Dancing a History and Defining a Project: Some Notes on Netta Yerushalmy’s “Paramodernities #3”

“What should we have the body do?”

Netta Yerushalmy and her dancers performed Paramodernities #3 during River To River Festival 2017 in a large open space at the Museum of the American Indian, where spectators and audience members can stop to watch. The space is grand, overpowering, and in the round. The ceiling is decorative and quite tall. Full of echoes and ornate wall fixtures, the energy of the space is diffuse at first. Paramodernities #3 is the third performance of a seven-part series, and is a response to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.

As a collective, the audience walks together into this new environment from Netta’s Paramodernities #2 (a response to Martha Graham’s Night Journey), which was staged in a smaller and more intimate room of the museum. Some of us are sitting on the carpet while others are leaning on a banister to watch; performers Stanley Gambucci, Jeremy Jae Neal, and Nicholas Leichter are standing in the space. They stand barefoot on the carpet as if they are waiting. Soon after we settle, dance scholar Thomas DeFrantz stands and begins to orate. DeFrantz wears a headset microphone and carries a laptop to read from. Their technology is a breath of contemporaneity in the midst of the more formally presenting dancers. DeFrantz speaks first to black masculinity (This is not a piece about black masculinity), and then to the nature of this performance (This is a deconstruction of Ailey’s Revelations). As they concludes this statement, Brittany Engel-Adams walks into the performance arena. Netta enters next, wearing an opulent floor-length skirt, completing the six-person ensemble. Suddenly the energy no longer feels diffuse.

Small moments of synchronicity such as this initial entrance are no accident, nor are they overly defined. In speaking with Netta after the performance, I asked her about the layering of this piece. She references the beginning: “If [Thomas] says This is not a piece about black masculinity, it would make sense that the three men on stage sort of burst.” And when DeFrantz states This is a deconstruction of Ailey’s Revelations, “that presence—former Ailey dancer Engel-Adams—enters the space.”

Whether the audience is able to identify this bit of history or not, it is Netta’s intent—and her collaborator DeFrantz’s as well—to imbue the dance with these moments of potential. It is a game of balancing and weighing what is invisible and seen, about “valuing what components are there, and asking how do I make those ideas legible to you.”

Legibility is a funny term, because it is my hunch that Netta is not interested in a one-to-one correlate in terms of meaning. (When I asked about this she was quick to assert: “This is not a lecture/demonstration.”) It feels more like a compiling of information that the audience can pay attention to as they will. DeFrantz narrates (or orates, or subtitles, or simply reads) from their theoretical text for the entirety of the piece. Often their words align with an action, but alignment might mean contradiction. Alignment might be a detail that expands into an action that is disproportionate in scale. And when alignment does in fact seem to mean meaning—as when DeFrantz creates a percussive, repetitive refrain which concludes …Black performance is: a bounce back. Black performance is: taking care, and Engel-Adams performs a solo of lilting strength then rests with the scholar to witness the other performers move—I am moved.

“A bounce back”

The dancing and shifting spectacle of the piece is egalitarian amongst the performers, including Netta. My gaze feels permission to wander, to miss things, to fixate on a certain soloist for too long. Stanley Gambucci, dressed in a bright orange t-shirt and shorts like an emergency flare, seems to dance inside a liminal space. I want to know their thoughts. I watch for so long that I realize I’ve stopped listening to the lecture.

Later, Nicholas Leichter struts across the carpeted space, ushering in what feels like a final section of the piece. Leichter, too, has a private, perhaps historic mission. There is an urgency to his walk. I feel him feeling our presence there.

I ask Netta how she works as a choreographer, and how the performers inform the work, and she responds simply that “the people who come with their perspective, their history, and their body into the work—that is already the project.” Each dancer is given time and space to inhabit a solo moment, whether explicit or subtle. In this way, the performance seems to function as a method to ensure being seen. Performance as reparation, as reconfiguration, as a way to bounce back and forge ahead.

“We have questions but we don’t have answers”

The choreography feels most enlivened when it serves as counterpoint or raging force behind DeFrantz’s narrative, which is an auto-theory of significant personal memories and investigation of black performance.The spoken subject matter moves from sexuality, to the nature of modern dance, to contemporary reference. Just when the bio-historical nature of a dance based in lineage begins to feel too dense or abstract, DeFrantz recalls a lyric by Kendrick Lamar and I remember our place in time.

This legible, subject-based text is given room to breathe with Netta’s physical line of questioning: “What does it feel like for me to be dancing?” is as much of an initiating force for the work as arranging elements and theory. Through witnessing these bodies, I begin to feel something extra-historical, outside of time and context. It feels like I’m watching little bits of exploding matter, roving freely and perhaps on the brink of self-combustion or recombination of particles as they go.

In terms of material, the choreography contains and reconstitutes actual excerpts of the original Revelations choreography and Netta’s own evolving situations that feel both solitary and full of a profound togetherness. There is a unison group sequence at the end of the piece that is both most evocative of Ailey’s vision—enlivened, punctuated by non-uprightness and breath—and true to the intent of this particular work—I see it as the culminating effect of Netta’s “putting elements next to each other and waiting for something to emerge.” It is cathartic and focused, and as the moving reaches its zenith DeFrantz raises their voice higher and higher until they are shouting over and over: Don’t you want to be—free.

“Don’t you want to be—free?”

I should say now, that I could listen to Thomas DeFrantz speak about the unseen layers of the world forever. So I will close with a tiny aside solely focused on them.

In the midst of pure dancing and a historic site, DeFrantz’s visible technology and upright and pacing stature transports us back to now. Their voice grows throughout the piece, resting only in attenuated pauses. Their text is organized by numerical sections. Their reading in turn gives the performance an order. The way their text has sections progressing upwards from “1”, so does Netta’s dance have dominant movement themes that show us how to see. I feel almost studious as a viewer, and despite her urging that this was not so, I do feel invested in this performance as a lecture.

DeFrantz’s closing words are: There is so much diversity here. Don’t you want to be—free? I remember that we are sitting in the Museum of the American Indian, and when the piece ends I feel like a person-in-progress: unresolved, a little uneasy, on the brink of understanding, maybe in need of a night of wild and raucous dance of my own, untethered to tradition but still rooted in what came before.

(Photos by Paula Lobo)

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