Walking On Common Ground
Leslie Cuyjet and Lela Aisha Jones
Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center | December 15 – 17, 2016
“Please set an intention for your work as a WITNESSING audience member tonight,” reads the slip of paper. It continues: “write down that intention on a notecard. If you call upon Jesus or ancestors for guidance, take two more notecards. Head towards the stage and you’ll see three buckets. Above them hang structures made from wood and fabric: a house, a ladder, and a cross. Drop each card into its corresponding bucket. Now, you can head to your seat.”
Patrons receive this typed form as they enter the performance space. It is a request from Lela Aisha Jones and her FlyGround dance company. Through it, Jones primes spectators for Plight Release & the Diasporic Body: Jesus and Egun. Like the instructions, her latest piece is methodical and thorough. The work examines the physical, spiritual, and familial. It also relies on patrons’ energy and engagement. You cannot simply watch this performance. You must witness it. And in this role, you must work.
Jones’s Jesus and Egun—or at least a “first draft of it,” as she says in her performance announcement—premieres as part of Gibney Dance’s DoublePlus 2016. The series commissions artists to present two of their lesser-known counterparts for a split-bill performance. For its third week, Bessie Award-winner Cynthia Oliver takes on the role of curator. As a choreographer and performance artist, Oliver weaves together movement, music, and spoken word; her body of work is an extended inquiry into questions of gender, race, and nationality.
Given these intellectual and aesthetic interests, it makes sense that Oliver would shine a spotlight on both the Philadelphia-based Jones and Leslie Cuyjet, a New York performer and choreographer who starred with Oliver in her 2014 duet BOOM! “I want an audience to see that two black women in a space on the same evening might have very differing means of managing the challenges they see before them,” said Oliver of the match-up. Cuyjet and Jones’s movement vocabularies and touch points are, as Oliver acknowledges, varied: Jones frames her performance as a work on spirituality, theology, and Yoruba tradition, while Cuyjet tackles experience and class. Both women, though, create works that are thoughtful, inquisitive, and expressive even in their most modest moments.
Lela Aisha Jones’s Plight Release & the Diasporic Body: Jesus and Egun
Jones’s work opens like the start of an uplifting church service. She walks onto the stage with collaborators Zakiya L. Cornish, Patricia “Peaches” Jones, a tambourine, and a plea to patrons to clap their hands. And then she kicks off a rendition of the classic gospel tune “Old-Time Religion.” As artist and audience alike belt out the tune, the loft-like space takes on a sense of warmth and solidarity. Choreographers and performers don’t need to win over their audiences, but Jones already has.
And once she’s grabbed the audience’s attention, she directs it to more grounded matters: diaspora, ancestry, and faith. “This work is a beginning,” explains Jones in the program notes. “I am exploring the physical removal of traumatic energy from the body through dance/movement. I am also processing black/African diasporic spiritual practices as spaces for restoration.” In order to achieve this study, she turns to forms of movement associated with “the Mothers of the church,” “the social dance form House,” and “matrons of Yoruba spiritual practice.”
In the first set piece of the performance, the three women congregate around a set of metal folding chairs that are arranged in a horseshoe. Cornish and Patricia “Peaches” Jones, seated, move as if they are fanning themselves, slouching, serving a meal, birthing a child, and hand-washing a load of laundry. “I feel sorry for Jesus,” Jones declares over the speakers. (The audience laughs.) Jones, through the voiceover, goes on to explain her rationale: people treat Jesus like a community elder. They respect him, but they also pester him with their problems, whether torturous or trivial. This constant contact can exhaust both parties.
Here, the women’s movements color this relationship between community elders or spiritual leaders and their kin. At first, the women’s steps are firm and their stances strong. With time, though, they begin to wobble, to hobble. And yet the trio refuses to break. Toward the end of the piece, the three dancers take turns hovering near the center of the stage while the other two fan out to pound their feet and scissor their arms. Visually, this arrangement works to mark the distance that the trio “travels” over the course of the piece. The stage simply can’t contain the scope of their journey. This moment is also emblematic of the way in which the three women “share the load” of the performance.
Elsewhere, the women take turns engaging with the audience’s written contribution to the performance. They pass around a water pitcher and pour its contents into the three buckets. One can imagine that this move renders those notecards illegible. Patrons thought, perhaps, that the trio would recite their intentions or read their family members’ names aloud. Instead, the dancers pay tribute to the private side of prayer. You wrote whatever you wrote for you, they seem to say. So it is upon you to remember your affirmation, your ancestors, your religion.
Jones has said that she sees dance as an “archival practice” and her body “as an artistic archive—a creative storage space for movement and culture derived from the individual and collective lived experiences of blackness.” Through Jesus and Egun, Jones has created a platform for this philosophy. As the piece comes to a close, the three performers unhook the structures—cross, house, and ladder—from the ropes on which they hang. They place them on their backs. Here, they, not Jesus or Egun, carry the weight of history into the gravity of the present. Jesus, as Jones says, can take a nap.
Leslie Cuyjet’s Alike
The FlyGround trio passes this weight to Leslie Cuyjet, who provides the DoublePlus audience with the athletic, inquisitive, and dynamic Alike. Whereas Jones starts her piece with the bang of a tambourine, Cuyjet starts to dance without a sound, without even giving notice to the audience. Only when her collaborator Darrin Wright stumbles from the front right corner of the stage—he is swift one moment and glacially slow the next—does the audience lower its collective voice. Wright makes a lap around a set of columns on the right side of the stage and, in the process, passes a wall of mirrors. In this stumble-step-repeat sequence, he evokes a sort of fever dream, and his movements are significantly less controlled than those of the first performance. He looks, in fact, like he’s navigating a sort of obstacle course or, more basely, a street corner after closing time at a bar. We’ve entered a concrete jungle.
Cuyjet, in contrast, takes her time here. As Wright dips and glides, she simply and slowly inches away from the audience and toward the brick wall at the far end of the space. Even when she lifts her arms, kicks out her legs, arches her back, and basks in the studio’s light, she does not show us her face. Wright seems to be the obvious subject for patrons’ attention here. As a sunny jazz tune kicks in, his movements become exaggerated and theatrical. Hovering near the center of the stage, he swishes his hips, then mugs for the audience, his arms crossed. He winks. He blows a kiss. Then he’s on the move, off to strike poses towards the back of the stage and up against a column. If this were the opening sequence of a Disney film, then Wright would play a puckish protagonist who has a good feeling about the day ahead.
Whereas Jones asks her audience to witness the scope and scale of the piece that unfurls in front of them, Cuyjet seems to invite that same group to look wherever their eyes may wander. And viewers may be inclined to watch him because he’s a showman here. (It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that Cuyjet casts a white man in this role.) But Cuyjet, well, Cuyjet is transfixing.
When the music cuts out, she lies down on her back with her knees bent, the pads of her feet still on the ground. Wright continues to hop, run, dip, and swing his arms like he’s about to throw a discus. In Cuyjet’s stillness she creates a cutting contrast between the two bodies on stage. She not only breaks the audience’s line of sight here but also throws off our sense of Alike’s pace.
Cuyjet oscillates between this pensive stillness and a more manic shuffle for the rest of the performance. At one point, she jigs in the “upstage” corner of the space, then slides across the back wall. Her jig turns into a series of high-knee thumps, and when she executes them, her breath is heavy and her force causes the audience risers to vibrate. And then, as soon as this fit has begun, Cuyjet reigns in her pounding to a patter.
This apparent restraint reminds me of Bessie Smith’s 1923 track “Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time”: “Tillie Brown was a dancing fool / Spent her time in a dancing school / When the band would play / Tillie would start right in to sway / First one out on the ballroom floor / She never got enough, she just craved for more.” Here, the blues singer relays the tale of a young girl who loves to dance—and whose peers chide her for this passion. “There ain’t no use to hurrying ’cause you wanna prance,” they would say. “Look out there, Tillie, you got all night to do that dance.” Smith sings the tune with a cool patience; at first, it seems that she could be one of the “girls and boys” who finds Tillie’s boundless enthusiasm off-putting. And yet listeners can also detect a degree of subdued soulfulness, even distress here: must the Empress of Blues suppress her passion, must she temper genuine emotion and feeling, in order to attain social and artistic success?
In the program notes for the performance, Oliver characterizes Alike as a piece that “looks at the ways experience and class have precluded bodies like hers from consideration by nature of race.” This idea of a person being “precluded […] from consideration” has a clinical ring to it, but a cutting edge. Cuyjet could be Tillie or Bessie here: if she “dances” too vigorously, then she may not be taken seriously, and if she takes “all night to dance,” then people might overlook her altogether. Throughout Alike, she speeds up and slows down. She lets her limbs go and reels them in. In doing so, she tests not only her physical limits but also her audience’s perception of “bodies like hers.” And she has Wright as a perfect foil for this project.
Wright is uninhibited up to this point in the performance; of the duo, he is the apparent “dancing fool.” And yet it is Cuyjet who actively avoids this classification through cool, almost cautious movements. This juxtaposition carries the first half of the performance. And when Cuyjet and Wright dance as a couple, this apparent clash takes on a new dimension: together, the two performers shift between explosive and understated choreography. At one point, they jump as if a barrel were hurtling towards them; they spin, they twirl. Drums and guitars color this sequence; again, the track could have been pulled from a movie—this time, a chase sequence in Western. The FlyGround performers examine a diasporic journey, one that has ties to brutal force and sustained trauma. This pair, in contrast, could be classified as pioneers or adventurers.
Toward the end of the piece, they slow this action to a crawl. Cuyjet initiates this sequence by draping herself over a seated Wright. He slips out from under her, like a Jenga piece being pulled ever so carefully from the tower. And then he walks away. She hovers over the space that his body just filled, and then slowly, almost imperceptibly, sinks to the ground. He returns, lays on her lap, and now she leaves. He lets the air linger, his eyes closed, and then makes his way to the ground. The pair take turns slipping from each other’s grasp, and what at first seems to be an act of desertion soon seems like a more tender movement. The two could be a couple waking up to their city on a Sunday morning; one partner is simply slipping out of bed before the other to make coffee.
It is Cuyjet’s final act, though, that really drives home this association. As a spotlight on the couple fades down, a spotlight on the audience builds from an ember to a glow. It is almost as if the pair in front of us becomes the couple across the side street, the one whose shadowy figures are visible through their gauzy curtain. Perhaps you squint to catch a glimpse of them. Perhaps they can see you, too.
ERICA GETTO is is a writer based in Brooklyn.