I Know You Are Here

Marýa Wethers | Gathering Place: Black Queer Land(ing)
GIBNEY | APRIL 10-28, 2018

Bianca Hyslop and Lehuanani DeFranco; I LAND 2018. Photo: Scott Shaw

In the summer of 1991, a construction team converged on a patch of land near New York’s City Hall. It set out to build an office space; instead, it uncovered a mass grave. As researchers sifted through bone fragments and relics from the site, they traced them back to 419 people, all of whom belonged to New York’s African community between the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Also in 1991, choreographer Gina Gibney founded Gibney Dance, an organization dedicated to socially conscious, progressive performances. In 2014, she signed a lease for a second Gibney Dance space at 280 Broadway—on the same patch of land as the New York African Burial Ground.

Gibney—the organization dropped the Dance moniker earlier this year, in a nod to its expanded programming—has made a point of honoring and exploring this land. In 2016,jill sigman/thinkdance produced a mixed media tribute to the Lenape, a Native American tribe that resided on the grounds until colonial and U.S. officials forced them to vacate it. In 2017, artists including Maria Bauman and Lela Aisha Jones carried on visual conversations about resting sites, rituals, and diaspora. Though these works were not explicitly about the land near City Hall, they were concerned with how underrepresented peoples occupy space.

Gibney’s recent three-week series Gathering Place: Black Queer Land(ing)is the organization’s most extended examination of contested grounds. Marýa Wethers—a dancer, choreographer, and Director of International Initiatives at Movement Research—programmed the series, which features full-length works from mayfield brooks, jumatatu m. poe, and I Moving Lab. These performers all have distinct styles: they draw from mixed media, improvisation, and multidisciplinary art. They also have unconventional senses of space: only one engagement features a proscenium stage, and another includes a trek beyond Gibney’s front doors. By playing with their environments, these artists probe what it means to navigate land as Black, queer, and Indigenous. In doing so, they also collapse the physical boundaries between performers and patrons. This proximity has the potential to create camaraderie with the audience, but through it, the performers also risk isolating the very people they aim to immerse.

jumatatu m. poe, Samantha Speis, and Rodrigo Jeronimo in terrestrial. Photo: Scott Shaw

The series begins with three installments of brooks’s ongoing project Improvising While Black, IWB: Dancing in the Hold. For Part I, P(a)rLAY, brooks invites Black-identified artists to partake in an improvisational dance workshop that features wandering practices, somatic awakenings, partner work, and speaking in tongues. For Part II, Dancing in the Hold, brooks and South African performer Mlondi Zondi offer a master class in these techniques. And for Part III, Process(Ion), brooks and Zondi create a lab of sorts, complete with dog-eared reading materials, a letter-writing station where people are invited to commune with their ancestors, and a tour of the African Burial Ground.

brooks’ movements may be improvised, but the world that they create is carefully curated. As patrons file into the black box studio, they pass an aisle of names, marked in chalk on the inky black floor: Philando Castile, Saheed Vassell, Oscar Grant, and other victims of systemic racism and violence towards people of color. This list gives a political charge to the space. It also primes the audience for what intellectually lays ahead: an inquiry into what it means to move in a Black body.

For brooks, that inquiry spans centuries; the books on display during Part III, Process(Ion) chronicle slavery and mass migration in America: among them are Hershini Bhana Young’s diaspora narrative Illegible Will; Gary B. Nash’s study of early North American communities Red, White, And Black; and the university standard Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader. The letters that patrons pin to a clothesline in a corner of the studio add a personal element to these epic narratives. The letter-writers acknowledge what their ancestors endured; thank them for guidance; and even apologize for not tending to their memory. “Dear Ancestors, How fortunate am I?” reads one of the letters. “Hey! I know you are here,” opens another.

This second letter captures an essential aspect of brooks and Zondi’s work: history has a way of hurtling into the present, and just because brooks and Zondi are concerned with ancestry does not mean they handle themselves like they are in an antique store. Instead, they navigate the theater through sharp, visceral movements. As the dancers migrate towards the center of the studio in matching silver dresses, they shriek and wail; tighten their chests; and thrust their hands to the heavens.

At the nadir of their journey, Zondi lays brooks on the ground and sets a series of rocks on and around brooks. brooks raises two rocks under their palms and bellows “spirits” repeatedly, then, rising to stand, bucks each stone off their back. They pierce the air with a declaration: “the spirit of old and new ancestors perch on my shoulders,” then discard the last two rocks. They recognize the ways in which ancestry has the potential to weigh them down; they also recognize that even without this weight, they carry on a legacy of improvising while Black.

For all that this duo engages with each other and with the past, a critical aspect of their work is their engagement with their audience. They summon onlookers for call-and-response chants, a meditation circle, and a silent tour of the African Burial Ground. At each step, they encourage their audience to join them in their emotional and historical excavation. They also build in moments of rest and reflection, whether through the group meditation or a pile of cushions designated for this purpose. They are guides of sorts, but not gatekeepers, and patrons who drift away from the pack are able to do so with dignity.

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mayfield brooks and Mlodi Zondi in IWB: Dancing in the Hold Part II. Photo: Scott Shaw

Where brooks and Zondi take a meandering approach to their study of how Black bodies occupy space, jumatatu m. poe ’s terrestrial is a deeply rooted, confined piece. For the three-hour durational performance, poe, Samantha Speis, and Rodrigo Jerônimo stalk the perimeters of Gibney’s smaller, ground floor studio. Poe and his collaborators have also, in contrast to brooks and Zondi, opted for a more desolate, foreboding landscape. Wearing only flimsy sheaths of plastic, they inch across a floor covered with tarps and dotted with piles of green sand. The space feels deserted, desolate; there’s no lushness here. And what at first appears to be coolness in the dancers ’ movements reveals itself as intensity: these performers mutter to themselves, and they strain to keep their feet from wrenching them from their steady one-two step. When they look up from the ground, they stare at the audience with three sets of vampiric ruby contact lenses.

Terrestrial takes place in a space the size of a studio apartment; interaction is inevitable. And yet poe disregards the audience members pressed up against the studio walls. When Speis kick her heels, sways her arms, and slides on the canvas sheath, we are pulled with sheets, onlookers feel the floor thump, catch flecks of sweat in their laps. And when the dancers hurtle towards the walls and slap their naked palms against the whitewashed surface, they don’t adjust their choreography to sidestep a patron in their path. As a result, audience members end up pinned, without warning, between poe’s naked legs.

There’s something to be said for the performers’ proximity to their audience here: every dimple on their bodies is visible. And there’s beauty in their sheer nakedness—physical and emotional. Through this intimacy, patrons are forced to acknowledge that poe and his counterparts are present. That being said, the question of force is a salient one: as audience members shift in and out of the space, they aren’t primed for just how close the performers will hover.

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For nearly a decade at Howard University, a team led by anthropologist Michael L. Blakey studied the remains found at the African Burial Grounds; through femurs and sternums, the researchers pieced together history, archaeology, and skeletal biology of the people buried centuries earlier. All of Gathering Place’s performers tend to their projects in a similar way: through their physical movements, they cover and uncover social and political dynamics. I Moving Lab tackled this challenge with strength, grace, and skill—no small feat for a global arts collective whose members have ties to Aotearoa (New Zealand), Guåhan (Guam), Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, and Turtle Island.

I LAND 2018opens with a tender but unforgiving duet from Bianca Hyslop and Lehuanani DeFranco. From a set of wires hang two clear cellophane panes; they divide the stage without interrupting patrons ’ line of sight. As Hyslop and DeFranco slip behind it, their world becomes off-kilter: the women press up from their stomachs, only to collapse; they ram into each other; they heave and quake. Only when these dueling protagonists pull out paint pens and draw a landscape across the panes—houses, hills—do they establish some degree of stasis. As one draws crosses atop a mountain, the other draws the curves of gravestones around them. One of them writes a message across the panes, the other smudges it with her palm. They present construction as a form of destruction, and awareness of one’s oppression as a means of overcoming it. This dynamic is overtly politicized in another duet, set to political speeches about Guam as both the “the tip of the sphere of American might” and a place committed to “self-determination.”

mayfield brooks and Mlodi Zondi in IWB: Dancing in the Hold Part II. Photo: Scott Shaw

Throughout I LAND 2018, the performers show a keen sense of oppression but also solidarity and resilience. The engagement opens with a community chant, and patrons are “invited to connect with… ancestors;” it closes with a song from from Lyla June Johnston and indigenous hip-hop and spoken word by Infinite Dakota. “We are warriors of love, we are warriors of peace,” they proclaim. “All nations rise, rise up, cause now’s your time.” In turn, the performers beckon audience members to the stage—the only proscenium one in the performance, dismantled—to dance alongside them.

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Though the Burial Ground served as a private space for colonial New York’s African slaves, it was still a regulated one. In 1722, night funerals were banned, and by 1731, no more than a dozen slaves were permitted to gather for a burial. There’s something to be said, then, for a group of people convening at 280 Broadway to perform, pray, and probe questions of identity. And though over 400 sets of remains have been recovered, 10,000 to 20,000 bodies are believed to rest deeper in the soil—think of all the crowds that never gathered.

It makes sense, then, that Wethers would curate a series that upends traditional theatrics—a proscenium stage, an audience that hovers in the shadows, a fixed program. Traditional spaces don’t always accommodate people who identify as Black or queer or indigenous, much less those who find themselves at the intersection of these identities. That these performers redefine what a performance space looks like is ingenious: they set the terms of what their environment looks like, how they move in it, and who else occupies it. And any patron who enters this space should challenge themselves to meet the dancers on these terms. To see them, to acknowledge them, to know who is here. In this sense, Wethers has curated an extended study not only in identity but also visibility. As Johnston declares at the close of I LAND 2018, “We don’t have to hide anymore.”

Contributor

Erica Getto

ERICA GETTO is a New York-based writer whose interests include dance, comedy, and television.

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