Survivors stand startled in the glaring light of loss, but bear witness. – Elizabeth Alexander (from The Light of the World)
Growing up in suburban New England in the 1970s, I used to stare in the mirror seeking out the particular hue that I had been told by a social studies teacher my skin possessed or looking for the slant in my eyes that brought on the slurs from passing cars. I could not identify what on my body had marked me as different though I had always insisted on checking “Other” so I could write my own cultural differentiations of “Vietnamese-Irish”. Not Asian, not White, I was my own thing. Eventually, in college I could and did identify myself as “of color” and after that, upon learning that I was living a real, Vietnamese version of the “Joy Luck Club” with my mom (you can read her memoir for the gritty details) became an Asian American. Years later, I bred Asian Americans more Asian than myself. But, despite raising them in NYC with a strong sense of that identity, couldn’t shield them, the girl-unit in particular, from the pain of ignorant comments or the isolation of being the only yellow kid in class or camp. So, they’ve gravitated to social circles “of color (and queerness)” at their school which, despite operating within the NYC public school swamp, still inhabits the same protected pastures that most of our local dance organizations seem to.
Dance/NYC just released it’s State of NYC Dance and Workforce Demographics 2016 Report in which it reports entrenched patterns of exclusion of African, Latino/a, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) populations and disabled people by dance organizations. With 68% of respondents self-identifying as white non-Hispanic, the survey offers a snapshot of the workforce that is out of step with the racial and ethnic makeup of the city’s population, which is 44% white non-Hispanic. Consistent with Ithaka S+R findings, racial diversity appears to decrease the farther one looks up the ladder of seniority, from general staff to senior staff positions and boards. A few weeks ago, I wrote that underrepresented artists needed equity, not only as fair treatment but, more so, as fair shares in the collective landscape of art making. We need not only “a seat at the table,” but to host the party. With their 11th Platform, Danspace Project has done that (again). In handing the curatorial keys over to Ishmael Houston-Jones (again) and Will Rawls, they’ve opened the door for one hellavu party. Despite it’s focus on those lost to AIDS and all of the heart-rendingly poignant components and political/contemporary urgencies housed in this platform (see last week’s Kinship of Caring), it’s also a kind of Irish-wake for the status quo of the NYC dance world. How will we ever go back after the planting that guest curator Eva Yaa Asentawaa sowed during Saturday’s the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds or the wounds that Jaamil Olawale Kosoko exposed during his excerpt of seancers (on a shared program Friday night with Ni’Ja Whitson, Jasmine Heard and Jonathan Gonzalez), primarily through the words of Audre Lorde (Power) and the audio of Ruby Sales from her “On Being” Where Does It Hurt interview.
Ruby’s voice was still ringing in my head as I settled into the same seat I’d vacated less than 24-hours before at Danspace Project. I really think that one of the things that we’ve got to deal with is that how is it that we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality? And this goes beyond the question of race. What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying or they get caught up in the throes of death… Against the backdrop of the a Platform that is continuously, brilliantly, subversively and explicitly amending ignored histories and that program after program relentlessly addresses pain and loss in its myriad forms whether from homophobic policies, racist hierarchies, or the absence of love/loved ones, even with that backdrop, or with the multi-layered ambiguity of watching Jaamil inflate his white blow-up doll and then cradling her to the soundtrack of Ruby’s questions still floating around my head (and currently flooding through my headphones), or even with the memories of the bones that poignantly fell out of Ni’Ja Whitson’s manila envelopes in their Someone Will Have to Answer the Mail I Leave or the comment from my friend Gilbert Reyes that the manila envelope is an emblem of the Medicaid line and paperwork to get his cocktail of meds, even with all that or subsequent “On Being” conversations about #blacklivesmatter activists who have been pushed out of the church due to sexuality, even with all of the ambivalence arising as all of these various divides are unearthed and laid before us, it is with joy and a sense of communal progress that I think of the work coming forth from Lost and Found.
This sense of mourning what has been and is being lost while celebrating the passage into a new life could be attributed to what La Mama Moves and La Mama/The Club curator Nicky Paraiso called a “not a purification, but a real cleansing” that occurred during this history-in-the-making performance. the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds can’t be replicated, but it must be harvested for the sake of the future of our world. We should mine the various personal experiences of viewers, participants and documentation so that, like the Contact at 10th and 2nd Conference and Performances footage on screen every time I show new college students Steve Paxton swinging Nancy Stark Smith around on his shoulder in Fall After Newton, this important moment in the continuing story of contemporary performance, we can note this happened here, at Danspace Project. And, you know what, Ish was there then too, but you wouldn’t know that from your college history class, would you? So, I will raise a uisce toast to the beloved past, but from henceforth must speak to a world filled with a multitude of unheard stories and honor the magic, power, grace, sorrow, strength, joy, sisterhood and unfettered, unapologetic presence(s) that exploded forth from St. Mark’s Church once Angie Pittman, Charmaine Warren, Davalois Fearon, Edisa Weeks, Jasmine Hearn, Kayla Hamilton, Leslie Parker, Marguerite Hemmings, Marjani Forte-Saunders, Maria Bauman, Marya Wethers, Melanie Greene, Nia Love, Ni’Ja Whitson, Paloma McGregor, Rakiya Orange, Samantha Speis, Sydnie L. Mosley, Sidra Bell and Tara Aisha Willis got dancing.
In the program, Eva included a Wikipedia definition of the folkloric and mythological concept of the crossroads, calling upon the supernatural. A life-long believer in magic in the world, I could easily fall into step with the spiritual elements. But, to say this was a paranormal event would be belittling the incredible humanity that pulsed throughout the evening. This group was definitely full of superheroes, no doubt, but while grounded through deeply powerful roots to history and spirit, the effort was very impressive in the way they took to the Octavia Butler quote in the program: You got to make your own worlds. You got to write yourself in. Earlier this year during Movement Research’s Spring Festival, I’d spoken with co-curator Aretha Aoki and workshop leader mayfield brooks (Improvising While Black) about the dearth of people of color referenced in published improvisational scholarship. After a faculty research seminar/writing group session with my Dean and supportive words from the Chairs of English and Philosophy, I’d started thinking I might be spending this year turning my old thesis defense paper into a book project on…here we go… interdisciplinary improvisational practice as cross cultural collaboration. (Insert puke face). But, really, I was just looking for a way to sneakily write improvisers of color into dance history, because aside from a few beloved Japanese butoh folks (and one well known Indonesian), they’re not on my shelves. In this Platform and during this performance, this imperative to create the new world and write into history the voices ignored, marginalized or erased continues to allow curators and artists to conjure from the stuff of dreams or (Butler’s domain) science fiction a firm, lived, actual reality. So while extremely magical, this Platform and the skeleton architecture should not fall into the cracks of myth, legend or fiction. Yes, some of these dancers may operate in the realm of the extreme or elite, and perhaps they travel through time like a Butler protagonist, but they are our contemporaries and what they have offered, as special and transcending as it has been, must be recognized and built upon in our cracked, flawed present.
At this Intersection, where 20 Black women and gender nonconforming dancers from different generations and dance genres channeled their various physical training vocabularies, their personal backgrounds, their racialized and gendered experiences, their societal/cultural and historical knowledge, and their improvisational chops, we must honor all of the possibilities that sprang forth. Out of the sanctuary of Danspace Project and beyond the worshipful adoration of an overpacked house, we must continue to find meaning through some seemingly mundane avenues like expanded opportunities, recognition, fiscal stability, respect, jobs, real jobs. Marjani, Nia and Charmaine are my colleagues at Hunter College. Ni’Ja and Maria have been, as well. I’ve had Eva, Marya, Sidra, and Paloma up to Hunter as guest teachers, adjudicators, or feedback respondents. But despite MFAs, M.Eds, PhDs, big shot dance pedigrees, prolific choreographic careers, curatorial experience, published scholarships and critical writing, arts administration skills, and excellent pedagogy among them, how many of them have infiltrated the Ivory Towers of academia or dance far enough to survive without the relentless scramble of honoraria and freelance fees? When will these, aside from the beloved Edisa (also in CUNY trenches with me), be our full-time colleagues in the universities around NYC or constantly sought out curatorial voices or senior programmatic staff at our downtown dance and arts organizations? What will it take for any of them to be commissioned consistently and persistently enough to be recognized as part of the true Next Wave? I don’t presume that any of the examples above are what any of these artists desire, but while The Dance/NYC report gives us data of discrimination, Lost and Found continues to embarrass us with the riches of a robust community of African American and Black artistic voices (with more to come in the next 3 weeks) who deserve more of our attention. Eva excerpted Obama’s Inaugural Poet, Elizabeth Alexander’s elegy and memoir, The Light of the World. It’s a fact: black people in this country die more easily, at all ages, across genders. Look at how young black men die, and how middle-aged black men drop dead, and how black women are ravaged by HIV/AIDS. The numbers graft to poverty but they also graph to stresses known and invisible. How did we come here, after all? Not with upturned chins and bright eyes but rather in chains, across a chasm. But what did we do? We built a nation, and we built its art. Anyone who has studied the evolution of popular culture in America will quickly find the repeated narratives of African American forms borrowed, copied, stolen and then transformed and marketed to a white mainstream. And now, in the waning days of that demographic dominance, can we all wonder when the mechanisms of substantial change will crank into full gear. I acknowledge a NYC-centric focus here and while I’m sure Jawolle, Onye, Cynthia and Bebe would have loved more colleagues of color “out there,” would suggest we think local and effect change at home first. The cycles of naming the drive towards inclusivity – multiculturalism, affirmative action, diversity and pluralism, cultural equity has continued, but if among the many outcomes of Ish’s 2012 Parallels Platform we might count an acknowledgement of slow progress as one, then more direct action must be taken. A recent World Economic Forum report said it could take another 170 years for women across the globe to achieve equal pay for equal work. I mean… come on… W. the F’ing F. So, how about we take just a little of what has been offered up to and pledge to take one action, however small, to eradicate the doubled discriminations of race and gender in this our tiny, little corner of the world.
Sermon done. I’ll step down from the pulpit, still charged up and preaching because I’ve been to church and waded in the water, sisters. If the dancing hadn’t been so real, so present, so richly textured, I would not be calling us to the mission. Honestly, when lighting designer Kathy Kaufmann told me it would run 2 hours, I cringed, but settled in for the ride, expecting the typical ebbs and flows of many an improv concert and that it would take some time for an unpracticed ensemble to find it’s is-ness. In the program Eva had also quoted Audre Lorde’s Poetry is Not a Luxury. Sister/Outsider was a must have in my first-year house at college. She and bell hooks were patron saints for the campus womanists, feeding my understanding about the faults in middle-class, white, hetero, 2nd Wave Feminism dominating my campus and the need to seek out equality for all. So, I’m grateful to pull it, dusty, off my shelf to quote a slightly different section: Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. With five prompts that Eva had placed on slips of paper in a basket at the base of the altar steps, the collective of performers used dance to name the nameless and breath (gasp, sob, song or laughter) to reach the farthest horizons of our hopes and fears. And, quickly, very quickly carved away at the typical (Nina Martin named) group improvisation malady of “glacial timing.” Once Marjani took *the walk* prompt into a full on thuggy, strut, fast and focused on the audience, there might have been some ebb, but there was most definitely a lot of flow.
The additional prompts – the sermon, the flood, the haunt, and the planting would feed a variety of responses from the artists throughout the evening. A few weeks ago, while watching Jennifer Monson/iLand’s in tow at Danspace, I’d written the distressed note that I couldn’t possibly fieldwork my way through watching improvisational performances with the hope of collecting hard data on collaborative impulses and their resulting execution. Despite the range and expanse of choices amongst that excellent cast, including Angie Pittman, it was distracting to be in constant analysis. The work unfolded that night as it did and I was there. And, Jennifer was indeed one of the most live of all of the live things. But, on Saturday night, the excessively dry analysis of academic scholarship burned away in the face of one of my most joyous dance viewing experiences ever. There was so much range, so many vocabularies, so many dynamic counterpoints and convergences, choreographic and performative choices, internal and external foci, somatic and entertainment driven choices, so much exploration, research and play. There was Ni’Ja’s pleasure in mobilizing power centers through explosive movement, Paloma showing off her splits, Nia showing off her splits too damn it! Margueritte running to the column and screaming “Time Out!” or “2nd Base!” The sounds of a baby crying. The sounds of a toddler gurgling. Samantha pretending to trip with a tiny babe wrapped on her back, and then displaying a “girl, you know I got this” smirk. The group found their way in and out of shared moments and solos. Hoodies got pulled up for more variations on the walk, and Marjani found herself boldly stomping out something unrelentingly fierce in the corner until a breast fell out. There was the spirit of a modern ring-shout, songs were sung, calls responded to and rhythms stomped, clapped and sung out. There was an exhaustive Pentacostal fervor, there was glossolalia, and Charmaine channeled Ashanti’s “Rain on Me” – Take this pain from me – and Mary J. Blige (or maybe she was reaching farther back to Marvin and Tammi) – You’re all I need to get by. Margueritte was twisting her hair and Nia was grinding that butterfly into the floor like the hot-ass warrior grandma she is.
One of the challenging aspects of large group improvisation tends to be the establishment and maintenance of connection amidst the individual journeys and agendas. When attending to the somatic impulses of the self can we still listen to the energy of the room, can we share space and time, will we share? In improvisational performance there can be a constant pull between the idea of authentic action and a desire to entertain, or at least perform. But, what happens when the performance is a performance of performing? When Davalois was busting out for the entire group in the moment pictured at the top of this post, her back was to us. The showiest moments were exercises in “look! look! look at me” and they incited appreciative hollers from the house, but they were presented directly to fellow dancers. Yes, we were the final recipients, but not the first. They were clearly entertaining each other and themselves. At one point, after several pieces of white cloth have found their way onstage, they found themselves in a spoof of Ailey’s Revelations complete with Sydnie running around with an umbrella borrowed from the audience. Or there was the imaginary game of double dutch. We were observers to a collective process that often looked a lot like a house party. And, that (in some ways) is what elevated this from the artifice of improvisational performance and into the realm of a witnessed happening. I believed in the communal effort, the camaraderie, on stage esprit de corps.
My friend John Gutierrez asked if any other dancer was expected to know as many forms as those being displayed by some of the performers? His question made it sound like a burden, this need to be so eccentrically skilled. But, I had been reveling in their ability to mobilize movement vocabularies from so many traditions. It’s often one of my deepest grievances that students who show up at Hunter College with a life’s worth of bachata, salsa, breaking, popping, locking, krumping, voguing, whacking, the folk forms of N. Africa and the Middle East, W. African forms or praise dance or even competitive style, street jazz find themselves completely shut down in the face of a college improvisation class. In some kind of purist pursuit of this elusive “original voice,” it’s like the re-education of Native Americans in the American Indian Boarding School movement. We desecrate their first dance language in order to assimilate them into the mainstream under the pretense of offering them a “clean” slate. And, we demean the dances they do for pleasure. We marginalize the faculty who teach the fun stuff, don’t require it or credit it towards our majors. And then, once fully indoctrinated, they too stay away from the edges. Stay squarely and safely on center. Until Nia gets them, she makes them climb the windows, roll in dirt, dance to Hendrix. On Saturday, she climbed over much of the audience – first plastered against the wall (checking out the edges) and then walking across the thighs of the front row audience members. And, her compatriots could flash their Horton credentials and Graham contractions right next to their release and contact improv moves before busting a serious jete and a running man. From Dakar to Kingston to the Bronx to Bushwick, there were avid travelers among them, fluent multilinguists deftly shifting their patois to fit the vibe of the moment whether felt out proprioreceptively or found in the funk of a chanted “no music, no music.”
Whether it was Rakiya sticking her thumb in Edisa’s mouth, or them joining Davalois and Paloma in rocking, lifting and holding Maria. Or, Tara dragging herself around the floor. Marya in Edisa’s arms. Charmaine gasping. Ululations and collapses. The babe asleep on Samantha’s back. These moments made it into my notebook as moments of distress and rest, inhabiting the same space, feeding off the same vibrations, resolving in their own ways but all cradled in a caring congregation of movers. So, when after having spent a lot of time as a silent watcher, serving double duty as performer and baby train, Samantha did hand the baby over and bounced out in an incredible solo full of contemporary dance and Africanist ease, it was like a velvety smooth cake after a rich meal. Stunning and sweet in her pleasure and the group’s collective delight as they burst into several rounds of Brown Girl in the Ring – tra la la la la.
And then, and then, the group spread out again now steeped in a warm glow and Kathy brought up Grace Osborne’s special and silver flute filled the air, followed by the sounds of water pouring, a thumb piano and singing bowls. The dancers gathered into a circle and held hands. Eva joined them and thanked them all for “saying yes. And, saying yes immediately,” with their whole hearts and all of their bodies, minds and spirits, never holding anything back, without filter, for the gracious strength and courage to go through the fire. In the end, I can only hope for Elizabeth Alexander’s words to be true: every shut eye ain’t asleep, every goodbye ain’t gone.