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WHO’S IN THE ROOM

If we are lucky, we sometimes see art that changes how we see the world. That stays with us with its questions and wisdom. For me, the last few months have been framed by Black Collectivity’s To Gather: Weekend One. I attended the opening night of that performance at On the Boards, where both by design and the unpredictable magic of live performance, I began thinking about who’s in the room. Or more specifically, how does the art itself acknowledge and manifest who is present, both in body and spirit.

Cipher Goings and Benjamin Hunter. Photo by Bruce Tom.

Cipher Goings and Benjamin Hunter’s work opened the show, where audiences sat in a horse-shoe surrounding the stage as Goings loped in an easy, graceful circle through the space. Composer and musician Hunter is upstage, but still very much in duet with this dance, his delicate rhythmic strumming in play with Goings’ movements. Goings is also in constant interaction with the audience, pausing to connect through his affable smile, introducing a call-and-response of clapping, non-verbally teasing us as it becomes clear that the audience is incapable of clapping on the upbeat. Eventually he settles mid-stage, dons his tap shoes, and that’s where the rhythmic play between Goings and Hunter really lights up.

But then, there is a pause. Goings begins to weep. He collects himself and walks stage right to kneel before Dani Tirrell, who is seated in the first row. “I love you so much. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” and then, “This isn’t part of the show. I’m serious.”

Goings was a cast member in Tirrell’s landmark work Black Bois, both in 2018 and 2020 before Tirrell moved to D.C. This moment of an accomplished artist honoring his mentor feels almost too intimate to bring outside of that space, but Goings, in allowing his gratitude to become part of the performance, made visible the lineage of his work.

This moment was an apropos lead up to Akoiya Harris’ Our Constellations, the next piece on the program that was explicitly about this very thing. Harris lays out a circle of papers, each printed with the name of an influential Black dancer from Seattle’s past and present. Dani Tirrell is included, along with Orb, Heather Harris, Koach Crosby, Etienne Cakpo, Kabby Mitchell, Syvilla Fort, and many others. She explains that every time you see a Black dancer perform in Seattle, you are seeing all these people in the room. So I owe the entire conceit of this article to Harris, who put words to what I was already seeing and feeling. Surrounded by the names, her dance of lunging, grabbing, and pulling seemed to be extracting something out of thin air. Watching her I did indeed feel another presence, as if she had an invisible partner supporting and counterbalancing her every move.

Harris was also part of Black Collectivity’s spring production Practice of Return, which specifically researched and honored Syvilla Fort. Perhaps because of that work, Fort recently received a posthumous award from Dance Magazine. Writer and board member Sandra Kurtz contributes:

Akoiya Harris et al. Photo by Bruce Tom.

Too often, award programs restrict themselves to the living – you have to be alive to show up and get the recognition. Finally, we’re looking back as well as forward with this
year’s Dance Magazine Awards. The publication, which has been honoring artists in our field for over 50 years, is inaugurating a posthumous category, and is kicking it off
with four artists whose work reflects the broad nature of American dance. Alongside Gregory Hines, Pearl Primus, and Helen Tamiris is Syvilla Fort, who got her start in
Seattle, as a student at the Cornish School alongside classmate Merce Cunningham. Her status as the first black dancer enrolled at the school might have been distinction
enough, but she went on to tour and teach with Katherine Dunham, and to open her own school in New York City.

For many years Fort was something of a mystery here – a beautiful portrait and a few anecdotes seemed to be all we could know about her. But recently she’s received more
of the attention she’s deserved all along, thanks in part to research by Nia-Amina Minor, marco farroni, Akoiya Harris, and David Rue, working as Black Collectivity. Their
production of “A Practice of Return” last spring brought some of the themes and concerns that Fort pursued to current audiences, and helped to amplify her reputation for new generations.

Back to the second half of To Gather—two pieces too good to not mention. With rock music blaring, Symone Sanz, head obscured by a motorcycle helmet, crawls down down through the seats of the audience like she’s staking her territory. Powerful. Predator energy. Her dance is knee spinning, head thrashing, and jumping from shins to feet. A series of sustained poses demonstrate endurance and physical prowess—she is upside down, holding weight on the tops of her feet. I am invested, like watching a sporting match. Rooting for Sanz, the longer she holds. WRETCH’s choreography may seem less explicitly about lineage, but then I see in the program notes that Sanz thanks Heather Kravas for “being my guide when you’re in the room and when you’re not.” Along with noting inspiration from the work of Carlin Kramer, Emma Wheeler, and Lavinia Vago. And of course, that all rings very true.

The final piece on the program is by Bay Area choreographer Maurya Kerr (tinypistol). The work, grief-(shift), accomplishes the kind of visual storytelling that is most moving to me, one that reveals its truths as it unfolds over time. Throughout the work the two dancers, Tatiana Barber and Alexander Diaz, move upstage and downstage. Sometimes they crawl, as if swimming against a current, sometimes their bodies are tense and rigid, hands clasped as if walking into a haunted house. A pattern of advance and retreat emerges. Throwing themselves forward in a wild charge, or as if on horseback, slingshot and swords drawn in battle. Then backing up, hands up, don’t shoot. The short work manages to capture an epic of struggle. The dancers, enduring, exhausted, lean into each other for support as they continue their walk forward.

Symone Sanz. Photo by Bruce Tom.

I am still in the throes of these works when that same weekend (stay with me—we have a lot of dance to cover) I attend The Hybrid Lab: Conversations in Merging Dance Cultures. Curated and facilitated by Amy O’Neal, with artists from Seattle’s Hip Hop/Black social dance scene invited into the experimental theater context that is Velocity Dance Center/12 Ave Arts. A few highlights: Gaby Colon and Daniel-Day using street dance vocabulary to create characters in relationship. Quick snaps into breaking and moments of supporting the other’s weight formed the narrative. Tracey Wong’s solo alternated a soft quality of following a linear flow with hitting it HARD–sharp movements in high frequency. Then she stops and we watch her catch her breath, patiently and internally, waiting for her heart to slow before she begins again. Dufon “Orbitron” Smith (the Orb of Harris’ cards the night prior) and Alfredo “Free” Vergara freestyle a playful duet that shows off their skills of lightning fast footwork and impressive feats like sliding on the head (!!!) But it also feels like a long friendship on display. A friendship forged in The Circle of Fire Crew that has been lighting up Seattle dance clubs since the late 90s.

The “who’s in the room” spirit is very alive here, not just in representation of identity and form, but also in the clear social bonds on display. Even though O’Neal moved to LA in 2016, her ties within both Seattle’s contemporary and Hip Hop scene bind the evening together. Her own offering, an excerpt of work-in-progress A Trio also rings of friendship. O’Neal is joined by Amaria Stern and Nia-Amina Minor, who stand close enough to touch at the elbow. Repetitive shuffles and gentle undulations mesmerize with their synchronicity. But even with the exactitude there is ease, a lightness. The formation of the three morphs and ebbs through the space and each dancer effortlessly shifts to stay in synch, smoothly traveling or pausing together. The program also credits original cast members Ardyn Flynt and Satori Folkes-Stone with choreographic contributions. Of course I have no idea, but watching this choreography I imagine O’Neal and her two collaborators have a profound and intimate friendship, the kind that can develop when you dance side-by-side. It’s no accident that the evening begins and ends with open dance cyphers, where the invitation to social dance connection, to participation, acknowledges our collective presence. 

O’Neal, Minor, and Stern in A Trio. Photo by Erin O’Reilly.

In December I saw two shows that found different ways to answer who’s in the room. Four on Floor, a newly formed group of veteran Seattle dancers, presented Good for Her Age, a treatise on aging, specifically as women. Featuring Gen X dancers Sara Jinks, Sarah Paul Ocampo, Diana Cardiff, and Karen Garrett de Luna, the evening comprised a series of interdisciplinary vignettes that approached the topic with humor and humanity. Four on the Floor have a knack for imagery and storytelling. In one video, Garrett de Luna looks into the camera as if looking in a mirror, then starts coloring her salt-and-pepper hair with a Sharpie. In another, Jinks dons a name tag reading MILF (standing for Mother I’d Like to Fuck), looking rather pleased and saucy. But then reaches up and tears off the “F” to leave MIL—the dreaded Mother In Law—a natural consequence of motherhood but so perfectly encapsulating the social value assigned to women as they age. Holding these images are the dancers themselves, who counter the stereotype’s flattening with the performance of their full complex selves. I can’t stop thinking about an impish Garrett de Luna indulging in a box of raisins one by one, and then tucking a few in her belly button for later. Or Ocampo’s precision gesture dance to a remix of her mother’s practical advice on whether to have children. Their complexity is supported by Ocampo’s music throughout, her sweet and melodic singing belies clever and cutting lyrics. “Now I am what Instagram wants me to be: a sad old lady” accompanies a stream of age-defying instagram product ads. “Fuck the past” earns a closed fist salute from the cast.

In terms of who’s in the room, the one obvious demographic is age–you rarely see performers beyond 40 or 50 in the contemporary dance world. The piece is about aging, yes, but through their bodies on stage they also claim their rightful place as accomplished art makers and performers. In terms of lineage it’s impossible to deny the presence of Pat Graney’s work. Both Jinks and Cardiff were members of her company. As I watch Jinks strap on full body straight jacket sold as a “fat burning” suit, I find this in dialogue with a moment from Graney’s Girl Gods—a work in progress showing in this same space circa 2014—where Jinks attempted to squeeze into toddler-sized clothes. (Of course, this is lineage also works in reverse. I’m sure Jinks was a large part of creating the material for Girl Gods, so her talent for imagery is also part of what made Graney’s work so memorable.) Another solo danced by Cardiff brings in lineage more explicitly when she dances a mash up of favorite solo moments from her career, including choreography by Wade Madsen, Brenda Daniels, and Bebe Miller.

Four on the Floor. Photo by Karen Garrett de Luna.

Recorded interviews of women speaking on aging and menopause bring a broader set of people’s experience into the room as well, which ranges from “pretty psychedelic” to going in “kicking and screaming.” One voice says they feel “betrayed by my own body” to which an audience member yells “YES.” Another voice compares menopause to being a teenager: “You know you’re changing but you don’t know what you’re changing into.” Misogyny casts these subjects as cringy and niche, but in fact aging is something that happens to everyone who is lucky enough to live that long, and menopause to half of us. It should be part of our art and Four on the Floor tackles it with finesse, attitude, and curiosity. Many women talk about “becoming invisible” as they get older, but Four on the Floor wear bright red in every costume throughout the show. Even the stage hand (and veteran dancer herself) Jenny Gerber is head-to-toe in red. No one will be made invisible here.

This fall season, one final piece addressed who’s in the room. Alicia Mullikin’s company El Sueño presented Mestizo: Breaking the Caste. Mestizo is a Mexican term for mixed that was used to devalue people with indigenous heritage. Mullikin combats the term through an evening celebrating Mexican-American artists that honor pre-colonial ways through their work, including film, dance, and visual art presented at Mini Mart City Park.

Here, ancestral lineage and artistic lineage merge. The dancing portion of the evening opens with Anáhuac cultural dance and music group Tlalókan performing an opening ritual. Facing each of the four directions, one dancer invokes a spirit, states intention of dancing, and names the instruments present individually. “We are here, your children…offering these dances…” The question of who’s in the room, both physically and spiritually, is clearly inseparable from the dance practice.

Tlalókan performs. Photo by Idalia Cardona.

Tlalókan presented several works. One depicted a battle between a jaguar and an eagle, the dancers manifesting the qualities of the animals—the low threatening crawl of the jaguar and the soaring grandeur of the eagle. Plumed regalia shivering in time to quick syncopated foot work. There was a dance of coming in and out of a circle, transforming the energy within. Then three women, including Mullikin, performed a tricky rhythmic repeating phrase that got faster and faster, building to a joyful euphoria.

Two other works on the program referenced a more contemporary aesthetic, but carried this same cultural through-line. Indigenous Salvadorian-American street dancer from East LA, Monique Berber performed a compelling solo of emotive and hard-hitting house dance that would then dissolve into the shudder of a silent cry. Her fierce sadness moving into a dance of digging elbows that seemed to ground her down to earth. Mullikin’s company El Sueño performed a quartet of four women shifting organically, like sand accumulating into dunes, supporting one another, lifting each other, making each other stronger. Again, I felt the bonds of friendship, but beyond that a shared history that goes back through the generations.

In an after-show talkback, one Tlalókan dancer, Maria Muñoz, says, “When we dance, it is ceremony.” Alicia Mullikin reiterates this statement, explaining that often because her work’s vocabulary is more contemporary, it is seen as separate from her indigeneity. “It may look different from the more traditional dancing, but it is the same. When we are in rehearsal, our grandmothers are with us.” Berber spoke of how she saw the similarities between House and Danza, the folkloric dance forms of her ancestors, and how through this vocabulary her solo was able to describe a conversation with them.

I’m writing this on the solstice, a time in many cultures where the veil between worlds seems to thin. Perhaps it is that, or just that we gather with those we love at the holidays and remember those who are now only with us in spirt, but are still very much in the room. Seattle lost several dancers this year tragically too soon, among them Cornish Grad and Coriolis dancer Dustin Durham, who passed in October. His family set up a memorial page to share his obituary and also create a space for people who knew him to contribute stories and photos. I didn’t know Dustin, but it makes me think about the people I dance with, and have danced with. How I carry them with me into every room I enter. Those who danced with Dustin carry that experience in their dancing. I’m certain the resonance of his bright spirit will ripple outward for a long time, one of many legacies that will continue to inform Seattle dance.

Black Collectivity’s To Gather: Weekend One performed at On the Boards Oct 5-7, 2023, curated by Nia-Amina Minor and David Rue. Hybrid Lab: Conversations in Merging Dance Cultures performed through Velocity Dance Center at 12 Ave Arts Oct 5-7, 2023. It was part of Amy O’Neal’s tenure as Curating Artist in Residence. Four on the Floor’s Good for Her Age performed Dec 15-17 2023 at NOD Theater. El Sueño’s Mestizo: Breaking the Caste performed at Mini Mart City Park December 8-9, 2023.