Parallels Writer-in-Residence Carl Paris on This & That
April 24, 2012
This & That: Day of Walking, Talking, and Watching (Tuesday, March 27, 2012)
With the apt title, This & That: Day of Walking, Talking, and Watching, the PLATFORM 2012: Parallels series at Danspace Project (curated by choreographer, teacher and multimedia artist Ishmael Houston-Jones) presented its final evening of film screenings and discussion panels, aimed at looking at questions around the notion of black dance and representation in relation to postmodern dance over the past thirty years. Tuesday’s hugely diverse program consisted of a site-specific performance by Stacy Spence, a performed lecture by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Shireen Dickson, a panel discussion about the original “Parallels on Tour” with Blondell Cummings, Henry Pillsbury, Barbara Watson, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Judy Hussie-Taylor as the moderator, and a screening of YouTube performances curated and moderated by Will Rawls.
The performance started at 5 PM, while there was still daylight, with Stacy Spence’s Trekking on the grounds of St. Mark’s Church. The three-hour work, according to Spence, is a “mobile improvisation piece,” which is meant “for our paths to cross as they do and there is no one vantage point to view” (program note). As I and others arrive at St. Mark’s Church, Spence is already trekking. He is dressed in a black sports spandex outfit and carries a huge backpack with climbing ropes dangling from it. His long strides, determined demeanor, and sudden pauses catch our eyes randomly as we chat; and so do his sudden disappearances and appearances around the church grounds. When the doors of St. Mark’s open at 5:20 PM and he enters, I am wondering “how is he going to keep this up?” But he does, as events unfold throughout the evening.
At 5:30 PM, the preeminent dance scholar, teacher, and performer, Thomas DeFrantz and his assistant, dancer-performer Shireen Dickson, began their event titled Performing Black, which was billed as a lecture performance that discusses Africanist aesthetics that undergird black dance and performance. With a mixture of playful irony, parody, chatty interaction with the audience, and with tongue firmly in cheek, DeFrantz announces that this is a three-credit course, which will include an exam. Of course, we understand that we cannot stuff an entire course into a half an hour. But that also seems to be DeFrantz’s point—that looking at issues of black dance and representation merits serious contextualization. Hence, when he recruits audience members to imitate poses in photos of various black dance groups, and then says “You are performing black dance,” we understand that there is a paradoxical tension between the accessibility we all have to black identity and performance—given the arc of Western socio-cultural discourse— and a deep imperative to understand the synchronicity of this accessibility, no matter where we engage it, consciously or unconsciously.
Citing the pioneering work of scholars like Zora Neal Hurston, Robert Farris Thompson, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild, DeFrantz, outlines and demonstrates various aesthetic characteristics like the “aesthetic of the cool,” “get down quality,” “call and response,” “the tendency to go beyond,” “dancing the spirit,” and others that undergird, as he put it, “what gets produced as black dance (from the lecture) . . . . , “ which in his essay (in theParallels catalogue) he articulates [black dance] as “an oppositional, resistant, dissident social presence in relation to white mainstream”.
For the promised “exam,” DeFrantz then posed to the audience questions like: “What does it mean to be a black dancer in America? Can an Asian person make black dance? Who is closer to black dance, Twyla Tharp or Merce Cunningham?” These questions were meant to be in part rhetorical, because, in the context of the time available and the forum, they were difficult to answer definitively. Yet they are important questions that get at the heart of what we bring socially, culturally, theoretically, and temperamentally to this concept of black dance.
For me, as a dance scholar, among the most impressive aspects of DeFrantz’s lecture performance was his ability to so clearly and succinctly articulate theoretical and practical linkages between black modernist and postmodernist dance performance and then combine them with an equally impressive performance element. This was evidenced brilliantly, for example, in his tap dance duet with Dickson where, in demonstrating what he calls “back phrasing” (two different time signatures and themes—one in music, the other in movement—made relatable through the rhythmic and physical phrasing of the body) they perform intricate rhythmic dialogues with a contemporary gospel song. It was truly a highlight of evening.
Meanwhile, Spence is still trekking up and down stairs, scaling the graded seating in the audience space, subtly changing clothes along the way, and at various points, coming into the dance space, momentarily placing his body in proximity with others before striking out again along the periphery.
At about 6:00 PM, the panel on the 1987 “Parallels on Tour”—the follow up to the original Parallels performance at Danspace Project in 1982—got underway. As noted earlier, the panel included Henry Pillsbury who was the executive director of the American Center in Paris at the time and his associate director Barbara Watson, two original Parallels participants, Blondell Cummings and Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Danspace Project Executive Director, Judy Hussie-Taylor as the moderator. The panel reflected back on the tour in Europe under the titleParallels in Black, which presented nine performances over a two-week run, with work by Cummings and Jones, as well as Fred Holland, Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who had just joined the originalParallels line up. The two directors talked about what it meant to bring this “new” black postmodern dance to Europe at the time, explaining that, since 1978, the aim of the American Center in Paris had been to expose American dancers to French artists, but this was different and exciting given that most of what Europe had seen was more mainstream work by African Americans and it appealed to the French that these black experimentalists were breaking all the rules. Thus, they advertised Parallels in Black in Le Monde as “a new kind of dance . . . characterized by the return of the individual, the use of narrative, and close alignment with music . . . linked to the new Black American culture.” The performance sold out before the doors even opened (program note).
To this, Cummings and Houston-Jones added their own reflections on the tour. Cummings talked about her sense of representing a universal human experience, even as she sometimes used black music or focused on themes about black women and other social and political concerns. She also talked about having already made connections in Europe because of her earlier work with Meredith Monk, and the opportunity to connect the performances with new experiences as she traveled throughout Europe. Houston-Jones talked about his experience as immensely rewarding but also one of mixed feelings about to what degree the performances were a success, given that there was no effort to bring the tour back again. Pillsbury explained this by saying that the response was indeed positive but that the French and much of Europe were also beginning to look to their own works, which made presenting Americans increasingly complicated.
By now, I notice that Spence has changed into a long robe. Still trekking, he seems more pensive and spiritual now. He moves around St. Mark’s at different speeds, stops with odd gestures and then moves on.
At 8:00 PM, curator Will Rawls, who has also contributed brilliantly to this series as a dancer and choreographer, presented his second screening/discussion event under the title Coining: An Evening of On-Screen Performance. The first one, which opened the series, was The Protagonists: Documents of Dance and Debate. It focused on the original experimental participants of Parallels in 1982. This second one, consisting of twelve YouTube videos of highly popular internet performance personalities, was, according to Rawls, designed to offer “a broader view of performance, featuring fictionalized self-portraitures and open a dialogue around constructions of self-representation in relation to black identity, gender, sexuality, queerness, economics, and politics” (program note). Among the videos were the following: a dancer with an Obama mask performing Michael Jackson; a young girl in her room (about 17 years old), dressed in a two-piece bathing suit, proudly singing about her lesbianism; several clips of the flamboyant, gender-bending B. Scott asserting his multi-cultural club diva identity as the cheerful teller of personal gossip and giver of advice on self-love, fashion, ending his videos with a glossy “double kisses;” the raunchy Queen of Vagina (MajelaZeeZeeDiamond, a black women in a blond wig and pink underwear) who finds creative ways to sing and dance about sweat, sex, and yes her vagina; and arguably the most politically powerful, Jayson Musson who plays Hennessy Youngman, a comedian, whose internet serial ArtThoughtz delivers a sophisticated, critically fluent compilation of advice on how to become a successful “n” word artist in the postmodern age, which belies his rough-hewn, street-language exterior.
Each of the videos offered interesting departure points for Rawls to discuss additional issues with the attendees. For example: questions about post racialism and popular culture, and what we project onto the body as in the case of the dancing Obama video; self-objectification as in the case of the young lesbian and whether she was fully aware of what she is doing; representation as a dual self-affirming and subversive act as in the case of B. Scott; and the profoundly paradoxical articulacy of Jayson Musson’s advice on how to be a black artist.
As the evening came to an end, I became aware that Stacy Spence had wound up his trekking project, although I cannot say exactly how or when. I do remember going away thinking that I liked how he embodied the idea of “our paths crossing from different vantage points at different times.” I found something at once spiritually generative and non-intrusive about the way he brought this idea to life. And I could relate that to the broader project of bringing together various perspectives and formats on the question of black representation and black postmodern dance.