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The Ecstatic Celebration: Omar Souleyman at The Cedar

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Performing Arts Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Omar Souleyman at the […]

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Omar Souleyman; Photo: Molly Hanse

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Performing Arts Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Omar Souleyman at the Cedar. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word “Hafla (حفلة)” carries the sense of both the English words “Concert” and “Party.” It might be more accurate then to refer to Syrian singer and electro-dabke wizard Omar Souleyman’s performance to a packed crowd at the Cedar on Friday night as a hafla. Slowly traipsing back and forth across the stage, Souleyman led one of the most frenzied and ecstatic dance parties I’ve ever seen in the Twin Cities. When I saw this crowd of supposedly reserved Minnesotans losing their minds like a bunch raving club kids to Souleyman’s synthesis of traditional Levantine celebration music and Western electronic dance music, I have to say I was a bit relieved.

International pop artists like Omar Souleyman are so often positioned as mere intellectual curiosities by Western press and promoters. A lot of the discussion around Souleyman seems to amount to little more than saying, “He wears a keffiyeh  and he makes electronic dance music?! How fascinating?!” When people come to shows expecting to see some think piece of a pop performance, they’re rarely ready to dance. In July, I was lucky enough to see the legendary Ethiopian pop star Mahmoud Ahmed at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Sadly, while Ahmed and his band were laying down the rawest gutbucket grooves, most of the people in the crowd were standing stiff, flaccidly nodding their heads, or taking Instagram photos. It took over half a set of the 73-year-old Ahmed’s desperate coaxing before the audience allowed itself to stop observing and start participating (I don’t think it helped matters that two hardly-danceable free jazz trios served as the opening acts that night). Thankfully, those who attended Omar Souleyman’s party in Minneapolis came to play.

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Vacation Dad; Photo: Sam Segal

The hyperactive cosmic slop of opening performer Vacation Dad provided a perfect entry point for the night’s festivities. Vacation Dad, the project of producer Andy Todryk, ramped up the BPMs on the spaced-out electronic exotica of his recordings in favor of lush, drop-heavy dance music. After a short set of Bernie Worrell meets Diplo magic, Vacation Dad cleared the stage for the man we were all here to see.

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Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Building up the tension with the skill of a true showman, the performance began with Souleyman’s master keyboardist, Rizan Sa’id, alone on stage. Over the years, Souleyman’s band has trimmed down to the solo accompaniment of Sa’id, who somehow manages to conjure an entire dabke orchestra on two old Korgs. With a slow, somber melody emanating from the keyboard, Souleyman’s ghostly Arabic greeted the crowd from somewhere offstage. “He’s saying, ‘Goodmorning,’” a guy next to me told a child near him. The guy continued to translate Souleyman’s speech for another minute, but eventually he gave up, telling the child to “think of the words as music.”

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Omar Souleyman and Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Over the years, Souleyman has replaced all traditional instrumentation with electronics, leading him to develop a totally unique style of manically sped up, overdriven dabke music. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he referred to this style as a sport: “The fast music is a kind of sport, it makes you move—it’s like any sport where you jump or run. And it’s the same for the audience as well; they tend to dance even more to the fast music.” Well, if this concert was a sport, then Souleyman was our haggard veteran coach, effortlessly conducting our boisterous participation with stoic hand gestures and the occasional affirmative grin. We clapped when he clapped, and we shouted back in call-and-response joy when he pointed the mic towards us (no doubt botching the Arabic phrase he was looking for).

Throughout the show, I was doing my best to try and figure out which songs Souleyman was pulling from his massive catalog, but outside of the fact that I don’t speak Arabic, I could hardly quit clapping and jumping up-and-down long enough to even try. I’d come in with all sorts of political questions: What does it mean that Souleyman is performing music that is increasingly becoming a historical artifact with the devastation caused by the civil war in Syria? Does it matter that this audience might not understand the ethnomusicological context of his music? How much will a Western audience project its stereotypes of Arab identity onto him? But when the skittering beat took over and Souleyman’s gruff voice began calling out poetry I could only understand as another musical instrument, those questions really didn’t seem relevant. What was relevant was the moment and the simple awe of watching a pop star at the height of his powers leading a crowd in communal celebration.

More than the Beat: Choreographers’ Evening 2014

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Rae Charles shares her perspective on Choreographers’ Evening 2014. Agree or disagree? Feel […]

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Top photo, left to right: Wealthy Phonseya (INC), Travis Johnson (INC), Blake Nellis, Deneane Richburg, Lisa Berman (INC), Madeline Howie (INC), Taja Will, and Darrius Strong (STRONGmovement). Bottom photo, left to right: Arturo Miles (INC), Renée Copeland (INC), Joseph Tran (INC), Tonya Williams, Cheng Xiong (INC), Deja Stowers, Junauda Petrus, and Canaan Mattson. Not pictured: Kendra Dennard, Aneka McMullen (INC), and Ashley R.T. Yergens. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Rae Charles shares her perspective on Choreographers’ Evening 2014. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

When I heard that beloved artist, educator, and community advocate Kenna-Camara Cottman would be curating this year’s Choreographers’ Evening at the Walker, I knew she had a daunting task ahead of her. For an artist of color to be asked to present their personal aesthetic in such a privileged space, the honor was not without immense responsibility and heavy baggage. I’m sure the curatorial process is never a cakewalk, but for Kenna, this journey had to come with the deep reckoning that any “minority” (POC, differently-abled, Trans, queer, female, etc.) artist has confronted at one time or another: How do I represent myself? How and with whom do I identify?

These questions of representation are in fact universal, but diverse artists will tell you that we pay a special tax. There is the burden of gatekeeping, of tokenism—being that one privileged voice asked to speak for all of your kind. Decision-making becomes bogged down when one honestly faces that they may be the example, the experiment. Will there be another black curator? Will diverse artists have another chance like this to be presented and aesthetically valued?

Let me put this another way:

As a young child growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I was not only the sole black student, but often the only black girl in most of my classrooms and activities. I hated February and any discussion of U.S. history for without fail, the buck would be passed to me. What did I think about slavery? Was my grandmother in the Civil Rights movement? Do all black people laugh like that? What is up with black women and your hair?! And on and on. All heads would spin, eyes stare, and ears open as their inquiry suffocated me in its spotlight. Alternately innocent or offensive, always ignorant, these types of questions haunted me through my college years. The responsibility to be the one voice communicating the diversity of my entire race in white spaces was paralyzing.

You can imagine my relief when I saw that this was not so for Kenna and the artists she chose to present at this year’s Choreographers’ Evening. At the 9:30 pm Choreographer’s Evening performance on November 29, I witnessed 10 choreographers and countless supporting artists refusing to be frozen. Unlike most Choreographers’ Evenings, this year’s evening rode an arc of cohesion as it revealed themes of triumph and defiance. Gone was the disjointed variety show featuring the curator’s “Top 10,” instead was a unified vision making a bold and relevant statement—a feat I attribute to Cottman’s curatorial prowess.

The evening was as timely as it was clear in its statement, forcing the audience to acknowledge the zeitgeist seizing hold of our nation this past week. The grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson for his shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown has ignited fervent rage and protesting beyond the city limits of Ferguson, Missouri. A new generation has awoken and arisen all over this country. We are no longer blinded by the promises of a  “post-racial society” or content with what our fore-parents accomplished. There is still work to be done, and we are determined to wail, and shout, and stand until it is finished. A clear takeaway from Saturday’s performance is the importance of artists’ role in this work and their willingness to do it.

Artists are often first responders, the canary in the mines, each singing their own song of alarm. The night’s shining star was a work by Darrius Strong of (Strong Movement) entitled Piece by Piece. Alongside four other dancers, including the powerful and captivating Ashley Akpaka, Strong charges through space summoning a collective spirit as he shows a community in breakdown. Religiously implicit motifs suggests a ceremony of induction as the group shifts between altruistic care for its members and almost cannibalistic violence upon itself, showcasing the best and worst of what happens when we all come together.

Less literal but equally relevant was Significant Nothings, choreographed and performed by Canaan Mattson. Mattson is an entrancing, gooey, and technical mover—able to organically shift through disciplines and seamlessly juggle maintaining the intimacy of his work while still inviting us in to witness the magnificent beauty of a young black man. For the work’s second section, Mattson forgoes recorded music and is joined by vocalist Eric Nordstrom onstage. Nordstrom happens to white, and as he steps on stage in his all black suit the contrast between himself and young Mattson donned in all white, is stark. The visual arithmetic is unavoidable if not intentional and for a moment, my breath caught as I watched these two young men share space and produce creativity rather than destroy life. To behold a young black man, as not dangerous, but beaming in his prime is a lesson our nation needs to learn.

TU Dance’s Kendra Dennard also hits literal high notes in her solo work Dancing With God. While the program notes aptly describe the work as an exploration of the fine line between love and hate, brilliance and calamity, it also resonated with my own experience of the Brown tragedy as young black woman. Brown’s and the countless other shootings in recent years are maddening and heart wrenching, not because I see myself in these men, but because I see my brother, my father, my partner, and I fear for my future sons. There is a loneliness in black women’s sorrow. We are secluded to ourselves but oh so affected. As we lose ourselves to grief, as we isolate ourselves for strength, the threads of ourselves start to fray. This is my own reading of Dennard’s work as she croons and morphs the melodies of Billie Holiday on a stage lit like a cell by a single overhead light. Dennard is beautiful yet tortured as she dances for composure, for relief, for hope—she dances for God to hear us.

From Ashley R.T. Yergens’ sassy Is this more ladylike? to Deneane Richburg’s Quiet As It’s Kept, all of the evening’s artists seemed to share a similar rebellious vision. Shucking cultural expectations, flipping the gaze, and honoring the artist’s civic duty to demand that culture face itself in the mirrors we hold up, this year’s choreographers delivered. An abundance of marginalized artists were given the opportunity to express themselves as so much more than our expectations. With metaphorical megaphones in hand, they spoke up and spoke out—not as tokens or tropes, but as authentic rich, lush, and complex individuals who truly see the world and demand to be seen. For that I say, Bravo! And thank you.

Meet the Artists of Choreographers’ Evening 2014

Curated by Twin Cities choreographer Kenna-Camara Cottman, this year’s edition of Choreographers’ Evening continues the tradition of providing an annual “crash course” on the local dance scene. In a recent interview with City Pages, Cottman expounds on the decision making process that whittled a long list of auditioned acts down to the program of ten choreographers selected for  two […]

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In New Company (INC). Photo: Bfresh Productions

Curated by Twin Cities choreographer Kenna-Camara Cottman, this year’s edition of Choreographers’ Evening continues the tradition of providing an annual “crash course” on the local dance scene. In a recent interview with City Pages, Cottman expounds on the decision making process that whittled a long list of auditioned acts down to the program of ten choreographers selected for  two shows on Saturday night in the McGuire Theater: “I like abstract and really physical things. Things that are clearly dance, but I’m also into weird stuff that has talking or text or different elements.” Noting a “preponderance of blackness” in this year’s program, Cottman emphasizes the importance of providing a platform to artists of color.

On Sunday afternoon, Cottman will also Hold Court in Theaster Gates’s See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court installation as a part of the Walker’s ongoing Radical Presence exhibition. She will lead a conversation with Choreographers’ Evening 2014 artists on contemporary dance and its role as an agent of sociopolitical change.

In advance of Saturday night’s performanceswe asked participating artists to share their thoughts on the questions their works pose, the vitality of performance, and the unique qualities of the Twin Cities dance community.

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Deja Stowers. Photo courtesy the artist

Deja Stowers

Original(Some)Body/Virgo

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

Original(Some)Body/Virgo will address the issue of body image and the unreasonable expectations we put on ourselves as Black full figured women. Our bodies are underrepresented on stage. So how are young Black full figured girls supposed to know what is possible? That their bodies can tell a story to the world? That there is sun and beauty radiating from their skin? This piece is also a Rite of Passage for my own body. Like everyone, I have to learn to love my body and everything it has to offer. This piece is one of the many chapters to helping myself heal and create. I am making myself available to be a reflection.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

I use Dance and “performance” because it gives me the freedom to tell a story in my own language. I feel it is the only way to get an accurate view of what is going on in my mind. It’s liberating.

Tonya Williams. Photo courtesy the artist

Tonya Williams. Photo courtesy the artist

Tonya Williams

Slaveship

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

One of the primary issues that I tackle through my work is identity, lack of  triumph, and the absolute power of perseverance. When you consider the African American journey as a whole, it is an ever changing story that lives and thrives with the people. So often our voice goes unheard.  I have been given an amazing gift to allow the boarder public the chance to experiences that cultural voice through vibrant, organic art in motion.   My overall goal is  to increase the cultural and historical  acknowledgement for the African American Journey. I would like for people to take away from my pieces the absolute reality of our story.

What makes the Twin Cities dance scene unique?

It is artistically diverse and always evolving. It is creative place-making at its best.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

At my very core I am a performing artist. There is an overwhelming need to express my artistic perspective.

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Kendra Dennard. Photo: Uchechukwu Iroegbu

Kendra Dennard

Dancing with God

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

This work addresses the dark and complex emotional spaces that we sometimes find ourselves in. Loneliness can be a beautiful gift of relief but it can also be a constricting space with the potential to swallow you whole. It is our freedom and our pain. It can be our space to come to recognize our true selves or run from our true selves. Dancing with God is a glimpse into one woman’s interaction with these ideas.

What makes the Twin Cities dance scene unique?

As a new member of this community I would have to say its vastness, accessibility, and stability are what make it unique. Other than Chicago, NY, and LA, most cities in the US have small communities that either aren’t well funded or don’t have anywhere near as many long-running, stable dance companies and dance centers. From TU Dance to MDT to James Sewell to Zenon, these companies have some of the strongest foundations I’ve ever seen all in one city (The Twins) remaining under the same leadership from their inception. This community is large enough to have its own award ceremony and multiple dance artists to be nominated in each category! I was humbled by the strength and vastness of the dance community at this year’s Sage Awards. All of these things and more make the Twin Cities dance scene very unique to me and very admirable.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

Performing provides me a visceral connection to people. It is not enough for me to simply do a song and dance; I desire to reach people and share my knowledge, wisdom, and life experiences in hopes that someone can look at things a bit differently. Life can certainly become mundane and, these days, overwhelming with shock and sensationalism in ways that render our emotions and interactions with others very one-dimensional. Performance is my way of keeping myself aware and reminding others of the multidimensional nature of humanity.

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Canaan Mattson. Photo: David Melendez

Canaan Mattson

Significant Nothings

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

My piece originally started off as a story of self-refinement, determining ethics, or  finding out a way to better yourself. As the process went on I couldn’t help to know that the topic goes even deeper and it all simply comes down to the act of noticing these good and bad forces that take hold of our thoughts. The piece focuses on different perspectives of this awareness, and how different types of people deal with this refinement.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

Humans have evolved to an oral being that can discern many feelings with the use of language. For me, performance breaks down that barrier of language causing your body  to ultimately say what your mouth cannot. This speech is an intense force as it reaches parts of the brain that deal with interpretation and focus. Movement can be just as strong as words in the articulation of feeling.

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‘cides Unseen (2013) by Ashley R.T. Yergens. Photo: Dean P. Neuburger

Ashley R.T. Yergens

Is this more ladylike?

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

During the fall semester of my senior year at St. Olaf, I conducted an independent study called “Queer Female Body in Dance” with Professor Heather Klopchin. As a movement study, I responded to Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures as a way to explore the social construction of gender and sexuality in performance. The study developed into a piece that provides an illuminating, slightly sarcastic look at femininity through gestural material. The gestures aim to deconstruct our own preconceived notions of what it means to be “ladylike” in performance.

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Darrius Strong. Photo: Dani Werner

Darrius Strong

Piece by Piece

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

At a young age I was unable to find a way to express myself and speak about my feelings, but over time creating work and performing has given me the tools to physically speak my expressions. Everyday, I witness people who are living day-to-day without thoughts of how society is shaping them. Race, gender, and ethnicity have always been a concern. My question is: Why does it remain a problem? Finding something in common with every race, gender, and ethnicity is a segue into making a change toward this problem. Being born in a predominantly black community in the south side of Chicago, then moving to a mostly white community in the suburbs of Minnesota has helped me find my identity as an African American male in this society. It is hard for me to understand why as people we don’t realize the power within societal norms, and the way in which we as humans use this against one another. I feel that we as individuals need to wake up and realize that unity is the greatest power.

Deneane Richburg. Photo courtesy the artist

Deneane Richburg. Photo courtesy the artist

 Deneane Richburg

Quiet As It’s Kept

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

I am really interested in experiencing substantive connections to my ancestral and cultural history as a means to gain deeper insights into who I am and the present journeys I find myself taking. As a result, my work is centered around experiencing these histories and the narratives that characterize the histories.

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Junauda Petrus. Photo: Valerie Caesar

Junauda Petrus

Black Solitude/Autonomous Wildness

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

In my aerial/dance work I reflect on how black people can experience themselves in the absence of limitless investigation and the self-consciousness of oppression. To be embodied,  and sensually and transcendently so. My whole life, I have seen and psychically responded to black people’s bodies being invisibilized, adored, chewed up, mauled, rubbed, loved, experienced, confused, misrepresented, absorbed, mocked, edified, attacked, desired, politicized, and most essentially commodified in Westernized culture and society. And my whole life I wanted to fly. I explore this journey in Black Solitude/Autonomous Wildness, using corde lisse, aerial rope, an apparatus I choose in part because of the violent and murderous relationship of ropes and black people.  The rope is tough and capable and connects earth to limitlessness. I try not to be too philosophical or academic about it, but visceral and free when I work with the rope. I try to be something transcendent and whimsical. I just focus on the alchemy of letting go, into myself in ways untouchable and inconceivable to the constraints of this society for black people. Today is an interesting time to answer this question. Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was murdered this weekend by Cleveland Police and the Michael Brown verdict is hours from being announced. The weight of  this moment is fascinating and I am in my heart with it.  I think of them and all of the “black bodies swinging” that there have ever been , that need to be known and seen and loved and humanized.

What makes the Twin Cities dance scene unique?

I think people really show love and support. I think it is also experimental and free, in ways that keep me excited and studying. I have gotten to perform in so many amazing pieces and with so many powerful artists. This season alone, I have gotten to co-choreograph with Nicolas Collard an aerial piece for Barebones, performed in a piece by SuperGroup, did a collaboration with photographer and dancer Bill and Kenna Cottman, musician, Lewis Hill III and photographer Kevin Obsatz which we performed on huge screens. I look forward to seeing and learning more of what the dance scene has to offer by way of the performers at CE.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

It assuages my ego, by making me vulnerable and open and bold. It is a beautiful ritual for me. I like to process my life’s journey and offer it to people to ponder with me and also make whatever sense of what I do for their own purposes and pleasure.

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Taja Will and Blake Nellis. Photo: Jim Smith

Taja Will 

Terpsichore Told Us To: 23 Gestures, 11 Poses, 2 Solos and a Duet 

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

We [Taja Will and Blake Nellis] are a collaborative team going on ten years old. Much of our work is rooted in exploring the moving relationships of intimacy and risk within our partnership. Our work is dedicated to exploring spontaneity, agency, instinctive choice-making, and instantaneous choreography. We are improvisers.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

Performance is a means to share embodied research, which I believe facilitates a remembering of the human body’s ability, complexity, and magic.

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Choreographers’ Evening 2014, curated by Kenna Camara-Cottman, takes place on Saturday, November 29th, at 7 pm and 9:30 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

Islands of Imagination: Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

SPOILER ALERT: This piece will never be the same.  If you saw it last night, you should go again. Keep in mind that what I am about to write happened last night between 7:50pm and 8:57pm (give or take an hour).  It was a time warp in a theatrical jungle filled with wise, old children, living props and movable obstructions for the imagination.  Oh, and they danced.

We line the staircase, buzzing with excitement.  The lobby seems full of people eager to witness something unknown.  What we do know is that we are here to watch Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson inhabit the McGuire Theater for an eight o’clock show.  And it’s almost eight.  What they will do and how it will look is a mystery to us all, including the veterans of improvisation already on stage.

And so it begins… We enter the theater together, some carrying coats, others still wrapped up tightly to fend off the wintry air they carried in from outside.  We hang our coats and head to our seats.  There is a beautiful lightscape happening on stage.  It’s very dark, but there appears to be a moving constellation spiraling towards us.  The piece has been happening, before we came through the doors and long before we arrived here tonight.  The last few audience members trickle in and a few brave souls wander to the stage to sit (with great alignment) on a few pillows that have been placed in front of the first row.  “Oh cooooool,” I hear a woman next to me say.  I look at her and see that she has just realized that Paxton and Nelson have been on stage the entire time.  The lights fade and the second scene begins (or was that the prelude?)

Nelson is wearing a black and white striped t-shirt, dark pants, dark stocking cap and bright red socks.  She is almost comical, but holding a stick she becomes a serious sort of wizard.  Paxton sports a dark top and bottom with his signature slippers.  He looks a man who has been dancing for more than fifty years and understands how he works (he’s the same age as the Walker Art Center, 75).  The two dancers take in the space and move carefully.  Nelson is nimble, articulate, and spritely.  We ask ourselves, almost audibly, “and how old is she?”  Maybe we have traveled time and space.  They move these carpeted flats around stage, creating new rooms and do-si-do-ing smoothly while we watch and listen. The sound is spacious, even sweet at times.  The invitation to observe is clear and generous.  We see them building something and watching each other, as we watch them. This is a gift.

In this beautiful museum we are watching a living exhibit.  It has an exquisite light design by Carol Mullins which was highlighted during my favorite moment in the piece.  It’s what Nelson calls “an event.”  This is one of the few things that Paxton and Nelson expect to happen during the course of the evening.  Even though it may be apparent from the outside as well, its beauty and play allows us to get lost deeper inside their world.  The sound collage morphs and warps through moments of French, whispering and moaning.  It’s nostalgic and ephemeral but sometimes strange and emotional.  Paxton and Nelson never seem in a hurry to show us any one thing.  (Will they get to that box of tissue and five-gallon pail? Who knows.) Their consciousness shifts like a group of children deciding to play a game.

Night Stand transcends narrative.  It allows us to look in from afar or join them on their islands of imagination.  The demeanor of these two performers inspires exploration and curiosity.  They design playfulness, attention, and friendship.  They infuse just enough weird with the beauty.  Images linger in my mind, during and now.  As they are ending, I feel confident and content.  But how do we know this is the end?  They have taught us how to see again.

AFTERWORD: Nelson and Paxton joined the community for: drinks, questions, compliments, laughter, the usual.  I approached and asked for an autograph.  (What else could I do?!)  But instead of handing over the pen I proposed we make a 60-second drawing together.  They obliged.  Each of us with one hand on the pen, waiting, listening, wondering “what the heck is happening?”  In the end, I have two drawings, one by Steve & me, the other by Lisa & me.  They look like memories of the night I saw Night Stand.

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues tonight, November 22, 2014 with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s second performance of  Night Stand in the McGuire Theater.

Winter Processes: Dawn of Midi + Nils Frahm

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performances by Dawn of Midi and […]

Dawn of Midi (left to right: Qasim Naqvi,  Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani).  Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

Dawn of Midi (left to right: Qasim Naqvi, Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani). Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performances by Dawn of Midi and Nils Frahm, a Walker co-presentation with the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Dysnomia, the second full-length album from Brooklyn-based experimental trio Dawn of Midi, is a single suite made up of nine individual tracks. On paper, it’s avant-garde jazz informed by classical minimalism, a 47 minute record that works just as well in headphones as it does on a loud stereo. In person, it’s a stirring and immersive nine-part cycle.

Bassist Aakaash Israni starts, and Amino Belyamani joins shortly thereafter on electric piano. Both repeat one note over and over. Qasim Naqvi then enters with a bass drum, creating an off-kilter polyrhythmic structure. From here the band’s sound transforms further: it’s jazz, then funk, techno, math rock. At times, I’m not sure whether I trust my own ears.

As their final song (“Dysnomia”) grew softer, I thought I heard the sound of a low-quality cell phone video a few rows behind me. But I was wrong. Actually, I was only hearing the soft ambient chatter and bar sounds from the back of the venue. After spending an hour immersed in Dawn of Midi’s intricate rhythmic structures, my sonic palette had been completely jarred.

Nils Frahm. Photo courtesy the artist

Nils Frahm. Photo courtesy the artist

Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm‘s most recent work is Spaces, an album which juxtaposes the analog and digital, live and studio, acoustic and electronic. Though occasionally referred to as  modern classical, it also touches on minimal synth, glitch, and even dub. It is a testament to his music’s versatility and precision that set opener “Says” also appeared on  a recent mix by Swiss techno dj Deetron. Nils closed with “For–Peter–Toilet Brushes–More,” Spaces‘ seventeen-minute centerpiece which involves the use of toilet brushes as percussion. It won him a standing ovation.

The first time I encountered Nils Frahm was in a title of a song by his friend Peter Broderick. “Hello to Nils” is the last track on Broderick’s How They Are, an album that helped get me through my first winter in Minnesota. Nils’ music likewise helps to ease the melancholy and emphasize the transcendence of the winter months. He does not shy away from sentiment: at one point last night, he introduced a song from his Screws album as a “little bit cheesy” piece of music he wrote after breaking his thumb. But he played it with complete, moving sincerity. It was only appropriate that a fresh layer of snow had appeared outside by the time the show ended.

Potential Energy is the Best Kind: Blake Nellis on Bound by Steve Paxton

  To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Jurij Konjar’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Bound (1982), […]

 

Jurij Konjar in Bound. Photo: Nada Žgank

Jurij Konjar in Bound. Photo: Nada Žgank

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Jurij Konjar’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Bound (1982), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The piece begins with sound and darkness.  The lights take their time fading up.  And then we can better see the four 2×4’s strewn (or placed intentionally) about the edges of the black floor.  Against the upstage wall there appears to be a rectangular screen covered in camouflage material.  In walks Jurij Konjar, dressed in red tights, white t-shirt, and suspenders holding a cardboard box around his midsection.  He appears to be a tired a superhero from a lesser known comic book.  His face is expressionless, although intriguing and handsome, as he stands motionless for us to look at him.

Konjar begins to unfold his cardboard box revealing flaps covered with camouflage material.  He is careful in transforming his box, but not too careful.  To complete his persona he donnes a vintage pair of sunglasses and black swim cap.  Now, it appears, we are ready for take off.

I wonder “how would Steve dance this if the year was 1982?” as my eyes dart around the black stage finding wood, camo, and a projector being rolled to center stage.  The back wall becomes an optical illusion, almost.  Konjar places himself in front of the screen, virtually disappearing.  The movements here are accurate, specific, and spell-binding.  We know this is being made up.  We understand the power of improvisation.  We are waiting patiently as this dancer points, stretches, and carves the space without giving us too much to digest at once.  He faces away from us so we can see the projection on his white shirt and find his arms extending ever so slightly from those short sleeves.  It’s time for him to move the projector.  He gathers the chord, pushes it off to its resting place stage left and walks diagonally behind the curtain.  We will see the projector again.  And we will see this piece being composed in front of us.  Konjar takes his time, like Paxton always does, to let us guess what might come next.  The potential energy is palpable, even though in the back of our minds we know this could be the Bound climax.

The dancing flirts with gesture, repetition, and surprise.  The dancer searches the space for another place to almost do something.  It is a pleasure to watch him calculate and observe.  He finds a rocking chair and baby cradle, both wooden and slightly creaky.  This becomes a game of sound, rocking with a few swift pushes from his hand.  Audience members begin coughing, clearing throats, even melodious sneezes add to the sound score.  (My partner and I are distracted and shifting in our seats, hoping that the “coughers” will take a breath.) We see nothing fazes Konjar.  He rocks until his heart’s content.  We know he’s on to something.

My favorite part of the work felt like a dancing dream, complete with costume change (Konjar wears all white for the remainder of the show).  The “White Section” has what we hope every dance piece would have: a person on stage inspiring us, dancing in a way that we cannot, or at least we cannot fully predict.  We can follow the dance like we can follow jazz, best if we close our eyes.

Here I take the time to imagine the Paxton/Konjar journey:

shifting dynamics

energy ascending the spine

playing with gravity

being serious with gravity

listening for rests

[                       ]

looking for the end/beginning

Konjar navigates the stage like a firefly trapped in a man’s body.  He jerks and twists and slides across the floor.  I know these sensations.  His physical intelligence is gripping and still mostly filled with potential energy.  Like a young Steve Paxton, Jurij Konjar invites us to see each move for the first time.  His physical orientation is often mysterious and off-balance.  I enjoy watching as his head whips around to see what is behind him.  It seems to surprise him, too, and his body torques and recovers like a fish out of water for just a moment.  All the while, an expressionless face.  [Could his body possibly express even one more thing without his face finally breaking just a little to reveal some inner secret?]  But we keep watching as the sweat soaks through the white t-shirt.

The effort feels generous.  The spine and signature of Paxton, present just enough.  Konjar unravels a spool of twine as he walks backwards and then forwards.  With his swim cap he makes his way to the finish line.  It is beautiful and poetic.  We remember now the unfolding of the cardboard box as we realize we have seen the unfolding of a master’s piece.  A new piece has been made.  Bound (2014).

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), Friday–Saturday, November 21–22, 2014 in the McGuire Theater. Writer Blake Nellis is a Twin Cities based dancer, choreographer and educator. This year’s Choreographers’ Evening, curated by Kenna Cottman, will include an improvised work by Nellis and long-time collaborator Taja Will.

Deceptive Rhythms and Accidental Influences: An Interview with Dawn of Midi’s Amino Belyamani

Dawn of Midi look like a standard contemporary jazz trio: bass, drums, piano, v-necks, and scruffy beards. After forming at the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, Amino Belyamani (piano), Qasim Naqvi (drums), and Aakaash Israni (bass) put out a full-length album called First in 2010 and a live EP in 2011, both of […]

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Dawn of Midi: Qasim Naqvi, Amino Belyamani, Aakaash Israni. Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

Dawn of Midi look like a standard contemporary jazz trio: bass, drums, piano, v-necks, and scruffy beards. After forming at the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, Amino Belyamani (piano), Qasim Naqvi (drums), and Aakaash Israni (bass) put out a full-length album called First in 2010 and a live EP in 2011, both of which were freely improvised. On those records, the band sounded roughly like a modern jazz trio; which isn’t to say their music wasn’t brilliant and unique. It was, but Dawn of Midi’s early recordings definitely had more in common with the Craig Taborn Trio than electronic musicians like Aphex Twin or minimalist composers like Steve Reich. You can’t say the same for the trio’s sound on their second album, Dysnomia, which they will perform in full at Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul on Saturday, November 15 in a co-presentation by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series and the Walker Art Center.

Dysnomia is a fully composed, forty-seven–minute piece of looping hypnosis. The textures are deep and synthetic. Naqvi keeps fishing wire taped under his drums, giving them the buzz of an 808 snare. The only cymbal he uses is his hi-hat. Belyamani manages to give his piano an electronic timbre by muting and manipulating the piano strings with his left hand. More often than not, Israni plays bass harmonics to match the higher frequency of the piano. Their acoustic instruments breathe organic life into the sonic palette of electronic music.

The album begins with a simple, repeating bass line, and eventually a muted piano drops in, sounding like a synthesizer that’s oscillating just barely out of time with the bass. A kick drum fades in with another off-kilter rhythm. It’s strange at first, the pulse of the “deceptive” rhythms, as Belyamani calls them. But as the piece builds, the disjointed beats slowly starts to swallow you, and soon enough, you’re dancing.

Cover art for Dawn of Midi's Dysnomia( 2014)

Cover art for Dawn of Midi’s Dysnomia (2013)

Sam Segal: I first came across your music in a 2010 radio session Dawn of Midi did on WFMU. At that point, you guys were making this quiet, spacial improvised music that seemed to be working more inside of the jazz idiom. Can you describe how you moved from that sound to the tight, composed, electronic-influenced music you are making now?

Amino Belyamani: As thrilling as it is to be immersed in the risk of each single moment, when playing freely improvised music, it is almost impossible to reach those golden musical moments at every concert. The majority of the music we love listening to is structured pretty heavily, if not entirely composed. If one wants to guarantee that kind of listening pleasure, for the audience as well as for the performers, then everything needs to be worked out beforehand.

Segal: What was the compositional process on Dysnomia like?

Belyamani: By the time we started working on Dysnomia, and understood the kind of compositional endeavor we were about to dive into, we put our improvisational skills to the side and began focusing on “deceptive” rhythms. I wrote the majority of the piece, sometimes bringing into rehearsals fully worked out parts for all three of us. Other times, since we recorded and documented every single rehearsal, we would decide on certain parts based on trial and error. Our bassist, Aakaash Israni, contributed to some of his parts.

Segal: It seems like in the contemporary jazz world, the idea of “the band” has fallen out of style. Musicians will form different combos, make a couple of records, and then disperse. That’s not the case with Dawn of Midi. Was maintaining the fellowship and group aesthetic of a band something that you guys deliberately set out to do?

Belyamani: I believe the real value is friendship. We were tennis mates for over a year before we even played music together. It just happens to be that our common aesthetic was the foundation of our friendship, as well as for our musicianship as a band. We got lucky. Even the name of the band was not deliberately meant to be a foreshadowing of Dysnomia, just a light-hearted joke about this time before MIDI came to be.

Segal: Dysnomia is a piece that really transcends any sort of gimmickry. You guys aren’t performing some parlor trick where all you do is fool people into thinking an acoustic band is an electronic producer. Could you talk about some of the non-electronic influences on the album?

Belyamani: Actually, what seem to be electronic influences were, once again, an accident. It was only after recording ourselves and hearing the sounds we were making that we noticed that it kind of reminded us of electronic and dance music. The intention, all throughout the compositional process, was to translate North and West African music into the western instruments we played. Growing up in Morocco was a great environment for absorbing what I call “deceptive” rhythms. That is, music where the underlying pulse is where you least expect it, where the silences are. Then in college at CalArts I studied heavily with this amazing Ghanaian master drummer named Alfred Kwashie Ladzekpo, who has retired back to Ghana now. The Moroccan and Ghanaian influences are what make up Dysnomia.

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Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

Segal: There’s a looping, rhythmic quality to Dysnomia that makes it very danceable. Do you ever wish jazz/experimental music audiences were more willing to bust a move or two?

Belyamani: Absolutely! I believe that dance and music are inseparable. In fact, in many African languages, they only have one word that encompasses it all; dance, music, poetry, and style. Those “deceptive” rhythms I talk about are there for that reason; they don’t come from an intellectual or compositional process. They exist so that the dancer fills up those empty spaces, that would be the pulse, by their body, and that’s how trance is achieved.

Segal: Could you give us a hint about the direction of your next record? Can we expect another tightly composed piece, or are you guys stepping back into a more improvisational mode?

Belyamani: All I can say, without spoiling the surprise: Dancing will be mandatory.

Segal: Finally, if you could see any band/artist in any year, who would you see and when would you see them?

Belyamani: I would have loved to be at the Kalakuta Republic, in Nigeria where Fela Kuti resided, in 1974 and see his band blow my mind.

Steve Paxton and the Walker: A 50-Year History

Steve Paxton is one of the most radical and influential  American artistic innovators alive. His impact on the field of dance, stretching more than 50 years, has been felt around the world: as a principle dancer for Merce Cunningham in the 60s, a founding member of the legendary Judson Dance Theater (’62-65) and of the […]

Video project with Steve Paxton

Video project with Steve Paxton at MCAD, October 6, 1975, during a residency at the Walker. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.

Steve Paxton is one of the most radical and influential  American artistic innovators alive. His impact on the field of dance, stretching more than 50 years, has been felt around the world: as a principle dancer for Merce Cunningham in the 60s, a founding member of the legendary Judson Dance Theater (’62-65) and of the Grand Union collective (1970-76),  and as the inventor of Contact Improvisation (in 1972), a technique now practiced and taught globally. His influence on the current generation of dance and performance artists has been profound particularly in New York and across Europe.

–Philip Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts

2014 marks 50 years since Steve Paxton’s first visit to the Walker Art Center. Over the course of the past five decades (and beyond), his influence on and contribution to the postmodern and contemporary dance movements as a dancer, choreographer, and movement innovator runs undeniably deep. Paxton was part of José Limón’s company in 1960, and from 1961 to 1964, he danced for Merce Cunningham. His involvement in both Grand Union and Judson established him as a major figurehead in the dance world. These groups were arguably the most critical influences on the development of postmodern and contemporary dance in the latter half of the twentieth century, relentlessly shattering and reshaping expectations of dance creation and performance. That impact remains prevalent today.

Through residencies and visits to universities with Grand Union, Paxton began developing a technique that emphasized uncensored flow with another body where, as he wrote in an article in 1975, “[e]ach party of the duet freely improvises with an aim to working along the easiest pathways available to their mutually moving masses. These pathways are best perceived when the muscular tone is lightly stretched to extend the limbs, although not to a degree that obscures the sensations of momentum and inertia. Within this flexible framework, the shape, speed, orientation, and personal details of the relationship are left to the dancers who, however, hold to the ideal of active, reflexive, harmonic, spontaneous, mutual forms.”1 He named this technique Contact Improvisation and introduced it to New York in 1972.

Since the 1980s, Paxton has rarely performed, devoting his time to writing, teaching,and leading workshops. For this reason, his visit and performances for Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton at the Walker over the next two weeks are a rare treat. To commemorate the momentous event of his return (after an absence of over sixteen years), I thought I’d share with you some Paxton-related material from the Walker’s archives (click on any image to get a closer look).

1964: Performance with Merce Cunningham Company

Paxton was first presented by the Walker on February 25th, 1964 when he performed with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at the Guthrie Theatre. This was  MCDC’s second time performing for the Walker, and only a year after the company’s first visit. Most of the dancers who went on to form Grand Union studied with Cunningham. Three had previously danced in his company, including Paxton. In the 1964 performance at the Guthrie, Paxton danced in Story and Antic Meet:

MCDC1964ProgramMCDC1964Program_Reverse

1965: A Judson Residency that was not to be

On July 6th, 1962, Robert Dunn’s dance composition class (which included Yvonne Rainer and Paxton) performed a concert – it was out of this concert that Judson Dance Theater was born. Judson, which derived its name from the church in New York in which the collective performed, continued to produce work over the next two years that challenged the established modern dance tradition of the time. Plans were in place for Judson to complete a residency at the Walker in 1965 but the group dissolved in 1964, before the residency could happen.

1975: Grand Union Residency

The Grand Union collective existed and produced work from 1970 to 1976 and was comprised of experimental and improvisational dance artists. Grand Union evolved in part from Yvonne Rainer’s work Continuous Project-Altered Daily and included many of the dancers and performers who had worked together in the Judson days. Grand Union visited the Walker for a residency in 1971, but Paxton was unable to join because of prior commitments. However, from October 5-10, 1975, Grand Union returned with Paxton to complete another residency which included workshops, solo performances, and group performances at the Guthrie Theater and in the museum lobby. In addition to performances, Paxton led a video workshop with students from Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

GrandUnion1975Program

Below are some notes on possible residency activities with Paxton, also from the 1975 residency with Grand Union (the photo at the beginning of this blog post is from his video project with MCAD students):

PaxtonResidency(GU)notes

Here’s Paxton performing at the Walker, also in 1975:

Steve Paxton with Grand Union, 1975

Steve Paxton during a performance with Grand Union, Walker Art Center Auditorium, October 6, 1975. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

After the residency, Paxton wrote a letter to Sue Weil, the Performing Arts Coordinator at the time. Below is Paxton’s hand-written letter, along with Weil’s response:

LetterStevetoSueLetterSuetoSteve

 1980: Jeff Slayton, Lisa Nelson, & Steve Paxton

On June 20, 1980, Paxton, Jeff Slayton, and Lisa Nelson performed works choreographed by Slayton and Viola Farber. Farber was originally supposed to perform but was unable due to an injury. Lisa Nelson has long been an improvisational dancer and she and Paxton have been artistic collaborators since the 1970s. Though they come from different backgrounds in dance, their work together comes naturally. As Brian Seibert wrote in 2013 following the premiere of  Night Stand at Dia:Chelsea Gallery, “Their attunement was so fine that you felt it more when they avoided each other than when they joined in an awkward ballroom dance. A hand proffered and accepted might lead anywhere or nowhere.”

 

PaxtonSlaytonProgram1980

1998: Improvisation Project: Chris Aiken, Steve Paxton, and Friends

In October 1998, then-local Contact Improvisation artist Chris Aiken was joined by other artists in the field: Kirstie Simson (London/Boston), Ka Rustler (Berlin), and Ray Chung (Berkeley, California) for a series of performances at the Southern. This was Paxton’s last visit to the Walker, before his return this week.

Improv project 1980 inside

 

And a photo of Paxton during his 1998 performance:

Improvisation Project, October 24, 1998 with Chris Aiken and Steve Paxton

Steve Paxton in The Improvisation Project, Southern Theater, October 24, 1998. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.

2001: White Oak Dance Project

On September 27th, 2001, Paxton’s pieces Satisfyin Lover and Flat were performed as part of PASTforward, a project directed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and written by David Gordon that celebrated the work of some of the Judson Theater artists of the 1960s. Paxton didn’t make an appearance for this performance but Satisfyin Lover was performed by local dancers, and Flat was performed by Baryshnikov himself, making the project “counter-intuitive, even joyously subversive”, as Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither described it in the program notes.

White Oaks 2001

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton, a mini-festival celebrating the work of Paxton, begins Thursday, November 13, 2014 with Talking Dance with Steve Paxton, which will also include a performance of his piece Smiling (1967) by Kristin Van Loon and Lisa Nelson. Bound (1982) will be performed by Jurij Konjar on Friday, November 14, 2014 and Night Stand (2004) will be performed by Paxton and Nelson on Friday and Saturday, November 21 and 22, 2014. In addition, Paxton and Nelson will each teach a workshop at the Walker on Sunday, November 16, 2014.

Footnotes

1Paxton, Steve. “Contact Improvisation.” The Drama Review 19.1 (1975): 40-42. Print.

Listening Body: Penelope Freeh on Panaibra Gabriel Canda

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Time […]

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Panaibra Gabriel Canda and Jorge Domingos performing Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos. Photo courtesy MAPP International Productions.

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos by Panaibra Gabriel Candathe second evening of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

There are stations onstage: a chair and amp on center, three microphones on stands in three corners and costume elements near the middle wing stage right. As the lights fade moments before the piece formally begins, a guitar player lays down near his equipment. Lights up and Panaibra Gabriel Canda, his back to us, speaks Portuguese into a mic, translations projected onto the scrim upstage.

Identity is outlined as a major theme here. With a clever trajectory of verbiage we become entangled in the macro/micro crisscrosses and crosses to bear of Canda’s personal history. He comes from a musician father and dressmaker mother from Mozambique, a country colonized by Portugal, turned communist, turned democratic. It is a confusing story that seems to have forced this contemporary dance and performance artist inward. Out pour guttural stutterings and a body wrestling with itself.

Intimate dances occur, accompanied by the virtuosic musicianship of Jorge Domingos. The two performers are always in counterpoint. Very little needs to be communicated between them in order to be completely on the same page. For a work with a subtitle that contains the word “Solos”, this reads very much as a duet.

Canda’s intelligent body holds many qualities and dynamic ranges. Initially making well-muscled arm gestures that repeat with accompanying text, he moves into more sinuous musings, traversing space. The geography is specific and seems to jump from the stage onto Canda’s very skin. I begin to perceive his body as a map, zones, multi-locations with various topographies. Stomping and gentle tapping accompany flinging arms and tight-fists. Grooves are interrupted and swell into eruption again and again, like water lapping.

A slow and deliberate crawl from upstage to down is my favorite moment, executed with profound coordination. We see the body lower then upright, and it is significant in its changing of planes. The bone and muscle dances begin under the low mic. We are reminded of what’s under the skin (that cannot be rubbed off, no matter how hard he tries). We are left with sweat and breath, a silent musician and a darkening space as we listen hard.

The Boundless Journeys of Faustin Linyekula: Deneane Richburg on Le Cargo

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Deneane Richburg shares her perspective on Friday night’s performance of Le Cargo […]

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Deneane Richburg shares her perspective on Friday night’s performance of Le Cargo by Faustin Linyekula, the first evening of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Entering carrying Sortir de la Grande Nuit by Achille Mbembe and what appeared to be a traditional Yoruban wooden carved stool/sculpture, Faustin Linyekula begins Le Cargo facing the audience at a microphone, contemplating the benefit (or perhaps lack thereof) his storytelling has on those about whom he tells stories. Also woven into this moment are questions surrounding whether or not he has actually ever danced and the politics of determining what is and is not dance according to the ideology that governs the spaces one inhabits. Considering the geographic spaces he has traversed throughout his life (born in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo, attending university in Kenya, and presenting his work all over the world including Europe and North America), the civil unrest that sometimes incited these journeys, and his desire to create work that speaks to the complexities of his upbringing and his experiences, as Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild comments: “Linyekula writes choreography […] his creations are chock full of compound movement ‘sentences’ that often end in ellipses, parentheses, or semicolons, rather than full stops[…] Linyekula makes sense of the complexities of his heritage by using his fierce intellect to interrogate those conditions onstage and in conversation.”

Linyekula invites the viewer on this boundless journey that has no mile markers and no specific end point. Woven into this experience are stories grappling with his identity, that of his Father, the internal journey that led him to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the physical and ideological corners he was/is pressed to inhabit in Kisangani, throughout Africa, Europe, and the United States. Just as he observes the intricacies inherent in the process of defining/identifying, Le Cargo remarks on the complexities of being via Linyekula’s sophisticated and layered use of space, lighting, storytelling, and movement. The stage is divided into three “regions,” the first is a downstage center area where he places the wooden stool/sculpture, the Mbembe text, and a microphone. In this space he addresses the audience engaging in a very familiar proscenium, performer-audience relationship. This relationship is in contrast to those in the other spaces of the stage. Upstage left are two footlights that, when illuminated, create a corridor of light emanating on a downstage right diagonal. The presence of two footlights and a strong yet narrow path of light create the feeling of introspection and a solitary tension which is reflected in the frenetic feel of the movement he performs in this area. Finally, stage right are a grouping of footlights arranged in a circle; the circle representing a place of togetherness/community/not being alone. As a result of the circular placement of the lights (on the floor lining the circle) each time he enters into the circle, two shadows appear on the back scrim creating the feel and image of two additional ghostly bodies moving in the space together with him. Throughout the work he walks along the circle of these footlights making careful decisions of when to enter the circle and when to remain along its perimeter. The presence of the circle and the manner in which he moves outside and inside of it seem to illustrate the ideal this symbol represents while acknowledging its placement as simply an ideal; not necessarily a reality. Throughout the work it seems in some ways Linyekula’s physical, and perhaps intellectual and emotional travels mirror his journeys on stage between these three spaces.

My personal insights as a result of a question asked 

After sheepishly raising my hand to ask the first question of the post-performance discussion, I realized I’d been trying to find the overall narrative of his work. Soon after asking this question I realized Le Cargo invites witnesses to compile and organize the primary messaging of the work themselves. This is not a work characterized by a linear narrative; instead it invites viewers to uncover their own point of entry—one where they witness emotional/intellectual/spiritual challenges enshrouded in the beauty of a viscerally engaging movement experience.

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