Twisted Sister

leïla ka, pode ser @ sloan performing arts center, university of rochester, 15 September 2023.

Wearing floral dresses, Leïla Ka and her dance company struck poses in Bouffées, one of three pieces they presented at the Sloan Performing Arts Center. With hands raised to foreheads, palms open, they looked up, backs arched. Then they pulled their stomachs in, curved their backs, rounded their shouldres as they clutched hands together across their bellies, almost in prayer, maybe in contrition, certainly in deep emotion.

Eventually, the dance took on an algorithmic quality—fractals of swaying, reaching, falling, rolling, rising again in a sequence at once complex yet never randomized. The movement was sudden, twitchy, paroxysmal, and jolting, but also highly structured and ordered. The gestures were almost violent yet intensely controlled, programmed, and arranged as they ping-ponged across the bodies of the performers in a kind of ricocheting effect. It was a marvelous correlation of collective expression across individual performers, a sense of variation within a tensile spring of repetition. Something here was external, structural, a shared oppression; yet it manifested individually, one body at a time.

These were largely poses of pain—the program notes describe a mysterious sorrow the women bear, a “grief” they seek to transform into “a medium of power and revival.” There was a hint of religious ecstasy to them as well, however. Most noticeable were unnoticeable forces at work. Someone had put the screws to these dancers. They expressed a sense of reacting to something coming at them: perhaps the world, patriarchy, racism, exploitation, alienation, suffering. Nonetheless, there was also a sense of reaction to something within: self-doubts, nagging suspicions, worried insecurities. These both were grabbed at, nabbed, clutched, assessed, and then usually swatted away.

Perhaps Bouffées, which means a puff of air, a breathe, a sudden fever, a rush, the sudden onset of intense feeling, was above all else a presentation of the way that internalization and externalization interact. Something from beyond them shocked these dancers. What it was we could not see. Yet we knew it was there. It hit them and they hit back. It manifested from within them, but in their responses, we glimpsed a stimulus from without. Knocked down, these performers kept bouncing back as if to point out to us, beyond us, an onslaught that repelled them.

In the duet You’re the One We Love, two dancers—Jane Fournier Dumet and Leïla Ka herself—pursued a similar vocabulary of reaction full of sudden thrusts, twists, turns, gyrations, and assaults that almost seemed to become efforts to wrench the limbs of the body out of itself. Almost all the dance was duplicated across the two dancers, a virtuosic display of coordination, a kind of mirror stage fantasy, a duet that almost started to seem like a doubled solo until the end, when the movement shifted and one began to see connections between the two performers as they reached—at times warily, at times empathically—across parallel circuits.

In Pode Ser, Ka contrasted her former work as a hip hop dancer to classical ballet, again emphasizing comparisons of convulsive movement. The music followed her rapid shifts, pivoting suddenly from soft classical symphonic tones to harsh electronic squibs and squalls. Even the costuming emphasized the dichotomy between ballet and hip hop: a pink dress made of something like chiffon, perfect for a work at the barre, over black pants that could have been straight out of Run-DMC’s Hollis, Queens.

There was a kind of bodily, sonic, and cultural disintegration at work in the piece. Arms pulled in to neck at the elbows pumping up and down, as if they were clipped wings; quick movements of the shoulders, neck, and head; crouching stances of confrontation; thrusts of the leg and foot and sometimes the hips; a ballerina’s spin and the stepped territorial circling of a hip hop dancer’s stomping feet. This was a gestural language of contortion between two different cultures, two different forms, two different stances.

Gradually, a larger narrative proposed itself, something more like an unfolding progression of contrasts, repeated suggestions to the audience—and maybe even to the dancer herself—that we look closer at the juxtapositions, and that we learn to live with them. Out of one form of culture—high European ballet—its supposed opposite appeared: street dance peeked out, asserted itself, only to dissolve back again into ballet only to revolve yet again into hip hop.

The two forms never quite fused, but they did crackle in collision. Out of hybridity, a holistic commingling emerged, one that neither ever settled, nor totally broke apart. The fragmentation held. The sudden contrasts and the explosive, combustion engine quality of the dance gave way to the potent possibilities of an amalgamation. To paraphrase the famous Paris 1968 phrase “below the paving stones, the beach!,” in this case it was below the pink ballerina dress, the track suit! Below the spinning ballerina, the hip-hop cypher! Who would not want a world, after watching this performance, of both?

“Pode ser” means “could it be” in Portuguese and the three works presented by Leïla Ka all seemed to ask the question repeatedly: could it be? Could it be that things are this bad all around us, the world jabbing at these performers over and over again, putting them in pain? Could it be that they are so remarkably strong, resilient, forceful, not just persevering, but sometimes even seeming to flourish?

There was a core strength within the flinching of limbs, an enormous physical power that arose from the pressures that produce vulnerability. Hard gestures, stern rejoinders, focused repercussions—the three works asserted that questions of “could it be” in the most utopian sense, the fantasy of reaching a new state of being more harmonious and hopeful, might most of all be coiled within the body under duress, taking it in and punching it back out again. To bend is not to break.

2 thoughts on “Twisted Sister

  1. Thank you for your rich descriptions and thoughts! I also saw one translation of Bouffees as “meats” which gives it another angle to consider. I appreciate your review and shared with the artists.

  2. It was moving to get to see such powerful work.

    Right, the term also is slang for “grub” or “chow,” yes? This adds a whole other level of suggestiveness to the performance.

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