Kia LaBeija’s (Untitled) The Black Act (2019), presented as part of Performance Space New York’s contribution to Performa 2019, successfully spars with the legacy of its Bauhaus forebear. It is a read in both senses: a close and methodical look at Oskar Shlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922) — specifically the third series or act, The Black Act — and an almost indistinguishable riff on its shortcomings which simultaneously points to them and spectacularly upends them.
In line with this year’s theme, all the works in Performa 2019 take Bauhaus, the German fine art school distinguished by its utopian emphasis on multi-disciplinarity, as their inspiration. Shlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, for example, combined his studies as a cubist painter and sculptor, his admiration for ballet and pantomime, and his understanding of theatrical lighting and costumes to comment on the effect of modernization on the human body. The outlandish performance had no traditional plot and was more of an exploration in movement, featuring exaggerated geometric costumes and stiff, marionette-like choreography.
LaBeija draws on the strongest elements of the avant-garde piece to build the structure and lay the groundwork for her performance. Similar to Shlemmer’s original, (Untitled) The Black Act unfolds as a series of movements against a black backdrop which evokes the fantasy of theater; the piece follows a general structure, but is not comprised of choreographed positions. Instead the dancer’s draw on their previous training to improvise movements from a range of dance styles. Each performance is therefore iterative and draws on the collective knowledge of the performers. The landscape for the piece — a spiral, singular line and grid outlined on the floor with masking tape — was also directly inspired by Shlemmer’s geometric drawings.
Yet, the strength in (Untitled) The Black Act comes from LaBeija’s ability to use Shlemmer’s work as an outline for a story about Black femininity, liberation and creativity. Furthermore, the piece is strengthened by the way it organically combines the talents of people in her community.
The tempo of the performance is set by live percussions that reverberate throughout the space. Kenn Michael and Warren Benbow, both seasoned performers and the artist’s brother and father respectively, combined trap beats, jazz percussion and music from different meditation practices to set the atmosphere for each act. In addition to working with her father and brother on the music, LaBeija also enlisted her partner and collaborator Taína Larot to perform in the piece and co-facilitate a series of summer workshops from which many of the movements emerged. LaBeija collaborated with stylist and designer Kyle Luu to create costumes with sculptural elements that over exaggerate the feminine form, drawing a parallel between Shlemmer’s commentary on the machine age and contemporary conversations on body enhancements.
In the first sequence, LaBeija undulates, stretches, and twirls through the path of the spiral cum labyrinth, masked from head to toe in crystal-laden, pink nylon stretched over tiers of cone-like structures. Her solo act was followed by a duet of dancers dressed in fitted black costumes with amphibian-esque adornments made of mirrors protruding from their arms (like fins) and heads (like scales). They engage in an embattled mirroring under a red spotlight, each following the other as they shift through powerful stances, losing track of where one’s movement begins and the other ends.
Of this moment in the performance the artist explains, “It begins with something that happens in our lives and we spiral out…Once you realize that the spiral is a positive thing, a healing crisis more than anything else, you can go into the next phase of addressing the issue, addressing yourself really.” This spirit of transformation and healing propels the rest of the performance.
LaBeija reemerges to liberate three performers whose movements are confined by the structure of the grid. Moving like chess pieces across a board, one dancer moves entirely on pointe in horizontal and vertical lines on the outskirts of the grid as the others follow their own logic in the middle. LaBeija begins to remove the tape of the grid, ushering the dancers off the stage with kindness and irreverence, but not before engaging each individually in their own style. Similar to the mirroring sequence in the second act, this third act depicts the artists clearing her psychic space of archetypes and rules. This clearing ends with a moment of improvisation in response to Benbow’s drum solo reminiscent of ceremonies in West African spiritual traditions.
Momentarily spent from the call-and-response with her father, LaBeija gets back to work transforming and erasing the taped landscape of the performance. Once all the tape is gathered, she passes a bunch of it to the rest of the dancers who have returned to the stage in plain clothes to stand in a circle. LaBeija takes up the tape again, stretching a line from the center of the open circle through and out the door to the space — visualizing the legacy of what has occurred as it extends from the collective past the moment of the performance.
It is this act, the act of peeling tape to erase a structure only to then chart your own course with the same material, that has lingered with me most. LaBeija has reworked the expansive yet notoriously male-driven curriculum of the Bauhaus to shelter a queer, Black femme story of collective liberation, approaching the nuances of this history with the reverence and playful derision it deserves.
Performances of Kia LaBeija’s (Untitled) The Black Act took place on November 7, 8 and 9 at Performance Space New York (150 1st Avenue, 4th floor, East Village), and was co-commissioned with Performa and Performance Space New York. In addition to LaBeija, the performance featured Daniella Agosto, Selena Ettienne, Khristina Cayetano, Terry Lovette, and Taína Larot, with Larot as Assistant Movement Director and Creative Producer.
LaBeija and Tarot will also lead a free movement workshop inspired by the piece at the Performa Hub (47 Wooster St, New York, NY) on Wednesday, November 20, 6:00 – 7:30 pm.