It's impossible to miss the political implications of this year's annual Black Choreographers Festival. The two programs I've witnessed so far in the three-weekend event featured image after image of black bodies in crisis. Though what those bodies want and how those bodies respond is startling and, at times, bracingly elusive.
Here are some of the highlights I experienced at the festival, which culminates this weekend at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph's peh-LO-tah
Marc Bamuthi Joseph performs an excerpt from his dance theater work, peh-LO-tah. Presented in full at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last November, the work is a meditation on soccer and trans-African identity. Joseph enters in a hoodie, his body tensed and ready for action -- an iconic image dripping with irony and sincerity. After all he’s here to dance, and the action he’s ready for is soccer.
It’s a sharp, stinging entrance, freighted with double and triple meanings -- an athlete must dominate, elude, and trick, and so must a criminal, and so must a father. And yet, all he’s doing is preparing to practice for a game, though Joseph makes it clear that a black man's never just doing anything. He is always performing more than himself.
What follows are a series of elaborate and frenetic soccer inflected dances, culminating in a duet with a stationary ball. We can feel Joseph push his body to uncomfortable limits, dancing faster and faster and challenging his ability to remain precise, focused, and within the confines of the game, not to mention his choreography. It’s clear that in many ways, he’s losing his own bet.
When Joseph stops dancing, he loosens his body and talks to us about aging and his fears for his son. He wonders what he will pass on. It's a scene of complete exhaustion and overcoming -- of the world, injustice, and the limits of freedom. Here is a body both ready for action and already spent. One might say that Joseph has been overcome with meaning; that blackness -- as it's presently constructed -- is Sisyphean, a cultural weight that never ends.
Gregory Dawson’s plus de véritiés
Elsewhere on the program, Gregory Dawson’s plus de véritiés shares with Joseph's work a metaphorical richness. But it's pitched in a decidedly different key. Here the mode is classical and restrained, though at times unexpectedly explosive. The piece begins in sculptural repose: three slender men in what seem like stylized Speedos stand in a row up and down the stage, side spots wrapping light around them. Even in stillness, they flicker in movement.
When the performers do move, they do so in what one might call an almost unison -- the timing is precisely just off. And so what you see, you see again, and again, as if each dancer were locked in his own time frame, and yet also part of the same movement and image. That oscillation between the individual and the group is stunningly rendered. Yet at least as Dawson presents it, you can feel that it's a source of bitter disappointment.
Throughout the piece, dancers fall for no reason. Even when they hold each other up, they somehow reach the ground. It's a disheartening vision of loss, especially after so many doubled and tripled images. And in the end when the dancers simply walk towards the audience, you hear through the music the muffled voice of James Baldwin mentioning something about love. This makes you wonder how love could be a part of this world. This is beautiful, but it's not love.
The triumph of Dawson’s piece is that it is both absolutely present and mysteriously absent, which might be the signature trick of the evening. In many ways, he eludes the questions that Joseph deals with straight on, and yet neither can escape despair and disappointment. It's as if it's built into the system of everyday life, and that we can feel the system subtly and forcefully working its way through the dance -- as if all dance were a black choreographer's nightmare.
Maurya Kerr’s Fable: three
Maurya Kerr’s solo piece Fable: three, sharply danced by Alex Diaz, catches that nightmare and turns it upside down. Here, the black body's pain and confusion is just the beginning and each assault is countered by an equally forceful attempt to come to rest. Kerr begins with Diaz’s back turned to the audience, stretched, or maybe tensed, to the heavens. And then Alva Noto’s score unleashes a wave of sound upon him and he doubles over in a spasm of hurt.
Kerr’s choreography captures piercing pain and the delicate attempts to manage it. Over and over, Diaz pats the air with his hands, as if trying to center or ground himself in a world electric with shock and violence. Or he simply tries to regulate his breathing, a subtle reminder that “I can’t breathe” is more than a phrase, but an absolute threat to life.
That the assaults come from everywhere and nowhere is terrifying. Like Noto’s music, they pierce the air around us. And yet the most memorable aspect of Kerr’s piece isn’t the violence that the dancer suffers, but rather his repeated attempts to transcend those attacks and rest -- to breathe normally, to gain balance, to remind himself that there is another world and that he might be all right in it.
Raissa Simpson’s Mothership: part 1
If escape is a dream in Kerr’s piece, it becomes a strange reality in Raissa Simpson’s Mothership: part 1, an odd mashup of 18th century fashion, sci-fi utopianism, and the pulsing energy of the nightclub. To watch Simpson’s dancers bend over, pause, and then shake their white-haired wigs is to enter a world where time has collapsed.
In this utopia, there are strange traces of the past. The dancers perform in droll unity, and yet every once a while a fist is raised, or a dancer tries to break loose, or suddenly flips upside down frozen in a handstand. These moments of individuality are few but striking. They make you realize that the world we’re mired in could suddenly become a memory. Part of the power of Simpson’s work is that she remains neutral on whether that’s a good or bad thing.
After two weekends of attending this Festival, I still can't tell you what a "black choreographer" is, or what defines "black choreography." The work is just too varied, and at its best, too beautiful to be categorized. What I can say is that in the United States, the black body carries too much actual and symbolic weight. Dance is an an art form often characterized by lightness and speed, and these dances and artists remind us that blackness achieves these qualities at a cost. And that cost comes close to annihilation, but not just yet.
The 2017 Black Choreographer's Festival runs through Sunday, Feb. 26 at Dance Mission in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED