Feeling Sound

Johnnie Cruise Mercer/Angie Pittman: A Shared Evening of New Work

Photo: Ian Douglas

Maybe I’m alone here, but when I usually see Danspace Project performances at St. Mark’s Church in-the-bowery, I tend to forget the space is also a functioning Episcopal church. Although it certainly still looks like a church with its vaulted 20 foot ceilings, the work often transports me to a much more secular world.

But recently, I saw two pieces at St. Mark’s Church that both delve into ideas surrounding worship and identity: Angie Pittman’s Came Up in a Lonely Castle and Johnnie Cruise Mercer/TheREDProjectNYC’s Process memoir 4: The word, the sprit, and Little Rock.

Pittman’s work was decidedly quiet, but not just in terms of literal volume (most of the work was done in “silence,” without music). Much of the movement vocabulary was marked by stillness or small, slow movement and repetition. This quiet movement often gave the impression of stretching time, making it creep more slowly. In the very beginning, performer Anita Mullin leans against the wall as though waiting for something or someone. She holds this pose for what seems like 30 or so seconds before shifting to a different leaning pose. She switches back and forth a few times, each time fully settling into the pose and waiting, completely still, before switching again. During the performance, I sat there nearly holding my breath as I waited with her, anticipating action. But a big burst of movement or a loud noise never came.

After these languid poses, Mullin starts with a series of small steps in place: stepping out to the right with the right foot, back to center with the right foot then left in syncopation. Her weight goes into the floor with each step, creating a triplet sound as her sneakers smack the wood floor. She repeats this triplet to the left and then to the right again, over and over. As she settles into a groove, Mullin travels slowly with these triplet steps around the perimeter of the stage. The steps are small, so this movement takes a long time. In the audience, I waited patiently for her to finish this almost tedious journey.

The lack of huge leaps, high kicks, or any other kind of large, fast, “loud” movement, also made me aware of the vast emptiness of the performance space. The work only features two performers, Pittman and Mullin, and for the first half of the piece, Pittman is lying down, still on the steps of the altar. The absence of bodies in the space, and the quietness of those bodies, creates a sense of loneliness. Furthermore, Mullin’s Soul Line Dancing movement vocabulary, she is the Founder and Head Instructor of Harlem Smooth Movers, evokes the absence of bodies because she performs that movement alone when it is almost always performed as part of a large group. At one point, Mullin turns her back to us as she motions her arms rhythmically, her feet planted firmly; to me it looks like she is conducting an absent choir. The song For All We Know by Donny Hathaway plays very quietly while Mullin conducts, moving upstage, and Pittman gets up to face us downstage. Pittman dances in what feels like a world apart from Mullin, bending and twisting of limbs, arms reached down towards feet, spine spiraling, legs turning in and out in the hip socket. She almost seems to be physically turning in on herself, like she is trying to fold in half. Hathaway’s song evokes loneliness too, through its melancholy lyrics but also in the way he pauses between certain lines and holds the last note of each phrase for such a long time, creating space.

But what does all this quiet mean? The quiet nature of Pittman’s work certainly disrupted my expectations of what this performance, and performance in general, should be. Concert performance in the western world is often imagined as something that should entertain us by being funny, exciting, scary, or all of the above. It is often loud, at least momentarily, and it is often full of big movements. By being nearly the opposite of all this, Came Up in a Lonely Castle defies expectations and resists the norm. It is not only quiet sometimes, but it is quiet most of the time, taking us on a long, somewhat monotonous journey that doesn’t jolt you out of your seat, but gives you the space to think.

When reading Came Up in a Lonely Castle: I am quiet, and I am more than you can imagine, Pittman’s thoughts on her own work, it is clear that she indeed intends to resist the norms of capitalism, nationalism, and racism through her thoughtful quietness. Pittman speaks about herself as a naturally quiet person, and ruminates on the ways in which our capitalist society is always working to normalize outspokenness and “fix” those who are quiet or calm. The relationship between noise and capitalism in Pittman’s work reminds me of Peter Sloterdijk’s notion that capitalism is tied to the hunger for speed and an ever-moving-forward. To move slowly, and perhaps without any definitive destination, would then be a resistance, or re-imagining of the world we live in today. When Pittman is both quiet and still, she is creating an experience that is anti-capitalist.

Pittman also contemplates the relationship between quiet and prayer: “Quiet is not just a lack of noise. It is indicative of the interiority of a person. It is waiting, it is listening, it is breath, it is prayer. All things that keep a Black person alive.” (Pittman, Feb. 6, 2019)

For Pittman, quiet is not a vacuum, but rather the active creation of a space for one’s self. A space to simply exist, with enough room to exist in whatever way she wants to. There is space for her to think and dream, and in that way, be multiple versions of the same self simultaneously. Pittman says, “In waiting, there is a multiplicity of ways to be internally that is in conflict with a singular expression in public.” And what I think she means is that by thinking aloud, by performing silence, by performing a process of prayer, Pittman is able create a world that is totally her own. Quiet prayer allows Pittman to be a black woman who challenges society’s prejudiced notions of what a black woman should be. If the world we live in assumes a black woman is always too loud, then Pittman performs black femininity as something outside of that caricature, as a multifaceted, complicated whole.

It is also interesting to note that when Hathaway holds a note, we get a chance to hear the beautiful variations in his vibrato. Similarly, when Mullin holds pose, or Pittman stretches time and space, there is more room to think and notice minutiae in their movement. The audience is urged to pay careful attention to the world they are creating.

Pittman and Mullin only dance together at one point in this work. One could certainly argue that they are always dancing together, although there is almost always so much physical space between them. Both performers are quiet, both are praying, both are sharing a space, both are creating this world that is black and female, and they are creating it on their own terms. However, their similarities become starker when they join hands towards the end of the piece and dance the same Soul Line Dance steps in unison. They are like twins, but they are different at the same time. It is as if we can more easily see their differences because they are so similar, and also more closely see their similarities because they are so different. They are juxtaposed. In the end, they separate again (physically). We can see that black womanhood is not one person or one thing, even (or especially) when it is quiet, but rather, a community of prayer: past, present, and future. Pittman uses this space to be herself, for herself; not a public-self for the rest of the world, but a private-self that is also part of a community. Prayer is resistance in its quiet multiplicity.

Mercer’s work is far less quiet, at times even boisterous, but it also speaks to community and prayer. While Pittman created her own world of black female interiority through quietness, Mercer and TheREDProjectNYC re-imagined black spirituality through an excess of sound and feeling.

The piece begins with rather straightforward signs of worship: the loud thud of a book (which I couldn’t see, but guessed was a bible) and the loud strains of gospel music (Secret Place by Karen Clark Sheard, For Every Mountain by Kurt Carr & The Kurt Carr Singers, The Blessing of Abraham by Donald Lawrence). The first song they play is Secret Place, which blared from the speakers (unlike the hushed tones of For All We Know). It is obvious that the music moves the dancers both physically and emotionally. They all dance and sing along to the music in a tight cluster, but it is Shanice Mason in particular whose dancing is propelled by the music. She spins, leaps, and runs, almost non-stop until she nearly collapses, completely out of breath and gasping for air. Her exhaustion is not an act, but rather, the real effect of being propelled by the music. There is a sonic materiality to the music which changes Mason as it vibrates through the floor, walls, and air of the building.

Paul C. Jasen refers specifically to low frequency pitches when discussing how sounds can literally change or act upon the body in Low End Theory: Bass, Bodies and the Materiality of Sonic Experience, but I would argue that any sound has the potential to relate to the body and move it. In the church, being moved by music could be understood as possession by the Holy Spirit. But in either case, we have an unseen force acting upon the body. And that force, whether it be the Holy Spirit or the vibrations of sound waves, incites feeling in the dancers; a joy so exuberant as to physically move them. Music and feeling are connected in this state of animatedness, which I believe Mercer articulates as a “physicalized otherhood through trance”. The connection between sound and feeling, has charged the environment with a potentiality and liveness. This charge transports the dancers’ body to a different realm or “otherhood”/ other-than-self-ness. Just as Pittman’s quiet prayer created space for her to be different versions of the same self, perhaps the animatedness in Mercer’s work allows the dancers to become something other than their day-to-day selves, or someone else in addition to their singular self, or a multitude of selves.

While the music may move the dancers physically, the dancers also move their bodies in ways that make music. The dancers’ movement is so big, so difficult to contain, that it pushes corporeal boundaries selfhood to literally reverberate through the air waves and floor of the room. Their rhythmic stepping extends beyond the confines of each individual body to create sound with hands and feet. One dancer’s stepping even incites other dancers to move, spurring a quick banter between bodies, hands, and feet. They are in playful competition with one another, egging each other on through movement. There is no recorded music playing, but the dancers make music with their bodies. It is a way of communicating without words. They are moving beyond the boundaries of the physical body and becoming an entity that is relational and reaches as far as their sound waves can go.

There is deep pain in the work too; a feeling so much in the body that it becomes physicalized as screams and tears. The dancers often vocalized throughout the work (there was a beautiful monologue about reclaiming black performance and minstrelsy), but what moved me most was the deep, from-the belly, ripping screams that escaped from the mouths of several dancers. This happened a few times in the work, and each time it was a singular person who screamed, allowing you to feel the agony and lonesomeness of each scream distinctly. What was so interesting to me about the screams is that like the feeling of joy which had to escape through a physicalized movement, the dancers’ pain moved them so deeply as to extend beyond the confines of their body and manifest the world as sound. There is an idea of excess, an abundance of feeling so great that it cannot be contained within the body, but rather, must get out. And it is not a pain that can be expressed in finite terms through words, but instead through an ephemeral, multitude of pitches and the ungraspable wavelength of noise.

Tears too come at the end of Mercer’s work, another overwhelming expression of feeling. Mercer, Mason, Thomas, Tyger Moore, and Adrianne Ansley come together again near the end of the piece to dance to another gospel song (I think it was For Every Mountain). As they dance, I see Ansley’s face contort and her shoulders bend forward, as though it is hard for her to breathe. She looks exhausted, and Mason puts her arm around Ansley’s waist to support her weight. Then, slowly, Ansley begins to cry. It looks as though her body is in pain from the weight of sadness. But the tears could also be an expression of joy, or a complicated amalgamation of the two distinct feelings.

I must admit it made me feel a little uncomfortable to see such a seemingly private moment in such a public place. And it is precisely this discomfort which makes me consider José Esteban Muñoz theories on ethnicity and affect. In “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and Other STDs),” Muñoz argues that National affect is “a mode of being in the world primarily associated with white middle-class subjectivity, {which} reads most ethnic affect as inappropriate” (69). Ansley’s public tears (which she does not try to hide) fall outside this white way of being in the world which prioritizes bourgeois decorum. Her crying made me uncomfortable because I am so attuned to the “National affect” which condemns any surplus of feeling. Not just condemns but also marks as other and non-white. When Ansley cries, Mikaila Ware screams, Mason dances wildly, and Mercer and Moore step loudly, these physicalizations of feeling resist the “National affect” and instead manifest modes of blackness and black spirituality.

Through feeling black, the dancers are able to create what Muñoz calls counterpublics, or “communities and relational chains of resistance that contest the dominant public sphere” (Muñoz 1999, 146). In Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Muñoz discusses counterpublics as the creation of a world that is outside of the white mainstream, therein disrupting normative society (white, heteronormative, misogynist). Process memoir 4 does this through the surplus of feeling and sound that is created and manifested in the work itself. The performers create the soundtrack of their corporeal and lived blackness through stepping rhythms and screaming. They create an affective world all their own through their excessive and multiplicity of feelings. They even seem to create new feelings or multi-feelings, if you will: sadness and joy felt simultaneously. And these distinct sounds and feelings manifest as a world all their own.

Jack Halberstam asserts that drag king culture is a counterpublic in the book In a Queer Time & Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (128). For Halberstam, drag king culture not only disrupts the heteronormative world we live in (it is unabashedly queer), but also creates a new world or “minoritarian public sphere” (128). There are certainly moments of queerness in Process memoir 4: A joyous voguing “conversation” towards the end, among other moments. And voguing is of course not only queer, but decidedly black as well. Many may think queerness to be at odds with traditional Christian dogma. But that is one of the many beautiful things about Process memoir 4; it is so many things simultaneously. It is black, spiritual, and queer, but it is also all of the messy possibilities in between. Feeling queer may not be all that different from feeling black in that it might also be lived as a surplus of things: being too loud, too emotional, too sexual (at least in so far as it is perceived by white feeling).

The excess (in relation to “National affect”) of feeling and sound in Mercer’s work is a voluntary displacement. The dancers’ place themselves outside of white feeling, owning their otherness. Reclaiming segregation. The words “Little Rock” in the work’s title most likely references Little Rock, Arkansas where Governor Orval Faubus enforced illegal segregation in 1957 by ordering the National Guard to prevent African American students from entering the all-white Central High School (Brown v. Topeka made segregation in public schools illegal in 1954). The black church itself was born out of racial hostility and segregation. Back people have been historically forced to create their own worlds when they weren’t allowed into white society. In that vein, Process memoir 4: The word, the sprit, and Little Rock is the creation of a black spiritual world outside of white mainstream society. It is minoritarian but also public and a hopeful beacon for future possible worlds. Perhaps the work is also the process of residing in a space of faith that allows one more room to be a bigger or more extended version of who they already are. Because these physicalizations of excess feeling are not written words, or singular feelings, but rather sounds and vibrations connected to the body, the dancers’ performance is not one specific thing, but it an amalgamation of the many sounds and feelings of being black.


Halberstam, Judith “Jack”. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press: 2005.

Jasen, Paul C. Low end theory: Bass, bodies and the materiality of sound. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Muñoz, Jose Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Muñoz, Jose Esteban. “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and Other STDs).” Theater Journal 52.1 (2000): 67-79. Web. 12 April 2013.

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