Writer-in-Residence Carl Paris on Three Evenings
March 8, 2012
Three Evenings: Diverse Perspectives on the Black Postmodern Dance Question
PLATFORMS 2012: Parallels presented its second weekend of performances (February 16-18, 2012) at Danspace Project with three distinct evenings—part of the eight-week Parallels series aimed at exploring questions around the relationship between the notion of “black dance” and African American postmodern dance makers since 1982. According to curator Ishmael Houston-Jones, the focus of this weekend’s performances was to see what would happen if he handed over each evening to a veteran experimentalist choreographer of his generation—Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (Urban Bush Women), Bebe Miller (The Bebe Miller Company), and Dean Moss (Gametophyte Inc.)—who would each bring in three emerging black artists who are creating innovative works representative of today’s generation (Houston-Jones PLATFORMS 2012: Parallels catalogue). The resulting whole was an incredibly diverse array of creative approaches and perspectives to Parallels’ central question.
Thursday’s program, Black Jam, was curated by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar who used different forms of improvisation as the basis for exploring connections between contact improvisation (a downtown dance form) and other improvisational contexts, like Capoeira, club dance, and social dance. In her introduction, Zollar explains that her work draws on the importance of improvisation in African American culture, music and dance, for example in jazz club settings and the vernacular dance roots of her youth where, as she put it, “improvisation is spontaneity” and “figuring out where you connect in that space.” (It bears mentioning here that contact improvisers’ use of the word “jam” stems from the idea of a jam session in jazz.) To set the stage for the performance, Zollar asks in the program that we consider the questions, “What does a group of African Americans bring to the table [to downtown dance improvisation, for example] that is different? Will it be different? Does it matter?” (program note).
The performance began with a screening of original Parallels (1982) participants, Houston-Jones and Fred Holland, performing their famous contact improvisation duo (informally named Ugula, according to Houston-Jones). The two men perform in the pedestrian style of the times, in noticeably sensual explorations of lifting and use of negative space. To place Zollar’s questions within the duet’s historical moment, I believe that, indeed, Houston-Jones and Holland brought something different to the table, especially since, according to Houston-Jones “the idea was to break the rules, including being black.” As black males, their intervention represented a double “transgression,” which consisted of rebelling against the mainstream (black and white), and staking out a presence as independent artists in the overwhelmingly white-dominated avant-garde. Thus, their black bodies, their gender, and sexuality mattered, ultimately emerging as part of the Parallels generation of black choreographers.
The second event contemporizes Zollar’s questions. Here, Hunter Carter and Samantha Speis who are African American, Marýa Wethers who considers herself “a person of color” (program note), and later Brandon Whited who is white performed a live “contact improv” jam. Following verbal prompts by Zollar, they intertwine interesting and provocative threesomes, duos, and solos, touching and not touching, falling and rising, moving and stopping. More than their ethnicity or gender, I notice that their eclectic and decidedly strong technical physicality contrasted with the pedestrian style we saw in the film. Then, with another cue from Zollar, Carter began to sing the Black National Anthem—“Lift every voice and sing . . . “ in a moment that caught Samantha Speis improvising alone. This changed the nature of the improvisation.
As Speis reacted to the song, her movements suddenly conveyed meaning in a way that contact improvisation does not; and this mattered as the audience responded to it. From there, the performance took on a variety of loosely-link improvised “events,” starting with a verbal conversation between Keisha Zollar (Jawole’s niece) and Samantha Speis, where, although not necessarily the point of the exercise, the specificity of gesture and the body, as well as the context combine to suggest ethnic and gendered discourse. Next, in a particularly touching moment, “improv” became part reunion and part call and response when Zollar turns on some funky music and invites original Parallels participants Houston-Jones, Bebe Miller, Blondell Cummings and then others to join in a free style jam. At the end of this segment, a ten-year old Ashé Turner joins the improvisers and turns it out with some hip hop moves. The final segment of the evening, introduced by Brandon Polite, turned to improvisation in free style and house dance. Polite first gives a short history of how house dance emerged in the New York underground clubs like the Loft and The Paradise Garage and then he is joined by Monstah Black and Kendra Ross in a rousing jam, which featured solos and group coordination, “kicking” it with standard and individual moves. This got us all cheering them on toward a rocking finale, to which everyone was invited to join.
To Zollar’s questions once again, I am thinking that, as performance, improvisation presents a unique dialogue between performer and audience. They include the dancer successfully negotiating intuition, mastery, and imagination in a constant process of discovery and performance and the audience expecting, perceiving and appreciating that process where new things can reveal themselves. In the process, whether or not cultural, ethnic or gendered meanings come into play, surely depends on who is doing what, for what reason, and in what context.
On Friday, Bebe Miller presented Where We’re Calling From with choreography by Gesel Mason, Cynthia Oliver, and Marýa Wethers. As the title suggests, the offerings were personal and intimate, with an emphasis on women’s points of view. Miller writes, “Acknowledging my own roots—artistic, political, what have you—I’ve recognized a tendency to saying to little (or too much) about lines of influence, perhaps to underscore my independence in getting to be who I’ve gotten to be” (program note). Though she does not say so directly here, this typifies how Miller has approached (or not) the question of black dance as a postmodern choreographer. As she put it early in her career, “I do not have need to reflect the black experience other than my own . . .” (cited in Zimmer, “Parallels in Black,” 1987). The performance opens with a screening of the 1982 version of her movingly introspective solo Vespers, set to a Bulgarian chant (sung by Linda Gibbs), which reflects on movement itself as a language of exploration. We get that same feeling as we watch Miller improvise live in the space with her younger self on screen—both poetically and evocatively in the Danspace Project theater, connecting past and present.
The first young choreographer to present was the strong and high-energy, Gesel Mason with her solo, Work (in progress). Set to the unlikely mix of Jay-Z and Arvo Pärt, her piece combines spoken word, video, and a fluid new-age dance vocabulary with an autobiographical quality to it that speaks directly to her identity as a woman. Here, Mason, who is dressed in all white, declares that nothing has a fixed meaning, that she is who she is, through her movement, through her background. In one part, as if speaking directly to the Parallels theme, she dances while taped responses to the question of “what is black dance?” are played.
Responders include choreographers Robert Battle, Reggie Wilson, Bebe Miller, Donald McKayle, David Rousseve, Andrea Woods, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (program note). Their responses reflect what many of these artists have said over the years, ranging from “yes I draw from my black or African roots,” to “No, I don’t particularly think about representing blackness in my dance.” For me, this moment fit nicely within the context of the series; and moreover, in not responding directly to any of the responses as she tells her own story through dance, Mason seems to say that there is no one way to look at the question.
The second work was Marýa Wethers’ delightfully wry (w)hole, again to the music of Sam Cook and Diana Ross. Here, Whethers playfully juxtaposes the ritual of arranging everyday objects, like a shoe, a spoon, a sock, a jar of peanut butter against a sense of belonging and love (or the need for it). In one part, she stands in place looking at the audience with almost- imperceptible turns of the head and shifts of the body as Sam Cook’s silky voice croons about love, 1960s style. In another part, she builds on a long finger-snapping sequence, which eventually turns into idiosyncratic twists and turns of the body, perhaps saying nothing, or suggesting need and desire, which dissolve into a kind of absence, where she disappears and we hear her running around the upper levels of the Church, while Diana Ross sings “I need love, love . . . .” The piece ends when she returns to give the bow.
Cynthia Oliver’s aptly titled Boom! is an explosive duet between her and Leslie Cuyet, set notably to an extraordinary musical score by percussionist Jason Finkelman who specializes in the berimbau. In the program note, Oliver writes that her inspiration for the piece came “from the incongruous mixture of a childhood steeped in the everyday sounds of black voices [of her native Virgin Islands] and bodies moving in time and space, the legacy of Kurt Jooss’s dance dramas and what is now called ‘site specific’ improvisation via the tutelage of Atti van den Berg.” The result is a fun innovative mixture of gesture, text, theater, and modern dance. It explores friendship (between the two) and celebrates the female body as in “I am here and I am woman,” including when they shout “Bam!” while unapologetically pumping their pelvises and shaking their butts. There are several high moments that make this point, but none more than the end. Crawling on all fours and then kneeling close to the audience, the two dancers shout, “I am a punisher . . . “I’m a make you see. Make you grieve. Make you surrender. Embrace you. Grace you. And set you free… ‘cause I’m a punisher.” It was not exactly punishment. It was fun; it was hilarious and investigative, yet straightforward about its approach to the Parallels question. I think that Miller’s choice of these three choreographers spoke beautifully to the task of connecting her legacy as a female experimental choreographer and what emerging female experimental choreographers are doing today.
Clearly the most controversial, Saturday’s performance, Black Dance, (which turned out to be no dance at all) was curated by director, choreographer, and media artist Dean Moss who has earned international renown for his multidisciplinary and cross-cultural approach to identity and perception (from mapp international productions 2012). According to Moss, the aim was to present works by artists who really push the boundaries, who “have sincere slippery relationships to identity that are extreme not only to general audiences but also within their own artistic communities that define them as the other. . . . None of them are African American but all of them are Black [sic.]” (program note). The three artists were Korean-born feminist playwright Young Jean Lee, Hispanic dancer/performing artist Pedro Jiménez, and white performance artist Ann Liv Young.
Lee’s ten-minute film, aptly titled Hitting Video from Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (also directed by Moss), comments on the tyranny of tradition and power and is stunning, brilliant and violent in its minimalist conception. At first, for several disconcerting minutes, there was no image, only white noise and someone’s voice seemingly trying to direct a reluctant Lee for the shoot. Then she appears bare from the shoulders up, her hair disheveled, with a distressed look on her face. The way the film is edited makes it seem like she is being slapped repeatedly while resolutely holding back tears, this to men’s voices singing a Buddhist chant.
Pedro Jiménez’s SNooopy [sic.] analogizes (I think) the otherness of the cartoon character, always on his own, idealistic, with is scarf and aviation cap, lying atop the doghouse. But Jiménez turns this into a kind of protest. He begins the piece dancing for a very long time in the dark with obliquely placed lighting in corners that suggest nighttime in some remote village (we can barely make out his silhouette). All the while we hear him grunting and panting, followed by a cacophony of blaring megaphoned authoritarian voices repeating unintelligible phrases over and over again, but clearly giving orders, and then we hear Jiménez’s footsteps running around the building, with more grunting and more straining, still in the dark. When the lights come up suddenly, Jiménez bursts onto the scene naked, running a few times in a circle while carrying a yellow flag with the words “Pace” (Italian for “Peace”). Someone throws him a small bunch of flowers, he drops the flag; and he leaves. The extraordinary physical intensity that Jiménez brought to his idea was powerful and convincing.
The Sherry Show was a very complicated performance art work based on interacting with the audience in which Ann Liv Young appears as a chocolate brown person, a curly wig and a tight-fitting fuchsia dress. “I am white, but I am black tonight,” she announces at one point as she wipes off some of the makeup. She is accompanied by several people who act as foils or props: a young white male who holds her microphone from time to time when she wants to make a point; an Hispanic male (according to her), who acts as the photographer of the event; and a young white girl at a table in the background who sells paraphernalia and DVDs, presumably of the fictitious the Sherry show. Young’s purpose here seems to be to expose and unsettle our ideas and conventions about race and identity. No one is immune to her in-your-face “Who are you?” Why are you here?” “Are you black?” “You are Italian, right?” “You, the bald-headed white man, you are gay right . . . is that your lover?” “Gay is like being black.” But perhaps that’s the best part.
Although Young is daring and sometimes brilliantly and comically refreshing, I also found her performance confusing and uncomfortable. I found it in no way enlightening her assertion, for example, that she loves black people, that being gay is like being black, that she is white but she is getting there [being black] because she was married to the Hispanic photographer, and presumably because she could lip-synch to 50 cent and Lionel Ritchie. More gravely, though, there were moments when I could not tell if she had actually lost control of what she was doing as she reacted to some of the audience responses. For example, well into the forty five-minute harangue, when a black man protested that she might have gone too far by screaming accusations in a woman’s face, she tells him to shut up, that if he wants entertainment, she would “suck his dick” for that. And to the woman who at one point suggested that she might want to review the history of the minstrelsy [indeed, that is what it reminded me of too] she screams repeatedly “What do you want from me?” “Are you calling me a racist?” “Get out, Get Out!” In a strange way, I felt like I had been beaten up by the end of the show, even though Sherry never directed anything at me; and my sense was that many in the audience felt the same way. Perhaps that was a good thing, or at least what the artist was after, but I thought the “message” if there was one went a little awry in the unfolding of constituent elements and, thus, paradoxically reinforced some of the stereotypes she might have been trying to critique.
I left the performance that night thinking that, conceptually, by using “otherness” as the focus for the evening, Moss’s aim was to flip the question of “black dance” on its head, or perhaps to say that the concept does no merit direct consideration at all. In that sense he was successful, although I personally had a problem with equating the works of these artists with exploring black identity. Otherwise, I get the analogy of “otherness” and, on some level, I get his curatorial/artistic choice to present a cross-cultural approach the Parallels question. All said and done, the evening was powerful, thought provoking, and intelligently designed. And as a whole, Three Evenings was totally awesome, both in its diversity and in its daring.