Culture Rover

#61 - The Blues Comes in Twos

Two takes on African-American modern dance: Ronald K. Brown's Evidence and Ralph Lemon's "Come Home Charley Patton".

Ronald K. Brown's Evidence "hoofs it," as one audience member explained, referring to what she and others call this style of dancing in Washington, D.C. The virtuosic Evidence Company simply dismisses any difference between high and low culture, the brain and the feet, the classical or formal and the vernacular or informal. Instead they seek out new lines, new narratives, linking Nina Simone to Fela Kuti to House dance beats to Donny Hathaway, moving from tender gestures of loss to assertive hip-shaking sensuality to sacred religious expression to the martial drumbeat of civic duty.

The dancing and music called into being a nascent black nation with deep roots and new intersections, stretching diasporically from Old World to New and back again on slipping back bones, hip swivels, foot stomps, leg shuffles, acrobatic leaps, and shoulder sways. It was as if this black nation were portable (the "Portable Promised Land," as the music journalist-turned-fiction-writer Toure names it), condensed into small, insistent body motions and gestures that, particular and isolated as they may seem to be, contain multitudes, dreams, desires, pains, losses, gains, fierceness, persistence.

The only flaw in the Evidence Company's Chicago performance was a video that closed off history in old documentary and newsreel footage. The dancing, by contrast, rendered the secret history of this black nation momentarily manifest. The flame burned in each gesture.

Ralph Lemon, in a performance called "Come Home Charley Patton," utilized video more effectively. This was because his multimedia show was much more brainy, analytic, self-consciously avant-garde: somewhere between a laboratory experiment, a poker-faced, shaggy-dog, sardonic put-on, and a meditative reflection on the fragmented relationship between tradition and newness. It too featured tremendous virtuosity, and the sometimes icy, cerebral exterior masked a powerful warmth and poignancy.

The performance consisted of an ongoing conversation between a cartoon-animated James Baldwin, a slow-motion film of hip-shaking from a Mississippi juke joint, video of Lemon visiting various significant historical sites in African-American history as well as his own family, a small, closet-like room in which a basketball hoop turned into a lynching rope, and audio tracks that moved from old, scratchy blues 78s to more recent covers of the blues by white artists such as Janis Joplin to industrial noise to piano sonatas. From these shards of culture, something mysterious, glowing, crystalline, smart, razor-sharp, and streamlined emerged.

And then there was the dancing: one dancer spun in a circle in a crossover step, spinning so long that the audience burst into applause at his feat of balance and skill. The virtuosic circle: as if to symbolize the way that Lemon's production itself circled obsessively around questions of African-American identity and history. In other moments, the ensemble of dancers refracted and rephrased the movements of women in the slow-motion film of the juke joint, as if to study, grasp, worship, comment upon, and ultimately transform them into a new idiom filled with history but also futureness.

This was not "hoofing it," but a kind of meta-"hoofing it." The gestural commentary on vernacular African-American culture was informed by an avant-garde, removed perspective. The links between the vernacular and the avant-garde were not cut-off so much as established in a different way than Ronald K. Brown's approach. Lemon didn't seek to dissolve or ignore the distance between the juke joint and the modern-dance stage, but to highlight a particular lens through which these two levels of African-American culture might pass back and forth -- bodies, images of bodies, shadows of bodies, all moving through microscopes and telescopes of culture, from one calculation to the other, from one plane of existence to another, linked through the seeing, imitating, embodying, refracting, and reflecting.

When Lemon himself danced, one could see how he was able to sustain both levels at once, in a kind of corporeal double consciousness of seeing and being seen, taking his observations of historical origins and transposing them through his own bodily time machine into the present, pointing in muscle toward the past and the future in order to come alive in the moment.

3 May 2005

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