A Brief History of the XO
In January of 2008, I made my first XO. Or, rather, my sister made my first XO on me. The XOs (as they’re now named, pronounced like the letters “x” and “o”), are the translucent tape mannequins that have made numerous appearances in past FACT/SF productions.
Six XOs were featured in 2017’s Remains, which you might have seen in San Francisco at ODC Theater or in Los Angeles at the LA Theatre Center. In 2010, we danced with XOs in The Consumption Series (2010). Even before that, and before I moved to San Francisco, the very first XO premiered in a 2008 work called REMNANT, which I made as a commission for Acid Rain, a contemporary dance company based in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
Over their 10 year history as a major design element of my work, the XOs have at different times symbolized loss, absence, presence, the presence of absence, desire, dreams, history, and time. I keep coming back to them and the love affair is far from over. The XOs will return for our upcoming premiere, death.
How We Make XOs
The XOs are made by wrapping the dancers in layers of packing tape. First with the sticky side out, and then with the sticky side in. Once the entire dancer’s body is taped, we cut them out of the form. Then, we use more tape to fix the seams. What we’re left with is a full-body, translucent cast of the dancer. We call them XOs because they are a sort of exoskeleton, but also because of the affectionate relationship each dancer develops with them. It now takes us about 45 minutes to make each XO, and we work in teams of 3 (one person being taped, two people doing the taping).
Origin of the XO
In early 2008, I was spending time at my family’s home in Oceanside, California, after a grueling (and beyond amazing) 18-month stint as a company member with Provincial Dances Theatre in Yekaterinburg, Russia. I had originally planned to dance in Russia for 5-7 years, but it didn’t work out. I had a nervous breakdown and needed to come home. I felt like a failure. I was grieving the career goals I had abandoned when I left the company, and thinking deeply about what would remain from that short experience. What had I left behind? What would I carry forward? What happens when someone, or something, ‘goes away’? My feelings about leaving Provincial Dances spiraled into broader feelings about other things, and people, I’d left behind. And, that expanded even more broadly into thinking and feeling about people who had left me, either because they had died, intentionally ended a relationship, or had more amorphously somehow slipped away from my life. Generally speaking, I was thinking a lot about absence and what happens when one, for whatever reason, cannot continue.
Even though I’d already left Provincial Dances, I still had six months left on my Russian visa and I was in conversation with three different dance groups about creating new work for them. Nothing was finalized yet, and I was stuck waiting to see what would happen. I knew, though, that I wanted to use one of these new works as a way to explore absence and loss. I had no idea how to do it, but I was eager to figure something out.
During this same period, in early 2008, I spent time reconnecting with childhood friends who were still in San Diego. One of them was dating a high school art teacher, and the three of us hung out a few times. We started talking about my upcoming project, and she told me about one of the activities she did with her students. The students would tape each other to make casts of their bodies, and then stuff those casts with newspaper and dress them with clothes. She used this project with her students as a way for them to explore art making, craft, identity, and aesthetics. It sounded cool to me. So, one day I bought a bunch of tape from Costco, asked my sister Kelsey if she was free, and had her tape me up. It worked! We created the first XO. Back then, we just called him ‘Tape Man.’
The XOs on Stage
Just a week after Kelsey and I made Tape Man, I got confirmation on all three of the commissions in Russia. I bought a plane ticket, flew to Chelyabinsk, and started working on a new piece for Acid Rain, REMNANT.
REMNANT premiered just about ten years ago, in spring 2008. The 40-minute work featured an 8 dancer cast, plus one Tape Man that we made on my body. This time, the Tape Man got a new name, Lovely. Lovely featured prominently in the work as a 9th performer, as a prop and set piece, and a symbol of desire, unfulfilled hopes, loneliness, and the absence of companionship.
Shortly after REMNANT premiered, I decided to move to San Francisco and start my own dance company. We made a few works in 2008 and 2009. Then in 2010, FACT/SF premiered our first evening-length work, The Consumption Series. I was 26 years old, and very much in the throes of figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be. In The Consumption Series, each dancer had their own personal XO to perform with. In that work, the XOs functioned as extensions of ourselves, and as a way to play with and explore identity, history, and the passage of time. Whereas in REMNANT the XO stood in as a device for the exploration of one’s relationships to others, in The Consumption Series they functioned more as a way for us to explore our relationships to ourselves.
We gave 6 performances of The Consumption Series in that initial run at the now-closed Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory. Then in 2011 we performed the work again in Portland, Oregon and locally in the SF International Arts Festival. In 2012 we toured The Consumption Series across Russia, making a new batch of XOs before every performance and discarding them before traveling on to the next city. It’s odd to think of the many XOs of ourselves (versions of ourselves, really), that are still buried in trash heaps across the entirety of Russia.
The XO returns
In 2016, while in the Balkans working on Platform with Liane Burns, I decided that I wanted to make a piece about death. Or, more precisely, a piece about the aggrieved...those of us who have been adjacent to the dying and the dead many times, and who accumulate more grief and more loss over time. The news cycles in fall 2016 were filled with reports of Black Americans being killed by police and thousands and thousands of people dying in the war in Syria. Just months before, in spring 2016, FACT/SF premiered (dis)integration - a work about the history of Roma Diaspora which also, sadly, is a history full of genocide and death. My family, too, has been in a perpetual state of grief since my mother was killed in 1984. So...the subject matter was both close to me personally and also everywhere I looked.
death began with these considerations and contexts in mind, and I began the exploration by creating a series of shorter works in 2017 and 2018. For Remains in 2017, I decided it was time to bring the XOs back. Now, more than anything else, they would represent the absence left behind when someone dies, the memories that live on, and the real and imagined relationships that the living have with the dead.
As we lead into the premiere of death next week, the FACT/SF team is continuing to explore what this all means and how to share our perspectives and experiences with you. We want to create a work that is an opening for conversation and collective mourning, and to honor the dead as well as the living.
This is a big project, and one I’m thrilled and humbled to get to share with you over the upcoming weeks.
Artistic Director, FACT/SF
death premieres September 27 - October 13, 8p at CounterPulse in San Francisco.
Charles Slender-White is the Artistic Director of FACT/SF. He has created dozens of original dance works, is a Certified Countertechnique Teacher, and has performed and taught across North America, Europe, Russia, and in Hong Kong and Australia. Slender-White started his career with Provincial Dances Theatre (Yekaterinburg, Russia), and received his BA in English Literature and Dance & Performance Studies from UC Berkeley.