Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cultural Identity: Trope or Truth

In performance, the politics of identity is such a common stated theme as to be a default for artists who’d prefer to let their work do the talking rather than writing the dreaded artist’s statement. But is this acceding to cultural dynamics? Is it simply the easiest path, a one-size-fits-all panacea meant to try to shape the amorphous?

Last weekend, Danspace Project showed 80s videos of dance excerpts by black choreographers, chosen by Will Rawls as part of the Parallels platform, titled "Protagonists: Documents of Dance and Debate," at the appropriately alliterative Douglas Dunn loft. Shown were clips by Blondell Cummings, Ishmael Houston-Jones (the platform’s curator), Ralph Lemon (all three were present), plus a dialogue/demo between Steve Paxton and Bill T. Jones.

None of dances came from what Houston-Jones termed “the Ailey tradition,” a semi-codified blend of modern, jazz, and African traditions, with a theatrical bent. Nor do these artists describe themselves (at least firstly) as African-American choreographers. They simply happen to be African-American.

What came through was how personally specific these excerpts were, which is one of the few common denominators of post-Judson modern dance in New York. Essentially, the freedom to pursue a personal theater, regardless of technique, which nonetheless is continually at hand. It just doesn’t define these dances.

I’d never seen Cummings perform, which I immediately regretted after seeing her slippery, darting, detailed phrases accumulate like a dazzling mound of soap bubbles in Chicken Soup. Set in a "kitchen," she danced with a cast iron pan, tapping into the role of women in the family, as the family foundation, providing sustenance and comfort, and yet also somehow ineluctably and gravely bound to duty.

Houston-Jones’ work included his mother. He carried her onstage on his shoulder (a simple act that encapsulated the poignancy of a mother/son relationship) and she recited a monologue while painting eggs. His point was to try to ignore whatever she was saying, creating an complex tension between the connect and the disconnect.

Ralph Lemon’s segment was apparently one of the first choreographic efforts by him (and one he hadn’t seen in 30 years). It seemed strange, purposefully opaque, gender vague (he wore a skirt), but intriguing—a precursor to his later powerful mix of sheer kinetic impulse and anthropology.

The Paxton/Jones segment consisted of short solo performance clips, followed by a heated dialogue about aesthetics and authenticity. The original talk from 1983 was provocative then, and still gives off a static charge years later. An example: when Jones does an arabesque, what are the associations it brings that could be questioned as emotionally authentic? Jones insisted that performing it elicited certain genuine emotions. Clearly, just watching a few minutes didn’t allow time to absorb much, but apparently it can (and should)  be seen at the New York Library of Performing Arts.

So rather than creating any sort of definition of "black dance," this program seemed to toss a loosely woven net around a number of imaginative choreographers working in the 80s, who happen to be black. Like their non-black counterparts, they inserted details that either read clearly, or added some mysterious personal texture, but in the end felt universal.

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