The National Performance Network held its 25th anniversary annual meeting in Dallas this weekend. As part of the conference, two performance showcases, called "Taboos in the Night," were given at the beautiful but in-need-of-renovation Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas.
All of the pieces presented on Friday and Saturday night were recreations of projects/performances of dance and theater that will be remounted at theaters in 15 cities across the country. This showcase gives the presenters a chance to relive memories of these pieces as well as educate new presenters to the quality and style of work that NPN likes to support.
Pomo Afro Homos kicked it off Friday with a “remix” of Fierce Love: Stories from Black Gay Life. The lively, moving and entertaining stories of identity told by the black queer performance ensemble uses humor and dramatic pauses to help the audience ask deep questions about stereotypes, one’s first sexual experience as a definition of the self, relationships struggles, and death of a loved one. Many of the scenes are short vignettes of duets, solos and trios that use movement, sound effects, imagination and song to help support the script’s message. The piece closes by asking the audience to ponder why “people bundle up their pain and go silently into the night.”
The message is centered on the healing of one’s community and one’s acceptance and the embrace of one’s identity. The language and cultural references offer a poetic and often abstract window into the characters’ innocent struggle to find, accept and celebrate being a black gay man in San Francisco.
The second piece on the show was Elia Arce’s First Woman on the Moon. This piece was promising, but needs more editing and rehearsal as the transition between ideas took up as much time as the ideas themselves.
The last piece on the Friday was Pat Graney’s Faith (premiered in 1991). Graney is a choreographer based in Seattle who, for the past 15 years, has created an innovative program called Keeping the Faith (which brings Graney’s work to women and girls in prisons). It is clear that Graney is an artist who thinks deeply about life and art.
Faith is a dance split into four sections, inspired by Caravaggio and Michelangelo’s paintings, the writing of Roshi Juiyu Kennett, Francesco Clemente and the animation work of Rybczynski. All of the influences are evident in the work, but the most obvious reference is how the images of the paintings are transferred to the stage: The first of the four sections shows the cast of seven women frequently moving slowly to a new position on stage to stop and pause in the familiar Renaissance shapes.
Occasionally, women in dark velvet dresses would diverge into a solo against the group and then be lifted or carried across the stage to then softly, with a few subtle pauses, lie back down onto the ground. The phrase of the pausing coordinates with the breath of the singers in the choral style mass composed by Arvo Part. The use of levels, diagonals, and shapes with soft lines is repeatedly lush and soothing to the eye. The first section of the dance, choreographically, is by far the most successful and could stand on its own.
The second section of Faith involves the manipulation of small red physioballs. The dancers playfully manipulate the shapes and relationships made in the first section by using the red balls to add new elements such as sliding, rolling and running to the movement vocabulary. In the third section, the velvet dresses reappear with no sleeves as a soloist, downstage left, caresses and puts on a pair of red high-heeled shoes.
The dance continues to evolve the movement shapes from the first section, and the playful speed and momentum of the second. As the harshness of this section evolves, it is clear that the shoes manipulate the dancers in a uniform manner. The symbolism of the shoes suggests that the women feel a special power and sexiness by wearing these shoes (designed by men), yet as this section progresses it is also these shoes that cause the women’s neurosis. As the dancers break off from the unison striding, the women take turns lying on their backs shaking and writhing as if to try to get the shoes off or as if the shoes have an electric power over her body. At the end of this section the same soloist mentioned above presents a gesture of her right hand erratically touching the side of her face. The expression on her face is a cross between confusion, pain and delirium.
As the lights go out on the soloist, the music begins to fade into a whispering man saying the Lord’s Prayer. Graney uses the prayer to segue to the last section of the dance in which the bodies of the women lay in a clump upstage left. The bodies are lit by a warm sidelight that slowly reveals naked curvy bodies moving in a meditative slowness. The movement vocabulary and pacing quickly reverts back to that seen in the first section. As the dancers face upstage the line made by the symmetrical shape of the torso is striking. The unique shape of the women’s hips shows how under the velvet dress and behind the sexy walk we are all unique, and it is in this beauty of the body that we are most connected to our spirit and faith.
With lack of traditional modern dance movement phrases, Graney presents several false endings and finally settles on bring the women in red high heels back onstage while one woman is left nude on the floor appearing to repent her sins by kneeling and gently touching her face. Graney pulls her audience through a narrative of subtle mazes, processes, and evolutions of women’s rolls and collective experience. Though this piece does not present a direct narrative, as do the other pieces on the showcase, I imagine that the women in the prison system are able to see Graney’s work and can relate deeply to the self-expression and thoughtful dance/art creation.
The Saturday night performance showcased two hybrid dance/theater works. Both of these pieces had an American theme. The first was Jane Comfort’s take and deconstruction of the Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. As the program note states: “it utilizes fantasies and movie scenes to underline the play’s subtext of desire and memory.” This quote, in a nutshell, sums up what was presented on stage.
The highlight of Comfort’s work, excerpts from Faith Healing created in 1993, is a movement scene between the characters of Laura and O’Connor in which the actors begin mouthing the lines of Lois Lane and Superman, as sound from the Superman movie plays over the speakers. The actors begin to reenact the part of the movie in which Superman takes Lois Lane flying.
The characters run around the stage in a large circular pattern, as if they were little kids trying to get up the momentum to take off. Eventually the pair lands center stage on their bellies over two stools. They have their arms and legs outstretched and because they have become static it appears for a brief moment like they are flying. The use of Comfort’s humor is evident with the next crescendo of the music―the characters lift the left sides of their bodies as if turning like an airplane would.
The audience can’t help but laugh in the delight and freedom the image provides. Even though Comfort’s deconstructions are often intelligent, the energy of any Williams’ text or concept could not stand up to the next piece on the program.
Word Becomes Flesh is a powerful performance written and directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. The recreation of this work from 2003 is defined as a “choreopoem.” It fuses text, hip-hop, music, gesture, dance, monologue, spoken word and autobiography. The version seen on Saturday is a one-man play transposed to a group of five young African-American male performers. The text, rich with poetry and breath, delivers Joseph’s diary told to his unborn son. The actors convey the transformative process with clarity and expansive emotion. Frequently, the unborn son’s heartbeat is heard as the actors speak over, around and through the sound.
The piece ends in a climactic moment when Joseph himself enters upstage and begins to move in the most magnificent way―slapping the floor, limbs flying, center strong and stable. (The other performers unfortunately do not match Joseph’s explosive movement quality). As Joseph dances, he tells the audience that his son is now 9 and reveals that his grandfather’s death is connected to his son’s birth. Joseph pointedly asks the question directly to his son: “Do you know who you are?” Joseph wants his son “to grow up like good music, I want you to last,” as one of the performers spoke earlier in the piece.
Muscle memory, myth, pain, change, transformation, what it means to be black in America, paradox, ignorance, hate, racism, cultural references are just some of the themes used to hit the audience with truth and identity of this honest and captivating story.
◊ Ellie Leonhardt is a Lecturer of Dance in the Dance and Theater Department at the University of North Texas.