Dallas — Last Saturday at the South Dallas Cultural Center, Cynthia Oliver, with longtime creative collaborator Leslie Cuyjet, staged their duet, BOOM!, for the last time before a crowd eager to hear their words and absorb their movement. Presented by Vicki Meek in her last week as Executive Director of the SDCC (and supported in part by the National Performance Network, the National Endowment for the Arts, and New York Live Arts), BOOM! starts with just that: the lights dim as the door in the theatre slams shut, bickering erupts in the darkness, and Oliver and Cuyjet descend onto the stage. Are they mother and daughter? Are they friends? Strangers? It never becomes clear, but the beauty of this work is that it doesn’t matter. What is more important is what they share with us; the content is in the context of their movements, the music, and the text.
“Ima punish ya; Ima humble ya; Bring you down to size; Lose yourself…Ima make you see…Ima make the Earth shift.”
BOOM! is honest, aggressive, political, provocative, offensive, poetic—an exploration of living. This honesty makes it difficult to watch at times because of its organic transparency; yet, a work like this quite possibly could mark the future of dance and theatre as a combined form, as theatre at its root is supposed to act as a mirror onto society, and dance, with its non or semi-verbal nature, can help promote a concept that can be transformative to the human mind.
Oliver’s unique handle on gestural and postural language pushes this idea forward while bringing awareness and attention to the female form, supplemented by the comical and fragmented chatter spoken throughout the work. While it is specific to their world and defined by the non-liner narrative at hand, it instantly becomes recognizable by the audience as “truth.” One such pivotal moment comes when Oliver utilizes “twerking” to her advantage. If there was a modern dance equivalent to “twerking,” it would be the “Cynthia Oliver Shake,” a subversive take on the vibration of the lower torso and legs taking this street dance move into an artistic and theatrical form that all but erases and replaces the former implications on the female body.
Structured improvisational phrases turned into seamless choreographic moments representing feelings of love, attachment, abandonment, and fear. The performers lived within each phrase and movement score shifting between moments of control and chaos. Moreover, her choreography relishes in echoes of her influencers, mainly Bebe Miller, while also referencing whether directly or indirectly Bill T. Jones and William Forsythe. She handles comedy with a delicate and balanced hand, with well-planned out moments of play intermingled with pure chance that resonated with ease between the performers.
Yet, from a choreographic analysis standpoint, did the vignettes feel disjointed? Yes. Was the abstraction of the narrative disarming at times? Yes. Did the structure falter at times? Yes. However, the performers never did, and these points of issue actually work to bookmark ideas and concepts, identify each character the performer was playing, and forced the audience to confront the imagery thrust upon them.
The work as a whole was effective and precise almost to the point of naturalism, which is a rarity in dance. BOOM! is as unapologetically Black as it is unapologetically female—an honest look at womanhood, more generally, and black womanhood, in particular.