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I am watching a black man gyrate in front of me in a thong over gray briefs. A tuft of synthetic, orange hair peeks out from the front of the triangular fabric. His nearly-shaven head glistens as beads of sweat trickle down his face. His dark eyes stare intensely at us.
When writing about performance, I often feel caught between the body and the word. To attach language to bodies and movement is a complicated matter, calling into question the way words, grammar and syntax codify and enforce the body. A tinge of violence underlies this act of writing — a sort of pinning down of that which is constantly changing. More than a trace, writing marks the body.
I hesitate. I question. Racial identities within performance are too complicated to be pared down to the words black dance.
The gyrating man is the choreographer, Will Rawls. He is engulfed in his own imaginary world, one populated by German Shepherd cutouts. In Frontispieces he plays with them, worships them, discards them; he creates a little dog forest and hides there. I feel like a voyeur when watching him perform — a seeker of forbidden truths.
In 1982, Ishmael Houston-Jones curated Parallels at Danspace Project under the directorship of Cynthia Hedstrom. In the original program he writes: “Parallels was chosen as the name for this series because while all the choreographers participating are black and in some ways relate to the tradition of Afro-American dance, each has chosen a form outside of that tradition, and even outside of the tradition of mainstream modern dance … ” The original series took place over two weekends and included works by Blondell Cummings, Fred Holland, Cristina Rrata Jones, Gus Solomons, jr., Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Ralph Lemon, and the late Harry Whittaker Sheppard. Miller and Zollar have returned as guest curators in Platform 2012 — an annual Danspace series where a choreographer is invited to curate a series of performances and create a catalogue around a particular theme.
Thirty years later, Houston-Jones returns to that premise, asking: How have the terms black, experimental, and postmodern dance changed? In his curatorial statement, he asks: “For me does ‘Black Dance’ even exist? And assuming it does what defines it?”
I’ve seen this dog before, or what I think it represents.
I know what you mean about the violence of the written word. But movement is good at resisting. It dodges and skirts and slips out from under attempts to describe it; in that instant between image-hits-retina and pen-hits-paper, it has already evaporated, become something else, and something else, and something else. It plays a million practical jokes on the part of your brain that wants to say, “this is what happened.” Your mental calculations can’t keep up; the word you thought was it is now irrelevant.
Am I dodging, skirting, slipping out from under the big questions? Do I not know what to make of my own racial and ethnic identity (Caucasian Irish Jew)? Am I afraid of the topic of race? Even the delicate approach—the how-should-I-talk-about-this, the what’s-the-right-way-in — feels like a marking-as-Other. What comes to mind is a work that is not part of Parallels, but that resonates with my thoughts on the series, a recent solo performance by Lorene Bouboushian at the West End Theater. In The White Lady guts flail gluttonous fail, Bouboushian examines what it means to be a white, liberal arts-educated, art-making, female gentrifier living in the predominantly West Indian neighborhood of Crown Heights. In a soulful James Brownian voice, and wearing no pants, she belts: “Oooh, white layyy-DAY.” I see myself reflected in her.
I also see myself—feel myself—reflected in the twisted, tear-streaked face of Young Jean Lee, one of the artists in Black Dance, an evening curated by Dean Moss, who describes the participants thus: “None of them are African American, but all of them are black.” The slap, slap, slap of Lee’s Hitting Video (she is the one being hit), against a groveling masculine voice and booming Korean drum, sears through the darkness of St. Mark’s Church.
“Improvisation has always been in the black vernacular.”
“ … fascinated by the body in pain.”
“My body is my work, it’s my material.”
“We were doing contact [improvisation] but we’d break all the rules. The first rule was that we were black.”
— Ishmael Houston-Jones, during a discussion at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Feb. 2, 2012.
I come up with a list of my own questions:
How much do I need to have known or have seen in order to write about black dance?
Can I write a piece on black dance without having seen Alvin Ailey’s Revelations?
What is the validity of my voice?
How has black dance been trapped by or grown from its name?
Is black dance a genre that exists today?
–Aisha Sasha John, “Self-Portrait Portrait”
“My body can do anything.” One of the dancers said in, Check Your Body at the Door, Sally Sommers’ 2012 documentary about house dancing in the early nineties. A brief excerpt was shown as part of the program, From the Streets, From the Clubs, From the Houses. There is something amazingly raw and flexible about the dancers on screen. They move through quick improvisations that fuse forms like voguing, breaking, and some things there aren’t words for yet.
Between the body and the word is a cool distance.
Isabel Lewis’ Synthetic Action has the stretched-thinness of a worn Lycra leotard. The dancers (30-some of them) trickle in, warm up, leave. Even those mesmerizing lights, blue bleeding into green bleeding into magenta, cannot disguise the flatness. At a certain point, you realize: This is it. And so, as during long car rides, you resort to games: zooming in on a particular dancer, quietly caught up in her routine; spotting techniques like license plates: Graham, Cunningham, release, Limón, hip hop, Horton.
When Houston-Jones set out to organize the original Parallels series in 1982, he wrote to Hedstrom:
I know for myself, being black and being outside of the mainstream of traditional modern dance has given my own work the unique perspective of being doubly isolated. I feel and often express this isolation from blacks who expect me to be Ailey and dance audiences who either also expect me to be a little-avant-garde-Ailey or ‘another Bill T. Jones’ or devoid of any racial expression. This isolation has created a kind of healthy schizophrenia in me and my art that I think must be shared by those others coming from similar backgrounds.
Just as I often resist assigning language to what I see onstage, I resist seeking definitive answers to the questions that Houston-Jones has put forth. Is this lazy avoidance, or an acknowledgement that answers aren’t the point here? What’s certain is the absolute necessity of a forum in which to let these questions linger. Necessary because when you go to one of this city’s biggest, brightest dance institutions, New York City Ballet, you can still find but one black dancer on that stage. Is this bastion of whiteness really representative of the metropolis that it claims (by virtue of its name, at least) to represent? Necessary because we are so obsessed with the next thing and the next and the next that we rarely take the time to reflect, in a sustained way, on how we have gotten to where we are now.
Christine asks: How much do I need to have known or have seen in order to write about black dance?
It helps to have a sense of history. It helps to be aware, for instance, of the kind of disturbing racial essentialism that once imbued mainstream dance criticism, shaping popular notions of “black dance.” In his 1940 Book of the Dance, John Martin, chief dance critic for The New York Times, wrote:
The Negro artist, like the artist of any other race, works necessarily and rightly in terms of his own background, experience and tradition. He makes no fetish of it, but on the other hand, like any other artist, he recognizes that there are some roles and categories that do not suit him. Race—exactly like sex, age, height, weight, vocal range, temperament—carries with it its own index of appropriateness.
What he meant, in part, was: Black people shouldn’t do ballet. Elsewhere in the book, Martin elaborated:
… its [the academic ballet’s] wholly European outlook, history and technical theory are alien to him [the Negro] culturally, temperamentally and anatomically … The deliberately maintained erectness of the European dancer’s spine is in marked contrast to the fluidity of the Negro dancer’s, and the latter’s natural concentration of movement in the pelvic region is similarly at odds with European usage.
What would he say about Regina Rocke — one of the artists on the program From the Streets — who morphs, chameleon-like, between wound-up, calligraphic voguing and statuesque fifth-positions, arabesques, tendus?
It helps to know where the conversation once was, so we can recognize how far it’s come, consider how far it has yet to go.
“I’ve been waiting my entire life to be black tonight.” Ann Liv Young says as Sherry, an over-the-top, white Christian girl from the south, who comes out in blackface for Moss’s Black Dance evening. Sherry is a piece unto herself, a controlling, self-help, cult-like figure with irascible tendencies. In her Sherry shows, an ongoing series of talk show-like performances, she thrives on her audiences’ discomfort, preys on their insecurities. She pokes at individuals until she isolates a raw nerve and exposes it, a feast for the hostility and aggression that lurks beneath the surface of her counseling efforts.
“What are you? You’re not black. Anybody black here? … What about you? What’s your heritage?”
“Could you tell me what the history of minstrelsy is?” an Indian woman in the audience asks. To which Young responds: “Sometimes people ask questions they already know the answer to … ” and then lashes out, screaming at the woman and her equally skeptical friends: “GET OUT!”
Whereas Lee’s powerful Hitting Video, earlier in the program, doesn’t directly address black identity, Young asks: “Why is no one black in this, Mr. Moss?” Perhaps she feels, like I do, that the curatorial idea of looking at “black as other” is a bit half-baked. Maybe when Sherry says: “Gay is like being black in some ways,” or “I’m very white underneath — of course not in the heart,” we are supposed to cringe.
Young creates a palpable tension in the room like no other performer I’ve experienced. Whether that’s for better or worse is not a question. She doesn’t allow the audience to be passive viewers in her spectacle. In attending a Sherry show you are implicated; you are part of the chaos. Both are necessary.
“No one knowing me knows me. I am II.” — Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America
For the months of February and March, Houston-Jones has transformed Danspace Project into a labyrinth of unpredictable endeavors that begin with black identity, but expand beyond any aesthetic expectations that may be associated with it. I think back to the first weekend that featured Rawls’ Frontispieces, followed by the distressing evening of Black Dance (I don’t think I’ll ever forget how uncomfortable I felt when Sherry screamed at the three audience members, or when she inappropriately stroked one of their chins while singing Lionel Ritchie’s “Stuck On You”). Fast forward to From the Streets, From the Clubs, From the Houses, where I still haven’t made sense of Darrell Jones’ Hoo-Ha (twister pump breakdown) — the creepy pantyhose masks with long, synthetic ponytails, the red-orange petals, the runway walks and obscure slapping. Is this transcendence?
Platform 2012: Parallels is unlike any other event that is taking place in New York City; the possibilities seem endless. The experimental art world can feel like an exclusively white one. Houston-Jones shows us otherwise.
I was not around to see the original Parallels, but I know that the terms black, experimental, and postmodern dance don’t exist in the same context as they did in 1982. We are still using those terms because we haven’t invented a new lexicon for them yet. How the language will sound, look, or feel … we have yet to find out
One thing missing from Parallels is the chance to hear the Platform’s younger artists, those who were not making work in 1982, directly address the questions at hand. How would Nora Chipaumire, whose work is informed by her Zimbabwean roots, respond to, “Does it mean anything to be a black artist now?” as opposed to Kyle Abraham, who grew up as a regular on the Pittsburgh rave scene? The work can speak for itself, to an extent, but I, perhaps too literal-minded, crave a more concrete dialogue.
The notion of race, for me, veers back and forth between all-important and entirely arbitrary: In this light, it’s the crux of our identities, in another, no more than a synthetic skin. A color, a culture, a construct, a legacy, a family, a matter of DNA, a where-we-come-from, a who-we-are-now, an afterthought, an ever-present thought, an all-of-the-above. I look for order in the sprawl, conclusive black-and-white. But “black” and “white”: those terms are as amorphous, as porous, as evasive as the most rapturous dance.
Movement and mistake coalesce. This piece has grown with me over time. His private world of German Shepherds, eerily two-dimensional; they haunt him like a secret addiction. He moves with foreign purpose. Between two worlds or stuck in one.
* * *
Platform 2012: Parallels continues at Danspace Project through March 31.
No Vacancy, curated by Jody Graf, will be on view from October 26 through November 8 at the school’s Kellen Gallery in New York City.
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Art by Athena LaTocha, Wendy Red Star, Marianne Nicolson, Anita Fields, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith & Neal Ambrose-Smith, and more is on view through January 2022.
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Made possible by a donation from Amazon stakeholder MacKenzie Scott, the award is the single largest in the Bedstuy-based organization’s history.
A donation of two hundred works includes Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, and Donald Baechler.