PLATFORM 2012: Parallels, The End: Final Thoughts in Two Parts by Carl Paris
May 14, 2012
On Saturday, March 31st, Danspace Project brought to a close its nine-week PLATFORM 2012: Parallels series of performances, panel discussions, and film screenings focused on questions of black dance, identity, and postmodern performance. The series marked the 30th anniversary of Ishmael Houston-Jones’s original two-week ground-breaking 1982 Parallels, which brought together eight then emerging black experimentalist choreographers. In the spirit of this grand ending, I write this, my final blog post, in two parts. The first part will focus on the culminating performance, which Houston-Jones sub-contracted out to Ralph Lemon (an original Parallels choreographer). The second part will focus on closing remarks about the series.
Part One: On An All Day Event, The End: Framework Conceived by Ralph Lemon
Ralph Lemon’s dances are grand and seductive. They combine a kind of romantic lyricism with a trenchant inquisitiveness that cuts against easy assumptions about what he is doing or saying, often asking questions, yet not giving answers. Many of these characteristics were evident in Lemon’s ten-hour marathon event on Saturday, March 31st, An All Day Event, The End.
Conceived as a performance installation, the idea was to create a sanctuary where performers could improvise with Jamaican-born visual artist Nari Ward’s sculptures, each for an hour at a time over the course of the day (from 11:30 am to 9:10 pm). The artists included: niv Acosta, Souleymane Badolo, Kevin Beasley, James Hannaham, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, Malcom Low, April Matthis, Okwui Okpokwasili, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Willow Parchment, and David Thomson, although not appearing in that order.
Ward’s sculptures were a collection of pedestrian objects made stunningly luminescent and chic by wrapping silvery foil around them. They included a wheel chair, a rope ladder hanging from the ceiling, the shape of a person lying on a brown pool chaise, a curved glass panel on wheels framed in grey metal for people to interact with, and neon lights positioned along the walls like support beams enmeshed in silvery net fabric, producing all sorts of spectacular effects with the performers and on their own. One of my favorite objects was a large metal wheel barrow with golden branches sticking out of it, which, when moved, produced an odd musical squeak. Luminescent in another way was Mike Wolf’s superb musical selection for parts of the day, consisting largely of African and African diaspora music, but not exclusively. Roderick Murray’s lighting was equally fantastic.
I arrived at about 11:35 am [darn the “L” Train]. Lemon had already begun his section, eponymously titled “Ralph Lemon” like the other ten sections bearing the names of their performers. I first noticed the groovy jazz music overlaid with a fragmented text of a male voice. But, since it was ending, I did not get much more than vague references to black identity and culture. Ralph was moving in pedestrian fashion from object to object, wrapped at first in a deep blue kimono, experimenting with the wheel chair, trying on a giraffe’s head and then a goat’s head. But then he takes off the kimono. Now only in his white underwear, he performs a luscious dance sequence to a 1970s Afro jazz piece, with movement that I characterize as a cross between downtown release technique and Africanist “get down” abandon. Lemon’s body remains low to the ground as he repeatedly backs up against a pillar, which then propels him forward into a kind of possessed inner probing. It reminds me of the movement he put on his dancers in his recent work How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2008-10).
Obviously, watching artists improvise for ten continuous hours can be grueling. But even though people could come and go at will, I could not tear myself away for more than a few minutes at a time. After Lemon, each dancer brought something unique to the task at hand, resulting for me in a kind of mental collage.
Some highlights—shorthand description/analysis:
Malcolm Low and his partner Simone Sober play off each other to groovy music (Alice Coltrane and Nina Simone, for example), walking, running, contact improvisation; Low’s contagious smile and voguing/release-inflected dancing is fab. . . Twelve-year old Willow Parchment has good stage presence; intelligent investigation belied her young age. . . Novelist James Hannaham sings—and/or hums—wearing earphones and a bear suit, reminding me of John Irving’s 1981 coming of age novel The Hotel New Hampshire. Hannaham asks in the program do we know singing can cure snoring? . . . By this time, other elements come into play like writing on the ceiling–a lot of existential stuff, but too small, too far away for me to read; also a looping video, projected on a side wall of Ralph Lemon performing his dance from early on; a nice technological feat by multimedia artist Luke Schantz. . . . April Matthis also sings: “I’ve been kissed by a rose on the face,” she reads passages from Leonard Cohen, sensual, sits still, seems to be trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, rummages through her cluttered bag of scarfs, high heeled boots, make up, and changes clothes . . . . Omagbitse Omagbemi, a statuesque, mysterious figure, in long robe, scarf covering face, slowly reveals herself as a woman of flesh and emotion . . . . Okwui Okpokwasili, with tubes tied to her breasts, begins with sensual yawns, which morph into vocal warm ups, some sound like baby noises, [confirmed] a baby in the audience unexpectedly repeats her sounds, Okpokwasili responds (for a good ten minutes), audience is delighted. . . .
Souleymane Badolo uses solemn prayer and traditional African dance movements, then call and response with the audience; he teaches a movement to a little girl . . . .
Young niv Acosta, plays ukulele, references lesbian love and loss with side kick, Tess Dworan, who holds the mike for her and cuddles up to her while she sings:
I went to her house
She offered me food
I only excepted tea
Because its gluten free . . .
More queer identity, David Thomson, black mask covering his entire head, high heels [gorgeous legs] a gauzy, almost see-through dress. It is evident from the imprint he is wearing nothing underneath, he writes in diary, subversive; lots of in-your-face attitude, lifts dress, bumps and grinds bare ass to James Brown music, dangerous and titillating . . . . Kevin Beasley, in the final section before Ishmael Houston-Jones, plays synthesized music, invoking celestial images, calming, souring ideas. . . .
The last performance by Ishmael Houston-Jones merits special attention, with its “score stolen from Yvonne Meier’s ‘Area 51’” (program note), a brilliant conceptualization, breathtaking in its radical minimalism. He performs the entire work in a huge black garbage bag, with microphone and a flashlight inside. The piece is somewhat autobiographical, I think. He references Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “Thirty years ago when I did the section from Part 2: Relatives “In the Dark,” someone came up to me and said ‘your piece reminded me of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:’ I had not read the novel. . . I still have not read it.” [Ouch Ish! somehow that is disappointing, why so defiant about that? Still, I appreciate being able to make the connection for myself . . . you know, the pervasive significance of Ellison’s metaphor, issues around black male identity?] . . . Houston-Jones talks about a variety of things with humor and sincerity while he moves in the bag like a giant worm, slowly inching toward the back area of the dance space. He converses with people he knows are in the audience: “I had a teacher give me three rules once. ‘First, when you give a critique, always say you could work on your transitions; second, if you can’t jump, don’t; and third, if you start your piece in a bag don’t get out’” . . . Life is a mystery,” he says. He makes anguished noises and talks about exorcising himself. He moves violently, working himself into an emotional state. “I am not sure if I am sweating or crying. They both feel the same,” he says. . . . With an ironic tone, he asks, “So what have we learned about black dance tonight?” No one answers. He mentions Dudley William doing “I Want to Be Ready” from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. He tries to execute Williams’s famous coccyx balance, says he never could do it, [this points to the premise of this series; questions raised around the notion of black dance and expectations of the black body]. . . . He mentions Kyle Abraham’s new piece, Boys in the Hoodfrom a couple of weeks earlier in the series. “It’s a curious time to make a dance with a title like that,” he says [a reference to Trayvon Martin wearing a hoody and getting shot as a suspicious character]. . . . Now he is at the far end of the space, he attempts to wiggle up the steps. “It’s going to end,” he says as he doesn’t quite make it up to the next level. Finally he does. He emerges from the bag, exhausted. I am transfixed. Houston-Jones is a man who will put the rotten carcass of a goat or load of mothballs on stage. He is a genius at engaging the senses with the intellect in his highly conceptual works. He had me in the bag with him, emotionally claustrophobic, kinesthetically desperate, determined not to let my thoughts consume me.
Part Two: The End: Final Thoughts
Undoubtedly, like the original 1982 Parallels, PLATFORM 2012: Parallels will go down as one of the most significant dance events in recent decades. Big kudos go to Ishmael Houston- Jones for his intelligent and creative vision. As the resident writer for the series, I take this opportunity to thank the entire Danspace Project staff for their hospitality and to Will Rawls for recommending me for the job. I especially extend my gratitude to Lydia Bell, the Series Curatorial Fellow, for her wonderful support and editing suggestions.
My intention, throughout the series, has been to provide an informed spectator’s point of view of the performances while engaging the broader Parallels theme based on questions Houston-Jones poses about what defines black dance, what is mainstream, what it means to be a black experimentalist choreographer, and how new generations’ ideas have evolved since the first Parallels.
Thirty years ago, for a variety of reasons (including temperament, academic/political/artistic interests), these questions reflected a sense, among some African Americans, of alienation and being limited to expectations of a certain kind of work “because he was black” (see, The New York Times, Houston-Jones interview with Brian Seibert, February 9, 2012). This was a time in which the notion of black dance was more narrowly associated with nationalist and civil rights impulses that demanded a certain black political/artistic solidarity, as well as a certain 1960s and 70s black mainstream aesthetic, often associated with Alvin Ailey as the leading African American choreographer.
But, as Houston-Jones points out, the definition of what is mainstream, who can claim blackness, and how we see blackness has shifted (Houston-Jones, PLATFORM 2012: Parallels catalogue, p. 21). (And, I add that this change has also brought about new questions around who can claim postmodernism and experimentalism—namely is it and has it ever been just a white thing?—and how we can position black representation within postmodernism discourse.) So today, Houston-Jones asks:
Is there a ‘mainstream’ to be beyond any more? . . . whom can we identify as the next generation who will wreak havoc on the status quo? In the age of Obama, does it mean anything to be either, or both, a post-modern dance maker or a Black dance maker? Is there a group of young Black choreographers breaking away from whatever the mainstream is now? (from PLATFORM 2012: Parallels catalogue, p. 21).
To address these questions in a kind of collective way, the series represented, for me, a wide range of ideas, approaches, and intellectual perspectives. They reflect an increasingly pluralistic and imbricated world in which dancers and choreographers can cross boundaries easily. In this sense “the mainstream” is allusive, mutable, and subject to interpretations of context and location. The series also affirmed that there are more black dancers who do experimental work than thirty years ago. Now, because the postmodern is more pluralistic, they are much freer to focus on their black identities, including in relation to gender and sexuality; and they are freer to infuse popular culture forms like hip-hop and voguing. In the age of Obama, then, this means that, yes, they can be either/or.
They can be Africanist and postmodern. They can be queer and black, they can be persons of color, they can be black bodies not concerned with black themes or they can be black bodies concerned with black themes. Whatever the case, they bring something of blackness to the postmodern discourse. I close with Thomas De Frantz who says this in a slightly different way:
[B]lack live artists may number in the minority of experimental creators, and yet, africandiaspora artists [sic.] will surely continue to push against the seemingly inevitable whiteness of performance, to make something unexpected and vital happen; to call on the spirits, yes we still do that, and I dare say artists of an african diaspora always will [sic.] (PLATFORM 2012: Parallels catalogue, p. 65).
I quote De Frantz because he helps answer Houston-Jones’s questions in the broadest way: that black postmodern creators bring something vital and unique to the postmodern “cause,” but also offers something beyond it, something of itself, which is at once affirming and subversive in its existential and corporeal agency. That is what I got from this magnificent series.