Five on the Black Hand Side / Dapline!

A COLLABORATION BETWEEN ANDRÉ M. ZACHERY
AND LAMONT HAMILTON

THE PERFORMANCE PROJECT AT UNIVERSITY SETTLEMENT
JULY 30 – AUGUST 1, 2015

André M. Zachery thrives in collaborative settings. Back in June I saw Wildcat! Assembly, his collaboration with Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste and Eleni Zaharopoulos, at JACK. That piece’s relentless drive and surprising mash-ups, the way it burst open within itself again and again, inspired me to keep following Zachery’s work.

André M. Zachery and LaMont Hamilton Photo: Layla Zami.

For Five on the Black Hand Side / Dapline!, Zachery has paired with visual artist LaMont Hamilton, who has extensively researched the history of the dap in the black community. Reflecting on the genesis of the work in the artist statement, Hamilton expresses a desire “to elicit the space between where the dap moves (inter-generationally) and moves (the stirring sensation of love, brotherhood, solidarity).” The artist statement, with quotations from poets and thinkers like Fred Moten, Nathaniel Mackey, and Amiri Baraka, reveals a process thoroughly enmeshed with black poetics.

In the post-show talkback moderated by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Hamilton spoke about the origination of the dap (standing for “dignity and pride”) by black soldiers enlisted in the Vietnam and Korean Wars (the latter the first integrated war) as a ritual in the mess hall for announcing each soldier’s individual presence. He described dapping as a coded language meant to be performed, a show of solidarity that proved necessary for both physical and emotional well-being.

Complementing the artistic partnership of Zachery and Hamilton, the structure of the three-evening run was such that two other artist groups were invited to perform for one night. Zachery and Hamilton strove to include female choreographers and young people, pushing the work of the black diaspora to the forefront. On the night I attend, the house is full—in fact two more rows of folding chairs are added. In contrast to most of my viewing experiences, I find myself among a majority of brown faces in the audience, a fact that makes me think about the overwhelming whiteness of the contemporary dance scene.

On the night of July 3rd, the New Youth Movement Collection (NYMC) starts off the evening with Untitled (Where is the Romantic Life). Six young dancers who, with support from Settlement House, have been taking classes and workshops with visiting artists such as Zachery and Hamilton, move on top of the floor as though it were water, look up past the ceiling into other skies, and perform representational actions of work and struggle among the words of Amiri Baraka. His poetry is spoken first in phrases scattered across the cast in a fugue-like manner (“I want what I want […] I want what you have, having nothing, myself.”), and then by two seated performers who read a post-apocalyptic scene from Primitive World: An Anti-Nuclear Jazz Musical.

Next, Candace Thompson and Nehemoyia Young present Colliding Scopes/Circles of Inquiry, a duet that highlights the dissonance between various lineages of dance. Thompson and Young begin in profile against the back wall, conjuring a sort of barre warm-up scene, sinking and rising with various degrees of stiffness and odd angles. Thompson is long and lean, wearing short jean shorts, a halter-top, and black boots, with her natural hair, dyed blonde, making her even taller. Her movements are rubbery and tense. (In a recent interview with the dance writer Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Thompson pointed out that work by Caribbean choreographers such as herself often “gets written off as fusion or whatever term people use when they don’t know how to categorize something. For me, it’s still contemporary dance. It’s just coming from where I come from, from my background, my nationality.”)

Young, by contrast, is fluid and full of spiraling motion, wearing flowing white martial-artist pants and light shoes. Whereas Thompson seems to be struggling with accepting or rejecting a kind of learned movement quality, Young moves freely in an athletic flow. One effect of these parallel narratives placed side by side is that Thompson evokes a representation of femininity as binding and precarious, while Young appears at ease in a more androgynous mode of expression, at times watching Thompson, and towards the end of the performance, fixing the audience with a full frontal gaze. I experienced the duet as more a sharing of space than a conversation. In the talkback after the show, Young and Thompson confirmed that, while they were working in relation to different lineages, they were both exploring the “innate resistance in claiming bodily movements of resistance that have been lost.”

Candace Thompson and Nehomoyia Young. Photo: LaMont Hamilton.

The centerpiece of the evening is Renegade Performance Group with LaMont Hamilton’s Dapline!, featuring performers Brian Henry, André Cole, Johnnie Mercer, Malcolm McMichael, TJ Rocka Jamez, and Stephen Galberth. Six men of color, varying in height, age, skin color, build, movement quality, and gender expression, file out into the small theater space, their footfalls the only sound. A repeated phrase moves through each performer distinctly: plank, arm up, fist into ground, roll. The choreography is athletic, militaristic, requiring strength and precision. The performers take turns running towards the front of the stage, displaying a range of affects: now startled, now challenging, now observing. Later, a straight line of bodies along the back wall conjures up images variously of a police line-up and a model call. I’m also aware of the bare experience of just looking at these bodies, and the complicated nature of that act.

At this point in the performance, although no words are spoken, the bodies move away from muteness—the dancers line up on a diagonal and suddenly one breaks apart and begins to pat down the others, one by one. What balances the predictability of this structure is that each performer approaches the task with a distinct style. Different sounds emerge out of the contact of hand to skin and clothes—there are thuds and slaps, hands grazing or pounding solidly on chests. The pats are by turns aggressive and constitutive—bodies are pushed but also formed by these hands.

At one point the performers lie motionless, face down, their bodies rising off the ground raggedly, as if riddled by bullets. At another point, one performer begins to wipe off his arms, an action that escalates until he is wildly swatting at his body in a highly agitated state, jumping in the air. What adds to the intensity of this moment is that it’s not just we as the audience who are witnessing this—the other performers have fallen still, watching this private drama transpire. Suddenly, they cross over and lift the afflicted performer straight up into the air. Much like the earlier lineup, this movement also repeats, as each performer descends into a troubled state and is assisted by the others. I find this section very affecting, although less so as it repeats. The moment in which a lone performer is surrounded and held by the others is such a moving demonstration of community and solidarity.

From here, the duet predominates, with the dap serving as the central mode of communication. In three simultaneous duets, the same phrases—including hand grasping, embracing, and balancing—are repeated to different effect, offering images of fighting, greeting, dance battling, and loving (platonic and romantic), among many others. When suddenly the movements drop down into slow motion, a whole new range of feelings and images emerge. At one point, two performers hold an embrace in the back center of the stage for quite a while, as the others continue to move around them. The tenderness expressed in the stillness is suddenly shrugged off as the pace returns to normal, reminding us of the still-taboo nature of demonstrations of affection among men.

Cast of Dapline! Photo: LaMont Hamilton.

The range of gender expression in the piece is notable, meaning that the range of performers prevented a fixed sense of what black maleness looks and acts like. This was a crucial element of the casting for Zachery, who tried to create a space that could hold difference. Hamilton (who, endearingly, described himself as “the feelings guy”) explained that once the movements were learned, the performers began to understand the (historically derived) material on an embodied level. That’s when the raw emotion really surfaced and when trust began to grow.

In the final movement of the piece, performers Brian Henry and TJ Rocka Jamez, who also teach Krump classes at the Settlement House, face off in a gestural battle with the other performers circled around them. By this point, heavy breathing scores the air along with the sounds of clapping and stomping. We could be watching an ancient form of battle to the death, a homoerotic ritual, or an impromptu gathering on a city street. The lights fade out, freeze-framing the action, fixing the moment in a no-place or every-place forever.

Contributor

Jaime Shearn Coan

JAIME SHEARN COAN is the author of Turn it Over (Argos Books, 2015) and Ph.D. student in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

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