Saturday, January 9, 2016

COIL 2016 festival: It's "DISCOTROPIC" down below

Diahann Carroll as the holographic Mermeia
from Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
(photo from

Somewhere, there must be an Official Contemporary Performance Checklist that itemizes terms like "Afrofuturism" and "queer politics" and "the black female body," all of which show up in promotion surrounding niv Acosta's DISCOTROPIC (part of PS 122's COIL festival). I'm always wondering where this spaceship is headed; the answer isn't always clear. But DISCOTROPIC turns out to be a quality ride, bracing and perhaps as illuminating as any potential destination.

Running for ninety minutes, DISCOTROPIC utilizes rough basement space at Westbeth, artist housing in the West Village, including a recessed room, straight and spiral staircases and an ample platform. As architecture, DISCOTROPIC revels in the aesthetics of hide and seek, hear and strain to hear, sincerity and exhibitionism. Instrumental and electronic sound sources are tucked around the space, and bold, color-saturated video abstractions and lighting play a hallucinogenic role. Audience members stand to watch and--carefully, please--step here and there, following the actions of Acosta, Monstah Black, Justin Allen, Ashley Brockington and Dion TygaPaw.

DISCOTROPIC, we've been told, exists "between the pragmatic and the fantastical while exploring the relationship between science fiction, disco, astrophysics and the black American experience." The unseen, but presiding, archetypal figure here is the elegant Diahann Carroll. Specifically, Acosta's literature references Carroll's acting role as a sea creature in a 1978 television movie. Added to the cast after pressure to bring in a Black performer, Carroll portrayed not a flesh-and-blood woman but a sexy sea creature--and a hologram at that. Acosta sees Carroll's role as "an illusion that distills the ways in which the black female body has been consumed in mass media: as alien, bodacious, and marginalized."

That's a familiar concern in contemporary performance, and the bodies in Acosta's work, with booties frequently a'twerking at any and all angles, can be viewed in these ways, both boldly playing to and subverting exploitation.
"I exist for you. As you create me, yes, I control your reaction. I'm getting your message. Are you getting mine?" 
--Ashley Brockington in DISCOTROPIC
But I sensed something deeper going on in DISCOTROPIC that proved unique and exciting. I sensed the engineering of a durable spaceship.

My first inkling came as Monstah Black, back turned towards us, flailed his arms and slipped his sneakered feet over what appeared to be a layer of black sand in a recessed storage room. His "sand dancing," his more distinct stomp-and-drag rhythm, and a minute burst of shimmying had me thinking about vaudevillian dance acts. In a later segment, I watched the dancers form a tight, disciplined squadron in which various dancerly routines emerged, the sort of thing we used to see Black singing groups do to enhance the appeal of their acts. I thought of how some marginalized, underemployed tap dancers survived by teaching dance skills to these emerging pop and R&B artists.

Invoking We Travel the Spaceways, by future-perfect jazz priest Sun Ra, the cast's circling, metronomic, escalating vocal patterns suggest an evolution of something post-human, proto-robotic.  But not post-Black. Black survives in the rocking, the swinging and, eventually, in the excess--Acosta's beaming as joy leaps out of his vocal performance.

There's always something passed along, voice to voice, body to body. Something Black survives any alteration of form and any displacement of form, from Africa to the Americas, from the Americas to worlds beyond. Black always was and always will be.

DISCOTROPIC's remaining performances run today at 3pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 4pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Westbeth Artist Community
55 Bethune Street (corner of Washington Street), Manhattan

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