SOLOS: EXPRESSION KNOWS NO GENRE

Tyisha Nedd is afraid of spiders, rats, men on subways, random white people asking to go for coffee, standing in the front of a dance class, and bubble wrap. Nedd explains her fears a la open mic at Friday night’s Solo Fest at On the Boards, with a microphone in hand, spilling jokes onto the crowd. Nedd describes her dilemma: she’s a strong black woman and yet terrified by something so silly and benign as bubble wrap. Musician Nico Tower, snaps and pops bubble wrap, punctuating Nedd’s soliloquy. Nedd squats into a deep warrior-styled lunge, a power pose as she calls it, facing her steady shadow, talking herself into confidence, into upholding the individual responsibility of strength.  

Tyisha Nedd. Photo courtesy of On the Boards.

Between spats of power posing and strings of jokes to convince the audience of her emotional steadiness, Nedd’s vulnerabilities poke through, challenging the disproportionate pressure to be unyieldingly tough that black women face. She tells of a “race riot” in the pre-school where she works, and of the parents that blamed her for their children’s racism. The nagging questions of “What did you do? How could you let this happen?” repeat like a drum over the speakers. She jumps and twists towards her shadow padding the back curtain, and away from her shadow, like she’s fighting something, like she’s fighting herself. Nedd spends so much time trying to cling to an appearance of strength, but slowly it slips away. The power posing stops. She whimpers, “I’m afraid. I’m scared.” Hugging her knees to her chest on the floor, Nedd calls upon friends in the audience for help, one at time her friends take off her dress, give her a hug, hold her hand. Nedd fully exposes her vulnerability, even changes clothes on stage, showing the soft beauty of asking for help, how vulnerability is just as if not more powerful than impenetrable strength.

According to On the Boards their new program, Solo: A Festival of Dance, explores the range of dance in fours nights of performances from thrilling dance artists and choreographers from across US and Canada. Friday night of Solo definitely expanded the typical understanding of dance: it was a singing, music-making, electro-synthesizing, comedy stand up, performance art, and experimental movement festival. Almost every piece incorporated a hearty blend of artistic styles, with an undertone of movement-based art flowing through each. Solo was innovative, weird, laugh-out-loud funny, unsettling, and deeply thoughtful.

Dani Tirrell. Photo courtesy of On the Boards.

“I like that you’re bi. I like that you love God. I like that you are. I like that you are.” Aquilla Bell’s voice breathes through the foyer outside Merrill Wright Theater in a pre-show performance. Though in Detroit, Bell’s words project through a Facebook livestream broadcast on a TV by will call. The audience trickles in, murmuring to friends, grabbing drinks, and getting tickets. Seattle-based artist Dani Tirrell fills the TV screen, dancing over Aquilla’s string of compliments in front of a black curtain, shadow flickering behind. Bell continues, streaming in from Michigan, as Tirell’s body moves to the words in Seattle. They are two friends, separated by thousands of miles, creating art in the digital age. And though heavy criticisms of cell phones and social media spin throughout our culture, Tirell and Bell use Facebook as a medium for genuine love, honesty, and friendship, a striking rethinking of the platforms that shape our era.

Lights saturates the stage red—a brightly colored, bloodied hue. Seattle artist Namii moves across the space, always about to break out into a run, jumping into lunges, arms poised to jet, but instead, continuously bounces her feet together. She stops and starts, stuttering like a rusted engine. RUN! as the program explains, is about “exploring the ways in which fight or flight show up as life or death for a cultural and gender ambiguous black woman in today’s America.” In her performance, Namii illustrates her struggle to find safety in ways that make the audience disoriented and uncomfortable, tasting a sliver of what it means to be gender nonconforming and a black woman fighting for her life.

Namii. Photo courtesy of On the Boards.

Namii abruptly runs into the audience, leaping onto unsuspecting laps, climbing over confused legs. A spotlight finds her in the crowd, and she sings a few operatic verses of George Gershwin’s Summertime, donned in a white suit. She works her way back to the stage in time for a booming voice to question Who are you running from? Who are you running for? Will you move fast enough? Namii rushes and runs to an Afro-tribal rhythm. Then a smile. A groovy smoothness takes over and Donald Glover’s This is America plays. Namii mimics typing on a typewriter, quick and urgent. Then a fast-talking spoken word interrupts, You better run n**** crashes around the theater as Namii runs frantically on and off the stage, and around the audience. The spoken word takes the audience through history: the great accomplishments of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and Tupac, but all the while warning black folks they “better run.” Namii ends tired, strained, and scared. I ain’t gotta be nobody’s n**** no more, the poem ends, Namii falls to the ground, and the lights black out.

RUN! left me shook and most of the pieces of Friday night’s Solo stuck in my mind for days after. The performances grappled with exploring identity and expressing vulnerability, sharing deeply personal experiences and traumas. Artists showcased their ability to not be defined through genre or style. Many moved through movement and art forms so quickly that at times it was hard to keep up. The audience laughed, had performers crawling over them, and was made uncomfortable. It wasn’t what many people would expect at a dance festival, but it sure was art. –Risa Nagel

Solo Fest ran at On the Boards October 4-7, 2018. The program also included works by Alyza DelPan-Monley and Nora Sharp. For more information on On the Board’s programing, visit ontheboards.org.

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