Friday, January 17, 2014

Bronx Gothic—Innocence Lost

Okwui Okpakwasili. Photo: Ian Douglas
If you mention the name Okwui Okpokwasili to NYC dance world familiars, one of the first reactions is invariably, "she's so beautiful." It's not just her lithe, muscular physique; she radiates great dignity, self-possession, and grace. These traits no doubt factored into her being cast as Queen Hippolyta in Julie Taymor's recent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Theater for a New Audience, and in her leather cloak, long gown, and platform shoes she certainly embodied royalty. Thus it's all the more shocking to see her stripped to her physical and emotional essence in her solo show, Bronx Gothic, presented at Danspace Project by the Coil Festival through February 1.

In this intense, intensely personal physical theater piece, as we enter, she stands in the corner of a cordoned off square within the sanctuary, where the audience lines two sides; her body judders and shakes as if jolted by an electric shock. How she sustains this trance for even a few minutes is astonishing, but this continues for another quarter hour. She then calmly begins to revisit her Bronx-based adolescence, reading notes exchanged with her experienced best friend at the time. Despite her maroon jersey halter dress being soaked with sweat, she barely breathes hard as she speaks into a mic. She switches octaves for the two girls' voices, between naive and knowing; her vocal and breathing control should be the envy of any opera singer. 

Between her many note-reading sessions, she repeats an alarming movement sequence in which she collapses to the floor joint by joint, each bone thudding as it hits, as well as her skull. She sings several songs in a lovely voice, lifting the mood of this dense reverie. The tone is also lightened by the kitschy figurine lamps and plant clusters scattered around what feels as much like a boxing ring as a stage. Much of what she recounts from the notes are differing levels of maturity from two 11-year-old girls: one all too experienced with boys and sex; the other innocent. Toward the end of the 80-minute work, Okpokwasili eerily takes on a wise Bronx adolescent's tone and aggression. She tears down the nature of the two girls' toxic relationship, recalling being repeatedly tagged ugly. It clearly scarred her, and she repeats it so much that we, as she must have, begin to believe it. A litany of questions and commands prompting us to determine if we're waking or dreaming further erases the line between real and imagined. The dream shades into nightmare again and again.

This confessional often approaches how the naive girl must have felt—held between thrall and terror at her friend's braggadoccio and admonishments—but witnessing the gamut of expression used by Okpokwasili is to marvel at her multifaceted talent.

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