A Different Way of Seeing

Alexandra Carrington and Robyn Gerbaz in Maurya Kerr’s “PoemAnthemSong” Photo by Andrew Weeks

Shifting perspectives was the announced curatorial lens to apprehend the many choreographic voices that resonated throughout the two weekends of the Walking Distance Dance Festival in early June.

In Deep South, Alex Ketley created a space for a variety of narratives to manifest and coexist — not only his own, but also those of the people he encountered during his journey through the Southern states. Throughout the piece, dancers took turns performing solos, delineating a series of dancing vignettes that created a kinetic map of individuality and differences. With interviews captured on film and featured at the end of the performance, the locals Ketley and his collaborators had met on their journey were given the last word, a significant gesture of respect from Ketley for his hosts. During the piece, footage recorded during the trip showed dancers offering impromptu performances in such places as a river, a country road, or a diner. While a video showed collaborator Miguel Gutierrez dancing at night in front of a closed store, dancers on stage seamlessly took turns performing in unison with him in front of the screen, establishing a connection through movement between past and present, between the West Coast and the Deep South.

Unison as a way to experience the other and shorten the distance between two different realities was also explored in Liane Burns and Charles Slender-White’s Platform, who shared the evening with Deep South. Throughout the hour-long piece, the two dancers came in and out of unison in the square performance space delineated by suspended floor-to-ceiling panels. Sitting in the round, viewers could both watch the dancers and each other. In the second part of the piece, after an uninterrupted sequence of high-stamina dancing, Burns and Slender-White sat down and looked at each other intensely for a moment, before looking into each viewer’s eyes. They seemed to ask: What kind of seeing is required to really see and understand another? As in Deep South, videos of the two dancers performing excerpts of the dance in different locations, both indoors and outdoors, pointed to the multifold experiences offered by a highly digitalized world. In a sculptural moment in the middle of the piece, the two dancers started to slither backwards, face down, slowly pulling their shirt off, over their head and moving away from it, upper body naked. Their inert shirt became a startling image of a skin removed, an identity traded, the sweat of their bodies leaving two shining marks on the black marley.

Bodies crawling through the space, face down, were also an important structural element of Maurya Kerr’s PoemAnthemSong. poem: one, anthem: two and song: three had had previous lives of their own. Kerr succeeded in seamlessly weaving them together into an evening-length piece by creating a shifting frame made of crawling bodies on the periphery of the stage. All performers were present on stage as the audience entered Studio B, with one dancer lying down downstage right, and two downstage left. While Alexandra Carrington and Robyn Gerbaz performed the first section of the piece, Asha Benjelloun started to crawl upstage so slowly you almost didn’t notice her movements. Helping to frame the narrative unfolding center stage, the story happening on the edges became as significant as the duet between Carrington and Gerbaz.

The last section of the piece with Alexander Diaz, in a white floating tunic, whirling and running backwards, had an otherworldly feeling to it. In an essay for In Dance, Kerr had mentioned it stemmed from her MFA thesis about the politics of wonder, “more specifically how systemic racism diminishes, and often annihilates people of color’s access to wonderment.” At moments one glimpsed at classical steps such as jumps in arabesque but it seems that Diaz was always drawn back into a whirlpool and kept from accomplishing them, as if denied access to a ballet vocabulary traditionally performed by white bodies.

Violence was tackled in many ways, such as with fleeting gestures mimicking a gun — Carrington extending her arms as if pulling a trigger or a bow and arrow, aiming at Gerbaz’s heart. Gerbaz slowly raised her arms up, head down, in a slow-motion gesture of complete defenselessness. The image was brief and quickly morphed, not before recalling scenes of police brutality caught on video. During the second section, Benjelloun walked backward, her pace rhythmically interrupted by sudden gasps, her body swallowed up by tremors. Waiting downstage, Stephen DiBiase caught her by the back of the neck, holding her like a prized animal. Later, DiBiase reached his other hand between her legs and moved her body holding her by the neck and the crotch, in a crude gesture that echoed sexual violence. Once left alone, Benjelloun’s body remained a block, shoulders up to her ears, back turned to the audience, in an apparent state of shock.

Violence also rippled through Joanna Haigood’s Between me and the other world and Laura Elaine Ellis’ Soul to Soul: An Artistic Response to Baldwin and Coates. Both pieces shared a set designed by Sean Riley. A dense set of four screens — three creating a rectangular space, one at a diagonal- delineated narrow pathways, cramming the performers and audience members in the upstage part of the Joe Goode Annex, providing an intimacy that at times could feel suffocating — an atmosphere appropriate to express the realities of racial violence the piece commented on. Audience members were encouraged to move around, giving them the possibility to change both literal and symbolic perspective on the work. Between me and the other world functioned in a loop, and two cycles were performed here. The piece opened with Delvis Savigne Frinon performing an ebullient solo, vividly encouraged by his fellow dancers who watched him perched on stools of different heights; Scenes of traumatic loss, mourning and imprisonment followed. Gestures pointing to violence such as fingers mimicking a gun echoed the violence present in Kerr’s piece.

The program mentioned that Between me and the other world is Haigood’s interpretation of writer and activist W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness concept: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of other, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity, ” Du Bois wrote. The set up of the screens, with the possibility of restricted viewing, underlined this conceptual emphasis on the gaze. Echoing the question of seeing in Burns and Slender-White’s piece, it took here a racial dimension and reminded of a recent New York Times article in which writer Claudia Rankine talked about self-surveillance in the African-American community: “That’s one thing about being black in America,” Ms. Rankine was quoted to say, “You have to curtail your movements, to live in such a way that what the white gaze projects upon blackness will not end your life. So you’re always thinking, can I walk at night? Can I hold Skittles in my hand? Can I have my cellphone out? If it glitters, will somebody think it’s a gun? At what point can I just be?” The projection of a video of Trayvon Martin’s dead body also brought to mind Rankine’s words.

Echoing images of misogynic violence in Kerr’s piece, Monique Jenkinson’s C*NT, or, The Horror of Nothing to See explored discriminatory treatment of women and the spectacle of drag and femininity. After Jenkinson’s drag alter ego Fauxnique welcomed the audience standing on a spare wooden podium simply wearing a hair net, sheer tights and a bra, she walked down and stomped the stage fiercely, marching along its perimeter. Seemingly on a mission, she pushed away whatever came up on her way — the heavy backstage curtains, which she flicked away as if a small fly. She was Kali the destroyer, tearing her flowery dress apart, pulling one section of the marley floor and vigorously crunching it, its form reminiscent of Burns and Slender-White’s removed shirt lying on stage as a strange-looking sculpture. Offering high pitched yells, Jenkinson reminded of French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous’ Medusa, a woman reclaiming her wild powers and forceful voice, pushing her vocal cords as if attempting to break through glass.

As in former pieces like The F Word, Jenkinson deconstructed the making of spectacle in front of the audience. She disappeared backstage for a while, leaving viewers with the voice of a male crooner singing “Where’s the Girl?” (“Where’s the girl who used to fix me my coffee and make me my toast,” gone the housewife/stay-at-home mom). The moment pointed to the absence of spectacle the title referred to, with its feminist double entendre, and to the traditional patriarchal view of women as passive and absent from the social sphere. Fauxnique also walked the viewers through the transformation to turn herself into a wild creature: using the podium’s wooden box, she fixed herself a makeshift boudoir and proceeded to apply tape around her thighs, buttocks and face, thereby drawing emphasis on the fleshy parts of the body decried by beauty magazines and contorting her face a la Francis Bacon. Once taped up, she drew out long and thin sticks that she applied to her nails, turning them into gigantic claws. In a grotesquely uncanny moment, she leaned her head back to brush an invisible mane.

This very moment appeared as a metaphor for the potential of art: making viewers see what’s not there, tapping into their imagination to apprehend the unseen, the hidden, the less obvious. By letting other people’s voices be expressed in Deep South, or by trading shirts in Platform, the festival artists provided many other metaphors for a definition of art: a way to step into someone else’s shoes, a practice that fosters a different way of seeing, one that embrace other realities with curiosity, empathy and respect — a practice worth cultivating in this time of vividly expressed difference across the country.