Here in the Bull City one often hears the phrase “Keep it Durty, Durham,” an oblique slash at the city’s rapid slickification and a plea to keep the grit for which this former factory town is rightly loved. There could hardly be a better example of keepin’ it than choreographer and dancer Nicola Bullock’s project UNDONE, which took place in a former warehouse on Dillard St. Not only was the space rough and ready for anything, Bullock and her five collaborators were grappling with the classic “durty” topic of racism. Also in classic Durham fashion, there were posters, handouts and sign-up sheets for more involvement. But these six women hadn’t spent a year meeting and talking about how race “intersects with power, how it defines and transcends identity, and how it has informed the artists in their own lives” in order to keep talking–they wanted to show us.
UNDONE consists of a series of dance-theatre scenes examining different aspects of racism from different points of view and exploring three questions: “Who am I? Who are you? How do we understand each other?” The sequences showed how much thought had gone into them, and how much heart. But it is a difficult matter to make successful theatre from good intentions. Each segment was strongest in its pure dance, and less so when it strived to make its points with too much narrative. There was in fact recorded spoken narrative, although it would have been better left out, as the recording, the sound equipment and the acoustics of the space made nearly every word incomprehensible.
Some scenes depicted various shy and delicate meetings between people of different races, and how the initial encounters could evolve or devolve. Leah Wilks was notable in one such scene that turned into a fight, and in a strange episode that seemed to have to do with minstrelsy and vaudeville performance prototypes. There was some smart expressive choreography, and all the dancers had strong moments (Bullock is beautiful to watch, and conveys emotions well with face and gesture), with their lifts and other contact moments being particularly good. The weakness in the work as a whole was its desire to be inclusive and complete–all the sections could be distilled for increased effect, and make their points more clearly in less time. Their length, combined with the time chasms that yawned between scenes, exerted excess drag on what could have been a buoyant and thoroughly engaging work.
Having myself spent decades trying to come to a greater understanding of racial issues, I did not find anything particularly fresh here, except for the wonderful fact that new waves of people have taken up the cause of understanding even as our larger society seems to become ever more racially polarized. Only one segment fed into that polarization, and artistically speaking, it did not fit well with the others.
In it Monét Noelle Marshall takes the stage alone, and begins re-doing her hair, and talking to the audience, eventually saying that since we’d already made up our minds about her, she wasn’t going to dance for us. This gratuitous insult shocked me. I very nearly stood up and told her to get off the stage and make room for the dancers, because I’d come to a dance performance. My companion nearly walked out. I had not in fact made up my mind about her, but I doubt I’ll pay money to see her now. This episode left a sour residue.
Still, I admired the effort and much of the work. I admire the willingness to GO FOR IT, with the most minimal resources and the maximum of spirit. Nicola Bullock is an artist to watch, and not only for the sunshine of her smile.
The following section was published June 20, 2014 with the title “Now. Here. This: NC Dances at ADF” on cvnc.org. Reprinted here by permission.
The American Dance Festival has been easing in to regional inclusiveness over several years, using various programming methods to allow some representation of North Carolina’s choreographers and dancers. This year’s program, Here and Now: NC Dances, which was danced June 18th, (I saw the first performance) was the most successful of the experiments thus far.
This is partly due to the increasing maturation of local dance artists (and that’s partly due to the increased presence of ADF), and partly because the four participants were chosen by a jury of choreographers from outside the area who were presumably less influenced by politics or personal friendships than jurors from inside the local dance community might have been. These four choreographers and their dancers acquitted themselves well in the challenge to work up to the ADF’s high standards—thereby ratcheting up expectations audiences will have for them and other NC dancers (though these four choreographers are all based in Durham). It’s good for everyone.
The ADF signaled its commitment to nurturing and presenting local as well as national and international dancers by producing this program as part of its ADF at Duke series—with the NC Dance Festival as co-producer, as was the case last year. There seems to have been a greater allocation of tech resources, too, as each piece had specific scenic needs and each was beautifully—and differently–lit.
The program opened with Gaspard Louis’ Annatations (2013), for nine dancers, which he premiered last fall on the same stage with different dancers. Here, it had the same haunted cello music written and performed on stage by Josh Starmer; the same swimming angels by Steven Silverleaf hanging overhead, the same lovely cloud-colored costumes by Jakki Kalogridis—but the lighting (John Kolba) was strikingly different and more entrancing, as was the dancing. From the first sequence, the dancers created a sense of oceanic forces at work on their global-scaled kinetic patterning. Throughout the dance the feeling of waves rushing continued. The dancers were able to change directions with lovely fluidity, and all that fluid coming and going generated a sense of the infinite. For all the group synchronicity, the dancers were well differentiated, but not particularized into characters. They are souls in the sea of souls—like water, all the same but every moment different. Louis’ choreography allows each dancer to claim generous space with raised and extended arms and legs, so it’s particularly exciting when lines cross and when pairs come together for lifts and turns. Often tender, these encounters are never romantic or sentimental. There are also some refreshing outbursts of acrobatics amid the balletic grace. Altogether, this version was clearer, more sharply focused, and at the same time spiritually wider and larger than the earlier version.
Leah Wilks brought us back from the vast unknown with her tightly focused solo, Mess (2014), set to Quiet 6 by Michael Wall, with video backdrop by Jon Haas. At the outset, we see Wilks crouched midstage, wrapped around herself into a ball, poised in a circle of light from a single overhead spot. She unfolds, extends and inverts herself into an astonishing headstand with some daring leg action challenging her balance. Eventually she rolls out of the circle and the lighting becomes more general while she explores the chaos. There’s more play with a projected circle of light. When it rises on the back wall, she moves toward it, her silhouette and her shadow merging. Although Wilks moves wonderfully and has a big stage presence, the choreography did not sustain my interest at every moment.
A Place Apart (2009) by Diego Carrasco Schoch came next. A duet for two men, it was both charming and annoying. The two begin the dance in the aisles of the theater, a golden light revealing first one then the other as each performs some graceful moves balanced on the steps, accompanied by intermittent bursts of obnoxious news and patter from TV and radio sources. This continues as the men take the stage, then a note, a chord, a run of notes, from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata begin to sound between the audio-trash lines until finally we and the dancers hear the music. They perform a romantic duet with some great lifts, fine développés, lovely arabesques, and tender delicacies of interaction—there’s lots of touching—but not much real emotion. The dance ends downstage in a square of golden light, dancers glowing, while we were left to wonder why the choreographer had introduced ugly reality into his pretty stage world. It is not like we don’t all know about its “assaultive” qualities.
Another multi-dancer piece completed the program. Renay Aumiller’s Acquiring Dawn (2013) became such a whirlwind after its quiet orderly beginning that is was hard to credit that there were only six dancers onstage. Set to Aurora (edited) by Hans Zimmer, with fashionably post-apocalyptic costumes by Karl Green and eerie lighting by Bill Webb and R. Mitch Fore, Acquiring Dawn is a dance that sticks in the mind, demanding more consideration, although it struck me as a little studied at the time. It begins with six women in tattery dresses standing far upstage in the gloom, each behind a little pile of white fluff. Each woman takes up a double handful and, walking forward, spreads it into a stripe running toward the audience. And again, while desultory flakes fall from above. And again—but one dancer begins to drag through her line, then to toss and scatter. Soon all but one has given herself over to disorder and confusion, dancing like a storm coming up, spinning pale dust devils around themselves until they drop into dark exhaustion. The one remains to see the dawn, which sends in its splendorous colors as the music swells. I particularly admired the choreographer’s willingness to not dwell on this moment. It lasts no longer than a camera flash, but reignites a sense of hope as Aurora sparkles on the ashes of the wrecked world.