There is only one other dance work that I’ve seen in my life that left as clear and strong an impression on me as the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds. It was Anna Halprin’s parades & changes, which I saw in a re-performance in 2009 at what was then the Dance Theater Workshop. In reflecting on the skeleton architecture, curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa and performed at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery on October 22, I can’t help but notice a number of similarities between it and Halprin’s piece. Both incorporated structured improvisation, a mixing of dance styles and forms, a deep sense of play, a bold engagement with the audience, and a particular permission given to watch and witness.
But there are also very notable differences. The structure of Yaa Asantewaa’s work was far less strict than Halprin’s, and the ground upon which the dancers moved was far more specific and real than Halprin’s idealized empty space. This new work lived in reality, the very messy and chaotic present, laden with all that has been swirling across headlines and before our eyes these past couple of years or lifetimes. And Yaa Asantewaa made it even more specific than that, placing the work in the bodies, hearts, and minds of 21 Black women and gender nonconforming artists (20 dancers and one musician).
The evening opened with a further grounding, this one unintentional. Every year, Danspace Project invites an artist to curate a series of events, a Platform, and this year Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls titled their Platform Lost & Found, focusing on the hysteria and loss surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the US in the 1980s and ’90s. Houston-Jones and Rawls took the stage to introduce the evening and revealed that part of why it came about is because, as they were putting their series together, they realized they had overlooked women. Needless to say, Yaa Asantewaa’s invitation to 21 accomplished artists from across practices and generations not only highlighted their omission, but also stepped right over it and kept moving.
The dancers entered the stage, and soon, one by one, began pulling their first instructions from a small basket. The spectators were told we could move about, but the house was packed — there had been a long line out the door of people hoping extra seats would be made available — and we were quickly riveted.
Early on there were primarily individual actions — moving across the floor, pacing, strutting, sliding, pressing. The prompts were singular, but overfull with meaning: “the walk; the sermon; the flood; the haunt; the planting.” Soon enough, individual actions began intersecting with others. A woman on the floor, previously moving of her own volition, now had another pressing into her, holding her back, trembling not to let her go. And then others. A whole curving line of bodies tied her down, or were they supporting her, keeping her from something? Soon the space was panting. A kind of warning rang out when an audience member was pulled onto the stage. He seemed to go willingly, but it was clear he had touched fire without realizing it. He was spun around in ever-faster circles. They took his shoes. We were not going to be able to rest easy. In the corner a woman danced herself out of her dress. Another walked, leaned, held, stood, stepped on and across a room’s length of people. We were a nervous audience, and a wanting audience. “Yes,” came the response to their call. “Yes,” again, with the “s” drawn out, from someone to my left.
Groups of dancers formed and re-formed throughout the evening. A duet, a trio, five, seven, fourteen up in the apse of the church. A lively playground; make believe drawn from the real. One woman scaled another, searching, clawing upward. Hair was pulled, braided, loosed. Clothes discarded. Games erupted, competition, laughter, praise given and drunk in, dancers admiring each other’s length, each other’s power and energy. It felt like being given a glimpse of something the dancers were doing for themselves even more than for us. Seeing them build, shape, and share this world together was what felt so moving to me — the surprising turns and emotions that kept the performance orbiting. The mother, who briefly skimmed at the edge of danger while carrying her child on her back, then sat quietly, watching, until later, on her own, when the tide of dancers briefly receded, she took her solo. The transitions, the shifts, the giving way, watching the dancers watch each other. “The mommas are showing us up,” one dancer goaded those near her as a third or fourth woman dropped into a split. Raw and bawdy comedies gave way to grappling and full desire. A few feet in front and to my right a woman’s body slowly fell backward toward the floor. “Have you got me?” she asked, as she fell. And they did.
It’s impossible to get it all down, what happened that night. Among the many things it left me thinking about was Omi Osun Joni L Jones’s discussion, in the co-authored book Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic, of the precepts behind the Austin Project, a performance and social change project she founded for women of color and their allies. The fifth precept is “Simultaneous truths,” and the sixth “Collaboration.” “Jazz aesthetics rely on the ability to imagine more than one event, sound, or idea at a time,” Jones writes in her book. “Sometimes this will feel like competition, other times it will be synthesis, and other times it could be chaos … . Polyphony and multivocality are mandatory … . It rests on the belief that individuals learn themselves more fully in interaction with others, and that there is virtue in collective power.” I cannot think of a better articulation of those two ideas, among so many others, than Yaa Asantewaa’s collectively created work. It will stay with me for a long time, as there is so much more to be said and felt about it.
the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds was curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa, and performed by Angie Pittman, Charmaine Warren, Davalois Fearon, Edisa Weeks, Jasmine Hearn, Kayla Hamilton, Leslie Parker, Marguerite Hemmings, Marjani Forté-Saunders, Maria Bauman, Marýa Wethers, Melanie Greene, Nia Love, Ni’Ja Whitson, Paloma McGregor, Rakiya Orange, Samantha Speis, Sydnie L. Mosley, Sidra Bell, and Tara Aisha Willis, with live music performed by Grace Osborne. The performance took place October 22 at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery and was part of Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost & Found, curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls, which continues at venues around New York City through November 19.
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