Freely expressing in January: Day 6 Dispatch (AR Talk, Jen Rosenblit, Bessies honor Judy Hussie-Taylor)

M. Lamar & Jaamil Olowale Kosoko, The Incomprehensible Negro

I owe Jaamil Olawale Kosoko an apology. In my previous post (Day 5 Dispatch), I listed Tara Aisha Willis, Marya Wethers and Ali Rosa-Salas as my trifecta picks for the future of NYC performance curation, but Philly-straddling aside, Jaamil clearly should expand the triangle into a multidimensional spinning pyramid, which is a phenomenal transformation for many cosmic and energetic reasons (and, y’know Egypt!). On Tuesday, 1/10/17 I had the pleasure of witnessing Jaamil and M. Lamar in conversation, once again, after paradigm changing performed conversation during Jaamil’s performance for a Lost and Found Platform event (on an evening shared with Ni’Ja Whitson (Day 5 Talk/Performance), Jonathan Gonzalez (Day 3 with Cynthia Oliver), and Jasmine Hearn). It was the realest artist talk-back I’d ever experienced and made critical theory a contemporary experimental performing art form. In real time, composer, M.Lamar offered off-stage questions and commentaries on Jaamil’s unfolding work. This enlivened the on-stage action and housed the performance within an immediate discourse, a kind of Socratic intervention and probing. However, M.Lamar and Jaamil are critical theorists from so many times and spaces that, if allowed to bounce ideas and art around long enough, the cultural axis of the planet could shift from Greek agora (or Roman forum) to ancient Memphis (-cough- Egypt).

11:20am, The Incomprehensible Negro, Abrons Art Center, Underground Theater: Jaamil quotes bell hooks: “I came to theory because I was hurting-the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend-to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.” (Teaching to Transgress). Structured as a conversation that collapsed performance strategies into life practice, theory, and public discourse, the talk revealed the internal life worlds and creative practices of two artists whose creative work have been deeply inspired by the black radical tradition. The Incomprehensible Negro is a concept coined by M. Lamar. I arrive during Jaamil’s description of #negrophobia (part of last year‘s American Realness) as a memorial for his grief from the loss of his murdered brother, and the brutal realities of black and white patriarchal constructs, which are also challenged by the presence of UK based trans model, performance artist, and night-life personality IMMA/MESS. After some video from the performance was shown, M. comments on his ambivalence about black bodies moving in space and being on display. I’m usually behind a piano, and so in thinking about what Imma’s going through, with a trans black body, against ideas of realness as fierceness within a white gaze an ambivalence comes out. We present ideas that are easily consumed by imperialistic forces. Terms like “shade” are mainstream, but coming from queer subcultures. The way our cultural productivity – the way blackness works – our very gestures are consumed in a way. When he suggests that free jazz innovator Onette Coleman was never gobbled up, Jaamil interrupts with a let’s talk about that a little bit, stating that Colemen and other artists were deeply celebrated and made famous. But M. counters that the way they were consumed was different.  There’s a way we’re used to consuming the narrative of oppression (like when Oprah Winfrey always acts in serious and oppressive scenarios) that deeply concerns me. I want these people who ended up somewhere else like Cecil Taylor, he’s incomprehensible, intergalactic. Jaamil asks if that isn’t partly about a performance strategy that resists. M. responds that What I want, like Jesse Norman is a kind of black essentialism, a deep and profound transcendent-ness. There’s some back and forth about the very idea of realness, how being real in black culture is this authenticity thing. M. mentions poet and scholar, Fred Moten (author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of The Black Radical Tradition) as an influence that they’ve both read. Fred is way ahead of the rest of us, but it’s our job as artists to be way ahead of the intellectuals. Otherwise, the way we theorize becomes a coffee table thing, legible. If you’re not identifiable you can’t make any money. But, I think if you get me I need to switch it up. Jaamil they comments on the embodied illegibility…I mean look at your performance of self and presentation. I’d probably dress up as you for Halloween. I don’t have the balls to do this every day of my life. I find that fascinating. THIS {gesturing to M.’s heavily gothic outfit and make up} is not a safe way to walk down the street. M. disagrees and states that his look is protection, a black dude hoodie is more targeted than someone like my George Clinton. He’s a diety. He then explains how while at a protest (and yeah, I’m still in my teenage goth from 15 years old mode, I admit) all of M.’s friends got arrested. All the black people I knew, except for me. So this notion of safety, when we leave the normative notion and go out…It’s like George Clinton talking about Sun Ra…he’s out to lunch, but he goes out to lunch where I dine. Jaamil offers that going further into gender dynamics, once we get there, we can start to say Hey, I’m a unicorn, I’m an intergalactic entity. M. responds with I don’t think it’s bravery or safety, it’s imagination. I know some unicorn identified people. J: I can do it on stage. I can’t take that attention on in the world. I want to disappear. M.: What is that about? J: I think there is a beauty in anonymity. I don’t want to be famous. I do want the wealth. I want to move through the world and have a latte. M: And this is how this happens. And you’re loud and amazing. There’s then a discussion about the white gaze and how there all these black people on TV but they’re still in white imaginings. Some big love for Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder, as a black sociopathic maniac {wait? I’m behind, wasn’t she always just protecting some other loved one who happened to murder someone else?}

Before opening it up to questions from the audience, Jaamil shares part of the new work he’s playing with using the same Where Does It Hurt Ruby Sales audio from her appearance at On Being. Where does it hurt? was a question the civil rights icon asked during that movement. So, at a convening of 20 theologians trying to reimagine a contemporary public good from theology, Ruby named the “spiritual crisis of white America” as the calling of our time. It’s a wrenching and compassionate speech, but thinking about a clip that passed through my ears yesterday during an NPR Martin Luther King, Jr. Day broadcast, I’m hearing the voice of a young woman saying Well…so…we’ve got the media constantly reminding us that what we learned is that we ALL have to pay attention to white pain now which was followed by some hearty laughter. And, while my experience of Ruby’s speech from October is still with me, hearing it again just days away from the inauguration of the most blatantly hateful, racist and misogynistic American president in our adult lives, leaves me cold. She was heralding something that rose and managed to drag parts of this country back to a pre-voting rights act era. One most people in the room never experienced, but an integral part of American DNA.

The first audience member speaks to M. You mention Sun Ra, George Clinton, and You present yourself as a totem figure of darkness and scariness to most white people.  M. takes the flattery with a Thank you so much! The audience member continues: The visualization is scary. How does the clown as a survival technique fit into this? M responds: I never saw them as clownish. They have outfits. I see them as thinkers and makers. My goth is serious, most goths are serious. I’m not an entertainer. I think the clown is concerned with the audience.  We exist in that future space. There are references to mourning the loss and death of Tamir Rice (2014, 12 yrs old) and how the mother of Emmet Till (1955, 14 yrs old) insisted on an open casket, so people would know what had happened to him, the real brutality of his death. I want them to see what these people did to my child. This public mourning rings true in negrogothic work, real life horror, brutality and violence . We don’t ever get over that. There’s some working through of the terms Negrophobia and negrophilia. Jaamil states I’m living in the future now. 100 years from now. Philia is about legacies. I’m interested in becoming. If anything can undo white supremacy it’s black joy. All of the joy that we can conjure.  M. warns as long as it isn’t co-mingling with capitalism because then it’s policed. And then throws in Black people don’t come see my work. 

There’s a question about what it means to transcend. I think at this point M. notes that there are a lot of black people in the crowd. The audience member invokes Prince, Rick James, George Clinton, before taking us to Vanity 6 and The MaryJane Girls as a way of curating a sense of black female gaze through an incomprehensible male gaze. Jaamil shares an interest in trance as a practice and what that can open into as a ritual into a portal into an opening. In #negrophobia I want to speak to the effort it takes to get into a point to transcend, if you will. This ability to exist in a way in which you are sustained enough to be able to create spaces, to mentor, to financially support, to hold space. That takes time and effort to get to that point. M. shares a quote from Sun Ra: I don’t deal with freedom I deal with discipline. He explains that the orchestra would live with him and that he’d wake everyone up in the middle of the night for a lesson on Egyptian (yes!) numerology. He’s the father of the AfroFuture Concept that we follow. 

Another question is asked about a show where Jaamil’s hands were white and how he had just applied white lipstick before lipsynching to the Ruby Sales text. Author and journalist, Ta Nehisi Coates is cited for having this whole thing about body {how in America one’s black body can be taken from you at any time} and trying to leave my body. And, how in Toni Morrison’s Beloved all the punctuation goes away as they were trying to leave their bodies. Coates suggests there’s a bodiless and nowness. They can claim the body instead of the spirit. The growth of the spiritual is because of all the horrible things that have happened to our bodies. We can consider another plane of being. We don’t have our bodies for very long. 

There’s a final question about the public spectacle aspect of things like the dragging of a black man (Texas, 1998). M. says We know that there were lynchings, up until the 1970s maybe even into the 1980s in my home state of Alabama. That’s not that far in the history. There’s the tradition of the cutting off of the penis and fingers and toes. They’d be pickled, sold and photographed. This isn’t a long time ago. We’re seeing it in porn. It’s the same as when black people are being shot by police officers. Like with Sean Bell (NYC, 2006). I was so dumbfounded when multiple police officers shot him over 50 times. That’s an orgy. There’s something orgiastic and perverse about that. That was just 10 years ago. That’s not our racial past; this is our racial present. The proposal of putting it on the Internet… We’re in a techno graphic civil war. We’re seeing a lot of hate being thrown left and right in the visual realm. It’s present in a particular way online but it is in rhythm with our American legacy. I hate that we perpetuate it or continue to do so.

1pm, Clap Hands, Jen Rosenblit, Abrons Art Center, Experimental Theater

Photo by Ian Douglas

How to sit alone (as the Bessie Award-winning choreographer Jen Rosenblit asks) for her self-described over-crowded solo inside a crush of bodies snuggled onto several metal benches wrapping around the theater. Clapping hands is a phenomenon we do together, to celebrate, mark or culminate. Clap Hands is something we have to sit alone with, to recall being together. The sitting with it settles in like a fireside evening listen to the alternate-universe radio-show transmission that Jen, in boxing shorts, sends to us through a long spoken sequence into a fuzzy boom mic that alexia welch carries around for her. Admanda Kobilka bouncing around in a yellow wrestling singlet with pink, felt boxing glove on one hand is countered by a stealthy Effie Bowen, in white fencing knickers. Jen sticks a yellow mouthguard in and executes, furtive, left-sided, ballerina-perfect chaine turns (in black boots) despite being stuck in a constant drool inducing grimace. Boxing, Wrestling and Fencing are direct one-to-one, oppositional sports, activities grounded in a practice of sparring – bobbing and weaving, thrusting and parrying, grappling and pinning. This tension and playfulness underscores the interactions of the three, lunging at and pulling away from one another sometimes aggressively, sometimes coy but always with a tint of ambiguity until, once a big pile of fuchsia felt arrives into the space, collaborative action must be taken. The three farcically gather the pile until it fills the air between them using thighs, feet and heads while remaining linked together, only occasionally using a hand to pick up constantly falling small felt pieces in a round of whimsical though Beckettian labor. They move the pile to different locations in the theater and then proceed into a most inefficient version of an onstage costume “quick change” that leaves Jen naked (but for her boots). Eventually, Effie and various bits of equipment have been wrapped in the fabric, piled on the table, and Jen sticks her head into a felt bag, seeing pink in her persistently singular voice.

Lucy Sexton introduces Phoebe Pearl

5:30pm, Bessies Awards Presenter Award & 1st Amendment Toast, La Mama, The Basement

The Bessies Steering Committee presented the 2016 Presenter Award to Judy Hussie-Taylor, Executive Director and Chief Curator of Danspace Project in recognition of her visionary curation at an event hosted by La Mama. She was specifically cited for her producing the 2016 Special Citation-winning A Body in Places, Danspace Project Platform 2016 by Eiko Otake. As a member of the Bessies Committee, this Platform was something I championed as a recognition of the way organizations and artists can work together to bring forward the creative practices and political relevances inherently rooted in our lives. I was surprised and honored that my writing on it was used in the introduction that Will Rawls delivered before Judy received her award. I have spent the past several months (my sabbatical) writing about the need for curators to listen to artists and include them in their planning, aesthetic education and as a way to arrive at cultural equity. Much of this thinking has been fed simply by watching and reading Judy’s work during the past few years, as we only ever converse in passing moments. Her impact on the field has been great and she is greatly deserving of recognition for bringing artists directly into the curation of many years of incredible platforms at Danspace Project.

At the beginning of the evening, La Mama Moves Curator & The Club Director, Nicky Paraiso welcomed everyone and Bessies Executive Director Lucy Sexton reminded us that she had put out at call in the wake of the election to reaffirm our core values. The New York Dance and Performance Awards have saluted outstanding innovative work in the dance field in New York City since 1984. Named “The Bessies,” after Bessie Schönberg, they were established by David R. White at Dance Theater Workshop. The Bessies have honored and supported the diversity inherent in our brilliant dance landscape since foundation in 1984. In these troubling times, we wanted to take a moment to affirm our commitment to all members of the vast and varied dance-making community. We celebrate the differences of all individuals, each part of a vibrantly rich global family. Thank you for being a part of this community, for your art, and for all you do to take care of one another. Let us know how we can help in your efforts to unite, empower, protect, and create change. During Danspace Project’s seminal Lost and Found Platform (bookending the election season), Lucy’s voice was vital and insistent. Her Dancenoise performance closed the platform and served as a rallying call to action, both a reminder of past activisms and a challenge for the future.

She applied that same vision and zeal to the ceremony by bringing in theater director Rebecca Taichman, whose production of Pultizer-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s Indecent opens on Broadway this spring (notable also as one of only 2 living female playwrights on Broadway this seasonand Judson Church icon, feminist, filmmaker and bonafide “Genius” Yvonne Rainer to lead a toast saluting Rockette Phoebe Pearl, the First Amendment, and the rights of all artists and all Americans to express themselves. In case you spent December under a rock, Phoebe is THE new Dance Hero as THE Rockette who challenged the requirement to perform at the Inauguration. Dance Magazine has a more comprehensive write up. Phoebe had lost her voice and thought she couldn’t talk but she still spoke out: People have been calling me courageous, but I don’t see it that way. I’m just standing up for human rights…I think that as artists we all owe it to ourselves, owe it to community to use our platforms to do what’s right. This isn’t political…no matter where you come from, no matter sexual orientation, race, it doesn’t matter, you deserve respect and you deserve love. 

Follow the Bessies on Facebook / #theBessies / @bessieawards

 [Note: an earlier version listed Lisa Kron (originally scheduled) instead of Rebecca Taichman]

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