Harmonic Convergences at La MaMa Moves! 2021

“Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”

Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century

From May 12 -23, the La MaMa Moves! 2021 Dance Festival offered talks, digital international works, livestreams from La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre and Downstairs Theatre, and live, in-person performances outdoors at Downtown Art. I had the honor of opening the festival by hosting a La MaMa Live Talks for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which I began with the above quote (and will share more about in a separate post). Though the audience was usually removed or small, there were critical connections being forged as some small proximities blossomed like fresh sprigs within fleeting synchronicities and many harmonic convergences.

The works in the festival, over a year into the pandemic, engaged with many aspects of the current social and political moment. A dominating thread of grief and healing wound its way through the many programs, and most of the artists brought song and storytelling into a La MaMa Moves! Festival that, as curator Nicky Paraiso acknowledged was full of resilient artists “making work that is essential and true to this pivotal moment in time.” There was a sense that most works were made in the effort to use art practice, performance and conversation towards solidarity, freedom and personal-becomes-global welfare. Like any break up, it will be some time before we understand who we are without our trauma. And even that statement, I realize, is carrying a lot of faith in our community’s ability to do the warrior work of caring for the humans who serve the muses.

Tatyana Tenenbaum and Hadar Ahuvia, Photo by Maria Baranova

Hadar Ahuvia and Tatyana Tenenbaum’s collaborative Prayer of the Morning was grounded in multidisciplinary modes of their Ashkenazi Jewish lineages. Drawing strength from liberation struggles while interrogating collusion with colonial regimes, they arrange a new Sound of Music “Edelweiss” with Hebrew lyrics and folk melodies. Various Broadway musical songs wend their way through Yiddish translations and alongside Ashkenazi prayer songs. As the two harmonize in a haunting wander through the empty Ellen Stewart Theater, the simple act of keeping faith – for me the more personal, active and necessary practice than the passive, ex-personal placement of hope – amidst loss, loneliness and the sanitization of violent legacies by profiteering systems sang forth a delicate invitation to live within the intimacies of an early dew.

J. Bouey, Photo by Steven Pisano

J. Bouey’s untitled: an exploration of grief streamed from the Downstairs Theatre was a “not doing” of the “traditional dance performance.” They said they would be actively resting as an important step in grieving, stating that there had been a lot of “trauma, a lot of pain, a lot of death, a lot of bloodshed happening since the panini press has started.” Offerings to the viewing audience included to to lay down, to not watch the screen, to walk away, to breath and do nothing else and to engage with the radical act of rest, especially for Black folx. The opening meditation was a balm, especially within my recent struggles to ground within a BIPOC, and particularly AAPI, sangha inside the overwhelming for-profit mindfulness apps and accoutrement of Western converted Buddhist lineages that have left the dharma’s Asian lineage largely invisible despite all of the trappings and available props. Spending the past year soaking in a harder salt bath than usual at the pervasive amnesia to America’s colonialist and imperialist legacies that brought me, my mom and many more who look like me to seek refuge on Turtle Island, I connected into the many ways “Black death, Black grief, queer death, queer grief, Palestine” are entangled with the particular struggles of those who carry my genetic coding into the deep well of rest so we can “fight, fly, freeze and appease as necessary.” Watching J. roll it out, massage their calves and gently stretch was a sweet (Nap Ministry?) hallelujah in the spirit of (Hunter College alumn and former faculty) Audre Lorde’s oft quoted A Burst of Light Cancer Journals

I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. 

Family mentor Fred Ho’s Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level recognized that capitalist industrialism and social toxicity damaged each of us deeply. I witnessed the evolution in understanding when his “revolutionary matriarchal socialist and aspiring Luddite” self began to apply his strident, strictly disciplined, militancy towards active rest and clearing out. One of Fred’s final shows, which included my partner and younger son, “Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon,” ran at La MaMa in Fred’s final days 8 years ago this month. His legacy of solidarity – often sonified through his Afro-Asian Music Ensembles or various intersectional warrior projects blasted with his baritone saxophone – has been sorely missed and invoked at many events recently, but what I recall most was the arrival of a gentler tread on the earth when he realized the toll that white supremacy had taken on not only his soul but his cells. Care is an act of warrior ship and self-care as J. has so eloquently presented and represented in word and deed carries deep providence.

Daudi Fayar, courtesy of the artist

The Virtual International Showcase featured John Scott’s (Ireland) Inside Dance, an excerpt from a cycle of works created during the pandemic called Dances for Inside and Outside. Conor Thomas Doherty, Mintesinot Wolde, and Sibéal Davitt began masked, dancing vigorously together in an insistent bounce in and out playful and fatiguing states. Kenyan choreographer/dancer Daudi Fayar blended the taut with the haut in quick bursts, fast drops and emotional reach in a brief solo, originally presented at the third edition of BoldMemoirOnline.  Gerald Casel’s excerpt from, Not About Race Dance, includes a voiceover as a dancer moves on screen. “White supremacy infects all of us. And yet, it knows when to hide. And when to come out to make sure we don’t rise up. I can move around certain spaces, but I can never feel really free. I can feel this in my body when I dance… hesitation, mimicry, un-belonging, and always self-scrutinizing.” Gerald and 5 other dancers appear on screen with the explanation that the dancers had responded to prompts about “what are you grieving right now” and “how does white supremacy show up in your body.” Two more excerpts from the work follow a similar pattern of a solo dancer and someone else speaking to the actions and connection their analysis with the larger unfolding discourse. The accumulated work of reckoning with training, aesthetics, and personal truths here provided a glimpse into how to begin to grow processes for othered bodies. My rather academic rumination on this was beautifully burst open when a glowing Morgan Bullock, popped up with her world-ranked skills (and Megan Thee Stallion Irish step dance “Savage” remix TikTok fame) in a sweet, countryside setting. Here we go. Brown and Black bodies in what I hadn’t yet conceived could be anything other than an inherently white form. And, yes, she’s met Jean Butler. Can someone please commission a collaboration for these two? Sweden’s BamBam Frost brought me back to Audre Lore in an exploration of the use of the erotic, adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism and Octavia Butler inspired dreaming towards a sustainable future in YES YES. And, I pledge…I am here for it. The cascading fabric waterfall, the furry orange chaps, the oral fixation and pelvic gyration and even soft furry sheep puppet hands and head. Birth it, love. Let the compass of a good hip roll, a gentle collapse, and tastes on the tongue bring us into an emergent strategy of transmutation.

Tiffany Mills, Home Project at La MaMa ’s Ellen Stewart Theater, Photo by Robert Altman

Tiffany Mills Company streamed Home Project (excerpts-in-process) live from the Ellen Stewart Theatre. Mills, Jordan Morley, Nikolas Owens, Emily Pope, and Mei Yamanaka drew upon memories from their varied childhood homes around the globe. As they shift back and forth from the dressing room to the stage, Mei Yamanaka video calls in from Japan and shows up in digital projections on the stage. They source material from their “complicated” homes whether historic or more recently impacted by the isolation of COVID-19 and share stories about objects, siblings (or half siblings), and various locales alongside vigorous choreography. Jordan Morley brings puppetry and an ambivalent lustre to a silken solo. Organized into a series of Acts, often meeting around a wooden table, the dancers’ search for an understanding of “home” as located in history, isolation or community remains fraught and deftly amplified by the company’s gathering energies. “I get to go back to my self, my love. I get to return to myself. The other times I’m myself, I’m not really myself… it’s not the right self… not the right ideas, not the right body type, not the right smile, not the right music… not the right tone…skin tone…I’m not right and it doesn’t feel right, so maybe I should just try left.” Nik Owens details repeated abandonments in a cycle of spoken “I lefts” while balancing and bending on one leg. In Home Project, set to premiere in 2022, Mills layers compositional languages with a studied hand, working with the stage, sets, video, live stream and contemporary dancers to form a shared journey through many intimate worlds.

Ricarrdo Valentine, Photo by Steven Pisano

He loves me, He loves me not. I love me, I love me not… washed over in an abulation of contrasting streams of external and internal love, Ricarrdo Valentine/Brother(hood) Dance! began All About Love in the sacred strife, a familiar battle for the radical self love so many humans and their bodies and souls must wrangle towards. Created in collaboration with Orlando Zane Hunter Jr. the work, streamed live from the Downstairs Theater, includes a meta-cycle of two-were-one-are-two-and-not-thru. The ensuing dance is sweeping, intimate and ripe with potent gestures of attempted rescues for endless hearts. As Ricarrdo returns to a chair and table, telling a tale of a mother’s teachings of love, the camera closes in on the framed photos and a copy of the bell hooks classic activation of love from noun to verb, the 1999 All About Love. “I’m just thinking about sustaining and uplifting my voice with/in and with/out a romantic relationship.” A solitary slow dance melts into ripples and drops as the spirits ascend, called down from above like lightening and brought up from below like the seas. And… No, No, No, You don’t love me and I know now … the reggae drops and ripples and speeds under a confession. And, am I ready for this? Was I ready? I felt it seeping through the screen… the grief and also the reaching out into the possibilities of space….I am here… I am with you in that spacetime wherewhen the lover asks for space, space that becomes indefinite, becomes infinite. I am and he is too, that lover on the other side of the world of the work? Unseen, just off screen. These seemingly insistent pairings that pull apart into new ways of being in unity if not the communion of romantic union… this is the bell hooks love we’re called to practice. And, Ricarrdo spells it out for us, filling out spacious vectors of spiraling L.O.V.E.

Jasmine Hearn, Photo by Steven Pisano

Jasmine Hearn and Sugar Vendil offered a live in-person experience in the back lot behind Downtown Art/Alpha Omega on a shared program. As my first non-school, in-person viewing in months, I found the entire aesthetic experience to be saturated in meaning and profound simplicities. Although the final live event of the festival, due to my schedule, they were the first works I was able to view and they set the tone for all that was to come to me asynchronously via the screen. Body, voice, pain, pleasure and people being gorgeous, complex entities for transformative breath and generous spirit. Jasmine worked through a set of three new songs from their soon-to-be-released album, Pleasure Memory. The time travel, energy travel and pathways allowed me to drift from the apparent solidity of a brick wall into dreamy translucent realms and roughhewn landscapes. Jasmine shapeshifts with succulent ease, I mean the movement is just so juicy and nutrient rich to consume and I received the full gift of it on a Sunday afternoon in May within the slow ease, please please, out of a long lasting lock away from one another.

Sugar Vendil, Photo by Steven Pisano

Sugar Vendil’s Test Site 7 was a vocal, musical and movement exploration of tense, rapid directional and gestural shifts that manifested a formidable, but wrangled, rage. Sugar had been a part of my opening night Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage LiveTalk along with  Yoshiko Chuma, Sophia Gutchinov, Potri Ranka Manis, and Paz Tanjuaquio. So, I had some sense of what was impending regarding the recent experiences of escalated anti-Asian American Pacific Islander hate crimes being shared on social media, through word of mouth and occasionally in mainstream news when it is sensationalist enough. But, I didn’t expect to encounter as much delight as I did, as well. In their part of the program, Sugar mobilized voice, a toy piano, pedals, a laptop and personal presence to bring forth compositions where the investigation of form merged a multiplicity of disciplines in subtle and vibrant ways. And then, a chorus of sunglassed, boba-tea wielding people arrived to sit at the edge of the stage and I was wondering if the commentary was on appropriative, capitalist “When will you love us, like you love our food” issues that bell hooks called “Eating the Other” or a particular brand of, mainly, west coast activism that calls out fellow AAPI’s for shallow, capitalist “boba-liberalism.” But, as I type this out, I catch the false binary in my pondering. I put a scratchy Gil Scott-Heron album on (yeah, I grew up in the 70’s y’all) and rest in the fullness that even a mediated medium and an online flood will not mean the revolution has been televised, bought or bedded. Sink deeper, investigate dormancy and rise again – softened, stirred up or strike ready. Artists will remind us what it is to hold true in the moment and seek the harmonic verging.

Most of the festival is currently available ON DEMAND: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/lamamamoves21

BamBam Frost, Photo by Marta Thisner

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