Parallels Writer-in-Residence Carl Paris on Kyle Abraham, Marjani A. Forté, Samantha Speis
April 5, 2012
Thoughts on the New Work by Kyle Abraham, Marjani A. Forté, Samantha Speis (March 22-24, 2012)
According to Ishmael Houston-Jones, a key question that drives the PLATFORM 2012: Parallels is what does it mean to be an emerging black choreographer in the postmodern mode today? Last weekend’s program—the eighth and penultimate of the series— focused on this question with new works by Kyle Abraham, Marjani A. Forté and Samantha Speis.
First on the program was Samantha Speis’s solo, The Way it Was, and Now (First Rendition) with electronic sound composed and performed by Val Jeanty and crew responsibilities by Hannah Frechette. Speis is a modern dancer with strong technical and dramatic qualities, which evince the Africanist modern dance aesthetic influence of Urban Bush Women’s Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Speis’s The Way it Was . . . is a powerful exploration into fragile social and psychological lines that can separate us from personal vitality and decline.
Here, Jeanty’s evocative glissandos and tinkling bells create an almost other-worldly atmosphere for Speis who, dressed in a black midriff and long African printed skirt, begins dancing under the alter arch of St. Mark’s Church at the far end of the dance space, with the foreground strewn entirely with various items of clothes. Repetition and variation transform the dance into a kind of inner struggle, simultaneously intensifying in emotion and decomposing in movement until she is frozen helpless, unable to move, seemingly unable to recognize who she is.
At this point, someone from off-space throws more clothes at her and she proceeds to put them on—at least ten layers of sweaters, insulated coats, and mismatched pants. Gigantic and estranged, we unfortunately recognize this person. We have seen her with her shopping cart, huddling in a dark corner, sometimes mumbling to herself, sometimes hurling her personal demons at us. We can see her pain in the way Speis desperately tries to gather all of the clothes into a single pile as if it is the one thing she has left to do; and then attempts to recapture glimpses of her old self by retrieving parts of her original dance with no success. A tragic yet beautifully human portrayal, I am struck with remorseful recognition and intense empathy as the piece unfolds.
In Here . . ., Marjani Forté explores a collective social angst about current times to which her dancers, Tara Burns, Kevin Joseph, Tendayi Kuumba, and Paloma McGregor, bring a convincing emotionalism and eclectic modern dance phrasing. The dancers are dressed in ordinary street clothes (except for Joseph who wears a military uniform) as they enter to the opening bars of the Star Spangled Banner and a taped voice asking [I paraphrase] “who are we; how are we or how are we not Americans; who gets to decide; why do we go to war; and can we forget our differences?” Each dancer performs short bursts of movement and then joins in luscious group patterns. I wanted to see more of this dancing, but the piece moved rather quickly into a series of angst-ridden sequences where dancers twitch, turn, fall or join the audience in preselected chairs, as alienated and confused members of society. The final section changes this mood suddenly when an uplifting contemporary gospel song calls the dancers together who now become more hopeful as Forté herself (who until then had not been in the piece) enters to offer solace to one of them. According to her program note, Marjani A. Forté is interested in breaking new ground “with socially and politically conscious dance making that connects with the human experience.” With Here . . ., Forté seems to be saying that church and community can provide that connection.
Last on the program, Kyle Abraham’s Boyz N’ The Hood: Pavement is an all-male work that showcases, to good advantage, the choreographer’s rather idiosyncratic and lightning-fast, hip-hop-inflected modern dance. The black, white, and Hispanic cast of dancers [which I believe is relevant here] included Kyle Abraham, Matthew Baker, Rena Butler, Chalvar Monteiro, Jeremy “Jae” Neal, Maleek Washington, and Eric Williams. Also diverse was the musical editing by Sam Crawford and Alexandra Wells of works by Benjamin Britten, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, Fred McDowell, Koln/Emmanuelle Haim.
There is something both task-like and provocatively lyrical about this piece. Men in combinations of cut-off shirts, shorts and long pants walk in and casually partner each other. They run in circles, using different rhythmic patterns, adding and subtracting dancers. They lay down casually on top of each other (all facing down); and they perform some fabulously gratifying dance sequences. At times, these interactions come in non-literal, abstract structures, for example, when a taped voice clinically instructs: “place hand on thigh,” “wrap arm around shoulder,” “touch the subject’s face,” as two men execute the movements. At other times, the action is more explicit, for example when, in fleeting moments, hyper masculine and queer representation intertwine in a look or movement or when one dancer lays face down as if dead after a struggle and another sits down and eats potato chips. The piece is powerful in its suggestive street imagery, simultaneously eroticizing the dancing male body and plumbing lines between postmodern hetero-normative and queer identity. Already established as a talented and interesting choreographer, Abraham shows increasing mastery and clarity in crafting his ideas, specifically about gender and identity.
So my response to the opening question is that emerging choreographers like Speis, Forté, and Abraham bring to contemporary dance in general and to the Parallels discourse specifically, a distinctly conscious black identity through movement and theme as well as individualistic cultural and socio-politically conscious activism. As such, they contribute in both broad and narrow ways to discourses of art, meaning, and performance.