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Are you woke?!?! Spectrum Dance Theater wants to know.

Spectrum’s WOKENESS Festival, running April 8th – 28th at Washington Hall, a project of Spectrum Dance Theater and Artistic Director Donald Byrd, intends to create an environment for examining the presumptions around being “woke,”  and push against the assumptions around race, equity, gender, and justice.

Photo by Marcia Davis.

In a statement featured in the festival’s program, Donald Byrd sets a radical and restorative tone for WOKENESS. He divulges that even he can fall prey to the “juiciness and deliciousness” in staying “unaware, unconscious, and believing in the make-believes of our culture,” and describes the enchanting illusions of American capitalism that often bewitch us so thoroughly that we miss the rampant racism and inequality they’ve created.

Unlearning these systems can be a challenging and disheartening process,  but Byrd sees art, dance, and particularly Spectrum’s performances as a way to thrive through states of disenchantment. Byrd hears that Spectrum performances make people uncomfortable, but he believes that leaning into the discomfort can cause a transformation of consciousness.

The WOKENESS Festival includes three distinct performance programs, two being more direct incarnations of social justice contemplation. SHOT, which performed April 10-13, worked to confront the alarming murders of innocent Black people by American law enforcement, and Strange Fruit, which premieres April 25 and runs through the 28th, examines lynching as a tool of racial terrorism during the Jim Crow Era. The second weekend presented Dance, Dance, Dance #2, the second iteration of Dance, Dance, Dance, which premiered at the Moore Theater in 2016.

Photo by Marcia Davis.

Dance, Dance, Dance #2, however, is more aligned with the technical prowess and less apparent thematic ties to wokeness. Crises, by Merce Cunningham, had the dancers springing around the stage to circus-like tunes and colorful garb, and was part of the global centennial celebration of the Cunningham legacy.  Donald Bryd’s new Varenna/Ravenna closed the night with minutes of static, ever ascending music, reminiscent of a rocket about to lift off, herds of male dancers sashaying around the stage, bare-footed tapping, and bouts of Elvis-reminiscent dancing.

The standout work of the night was N O R A E F A, a piece by Vincent Michael Lopez, exploring the different embodiments that occur within the human experience. Dancers played Lightness, Darkness, Loss, Grace, Disease, Fear, and Soul – with each dancer standing in as an allegory for a particular archetype.

Fausto Rivera and Emily Pihlaja perform as Darkness and Light in an intimate duet. In one motion, Pihlaja lays down and lifts her pelvis off the floor as Rivera cartwheels over her, landing silently on his back beside Pihalaja, as if the two are partners lying in bed, preparing for sleep. The intimacy of passing over a static pelvic thrust without ever touching creates a tensity that couples beautifully with the gentleness of the silent cartwheel to the floor. The tone of the movement indicates Lopez’ idea of the relationship between darkness and light: not always contradicting, at times even complimentary. Mikhail Calliste (Loss) soon swoops in, the stage saturated in red, angry lighting, interrupting the softness of Rivera and Pijlaja’s duet. Calliste shines in the role, showcasing truly gorgeous extensions, and a soulful presence that reaches deep into the meaning of loss.  

Photo by Marcia Davis.

In a unique and powerful display of human existence, the dancers move to the noise of their own syncopated breath. Rhythmic breathing accents their movements, highlighting the human-ness of dance, while also adding an aesthetically beautiful soundscape in which the dancers create cannons and melodies through their sharp exhales. Moving from the more-traditional classical music that framed the first half of the piece to an abrupt change of silence and breathes creates a sense of disturbance. Often in performance the audience is unable to hear the manifestations of physical labor, like harsh quick breaths, because the music glosses over the dancer’s audible effort. In using sharp breaths as music, people are forced to lean into the discomfort and recognize dance as exhaustive athleticism as well as artistic entertainment.

Lopez also plays with a signature movement that appears and reappears throughout N O R A E F A: a dramatic picking of the lip. At some time or another, each dancer closes their thumb and forefinger around their lower lip, spreading their other fingers into an OK sign. With their head turned to the side to see the full effect, they forcefully pull their lip from the gum of their mouth. The dancers keep pulling until their pinched fingers slip, and their lip pops back into place with a small smack. The lip-picking motif of N O R A E F A is unsettling to watch, almost demonstrating a neurotic twitch or repetitive self-harm. But it also represents a perfect moment to heed Byrd’s advice and lean into the discomfort. Once I got past the peculiarity of the movement, I was able to more clearly see the intention: by picking at a specific body part and isolating the audience’s attention to one small, non-technical moment, Lopez and the dancers were able to signal what we share – lips and fingers – while also hinting at the movement of the mouth, almost like picking words from your throat to speak.

N O R A E F A isn’t scream-in-your-face-wokeness. It doesn’t seem to be a treatise on the inherent equality of all humans or a dismantling of white-cis-heteronormative patriarchy.  Instead, N O R A E F A presents a complex, subjective mapping of human experience from the perspective of a choreographer of color. This pushes against the assumptions that all Latinx artists should be talking about are harrowing tales of immigration, or that all female artists should be examining is misogyny. Often the privilege of exploring the human condition is only celebrated when white, older men do so. Lopez’s N O R A E F A allowed a new and beautiful take on an age-old question: what does it mean to be human? Creating and celebrating spaces where artists of color can express their perspectives exemplifies the true spirit of wokeness Spectrum hopes to uncover.

The WOKENESS Festival runs from April 8-28. Dance, Dance, Dance #2 showed April 18-20 at Washington Hall. More information about The WOKENESS Festival, and tickets for the final performance of the festival, Strange Fruit, April 25-28, available through Spectrum’s website.