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PLATFORM 2012: Parallels
Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church, NYC
February 2–March 31, 2012
Parallels—a two-month series commissioned by Danspace and curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones—is arguably the most significant event of the current dance season. A provocative survey of innovative black choreographers, some veteran and some emerging, who work within non-mainstream dance, Parallels revisited and updated a program, also called Parallels, created by Houston-Jones 30 years ago. That series focused on an earlier generation, such as Blondell Cummings, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Fred Holland and Houston-Jones himself. “Black dance” is a quick, easy label to say and write, but what, if anything, does it mean, and what does it mean, now, to be a black choreographer?
Even the series’ launch—an “Artist’s Voice” conversation with Houston-Jones at Studio Museum in Harlem—broke with expectations. For the moment, and for a change, let’s take this out of St. Mark’s Church, take it way uptown and affirm dance as a visual and conceptual art that might prove interesting to outside artists and spectators. The SRO event acknowledged Houston-Jones, a recent Bessie Award–winner and iconoclast, beloved educator and advocate for contemporary dance. One video clip showed him, with dance partner Holland, challenging even the then-revolutionary contact improvisation community by bringing black bodies to the mix—just for starters.
By working outside the Ailey tradition and other popular black conventions, Houston-Jones and his colleagues radically broadened the aesthetic possibilities for Black dancers while making room for black perspectives within the white-predominant avant-garde. This was not without the usual difficulties of riding the turbulence between two powerful worlds.
With the updated Parallels, Houston-Jones acknowledged that, over the past few decades, our understanding of this work and its range has grown more complicated and sophisticated. “Black dance”—if that term still holds—now includes contemporary innovations from African and Caribbean artists; dance styles emerging from urban streets and clubs; and choreographers who, like the symbolic Sankofa bird, look backward to past traditions in order to surge forward in imaginative ways. One of Parallels’ guest curators, Dean Moss, even dared to select choreographers from other ethnicities—Korean-American, Latino, and white—for a program bluntly titled “Black Dance.”
No review can do justice to the varied material offered and rich questions generated by Parallels—the title of which, according to choreographer Reggie Wilson, should have been Vectors—meaning not two or more things neatly lined up but lots of things shooting in various directions. Nor can I do more than note a handful of the many artists who contributed to this historic series, like Gesel Mason, Cynthia Oliver, and Marya Wethers, sharing a program curated by Bebe Miller, whose pieces showed that the black (and black female) body cannot be considered apart from the personal and cultural history it holds, for better or for worse. The black body will tease, strain, and break the cool, neutral, movement-focused silence of postmodernism the way that Ann Liv Young, wearing blackface and a fuschia dress in the program curated by Dean Moss broke the silent decorum of her liberal, downtown dance audience. This review’s selection of events merely offers a rapid survey of some of Parallels’ highlights and issues, and I apologize to those artists whose work cannot be covered here.
Cynthia Oliver and Leslie Cuyjet in Oliver's Where We're Calling From
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s curated evening, "Black Jam," asserted improvisation as an inherent feature of black culture and art—undeniable in tap dance and jazz, for sure, but less well recognized in contemporary dance. Zollar presented a loose cluster of segments—movement jams, a movement game, improvised storytelling, a flock of house dancers. Not all of these activities gelled as performance or argument, but improvisation’s creative intelligence was reflected in Zollar’s three main dancers—Hunter Carter, Samantha Speis, and Marya Wethers. How slyly they met, locked in, assisted, complicated, manipulated, interrupted, enabled, contained, and transformed one another. Speis, like a star jazz player, could be counted on to stir in some wilder, funkier ideas that changed the equation and compelled us to watch.
If the performers in Zollar’s club dancing segment were surprisingly listless, we only needed to wait a week for “From the Streets, From the Clubs, From the Houses.” This program, featuring works by Regina Rocke, Niall Jones, Darrell Jones and Nicholas Leichter, opened with the screening of a trailer for Check Your Body at the Door, the acclaimed documentary on house dancing (done right), produced by critic/historian Sally Sommer. Houston-Jones introduced the evening by invoking Pearl Primus and Dianne McIntyre for their role in adapting black forms of social dancing to the Western concert stage.
Darrell Jones’ Hoo-ha (twister pump breakdown) did not just drop vogueing and house dancing into a postmodern setting; he underscored the discrete, almost ritualistic vocabulary, arrangement and timing of club dance movement, arguing for it as contemporary choreography. Leichter, the club dancer turned choreographer whose Twenty Twenty, a scorching, irrepressibly sexy duet-in-progress with Bryan Strimpel, amused everyone who suddenly remembered that—omg!—Danspace Project is housed in a church.
Darrell Jones' Hoo-ha
In Rocke’s duet Boy Troubles, danced with Niall Jones, Rocke alternates between between spiky, expansive swagger and balletic twirl, her superpowers. Who is she? Whoever she wants to be. And so goes Jones–aka niall jones or niall phoenix jones, sometimes identified as male, other times as female—who drifts into soft submissiveness as easily as slipping off a flannel shirt. Rocke clears space to employ variety in technique as well as gender fluidity and complexity. Leichter queers contemporary Black culture (R&B, hip hop), staking out territory for frank eroticism in a duet with a partner who is white, male and a generation younger.
Regina Rocke's Boy Troubles
Three choreographers presented here would crown any season even without Parallels’ special framing: Nora Chipaumire, originally from Zimbabwe; Okwui Okpokwasili, born in the Bronx of Nigerian parentage; and one of New York dance’s latest wunderkinds, Kyle Abraham.
Okpokwasili’s solo, Bronx Gothic, called to mind Kara Walker’s provocative cutout silhouettes of generic characters from the days of slavery. But it was as if one of these figures had touched the third rail. Grotesquely shimmying, twitching and panting, the dancer reenacted a half-amusing, half-alarming event from her youth. In this narrative, two pre-teens trade correspondence about sex. One claims a lot of experience; the other, bemused but fascinated, asks naive questions. Then comes the day when Okpokwasili’s mother discovers this exchange and launches a relentless interrogation. The trembling dancer gave voice to all three characters in this nightmare. In moments of song, an angelic voice chillingly emerged from a face rendered demonic by the lighting.
Chipaumire’s solo, The Last Heifer, followed Bronx Gothic, and audience seating was rearranged to form a neat square around a small version of a boxing ring. Even just sitting and staring at this platform engendered dramatic anticipation. Chipaumire has become a rock star of downtown dance, with a majestic quality that blows everything else out of the water. We waited for her.
Nora Chipaumire's The Last Heifer
The word “heifer” means “cow,” but, in black America, it’s also a popular and terrible insult hurled by one woman against another. Chipaumire’s often exposed nipples and languid movement suggest something cow-like. But I recognized in her jet-black costuming and movement a huge raptor or a mythic harpy. I saw her soaring on thermals, hovering over mountaintops with her astounding wingspan, skillfully negotiating rocky ledges. But she also gave off vibes that might draw disapproval—and the “heifer” epithet—from those with less self-possession. Her slow trajectory, heroically sustained, remained focused on precarious edges. She might have been trapped physically—sweat pouring down her mask-like face—but, in her mind, she was free.
To watch Abraham’s Boyz N’ The Hood: Pavement, with news of Trayvon Martin’s shooting fresh in mind, was to sit with heart in mouth as dancers continuously reinforced the image of a man pulled down to the floor and cuffed with his hands behind his back. What swiftly morphed from a contact improv encounter to the image of an arrest, also came to resemble an act of affection or of sex, body stacked atop body. But then, the bodies continued to stack as if you had stumbled across a scene of mass slaughter. There’s much more to Boyz N’ The Hood: Pavement than I have room to discuss, but it represents a new unfolding and triumph for Abraham. Exploring the limits and possibilities of black manhood in American culture, he is developing fine skill in blending bold imagery with subtle, telling mutations. His theater has become a multidimensional tapestry of visual, sonic, energetic, and emotional depth.
Kyle Abraham's Boyz N' The Hood: Pavement
In short, Abraham’s work is black in the way that dancer-scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz observes, where Africa and Africanisms underlie much of what we see and hear. Starting Performing Black, his 30-minute performance lecture for Parallels, DeFrantz warned that “What is black dance?” is a trick question. He then proceeded, trickster-like, to speed us through history and theory with stops along the way for rapid-fire tap dancing and an Africanist nod to Merce Cunningham’s love of the unplanned and unexpected.
“Black is less about being something,” he concluded, “than doing something.”
All photos by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace