Sentence Fragments 

A Boise choreographer is turning prisoners' writings into dance

The dance stopped and the audience rocketed to its feet. People cried, clapped and turned to their neighbors. Project Flux's performances at Ming Studios are usually emotional affairs, but Sentences, which ran June 8-9, was especially poignant.

"Someone just told me this is the best work I've ever done," said the company's artistic director, Lydia Sakolsky-Basquill. She was wilting after introducing and performing the piece, responding to a barrage of congratulations and chugging a cocktail of emotions.

Every other week since August 2017, Sakolsky-Basquill made the drive to the Idaho State Correctional Center near Kuna to attend a creative nonfiction writing class for inmates. Their work, hauled out of the prison and milled through her creative process, became the six-part performance series, Sentences. In the program, Sakolsky-Basquill wrote that Sentences was meant to give "a voice to a population so often unheard" through a process that "has proven to be a rewarding, inspiring and challenging experience." Prisoners learned to write themselves out of their mental cages, and helped a Boise dance company find new heights for its artistry and authenticity.

click to enlarge NATE MCINTYRE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Nate McIntyre Photography

"This is the first time I've been translating someone else's voice for an extended period of time," Sakolsky-Basquill told Boise Weekly before the performance. "It's like a game of telephone I really don't want to mess up."

Project Flux's standby themes of strained relationships, time and uncertainty are front and center in Sentences, but if there's something that sets it apart in the company's canon, it's focus. Sakolsky-Basquill and her corps of dancers played up the voices and travails of the inmates, setting several sections to recordings and recitations of their essays and poems. In one instance, dancers with partners clinging to their backs trudged across the stage as fellow performer Evan Stevens recited "Dearest R.J. Reynolds," a heartfelt breakup letter to a tobacco company by Byron Sanchez, who is serving time for injury to a child and threatening a judicial officer. In another, the audience heard the recorded voice of John Warner, serving for a DUI, read "I Wanted My Life."

As if in acknowledgement of Project Flux's role as a translator for the prisoners' written work, originals of their writings were collected and bound, and along with a few loose copies of their poems and prose hanging from the ceiling by string, put on display around the walls at Ming. Sakolsky-Basquill urged attendees to read them after the show, and long after the dancers left the stage, audience members remained to explore those texts.

The dance company has worked toward something akin to Sentences for years. Project Flux often performs not to music, but to prose or ambient sounds. In the past, it has bucked against the presumptive order of things by composing choreography first, only later layering it with a recording of a spoken-word performance by actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Sakolsky-Basquill often uses popular music or signature motions to act as interstitial tissue between sections of her performances; in Sentences, she used "Hit That Jive" by Gramatik to stitch together the exhibition—then set an entire section inspired by a group poetry exercise in the prison to the song. The sound of a metronome marked the passage of time felt by inmates, but that changed when one of the dancers was placed into solitary confinement, and the sound switched to a ticking clock counting down the seconds to a more tolerable form of imprisonment.

The real voices of inmates bouncing off the walls of Ming Studios, and Sakolsky-Basquill's attentiveness to their lived experiences, extended Project Flux's theoretical and disruptive traditions while offering real-world principles.

click to enlarge NATE MCINTYRE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Nate McIntyre Photography

"...It only reinforces that you aren't worth anything."

The drive between downtown Boise and the Idaho State Correctional Center is not far, but south of Gowen Field, traces of the city evaporate from the landscape, replaced by bunch grass, khaki soil and a pale sky. By the time ISCC visitors reach its blacktopped parking lot, civilization feels like a dream. The contrast between freedom and life at the prison is just as jarring, and during a trip there in May, Sakolsky-Basquill recalled an inmate asking her, "Why are you here?"

"I got emotional right away," she said. "I just want to remind people we're all the same."

The prison classroom is located next to the chapel down a long, narrow hallway that reminded Sakolsky-Basquill of Eagle High School, both for how it looked and the penetrating, institutional smell of cafeteria food. The desks had been arranged seminar-style, with informational and inspirational posters on the walls. It looked like a high school classroom until the pupils arrived in their forest-green, v-necked prison togs.

Technically, it's Marla Archibald's classroom. During the class, the then-17-year GED instructor sat, mostly silent, behind a desk near the door. The creative writing instructor was Shane Brown, who also teaches creative writing at the College of Southern Idaho. Dressed in a polo shirt, jeans and brown leather shoes, he sat in an office chair at the head of the classroom and opened the three-hour session by addressing a general concern: In the beginning, the class had approximately two dozen students, but since then, it had whittled down to half that—"The assholes have been weeded out," as Sakolsky-Basquill put it—and the remaining students knew other inmates who were interested in taking the class. Could other people join?

Brown laced his fingers behind his head and spread his knees. The question wasn't unreasonable, but there were perils to reopening enrollment.

"Nothing will make this fall apart faster than trust going away," he said.

It was as though these people had waited a lifetime for that trust. During open discussion, which took up the first half of the class, Brown and the students spoke philosophically about the importance of teaching self-worth to young people, and several of the inmates talked about their parents and teachers prophesying they'd end up in jail.

"When you come here, it only reinforces that you aren't worth anything," said Josh King, who is serving time for murder.

click to enlarge NATE MCINTYRE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Nate McIntyre Photography

Muscular and well over 6 feet tall, King is physically imposing. During the entire class, the beginnings of a grin were always at the corners of his mouth, his eyes always on the verge of laughter or tears. He talked with intense vulnerability and scanned the room for any response from other classmates, like someone on the verge of a breakthrough.

King's counterpoint was Byron Sanchez, who burned with intelligence and wry wit that came across in his voice. At one point, King asked Sanchez to read aloud an essay King had written in response to a comment about the criminal justice system made by now-gubernatorial candidate Brad Little. To King's mind, the Republican candidate for governor had played into popular notions of crime and punishment rather than saying anything meaningful about either.

"My point was, this is what happens when you take away somebody's value," King said after the reading. Sanchez added that it's important "to get people to think about us, and about the system, differently."

A Hunger to Make an Impact on the World

Little actual writing took place during the class, but there was a lot of prompting: Sakolsky-Basquill challenged the students to write about something they're proud of, there was lengthy philosophical discussion, and one classmate read a whole chapter from a novel he was working on about his experiences in the Vietnam War. At the end of the class, Sakolsky-Basquill, Brown, King, Sanchez and another inmate—Chris Shanahan, who is serving time for murder and robbery—went in search of a place to have a more intimate discussion. They found one in the chapel broom closet, already crammed with plastic storage containers and, for some reason, electric guitars.

click to enlarge NATE MCINTYRE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Nate McIntyre Photography

There, Sanchez said the nonfiction class was a chance to "revisit an opportunity I'd chosen to miss," having turned down a chance to study journalism at the University of Rochester in 1991. Writing, he said, helped him "analyze some things," but he admitted there were a number of aspects of his life that were still too raw for him to address in class or on paper.

"There are some scabs that are best left unpicked," he said.

Sitting next to Sanchez, King talked about feeling "ready to reel it in." He had been in lockup for 17 years, he said, and the environment had nearly crushed him. Nonfiction writing has introduced him to new ideas and, more importantly, a group of peers.

"It's amazing," he said. "I've never had anybody in my life say I'm good at something, and I can do better."

ISCC had already allowed them to stage a reading to other prisoners—a first-ever for Idaho inmates Brown described later as "life-changing for everyone"—but people in the class stressed how valuable it would be for their work to have an audience outside the prison walls. During class, Brown had talked about restorative justice—a process of community reconciliation and rehabilitation that is at the heart of some criminal justice systems around the world—and the inmates said they were hungry to have an impact beyond the cinderblock walls and barbed wire of the prison. Shanahan described an intense desire for "something positive to come from [his] experience."

"For me, it was seeing this mountain of grief that came from this crime that I committed," he said. "I had this thought that I could make a bad situation worse, or I can make it better."

Sakolsky-Basquill developed the Sentences project after meeting Brown through College of Southern Idaho Director of Community Enrichment Camille Barigar. Brown taught high school for 15 years, where he learned his "favorite students to teach in high school were the marginalized ones, the ones that come from a disadvantaged background." At CSI, he labors to put the work of pupils on the fringes before policymakers and others who can make a difference.

He also drives to ISCC every other week from Twin Falls, and said he has taught the prisoners while tired and even ill. In the broom closet, his dedication to his new pupils showed.

"I want you guys to know I won't let you guys down," he said. "I'm going to make every decision in my life to benefit other people."

People involved in the class were divided on how to characterize it. Brown said "it would be a mistake" to call the class rehabilitative, but Sakolsky-Basquill said the inmates "are working hard to become better writers and better people." From the students' points of view, progress of some kind is being made because the writing they're doing demands reflection: Putting thoughts, feelings and recollections into words requires a unity of purpose and meaning that can't be faked. It necessitates motivation. As King put it, "I have an obsession with redemption."

"I don't want to walk this earth a bad person," he said.

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