This year, The New York Dance and Performance (the Bessies) Awards celebrated Urban Bush Women founder Jawolle Willa Jo Zollar for a lifetime already full of achievement and writer/curator Eva Yaa Asantewaa for an outstanding level of service to the field. Along with the ensemble win for the performers in “the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds” (reviewed by me last year), and many other well deserved honors handed out on Indigenous People’s Day (Executive Producer Lucy Sexton pointed out that LA has already renamed Columbus Day, so come on NYC!), it did appear that presenter Jerron Hermon nailed it with his hashtag #bessiessoblack. However, despite the perception that the Bessies might be making up for decades of absence in one fell swoop, from the inside, I know there was no group proclamation from either the full committee nor the subcommittees to pair the special awardees or to make a statement against pervasive white supremacy in America. This was a manifestation without planned manifest. Every person who won this year did it on their own merit – every nomination was presented as a singular entity for consideration by the committee and every winner is the result of multi-round, private ballot voting. Committee members learn about the winners when the rest of the public finds out, so… yes, perhaps, individual voters wanted to reclaim an electoral system in the time of Trump, but I will insist that the reason there are a stunning number of people of color walking around with “Bessie winner” added to their bios this year is because the field was abundant. And, based on my October viewings, the ground remains fertile and the harvest is ripe. So, get down on a knee to pick some fruit, to resist racism, or to help someone else up anywhichwayyouwant, let’s get down with this and grow from here.
At the #AmericanAF festival, a 3-week pop-up event at the New Ohio Theatre, that ran Sep 21-Oct 7, the 2016 “emerging choreographer” Bessie-award winner, Joya Powell joined the ranks of artists urgently working towards a “recalibration and re-centering of American identity” during this “vicious and incredibly alive moment in history.” In challenging the “straight – white as neutral” paradigm, the festival targeted explicit representation from black, brown, queer and fluid identities to defy supremacist definitions and to amplify the stories from America’s marginalized citizenry. With her company, Movement of the People Dance, Joya brought her migrating, expansive 2010 site-specific (For) Those We Left Behind inside. Without the cinematic backdrop of a lawn, bridge, pier and the random pedestrian, the work felt slightly muted within the black box of the theater, however as performers brought forth tales of ocean crossings, the sweep of family lore and distant origins became real. The sense of haunted migrants carrying the weight of more than a simple suitcase filled the room. Violinist Zoe Aqua and accordionist Hannah Temple provided a rich tapestry of live Klezmer music, situating some of the tale in a lush European landscape, while songs, texts and intonations in languages spoken, gestured and danced helped fill out the hemispheric perspectives, as well. When the large group of dancers engaged in a hearty, circular folk dance the energies swirled and reverberated with passion.
The night after Eva won her Bessie, I found her sitting at the Movement Research Studies Project: Stories, Strategies and Practices organized by MR’s Artist of Color Council. To say I am eternally humbled by her ability to show up and show up and show up, is to not say enough. Countless artists, and especially artists of color (me included, my partner included) have benefited from her exceptional coverage over the years. Among the affirming and inspiring stories from Arthur Aviles, Ebony Noelle Golden, Eli Tamondong and Stephanie Acosta about their artistic practices and the realities of survival that evening, it was Eva’s enduring legacy that continued to ring in my ear. As scholar and dancer, Tommy DeFrantz noted in his introduction to her award: “We who are being carried don’t realize how far we have to go.” Chair of African and African American Studies and Professor of Dance at Duke University, Tommy delivered a stunning welcome as he framed Eva’s work through an African proverb, capturing the vital responsibility of the writer to give back to the field as “dance needs to know itself through the eyes of others, through the hearts of others, through the care of others.” In the end, all the struggles, strategies and stories of the artist can feel for naught without the witness, and it is Eva who has borne and borne and borne:
A couple days later, Eva and I hug each other again outside St. Mark’s Church, on our way in to commune with Jasmine Hearn and Mariana Valencia for a Danspace Project Shared Evening. I’m still beaming from the Bessie Awards congregation and the community among the AoCC Studies Project attendees as I grab one of the comfy padded floor chairs. Jasmine does nothing to diminish the glow. Her shook, performed together with Angie Pittman and Dominica Greene, was a deliciously dreamy and creamy rumcake, lit in the warmth of Kathy Kaufman’s design of gold and lavender. Watching the dance unfold I’d catch myself thinking “mmmm…like honey…mmm…yeah…dripping like honey” and then, post-performance, in the program I read: “This is the answer to my 7-year-old self who casted spells in her bathtub…spells that dripped honey, affirmation, and the belief that magic lives in the marrow of our bones.” Yes. Simply yes. I’ve fallen under a few of Jasmine’s little spells of #blackgirlmagic around town in the past year or so, but here… here… we soaked and spun the sugar together. Athena Kokoronis of Domestic Performance Agency offered billowing skirts, and redistributed scraps like a fabricated mash-up of antebellum, southern gothic, and clouds. The cloth and the dancers float and swirl, grind and spiral. Jasmine goads a couple audience members to play slapjack before running back to the center for an explosive attitude turn. Dominica climbs a platform and conjures forces with hips and hands. The three lounge and sing and move again, gathering a multiplicity of selves and filling out the sanctuary like a Melina Matsoukas video, living in the interstitial, forever becoming.
Mariana’s soloYugoslavia delves into the role of togetherness in the formation of the individual, repeatedly invoking the list “Transmission, Translation, Relation, Proximity, Blend.” Based on stories from her Polish stepfather and a negotiation through death and grief, we witness a witty, but poignant voyage through geographic and historic personal relevancies. How do we become related? How do we relate? If not by blood, then through culture. Mariana adopted parts of the world via a non-biological parent – “he’s raised me culturally half-Polish.” She also shares that she adopted humor to resist the experience of being “brown and sad” in the world. In considering how one can begin to receive a transmission, I wonder whether “adoption” was actually the prequel to the tale that she shares in her patchwork quilt of a narrative. Perhaps a child has not choice but to receive the transmissions being broadcast to them, but there is a fierce tenderness that binds her anecdotes together that is hers and hers alone.
Cynthia Oliver’s got a fierce reading list for her latest, Virago-Man Dem. And, honestly, I wish I was well enough versed to catch the plethora of references flying past my ears and eyes in this richly layered work. Virago is, typically, a term used for women who display manly or “heroic” behaviors. With the Latin prefix “vir” meaning “man” and “-ago” indicating the female, and in a linguistic and Virgin Island twist, Cynthia has titled the work with multiple challenges to understandable gender norms. And so, before a body sets foot onstage, the multiverse is invoked.
This past January, I saw it as a work-in-progess at Gibney during American Realness. At that time, Cynthia told us: “What you don’t see today, you won’t see. And, that’s none of your business.” It was worth the wait. And, I’m glad she’s giving us the business. Duane Cyrus, Niall Noel Jones and Jonathan Gonzalez are now joined by gender non-conforming artist Ni’Ja Whitson, offering a satisfying level of complexity and discomfort that pushes into the edges of identifiable boundaries. Early in the work, as the dancers seem to stew in a kind of evolutionary ether, projected visual art by Black Kirby (John Jennings and Stacey Robinson) feed a cybernetic landscape where traditional woodcuts meet funk in a technofused summoning of self and selves and systems of representation. Jason Finkelman’s sourcing for his musical compositions throughout the night are richly transportative – both familiar and distant – at one moment I’m thinking “Gamelan?…pots and pans Gamelan?…Dumbek? Northern Africa to Caribbean?” Amanda Ringer’s lighting repeatedly helps evoke private and public spaces, especially a particular moment when footlights cast shadows upon the back wall and we’re suddenly in the glare of unfriendly headlights. Susan Becker’s costuming begins simply hoodied (with some sweet kicks) and grows and expands and delights us with surprise mutations. And, John Boesche’s animations and projections enliven the work’s heroic subtext. Against Black Kirby’s images or a lighted cyc, Boesche’s projected comic book text explodes with the performers in moments of “BOOM!” (a nice nod to Cynthia’s earlier work with the stunning Leslie Cuyjet). I’ve often bemoaned the absence of enough heroes outside Wakanda, but with Boesche’s huge text behind them, these performers swell to mythic proportions.
The power of every element in this work elevates an already stunning dance piece by a collection of phenomenal performers into a truly outstanding production. Everything stands out, but everything comes together for a satisfying whole too. Each performer maintains clear individuality against the backdrop of African-American and Afor-Caribbean masculinity. They deliver specificity and nuance to the notion of the angry black man, the feminized black man, the erotic black man and the non-biological black man to name only a few states and topics touched upon. Most often, Duane addresses the audience directly, shifting between multiple states of vocal pitch and manner, noting how alterations in speech cause ripples in response, and playing the monologist of the group, though Jonathan and Ni’Ja also share stories or serenade us. Niall often separates from the quartet and slides through sinuous walks throughout the space. But there is a lot of play among the ensemble, physically and with fleeting “hey, hey heeeeey hay hey” exchanges or the brief but deeply satisfying hint at the opening of “This Woman’s Work” as they lay on the floor. Their human silhouettes become filled with bubbles, they are fluid, elemental – earth wind air and fire. They are afropunk, they are neo-soul, they are glam, they are excelling at sports. They are Horton, House and Hip Hop. They are postmodern vogue. They are track and field and golf. They are, as Ni’Ja says late in the work… they are shape shifters. And then, in the end, they return dressed in their original hoodies. Becker’s costumes transform and they are hatchlings. The evolution continues saturated in the fierce tender.