Please read choreographer Anh Vo's reflections on Leslie Parker's NYC premiere of Divination Tools: imagine home, the latest iteration of Parker’s multi-year project, Call to Remember. In this essay, Vo brings their background in shamanistic ritual and performance practice into conversation with Parker's remembrance and Black Dance Improvisation practice and performance.
Read the essay or listen to the audio reading by Vo.
A few years ago, I began seeking out spiritual guidance from a Korean shaman, Mudang Jenn. Growing up in Hanoi, Vietnam, with an abundance of rituals and folk magic practices, I carve out a special place in my memory for shamanism and how it culturally functions as a psychical compass to orient oneself within the unknown of pasts and futures. Shamanism was not new to me, but something was distinctively different about consulting with Jenn. I no longer felt like a child being talked down upon by a powerful larger-than-life medium, who seemed to be able to transcend reality and wield otherworldly forces. Rather, there was an immediate comradery between us, followed by an intimate exchange grounded in deep reverence and respect for the energies that we open ourselves up to. In one of her visions, Jenn could “see” that I was communing with spirits and deities while dancing. To her, dancers can also be spiritual workers who tune into their bodies as a vessel to sense and communicate with ghostly forces.
This sensibility of dancing at the edge of the physical is viscerally present in Leslie Parker’s Divination Tools: imagine home, which had its NYC premiere in October 2023 at Danspace Project. Featuring an ensemble of three dancers and three musicians, all of whom are Black, the piece is expansive in its scale yet specific and localized in its orientation to space, place, and people. The word considered comes to my mind as I participate in the pre-show procession led by Black Gotham Experience in collaboration with Parker. The audience is invited to reflect on fragments of Black histories through the simple acts of gathering and walking in the East Village, from the historic Manuel Plaza to Danspace, located in the St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. The moment of arrival at the performance is not taken for granted but carefully tended to, bringing into awareness the multiplicities of histories that are being brought into and also already percolating within the social space. This collective historical awareness is not meant to be intellectually thought about, but felt and embodied together with the vibrant music and the contagious reverberation of live percussion that greet the audience at the front door.
It is, thus, important to bring forth traces of my own personal, cultural, and historical relationship to haunting vis-à-vis East Asian folk shamanistic practices into the encounter with Parker’s work, which explicitly positions itself within the polymorphous tradition of Black Dance Improvisation and names divination and conjuring as some of its main themes. In this encounter, I am overwhelmed by sensorial information and energetic charge that get unleashed through the immense sensitivity embodied by the dancers and the musicians. Here, spirits are not transcendental forces or out-of-this-world entities that get summoned by the work. It is instead a matter of remembering what is always already there, of opening ourselves up and surrendering to the immanent multivalent histories that pulsate among and across bodies and things at all times.
This process of awakening awareness to the unknown can be scary, and Divination Tools does not take the responsibility lightly. The piece is crafted with care, providing a loose container for the more unsettling collective experience about to unfold. It takes about an hour from the start of the procession to the moment I see the three dancers, dressed in soft flowy gold clothing with metallic-texture top, enter and sit down on the altar area elevated in the back center of the performance area. This slow and considered opening—the contemplative walking procession, the percussive greeting at the front door, the musical jam firing up the space once the audience sits down, the black-and-white projection refracted through these large panels of sheer white fabric hanging down from the ceiling, which show a Black woman meticulously placing objects on two chairs sat next to each other outdoor to form an altar—all of which seduce me into a dreamlike register of time and space. I feel guided through the indeterminate cosmic shifts. And I feel held even as I am getting lost.
The dancers themselves are also getting lost, into the airiness of the music and the place. Weaving through space as an entangled web of beings, they drift together and apart with intention and curiosity. There is a deep listening quality to their embodiment—they are not producing but being produced by bodily rhythm and sonic vibration. Energetic forces move through the dancers as the dancers move themselves, maintaining a sense of self-assurance within the porousness of it all.
At one point, the dancers drift out through the front door, exit the space as the light goes to black, signaling the tentative closing of a chapter. I think to myself: shit just got stirred up, the piece cannot be ending already! There is something unsettling about this closure, which feels more like an energetic opening. Just as my perception begins softening, widening, and slowing down, the dancers bang on the door vigorously and jolt me out of my own meditative state. They rush back onto the stage with urgency, hype the space up and raise the stake of the performance to a new height. One by one, they take turn embarking on improvisational solos, dancing on a diagonal line towards a glaring light at the front stage right corner as if their lives depend on it. The floor shakes underneath their buoyant movement. The reverberation carries a punctuating force that brings goosebumps to my whole body. I am in awe of their virtuosity, of not only their idiosyncratic abilities to produce visual and rhythmic spectacles with their bodies, but more importantly, of their deep sensitivity to the music and to one another. These solos are less a demonstration of individuality than a call-and-response, picking up vibrational traces from across mediums to further get lost in the experience of togetherness.
Getting lost here can certainly be read as losing oneself or being possessed by a transcendental force. However, I am thinking about the Vietnamese concept đồng tỉnh (co-consciousness), which is shared with me by Việt Vũ, a performer trained in the northern Vietnamese spirit possession ritual, Hầu Đồng. In this days-long ritual, the performer offers themselves up to be possessed by dozens of gods and deities, dancing and speaking not as their individual selves but as a conduit for the godly beings to come alive. Đồng tỉnh refers to the delicate altered state embodied by the performer who psychically make space for and co-inhabit with the gods and the deities without completely losing themselves in the process. Similarly, the dancers in Parker’s work do not seem to lose themselves, but through co-conscious listening, they allow themselves to get lost in their own curiosity to follow immanent forces coursing among and across bodies, places, and time.
The practice of getting lost might seem counterintuitive to Parker’s ongoing question: “What is the call of home in this space?” Home often suggests a return to a place of comfort, a space of knownness. But this understanding of home does not take into account the violent displacements that haunt Black American experiences and histories. Here lies the radicalness of Parker’s remembering practice that reconceptualizes home less as a place of return, than a calling to listen to. Remembering becomes a practice of re-membering, of opening up the body to what is always already there. How can one, then, simply surrender?