Blank Map, created and performed by a temporary collective of queer African-American performance artists (Adee Roberson, Brontez Purnell, keyon gaskin, Tasha Ceyan, and Wizard Apprentice) and produced under the aegis of the dancer, choreographer, and provocateur Keith Hennessy, apparently had a fraught birth.
Somewhere along the way, Hennessy and his collaborators found themselves at political and aesthetic odds over Hennessy's right to create a work about African-American queer culture (he was born in Canada and is white), his ability to garner large and prestigious grants, and a sense that they were losing hold of their own story.
So you might ask, what do you get when a project falls apart and then falls back together again? Well, I don’t know the general answer or rule, but in the case of Blank Map (which is presented as part of the National Queer Arts Festival) you get one trippy piece of performance art that is blessedly free of the need to please or make concessions.
At first it simply feels like a mood piece -- loopy psychedelic music, dancing that doesn't quite get going -- and you wonder if it might continue in this way for the entirety of its 50-minute length. But after a while, things start to happen: Purnell throws some hand shadows upstage on a deep blue screen, lies on the ground, pulls his pants down, and throws some butt shadows; Roberson starts to play the drums.
But there's no big, dramatic payoff: gaskin just leaves the stage, not dramatically, but pleasantly, like he's just had enough of all this. This marks the first of many moments where the collective simply resists the inclination to perform in the ways that we’re used to.
Instead, the cast invests its energy in creating sharp fragments of images -- an incredible duet between Purnell on drums and gaskin wearing one tap shoe (he makes two tap shoes seem gauche); nudity that powerfully emphasizes the back; Purnell, gaskin, and Ceyan attempting to dance together, succeeding for a brief moment, and then spiraling away to follow their own whims.
Despite the abundance of images, you get a nagging feeling that you aren’t seeing it all. At one point the collective creates some beautiful and haunting full body shadows on the upstage screen. It feels reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where prisoners sit by a fire and watch as the projected shadows of real things pass them by. The prisoners become so accustomed to the shadows, that they wouldn’t know reality if it slapped them in the face.
And I think that's the point, or the magic here. The piece ends in a series of blackouts and freezes -- each time the lights pop up, there’s the collective caught in some ridiculous pose. The performers are, as opposed to much of Blank Map, joyful, loose, free, and happy, like Hollywood stars letting go after an especially arduous awards ceremony.
But given the shadows of what we’ve seen throughout the evening, you can’t help but feel that Blank Map has managed an astounding trick: to disappear while being right in front of us. Even if the true story slapped us right in our collective faces, we might not understand the truth of it, and so we should thank them for this night of slippery shadows.
Blank Map plays at Dance Mission in San Francisco as part of the National Queer Arts Festival through Sunday, Jun. 12. For tickets and information please click here.