Grief and Gratitude: An Introduction, Judy Hussie-Taylor
February 16, 2020
“What if our strength lies in our instinct to wind together and swell
in a chorus, each of us a tone in a chord vibrating with the past
and as yet imagined futures.”
Upon taking the helm at Danspace Project in 2008, I began designing a new model for dance and performing arts presenting, a series of artist-curated events framed as exhibitions that unfold over time. This became the Platform series. The first artist I approached was Ralph Lemon, with whom I had been friends since we met at the Colorado Dance Festival in 1990.
In addition to asking Ralph to curate the first Platform, I asked if he would perform a solo at Danspace. I hoped he might perform one of his private “Counter-Memorials” in or around Danspace’s venue at St. Mark’s Church. He came back weeks later and said he’d like to perform for an intimate group on the first anniversary of his partner’s death. In October 2008, he and Okwui Okpokwasili performed Untitled Duet. Their performance addressed the rawness of loss. Okwui and Ralph undid themselves in a ritual of sobbing and trembling. Watching them, I felt waves of rage, grief, and gratitude. Untitled Duet was only performed one other time, for 500 museum-goers in MoMA’s Atrium.
In early 2017, Okwui and I began our conversation about Danspace Platform 2020. We outlined key questions regarding how to create containers for an accumulation of physical, sonic, and energetic practices between artists with similar concerns. We discussed how our bodies carry history, memory, ancestral knowledge, and trauma. We agreed about the need to center the Platform on artists who were working at the intersections of race and gender, with an emphasis on artists blending movement, text, sound, and song.
These two questions were present from the beginning:
“how do we weave a collective song?”
“how do we hum, utter, and gesture together?”
In April, 2019 Okwui participated in a conference entitled Loophole of Retreat organized by Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman around Simone Leigh’s Guggenheim Museum exhibition of the same name. It was a historic gathering of leading black feminist writers and artists. Okwui has invited Campt, Hartman, and Leigh to the Platform to continue their conversations about creative practices by black women. Hartman’s recent book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval provided the title for the Platform which comes from her introductory “A Note on Method” :
At the turn of the twentieth century, young black women were in open rebellion. They struggled to create autonomous and beautiful lives, to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them, and to live as if they were free. This book recreates the radical imagination and wayward practices of these young women by describing the world through their eyes. . . . The italicized phrases and lines are utterances from the chorus. This story is told from inside the circle.
The word chorus goes back to the Latin choros (dancing place, a circle of singers and dancers), via the Greek chorós (a dance) from the Indo-European *ghoró-s (an enclosed place). Hartman’s chorus is “all the unnamed young women of the city trying to find a way to live and in search of beauty.”
This Platform’s chorus is an assembly of artists, dancers, singers, poets, writers, and musicians invited to create in response to our questions. We are centering contemporary performance practices that spring from and are held within LGBTQI+ inclusive, POC, feminist frameworks. We are experimenting with modes of accumulating and acknowledging. We are facilitating an emergence of historically absented voices, what we’ve been calling “a trembling archive” which, as Danspace Curatorial Fellow, Kristin Juarez, writes, “acknowledges the necessity of gathering in new formations—and its inherent incompleteness—as a vital process of being together. A trembling archive is committed to listening to and re-sounding the voices of those who cannot be seen.”
In consideration of these questions and concerns, we have designed the Platform’s events collaboratively; all events are shared by two or more artists. With a chorus of over 50 artists, we imagine performances cacophonic and gorgeous.
Sitting On a Man’s Head will hum throughout the multi-week Platform, with Okwui, Peter Born, and 30 activators holding the space for four hours every Friday night. This durational performance grew out of Okwui’s research into African and African American women’s bodies as living archives of memory, protest, and transformation. The piece will provide the singing and dancing circle. It is a place that will accumulate voices and bodies over time.
We have invited Moroccan choreographer, Meryem Jazouli, and French-Algerian choreographer, Nacera Belaza, to participate in the Platform. They are longtime friends who were eager to explore an evening of performance together and to also deepen a dialogue with US dance artists.
Okwui and Samita Sinha have each been long engaged in voice and body techniques applied to their own work. This will be Samita’s and Okwui’s first formal collaboration.
There will be two evenings entitled Poetic Utterance where we invite artists to respond to the Platform’s questions.
Each Saturday afternoon we will come together in the Church’s Parish Hall to sing, sound, move, talk, and eat. Danspace Project’s research fellows will design two of these four Saturday gatherings.
Platform 2020 is committed to experimenting with new ways of thinking, moving, and sounding together. We will not draw conclusions or make pronouncements; rather we will provide open-ended points of entry and lines of inquiry that will continue to shape shift. As Okwui has said, “Ultimately [the work is] about love, empathy, being in communion. It’s not about giving an answer or having a prescription.”
We are grateful for the valuable contributions of the curatorial team which includes Lydia Bell, Associate Curator/Program Director; Seta Morton, Assistant Curator for Public Engagement; and for a brief but critical time, curatorial fellow Kristin Juarez. Lydia’s engagement with (Jasmine)Hearn, (Tatyana) Tenenbaum, (Samita) Sinha, and Tendayi Kuumba, known as collective terrain/s, has enriched the Platform and deepened our Research Group’s discussions and thinking. Over the past nine months we’ve convened two artist Research Groups facilitated by Seta Morton, who is also one of the editors of the catalogue. Seta has jumped in with incredible energy over the past year, asking beautiful and critical questions. The Research Groups have been concerned with movement and artistic practices related to “kin & care” and “voice & body.” They will make public presentations about their research during the Platform and their collective research statements are included in [the Platform 2020 catalogue, Utterances From The Chorus, Vol. 1].
The Research Group participants are: Jaime Shearn Coan, Maura Nguyen Donohue, devynn emory, iele paloumpis, Angie Pittman, Jasmine Hearn, Tendayi Kuumba, Benedict Nguyen, Samita Sinha, Tatyana Tenenbaum, and Asiya Wadud. Their research ran parallel to our conversations about Okwui and Peter Born’s Sitting On a Man’s Head durational performance, with its exploration of the body and the voice as sites of resistance and transmutation.
Asiya Wadud is a poet who came to us through the Belladonna feminist poetry collective. Asiya wrote poetic responses while listening to Okwui’s songs from day pulls down the sky, produced by Danspace Project. The result was a Danspace/Belladonna book collaboration by Okwui and Asiya.
Over four weeks an itinerant chorus will dance, hum, chant, sing, respond, rant, vibrate, wail, tremble, gesture, and utter together. In Seta’s words, “what will be found in these places of encounter?”
What might we conjure?
This essay has been adapted and condensed from the introduction of PLATFORM 2020: Utterances From The Chorus, Vol I. The catalogue will go on sale within the first week of the Platform.