Nine years ago, dancers Mikaela Clark and Mackenzie Valley first learned about young girls being sold into the sex-trade industry from friends who had returned from a trip to southeast Asia.
Outraged, the duo formed Elu Dance Co. (formerly Without Words Movement) to merge movement with social justice. They viewed dance as a way to raise awareness and provide a healing mechanism for survivors. "We saw ourselves as abolitionists," says Clark.
In 2010, a Creative Workforce Fellowship grant allowed Valley and Clark to spend five weeks touring Thailand and Cambodia, where they visited homes for girls at-risk of being trafficked and met with women who escaped. In one of the most horrifying moments, a guide pointed out a 5-year-old girl who was being prepped for sale. "I thought my heart would fall out of my chest," Clark says.
The trip led to a new piece, Without Words ... Moving Against the Sex Trade, a two-hour, whimsical Alice in Wonderland-type drama that premiered at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2011. The performance used cinematic footage and frantic movement to tell the story of characters impacted by sex trade.
"We really wanted to represent the emotional and mental reality of sex trafficking," says Clark. "We also wanted to leave with a piece of hope."
To further spread awareness about trafficking, they performed on the streets of Romania and Italy for three weeks in 2013. One performance — a scene where the characters ran to freedom — drew applause from an entire Bucharest train station.
The two soon learned that slavery comes in many forms. In 2014, the pair taught dance to children in Malawi, Africa, who were trapped by poverty.
"The experience made us realize that we want to talk about all the different ways [humans] feel trapped," explains Clark, "rather than just focus on one specific issue."
So Clark and Valley expanded their mission to offer a path to freedom to any oppressed group through workshops, programs and shows. At Cleveland Public Theatre's DanceWorks March 17-19, the dancers unveil their newest full-length piece. Inspired by C.S. Lewis' novel Till We Have Faces, the performance uses visceral, athletic movement and untraditional partnering to explore themes such as the damaging effects of possessive love.
"To me, freedom really means being free from any external or internal obstacle that holds someone back from being all they are," Clark explains.