Notes about ODC’s 2018 Walking Distance Dance Festival

Yara Travieso’s La Medea. Photo by Darren Philip Hoffman

The four works presented at the Walking Distance Dance Festival this year spanned a wide spectrum of dance genres, stretching the medium to reclaim history (Nkisi Nkondi: Sacred Kongo Sculpture), revisit mythical figures (La Medea), consider the role that listening plays in activating freedom (An Improvisation) and dive into the theatrical depth of a character (Solo Works).

Revisiting a mythical figure

My dance viewing history includes countless performances with live dance and recorded music. Yara Travieso’s La Medea refreshingly reversed that traditional setting by presenting a dance recorded on film and a band — Jason and The Argonauts- playing live. A graduate of the Juilliard School and co-founder of the Borscht Film Festival in Miami, Travieso works at the intersection of dance, musical and film. The Walking Distance Dance Festival featured the post-production version of the live cinematic experience shot and broadcasted at BRIC in Brooklyn in January 2017.

Travieso’s piece fractures the traditional representation of Medea by superimposing the mythical figure of ancient Greece with the contemporary character of the femme fatale. In the Greek myth, Medea falls in love with the hero Jason, leader of the Argonauts. She helps him in his quest for power–notably by killing her brother- as they flee to another land, where he leaves Medea for the king’s daughter. Medea takes revenge by killing the two children she had with Jason as well as his lover. There are countless retellings of the original myth, with Medea always portrayed as a merciless, calculated, in cold-blood female protagonist.

But in La Medea, a broadcaster from the TV program “Hora Mismo” announces the imminent and “exclusive” interview with “la Medea,” “the Warrior, the Mother, the Scandal, here live in the studio!” Travieso applies the lens of telenovala -the Latin America soap opera series genre-on the character of Medea, thereby pointing to a culture of voyeurism and hype, of tabloids and sensationalism. It is only a step to consider this practice of superlatives within the context of the daily spectacle of the current administration — the U.S. president’s tweets acting as a fog machine that distracts from the alarming issues at work, including the rise of fascism, the neglect of the environment, the increase of migrants fleeing persecution and war or the deepening gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Medea, described as “a foreign woman from an unknown land” laments that “[she] was a child of power, but not in this country.” Her words echo writer and visual artist from Ethiopia and Eritrea Mahtem Shiferraw, whose poem Beginnings hints at the severe loss of socio-economic status and personal power migrants experience. Consider this excerpt from Beginnings:

Our fathers are not elders here;
they are long-bearded men
shoving taxi cabs and sprawled
in small valet parking lots —

Similarly Medea’s words resonate sharply in today’s immigration context, especially in light of the current administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy. They remind viewers that the displacement of immigrants is not only physical but also socio-economic and emotional.

At the end of the piece, as the credits roll, the filicidal Medea is shown breastfeeding her newborn, confusing fiction and reality. Similarly, maybe we’ve been played all along when it comes to the myth of Medea (Who is telling the story? Who/what did it serve?) With the slogan of “nasty woman” pervasive throughout these last years, Travieso’s piece encourages one to wonder how much this iconic narrative has seeped into mainstream culture to stain representations of women.

Exploring inner and outer geography

Belinda McGuire also plays with fragmenting a female character in Canadian choreographer Sharon Moore’s Anthem for the Living. In a conversation over the phone, the New York-based artist had indicated being attracted to the “funny, dark, irreverent” aspects of Moore’s work, which is steeped in circus and theater. Curled up against a rope at the beginning of the piece, McGuire successively flickers from one state to another, alternating being childish, dark, sexy, mature, strong, or vulnerable, as she moves through the piece. Conveying the fleetingness of life, the rope runs quickly through her hands. It’s as if one had pressed the fast forward button, and what we are witnessing with McGuire’s constant shape shifting are the main highlights of a life — both precious and tragic.

The Eight Propositions is the other work that McGuire presented from the series of solos she commissioned in an effort to remain “artistically agile.” Amsterdam-based choreographer Emio Greco and dramaturg Pieter Scholten initially provided McGuire text that described geometric imagery, which she eventually transformed into kinetic imagery. The Eight Propositions morphs into a duet with the light: McGuire moves in and out of darkness, stepping within and outside of squares and rectangles delineated by the lighting design. She seems in total command of creating both inner and outer space, as she calls a light change with a stomp of the foot. Her movement style is sharp and powerful. The intensity at play within her rendering of her inner emotional journey brings to mind the contracting bodies in the lineage of Martha Graham.

Listening into freedom

In the Q&A following La Medea, the musicians of Jason and The Argonauts talked about how the work forced them to deepen their act of listening: they not only needed to listen to each other as they were playing live, but also needed to tune in to their playing in the film projected onscreen, to achieve perfect synchronicity.

This practice of astute listening was further activated in An Improvisation. For the duration of the performance, the five performers tuned in to each other, as well as to the space and audience. They responded to cues from another performer, joined movements or rhythms in unison, departed from a group dynamic to go solo, explored silence and immobility. On his knees and with his back to dancer Rashaun Mitchell, dancer Silas Riener extended an arm horizontally through a chair. A few feet behind, Mitchell extended his, drawing a parallel geometry in space that promptly dissolved.

Claudia La Rocco’s text functioned in the liminal space of the here and there: it could be read as responding to the moment, such as giving directions to the other performers (“Don’t think about what you cannot fix. Don’t think about fixing”), possibly contributing to a manifesto in the making. Yet it also functioned as a reminiscence independent of the performance. Viewers were inclined to adjust their own listening frequency. I found myself looking for the impetus of a note or a movement. Where does it start? Who is leading whom? What choices are being made in the moment?

An improvisation was also presented in the program as an opportunity to “witness what it’s like to free yourself of control.” An impossible task, given the countless forms of control always at play: the limitations of space and time, the restraints of the body, of one’s training, of one’s lineage, to name a few. Mitchell played with pushing the exterior boundaries of the space. At one point, his body disappeared under the draped table where La Rocco was sitting. At another moment, he climbed the stairs and proceeded to trickle down the empty seats to end up sitting down in the front row, briefly interacting with his neighbor, tapping his leg in unison with the rhythm of Shoko Hikage’s koto score. His moving through the seated audience reminded me of Parterre, the surprise performances by Les gens d’Uterpan, whose dancers rolled through viewers from the top of the audience seating area to the stage. First dressed, then irreverently naked, the performers confronted the viewers with the tactile and raw materiality of what they were about to watch — bodies in movement.

Reclaiming history

Similarly to La Medea, Byb Chanel Bibene’s Nkisi Nkondi addresses history, albeit one that is not mythical but unfolded in Bibene’s native Congo for several centuries. Upon discovering a Nkisi Nkondi statue in a French museum, Bibene uncovered the history of his culture before colonization, one which had been erased by European imperial powers. The work comes after years of research, yet it is less a culmination than an opening, an invitation in the form of a question. Punctuated by a text written collaboratively by Marvin K. White, Darius Simpson, and Bibene, the piece appears as the beginning of a journey to reclaim one’s past.

The piece acts as an activation and a conversation with the sacred statues: “Can the Minkisi be reactivated?” Simpson, the narrator, asks. What would that reactivation entail? What would it generate? Seven performers, dressed in white and covered in white powder assume the role of Minkisi — at times immobile, fixed like statues, at times moving as spirits -four dancers wearing red- animate them. At some point, a black and white film projected on a screen show Congolese chained to each other at the neck, marching forward as white colonists surround them. On stage, one performer is vividly brushing the white powder off her body — a literal refusal of the white culture that has invaded and taken over her culture.

“A statue carrying the energy of our people… By taking them away they stole our connection to our roots,” Simpson continues. “What are they continuing to teach us about ourselves? What if the money from these stolen statues went back to the land? What if we danced instead of speaking? What if we spoke instead of fighting? What if our bodies did the talking?” Bibene’s work conjures his fellow Congolese to join in answering these questions and engage in an act of reconstruction in a country ravaged by its colonial past and current civil war. With Nkisi Nkondi, Bibene traces a possible roadmap for the future of his community.