Spectrum Dance Theater hosted an evening of work last Saturday, November 23, entitled Showing Out: Contemporary Black Dance. The concert, curated by Spectrum Artistic Director Donald Byrd and presented by the Central District Forum for Art and Ideas, played to a packed house and showcased the work of five Black dance artists from Seattle: Alex Crozier, Sadiqua Iman, Dani Tirrell, Jade Solomon Curtis, and Markeith Wiley. Byrd introduced the first of the evening’s two showings as a workshop and an advocacy project, which helped frame the pieces as the ongoing (self-)explorations of the artists. While some artists focused explicitly on their identity as Black creative artists, the show as a whole was closer to a creative exercise in autobiographical storytelling.
The first two works dealt with the performers’ complex relationships with their fathers, but from different points of view. Spectrum’s Crozier presented his solo work, Does It Have a Beard?, about his relationship to the father he never knew. Through movement and spoken text, he told how his father’s name (Jackson), which seems so arbitrarily attached to Crozier’s own, drags him down—an experience drawn out in literal movement as his arm became a metaphor for the name. The most interesting parts of the piece were when Crozier’s movement contradicted the tone of his words, showing a fuller picture of his psychology. Though he spoke lightly of his father, a simple reach suggested yearning, and complicated his matter-of-fact tone.
Tirrell’s untitled piece featured 8 teenage girls (members of Tirrell’s Color Lines Dance Ensemble) in a dance about forgiveness in their personal relationships to their fathers. The piece began with a recording of each girl stating the name of her father, his date of birth (and, in one case, the date of his death), and “I have laid to rest” some aspect of her frustration or anger with him. Each danced with a framed 8X10 photograph of her father, which contributed to the memorial feel of the work. Combining personal stories and literal prop pieces in this way can risk being hokey, but Tirrell’s work escaped this trap, in part thanks to his clear use of space and unison. It was the performers, however, who lent the piece its poignancy. Their sheer unaffectedness was disarming. Telling one’s own story can be a powerful, validating experience, and it is to the credit of these young women—and Tirrell for organizing them—that they could communicate their own stories so clearly while allowing the audience to recall their own experiences.
Iman’s highly sensual solo, Slide, provided a break from storytelling with a personal meditation on female sexuality, prefaced by an artist statement in the program. “Arousal for her is complex,” Iman’s voice repeated, her spoken word poetry recorded and paired with the sound of waves. Her movement was luscious as she stretched her limbs and explored the space just beyond her reach. Although her most sexually explicit movements faced away from the audience, her face was engaged in her sensual experience throughout. During a section of traveling movement, her face lost its believable sense of bliss; the piece would have had more of an arc if she had let it go entirely for those moments and allowed the whole of her body to tell her story. Nevertheless, Iman is an engrossing performer, and her dance was effective in tapping into a celebratory sexuality.
Self-Titled Mix-Tape Vol. 4 (the experiment) marked Wiley’s contribution to the evening. In Mix-Tape, Wiley engaged directly with his identity, and the all-too-frequent tendency for race to become a person’s sole marker. After entering and personally greeting audience members, he listed identifiers for himself—from black man to “self-proclaimed culinary artist.” He let each one attach to himself, defying the notion that his entire identity can be reduced to a single thing. He interspersed his words with his recognizable movement style: slick turns, strong jumps and floorwork, with occasional nods to hip hop. He ended with a series of questions for the audience. Last was “Raise your hand if the last thing you remember about them is their race.” As Wiley’s face receded into the darkness on stage, he seemed to be asking instead what the audience would last remember about him after this show—and, by extension, all artists of color.
Curtis’ It is My Existence closed the program. Featuring Curtis along with three of her Spectrum co-workers (Derek Crescenti, Shadou Mintrone, and William Burden) her work paired text from a Nina Simone interview and James Baldwin’s novel Another Country with snippets of classical music. The piece incorporated a sense of violence and anguish as the performers’ virtuoso solos and duets alternated between anger and comfort. Screaming became a motif. First, the screams were silent; then, the dancers let real screams challenge the more pleasant aesthetics of the music. The screaming was successfully jarring, but further exploration of this piece would deepen the connection between the screams, the music, and the text—especially when the Baldwin text spoke of humanity as the most important thing to ascribe to.
In the evening’s introduction, CDF’s Sharon Williams quipped that people always asked her where the Black artists in Seattle were hiding. “Well, here they are,” she said. Then Byrd jumped in: “Well, we hope they aren’t all here,” and he has a point. Seattle’s contemporary dance scene is predominantly white, and greater diversity of artistic voices would certainly be a more accurate reflection of the people in this city. If CDF can help build up the presence of artists of color in this Seattle, everybody wins.
Learn more about the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas and its upcoming programs on their website.