The audience is escorted into a small curtained-off area. To the right is a wall of long fabric strips, ombré dyed with indigo, stirring gently in the air current and teasing the space that lies beyond. In front of us, a freestanding doorway adorned in the same strips. An audio recording shifts between news clips and snippets of music like a tuning radio dial. Much of the audio is unintelligible, but conveys a distinct sense of the past, including one clip containing the name Syvilla Fort, whose pathbreaking career as a Black dancer in Seattle is the kernel inspiration for Black Collectivity’s A Practice of Return.
Each dancer appears, winding their way their way from the back of the crowd to the freestanding door. Like a portal key, dancers pass through one by one, beckoning us to follow them through the dangling strips and into the main theater space where the strips become the stunning backdrop to a glossy white dance floor.
Design sets the tone for the performance, both in the light and airy stage space and in the detailed costumes, both by Le’Ecia Farmer. Each of the performers wear a unique piece from what might be a runway collection. Quilted in blue and white with rich garnet accents, a combination of billowing skirts and more structured pieces like a regal puff sleeve.
The dancing begins and the concept of quilt extends beyond the outfits. The dancers stitch together movements from West African dance, ballet, early Modern dance, Afro-modernism, and contemporary; a tapestry that slips beneath the fingers too quickly to pin down and define, it becomes it’s own amalgamation. While it’s not uncommon to see blended styles like this, Black Collectivity coheres each step into an experience greater than simple genre mixing.
The work is the result of 18 months of archival research into Seattle Black dance lineages by Black Collectivity: Nia-Amina Minor, marco farroni, Akoiya Harris, and David Rue. In their research one career stood out in particular, that of Syvilla Fort, the first Black student at Cornish College of the Arts who performed alongside household names Merce Cunningham and John Cage before an illustrious career dancing with Katherine Dunham and later teaching to the stars of Hollywood and Broadway. A Practice of Return takes inspiration from a 1940 concert of Fort’s original choreography presented at Seattle Repertory Theater (now Jones Playhouse). From a write-up of the concert in local Black newspaper The Northwest Enterprise, Black Collectivity used their research to imagine and embody Fort’s movements, building a show that pays homage to that night 83 years ago.
The depth of this process is evident in the dance. The four performers, Minor, farroni, Harris, and Jiamond Elizabeth Watson, are fully present with the material, understanding and enacting its lineage, and the lineages of their own bodies. Each a skilled performer, Watson’s movements sparkle with unexpected rhythmic flourishes, Harris’ sustained expansion complements Minor’s grounded buoyancy, and farroni’s loping playfulness brings the whole group together. The evening is mostly a series of duets and quartets, which are so enjoyable to watch it might be easy to miss how choreographically elaborate it is. Complex rhythms play off one another so that the performers are always clearly dancing together even when they’re not doing the same movements. It’s a particular delight to see it paired with Cage’s “Bacchanale,” his first piece for prepared piano, which he composed and performed as accompaniment for Fort’s 1940 concert.
The dancing is riveting, but I am equally compelled by the performer’s expressions. Gazing into the audience with a certain steely hope, or sharing a good natured smirk. They experience joy, calm, reverence, and determination. With an easy facile responsiveness to one another they are constantly of the moment and in community, even while executing virtuosic dance. They seem to be living the dance as much as they are dancing it.
A Practice of Return performed at 12th Ave Arts Mainstage April 6-8, 2023. It was produced by Velocity Dance Center as part of the Made in Seattle program.