Art of Darkness: Parallels at Danspace4 April 2012
frican cultural expression does not separate the various “disciplines” one from another. Dance, music, theatrical expression and visual forms are inextricably linked. Thus the richness and complexity of much traditional African performance, and thus the appeal of much of the work included in Parallels, the recently concluded eight-week festival of “black” performance, held at the Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church.
Thirty years ago, young black dancer Ishmael Houston Jones asked Cynthia Hedstrom, then director of the Danspace Project, if he could curate a festival of “black choreographers working outside the mainstream of modern dance.” The artists he included have ramified, over the decades, into leaders in the field, both in New York City and from bases on university campuses across the country. The 1982 event spawned festivals in London and Paris.
The current director of Danspace, Judy Hussie-Taylor, included a revisited Parallels in this year’s series of thematic programs, with Jones again at the helm. The “platform” was heralded with a terrific catalogue, rare in the dance world, including essays by artists, critics, curators and presenters. The event culminated, in the last week of March, with two programs that snapped into focus the origins and the conceivable future of black work on local soil.
Jones’s instinct is to survey outlying forms, to pay attention to club kids and b-boys, to tap dancers and college professors (and to tap-dancing college professor Thomas F. DeFrantz, whose 30-minute lecture on black dance history and aesthetics was a highlight of the Platform). He enlisted colleagues as sub-curators of individual weekly events. One of the weekly programs, curated by choreographer Dean Moss, included artists who were not African American. Some of the work was improvised, or at least in relatively early stages of development. The final event, The End, conceived by Ralph Lemon, offered an hour to each of 10 performers, with a few minutes’ overlap between, in the manner of a “round robin” improvisation. They performed at Danspace in an installation crafted by Jamaican-born Nari Ward, whose wonderfully desolate assemblage of sparkly found and constructed objects lent a celebratory tone to the proceedings.
Rod Murray’s lighting, both mobile and stable, gave participating performers four huge rolling fixtures to illuminate their own landscapes. Lemon kicked off the proceedings with half an hour of physical explorations before the space was even opened to the public, investigating the possibilities of the various pieces strewn about the sanctuary floor: a rusty wheelbarrow, a patio chaise, a curved Plexiglas screen on wheels, a fragile ladder made of ropy tinsel that carried the eye up into air but bore no weight. DJ Mike Wolf energized the space with a thoughtful mix of “black” music, accompanying Lemon and the following artist, Malcolm Low. Low, a bulky, shambling dancer, managed to live in the space as though it were the couple’s apartment, grooving to the musical mix, rearranging the furniture, lifting partner Simone Sobers and professing his enthusiasm for her. To the strains of “Wild is the Wind,” the pair ceded the stage to 12-year-old Willow Parchment, who noodled in the space, playing with the props, changing her clothes, and generally demonstrating that mature artists make better use of such performance opportunities than novice kids.
Designer Jim Findlay prepared a series of texts projected on the church’s vaulted ceiling, giving a spectator something to read (and a stiff neck) when things on the floor got slow. Actor-writer James Hannaham strolled the room in a bear suit, singing softly to himself. Meanwhile one of the endless stream of photographers documenting the event began projecting, on a side wall, video highlights of the day as it unfolded. Actor April Matthis tossed her handbag into the space and shed a kimono, then sat perfectly still for long stretches, sometimes reading, before she switched her stilettos for books and went off.
By and large dancers made the best use of the space (and our time); Omagbitse Omagbemi loomed like a mourning ghost, then rearranged the props into a long diagonal line and slithered among them. Souleymane Badolo treated the sanctuary as a place for prayer and engaged the audience directly. Okwui Okpokwasili spent the bulk of her hour doing a vocal warmup, then lifted up her voice and sang.
And so it went, until a little after 9 p.m., with David Thompson strolling in an ecru dress, spike heels and a black latex BDSM mask, baring his butt to the strains of James Brown singing “Superbad.” DJ Kevin Beasley manipulated rap records, slowing them down to a dull roar. Finally Jones himself, encased in plastic garbage bags with a microphone, a flashlight, and a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, spent 45 minutes rolling across the huge room, resembling nothing so much as a beached whale, reminiscing and reporting on his deteriorating condition.
Everything counts, these performers seemed to be saying; art is living. Art is what artists make, and black art is what black artists make.
Photo Credits: © Parallels photographer-in-residence Ian Douglas.
Writing Credits: Elizabeth Zimmer writes about dance, theater, and books for Ballet Review, Dance Magazine, Metro, and other publications. She served as dance editor of The Village Voice from 1992 until 2006, and reviewed ballet for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1997 through 2005. Having earned a B.A. in Literature from Bennington College and an M.A. in English from SUNY Stony Brook, she has also studied many forms of dance, especially contact improvisation with its founders. She edited Body Against Body: The Dance and other Collaborations of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane (Station Hill Press, 1989) and Envisioning Dance for Film and Video (Routledge, 2002. Her one-woman show, North Wing, played at two off-off-Broadway theaters, and she has appeared in the work of Christopher Williams and Kriota Willberg.
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