Curating artist Nia-Amina Minor says hi to me in the lobby. We know each other as artists and have danced together in the past. We hug and catch up a bit, Minor asks if I’ve noticed the lobby playlist curated by artist DJ Dark Wiley (aka local dance legend keyes wiley). We all agree it’s a very sweet addition, warming up the space and reminding me the 90s are back musically (lol). The lobby is packed full of chatter and “hellos”.
A strong voice calls the buzzing crowd to attention. It’s Minor. She is standing between the two theater entrance doors to the Merrill Theater at On the Boards. She welcomes us and lets us know the shape of the stage has seating on three sides and we can seat ourselves where we feel most comfortable. She encourages us to take care of ourselves as we need then directs us to show our support by making some noise during the show. I’ve found this is a prompt mostly white audiences need in Seattle. I appreciate her setting up the space for those of us tired of acting like we are in a no-touch museum library in white dominated spaces. It’s not just “nice” to share excitement with the artists; hearing and feeling the energy of engaging with the moment from those in attendance is an important part of any gathering.
Next she directs us to break through the Seattle freeze and greet people we haven’t met before. As I say hello to some new faces, I’m touched by the tenderness of the crowd. This simple action of saying hello and sharing our names has me feeling that the dance has already begun. We look each other in the eyes as we shake hands. We speak to each other in close proximity. We lean in to listen. We won’t get away with feeling separate in this space. The dance of a public gathering is activated.
The concept of To Gather, 2 weekends packed with new works from Black and Brown dance artists, felt like an evolved version of On the Boards’s long running and now retired Northwest New Works Festival. Like the offering of a new works festival, event titles offer an idea to rally around. The words To Gather get right to the nuance of coming together. A gathering names an event as well as the actions it holds. We gather our bags and keys and wallets before we leave the house; we gather our composure to prepare for social contact; we gather with strangers, colleagues, friends, frenemies and loved ones outside and inside of performance spaces. We gather together with a purpose.
Black and Brown movement artists understand deeply the importance of intention setting when gathering to watch dance. This understanding recognizes the need to clearly support the presentation of dance forms and strategies that are underrepresented in more traditional dance contexts. Practices like improvisation, street styles, African and Latine Dance lineages and other experimental contemporary dance forms are often not given the platforms they deserve inside of arts institutions and discourses.
Curators Nia-Amina Minor and David Rue of Black Collectivity are the artists behind the concept of To Gather. This idea invites artists, audiences and organizers to gather in the service of a vision. The curators share in the program “in the spirit of gathering (n./ v.), To Gather supports and elevates the work of artists who use movement to excavate the rich stories that exist within the Black and Brown dancing body.” This statement gathers us together in a way that is powerful in its clear intention.
The curators brought to my attention the word gathering is both a noun and a verb. In the following reflections I riff on similar noun/verb words, letting them inform my experience of the evening:
The audience takes the shape of a horseshoe around the stage as we seat ourselves. Before us, close to the back wall, is an altar filled with white battery powered candles, paintings of Black femme figures, sequins, and other reflective fabrics. Dancer and interdisciplinary artist Milvia Berenice Pacheco Salvatierra – also Executive Director of Movimiento Afrolatino Seattle (MÁS) – begins to carefully place candles around the perimeter of the stage. After a few minutes Minor, and gradually many of the other artists performing in the evening, come out to assist until candles circle the entire dance floor. The slow unfurling of these lights and intentional spiraling of the artists throughout the space speaks to me of dance as ritual without saying a word.
This dance is a centrifugal force. Salvatierra is a whirlwind of emotions and physical precision as she circles the stage. She carries a wooden platform like a chunk taken out of a hardwood floor, about the size of a bath mat. It might have originally been used to dance on or as a platform on which to meditate or pray. Salvatierra continues to spin in circles whirling dervish-like, spiraling around the entire stage. The platform becomes a burden, a lover, a church, a country. She balances it on her head; later she swings it daringly wide as she holds it with only one hand, arm extended like the wing of a plane. At one point she scrapes her fingernails across it like a lost spirit, trapped beneath the floorboards of an oppressors’ home.
Her dance of sensual strength and tender rage hypnotizes with its continuous swirling. During the spiraling of her body, bits of spoken text fly from her mouth and spin out into the room. “Lo que reclaman!” she shouts, she whispers, and screams. “Que reclaman. Que reclaman!” over and over again: “What they claim! They claim.They demand!“.
“Did you know this land was conquered?” She says this over and over again.
In this question I hear the shape of history as a spiral of languages spoken and danced. We do not have to know the answer, we do not even have to understand the language to receive the message. Her dancing speaks clearly of beauty and pleasure in equal measure with grief and pain. The ancestors are in the room and they are dancing with us. The body keeps the score; even our DNA continues the genetic dance of our past and future ancestors. The dancing body will not forget where we have come from. The land was conquered but this spiraling body persists. The dancing remains.
Jade Solomon Curtis shares a video documentary, a non-linear sort of process, a montage of videos from the R + D (research and development) process for a work-in-progress titled Keeper of Sadness. Continuous voiceover from Curtis makes the assemblage of personal pandemic-era videos, past performances, and moments from rehearsal processes into a nonlinear experience held together by her narration. Her work is rooted in the experience of Black Femme identified people. She is engaged in deep somatic explorations with her dancers. The developing work focuses on the experience of trauma on the Black dancing body that results from repetitive experiences of witnessing and experiencing racially motivated and state sanctioned violence in the media and in our lives.
She shares the vulnerable emotional journey her practice contains. The documentary gives insight into the mental and physical challenges these artists face while engaging in conceptual work about trauma. Forced servitude, police brutality…these are the materials we watch her and her collaborators grapple with in dance studios, in performance spaces, and in their homes. Pain and grief are embodied in movement research through repetition and duration. Her team includes a mental health professional to support the artists as they dive deep into these challenging processes. Terror, vulnerability, anger, love, support and release become materials in an artistic process that is difficult to look at and impossible to look away from. These efforts result in intense and technically spectacular dance transmutations that I look forward to seeing in their full complexity when the work is shared with the public.
In one clip we witness a dancer fall to the ground and have a self-induced and supported somatic seizure during a prompt from the choreographer related to labor and repetition. The dance is stunning in its dynamism and heart breaking in its emotionality. The movement communicates the skill with which these dancers meet the urgency of this research, asking: How does oppression dance inside of us? How do we grapple with history as we explore the potential of liberation inside our bodymindspirit? Can we keep it together in such a violent world? Can we process trauma and its aftermath through moving and witnessing together? I see dance as a form that can hold space for these artists to explore the complexities of these questions as well as the ever present and urgent question: How do Black and Brown people survive and thrive in a world that seems bent on our annihilation?
“The intent of this piece is to give you a brief history into how various dance and music styles started dating all the way back to a time when dance and music were used to liberate” – Emma Wambui
Beginning with duets and trios, It’s a Lifestyle, choreographed by Emma Wambui, built to a large cast of local artists giving us a taste of Afro-dance styles like Azonto, Amapiano, Ndombolo, and Coupé Décalé. This piece then disintegrated naturally and beautifully into what felt like an epic house party. They were having fun and we were having fun watching them. The beauty and love for self and others was clear as this dancing brought the energy of the club into the conceptual theater space. Framed in the context of the Black Collectivity curators’ concept of To Gather, this dance speaks to the way Black and Brown street styles, social dance, and formal dance techniques are often mined and exploited by white Eurocentric dance forms and makers. This dance is a testimony to the necessity of practicing and witnessing the forms that are truly at the root of dancing as we know it.
Moments of group unison are striking. I see the uniqueness of each individual dancer while also seeing the solidarity of the ensemble in matched rhythm. At one point, half the dancers spread into the aisles surrounding the audience so we are a part of the dance, too. Loud cheering and hoots and hollers happened throughout from the audience: this is a rowdy witnessing! This is a celebration of the movement towards liberation and the freedom we can feel with each other right now in this very moment. We are all connected to this dance. We don’t have a choice–whether we are dancing or watching, our energy is moving together in this shared space.
During the introductory solo that begins the dance sharing from Los Angeles-based choreographer Bernard Brown and dancers, the friend sitting next to me nudges me and whispers, “Oooh…are they gonna start voguing?? I hope so!” There is a sweet queerness to the physical language. It’s skillful, fast and fluid. The hand and arm movements put me in mind of vogue mixed with the languid back arching and accented balletic limb extensions found in Afro-modern and jazz dance styles.
Another dancer walks onto the stage very slowly. Their front and back pockets are stuffed full of something I can’t identify. Their white costume highlights the luminosity of their dark skin. They continuously reach inside of their pockets to grasp and then drop numerous small white packets leaving a trail as they outline the stage’s perimeter. I wonder if they’re condoms? Some sort of medical item? This mystery remains until the end of the show when I get a chance to take a closer look at some that remain on the floor on my way out. Ahhh! They are sugar packets, the kind you get to sweeten your coffee on the go.
A sinuous trio begins as two other dancers join them inside the sweet frame they’ve made around the whole stage. This phrase work is peppered with very erotic and athletic interactions of contact and long held split leg headstands. While they dance, a recording plays of multiple voices talking about the AIDS epidemic and its impact on the queer community.
I am being told a queer love story through movement more than voiceover. This story focuses on the strength and sensuality of queers in close physical proximity, a stark contrast to the ridicule, fragility, and decay of the bodies of AIDS patients and their caregivers that I’ve seen in films and photographs from the 80s and 90s by queer artists like Marlon Riggs and Nan Goldin of people living and dying with AIDS.
This is a dance about the sweetness of love in impossibly sour times. I knew this without understanding there were mounds of actual sugar on stage. The dancers partner softly and intricately; they carry and caress each other; they wrestle; they push each other away; they hug each other so close their sweat becomes the same fluid. These dancers communicate the sweet strength and vulnerability of friends and lovers helping each other endure unimaginable pain and loss.
As you likely know, dear reader, our culture is deeply challenged when it comes to accurately representing the contributions of Black and Brown artists. Often those on the fringes of the fringe of the arts (like experimental dance artists) lack representation beyond their immediate communities of support. Any dance we do, any art we share, any gathering we organize becomes a political act; we are automatically activists because of the skin we live in. We share our work under the ever-looming dumpster fire that is the history of the dominant white colonial settler mentality, the history of enslaved peoples, and the effects of genocides past and present in racial diaspora.
Gathering is a charged term. Social and political systems gather us together and pull us apart seemingly at the same time. The evening I saw Week 2 of To Gather I was dazed by the escalation of the genocide happening in Gaza. As they always do, many Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists in the US and beyond had already begun to respond to the worsening situation and rally support for Palestinian liberation. This moment in time has challenged us all to consider the impact we have on the global fight for freedom. Whether we’d like to or not, we are all dancing together on a global stage starring the horrors of apartheid, economic greed, climate catastrophe, and misinformation.
The world stage cannot be separated from our local stages. That Black and Brown artists are able to share their stories and be nurtured in their artistic practices is an indication of the health of our local culture. These past few weeks I’ve been bombarded with stories about artists and arts administrators being censured, fired and silenced for speaking out against genocide…this is proof that the arts are a powerful tool for liberation. So powerful of a tool artists threaten systems of oppression.
Dance is a mode of storytelling that does not always get its props for holding the complexities of nouns and verbs, naming and action, subject and object, oppression and liberation. I understand dance as a common language. Moving around in our bodies is something we all do. We all have bodies. We can all dance, even if it’s only in our imaginations. We gather together to witness the power dance has to connect us to each other while holding space for difference, complexity, and many languages…spoken and unspoken.
Here in Seattle many of us have the freedom to come together at On the Boards. To do so is a gauge of our own personal freedoms. How we show up for our communities matters as much as the art being shared. To Gather was a bright light of artistic hope in a bleak moment for our world. We gathered to support and be supported through witnessing new dances from artists whose visions are even now being forged in the fires of the oppressive systems all around us.