Yes pigeon b ugly and smell bad.
But him fly high and b near god.
Him b like ghetto angel 0 🙂
– From David Roussève’s Stardust
In today’s digital world, people can instantly communicate in countless ways. And yet, some people now feel lonelier and more disconnected than ever before. Choreographer David Roussève addressed this paradox in Stardust, a coming-of-age tale about a black, inner-city teen named Junior who is desperately longing for connection. During the opening-night performance at the UW World Series on November 20, the audience never met Junior, but they came to know him well through his text messages projected on a screen, and through David Roussève’s ten dancers. All phenomenal in their own right, the dancers looked like slow-moving constellations in the young man’s inner universe at the beginning of the dance. Rather than the dominant focal point, they were a complementary element in a larger dance/theater/multimedia composition. With the chirp of a cell phone, a message appeared overhead: “Dear person who b at this #: Sup?” Junior wrote. “I don’t know u. But I text u my biggest secrets. Plz read, k?”
Junior faced a lot of adversity. First of all, God made him black, a “stupid ass,” and a “faggot,” by his own descriptions. He desperately wanted to be “romantix” with this cute football player; he desperately wanted to be loved by his foster father. But these men hurt and violated him in the ugliest ways imaginable. In addition to his brokenness, the audience saw Junior’s resilient spirit and thirst for truth, beauty, and a connection with the divine. On a school field trip, he had an “aha!” moment in the expressive brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Rembrandt only painted literalism, but in Van Gogh, Junior found an artist who could paint what the sky felt like.
Using lush, swirling moves, Roussève told Junior’s story, often in unpredictable ways. While mostly avoiding a formula, the dancing was informed by two very different sounds: the first was 50s and 60s jazz standards by greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, the second was an original score that used hip-hop inflected beats by d. Sabela grimes.
At one point, a dancer held out his arms in a circle, standing like a basketball hoop. The entire company—first one at a time, then in a mad pileup—desperately rushed in to be encircled by his arms before being spit out. From there, the dancers scooted back, propped up on their elbows, heads flung back.They looked like dead fish as they floated away. The piece included solos, duets, and small groups, too. Taisha Paggett and Emily Beattie entered into an intense screaming match that alternated between laughter and blood-curdling noise that made some audience members squirm. Roussève’s brilliance as a creator was evident in these contrasting moments. It often appeared to be “business as usual” onstage, but with one element askew: a single dancer in stillness where everyone else was in motion, for example. He also contrasted the styles of dance he employed. In addition to modern, jazz, and ballet, the audience saw deconstructed krumping postures on non-hip-hop dancers.
It would have been easy to use these urban influences to simply portray the grittiness and darkness in the piece. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case. In a brief dance cameo by Roussève himself, the choreographer’s torso twisted and swooped, and his arms snaked from the back of his neck, around his head and into the air, sensitive to the angelic singing of Ave Maria. This lovely dance was set against a harrowing moment in the teen’s narrative.
These dramatic juxtapositions not only kept the work interesting, but they showed the disparity between Junior’s aspirations and reality. Going from the inner-city environment of Junior’s description to the jazz melody of Nat King Cole (“There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…”) provided a haunting mashup. Video art by Cari Ann Shim Sham completed the dreamy landscape; her projections of an expansive, starry sky were especially stunning.
Obviously, Junior is a single, fictitious character. He does not speak for all black, gay, foster children. However, this college-educated Asian American reviewer felt a certain uneasiness sitting in an audience predominantly made up of other middle-class, non-black people. All of us were privileged enough, at least, to be at a dance performance where the plight of low-income people of color were brought to life. It was hard to know how to critically, rather than passively, receive the piece when it seemed to border on stereotypes. It would be one thing if the harmful nature of black stereotypes was the inspiration; in this case, the piece was billed more as a commentary on “The Twitter generation.” Junior is brutally raped, assaulted, unloved, left without any resources, and has a tenuous grasp on the English language at best (the dramaturgy was by UCLA Asian American Studies Professor Lucy Burns). He probably represents an unjust reality; his character also sounded a little too familiar.
One wondered if Junior’s grandfather, portrayed by Roussève, also had shades of inappropriateness. In a recurring skit worthy of Chappelle’s Show, “Granpa” Skypes his grandson from heaven. The caricature and pop culture approach was intriguing, but it also seemed odd and not fully blended into the larger collage of performance, visual, and auditory art.
Still, it would have been hard to sit through Stardust and not wrestle with issues of the modern age: social justice, cyber-bullying, the ever-persisting problem of homophobia (despite recent achievements for LGBTQ equality), and the consequences of being tuned into technology and tuned out of human interaction. Regardless of the viewer’s taste, it would have been hard to watch and not have some sort of emotional response. The journey of the “ghetto angel,” and his inner universe of dancers, was both immersive and utterly shattering.
For more information on David Roussève/REALITY, see www.davidrousseve.com.