace.edu

Staging Breast Cancer Trilogy is catalogued at the Library of Congress: https://lccn.loc.gov/2021392152

What Americans Missed: Cancer, Choreographed

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