Sunday, June 3, 2018

One more to see: Rennie Harris gets funky at New Victory

Performers from
Rennie Harris: Funkedified,
a world premiere at New Victory Theater
(photo: Brian Mengini)

Two acclaimed Philadelphia dance crews--Rennie Harris Puremovement and The Hood Lockers--are tearing up the stage at New Victory Theater, now through June 10. If you love popping, locking, breaking and all things street dance, go see Rennie Harris: Funkedified.

The premise of this expert world premiere production is a remembrance of the funk music and dancing of the 1970s--think James Brown and Soul Train--that set Harris on his path to becoming one of the world's best-loved masters of hip-hop artistry. A marvelous five-piece band, led by guitarist Matt Dickey and drummer Doron Lev, brings the funk in a big, joyous way. Several cloth panels, hanging above the band like a quilt, capture projected imagery--some hazy, some abstract, some psychedelic--as well as Bob Steineck's luscious, saturated lighting as we hear Harris's musings on his cultural past. His voice--echoey and phantasmal--seems to emerge from out of a cloud or the depths of a dream--but the ingenious, passionate dancing and music speak for themselves.

The New Vic is a family-oriented theater and, at this Saturday matinee, most folks in the audience were small kids in booster seats sitting quiet and polite throughout the show. I kind of longed for an audience of Black teens who'd know just what to do with what we were seeing and hearing! It took a while for any heads to start bopping to the fantastic music--and they were adult heads. I just hope there were youngsters in the audience checking out, in particular, Puremovement soloist Leigh “Breeze-Lee” Foaad whose fluidity, range and poignancy should prove a powerful inspiration.

Rennie Harris Puremovement: Shafeek Westbrook, Katie Cruz, Joshua Culbreath, Phil Cuttino Jr., Tatiana Desardouin, Leigh “Breeze-Lee” Foaad, Mai Lê Hô-Johnson and Yuko “Uko Snowbunny” Tanaka

The Hood Lockers: Ricky “Glytch” Evans, Joshua “J Peazy” Polk, Andrew “Riot” Ramsey and Marcus “Epic” Tucker

Musicians: Shareef Clayton (trumpet), Matt Dickey (Music Director; guitar), Doron Lev (Music Director; drums), Nicholas Marks (keys), Osei Kweku (bass) and FKAjazz (saxophone)

Sound design/composition/production: Darrin Ross
Visual design: Jorge Cousineau
Lighting design: Bob Steineck

Rennie Harris: Funkedified runs through Sunday, June 10. For information and tickets, click here.

New Victory Theater
209 West 42nd Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

A meditation on Ni'Ja Whitson at La MaMa Moves

Ni'Ja Whitson (above) and Stacey Karen Robinson (below)
perform The Unarrival Experiments #4', described as
"a ritual digging into the 'vaporous body'
via relationships between astronomy, cosmology, time,
Blackness, and premature death." 
(photos: Theo Cote)

Opacity is in the very nature of what award-winning dance artist Ni'Ja Whitson created in The Unarrival Experiments #4, a presentation of La MaMa Moves at The Downstairs.

A ritual to which you have been invited and for which you have not prepared.

A space in which you are kept in the literal (mostly) and metaphoric (almost always) dark and in which you learn, deep into 90-or-so uninterrupted minutes, that it's all about darkness.

A dark in which much happens to which you are not privy, like the engulfing dark of the ocean at night or at its greatest depths. Or the dark of the vastness of space between stars.

With their audience scattered in clusters, Whitson, dressed in white, begins the evening by beating large fronds against one of the theater's risers. The rhythms of these strikes are clear but keep changing so much that you begin to listen for a language-like pattern, a message. Straining for this might be your first mistake. If this effort wears you out a bit, good. Just stop it.

Stacey Karen Robinson is also in the space with her supple, musical voice. She takes Whitson's dense text on a long, long stream of a flight. (Whitson will also perform a few soliloquies.) She molds it like clay. But, like the rhythms Whitson beat out at the start, her words slip right by you as you reach to grasp them.

I tried. In the middle of jotting down a sentence, I'd lose the rest of it. I'd labor over the start, and the remainder would evaporate, and Robinson would be way past floundering me, on to something else and something after that and more after that. And even what I thought I had managed to capture in my darkened-theater scrawl turns out to be no good to me today. A senseless, hopeless tangle. Or gone. Mostly gone.

Not all, though:

It is not every day I die, not every day I find me a new body....

These walking glories, these transmigrators....holding the North in themselves....the only direction was free!

He broke her. He broke her.

It seems like a contest. Who is the more distracting?

Robinson--distracting us from the largely fugitive Whitson in their dim environment or in darkness or scurrying out of audience view, so that when we catch sight of Whitson again, faint white clothing peeking out from a different part of the space, we're momentarily startled? Maybe momentarily reassured?

Or do Whitson's movements, weighty while enigmatic, distract from Robinson's speech?

To which artist do we owe our attention, our witness, our loyalty?

Body? Or Voice?

And what of that moment when a shredding blast--sounding random, meaningless--obscures both artists?

We, audience, may cup the used space--be space-holders in a way--but we appear to matter only in the way cosmic bodies matter to one another. It doesn't feel personal. It feels functional. Even arbitrary.

A strange feeling. One I'm on the fence about. It's a provocative ask of an audience. But I found myself wondering about (and resisting) all the literal and metaphoric darkness. I felt we had been abandoned. Stranded in space.

And something more. At one point, Whitson drew a ball of twine from beneath an audience member's chair. Whitson unraveled it, spider-like, stringing it between the legs of some of our chairs.

I noticed immediately. I was right next to this action and felt the twine as it touched my ankles. I reached down and ran my fingers over it. I noticed where it connected. I wondered what it meant.

When the piece concluded, I happened to remain in my seat for a few moments and watched as two women--hastening to leave, an impulse I must admit I shared but resisted--nearly stumbled because they did not notice (or perhaps remember) the twine at their feet. Oddly, it took a few moments more before a staffer finally warned the audience to be careful of the twine.

Hard to know if this was deliberate--yeah, in a way, I could see that fitting this piece--or an oversight.

What we don't know could fill a multiverse. Whitson's text offered a brief crack of light for me in a few places--the most dramatic being their mention of how infinitesimally huge is the place of black darkness in the cosmos.

How little there is, really, that we can say with certainty we know, define and control.

Sound design and performance: Jeremy Touissant-Baptiste
Lighting design: Tuce Yasak
Lighting and Sound Supervisor: Hao Bai

The Unarrival Experiments #4 concludes tonight with a 7pm performance. For information and tickets, click here.

La MaMa (The Downstairs)
66 East 4th Street (between 2nd Avenue and Bowery), Manhattan

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Friday, June 1, 2018

Johnnie Cruise Mercer presents "process-memoir" at NYU Tisch

Dancer-choreographer Johnnie Cruise Mercer
and his troupe present a "process-memoir"
from their NYU Tisch arts residency,
this week at Tisch's Jack Crystal Theater.
(photo: Marisol Diaz)

Is there a possible way to ascend past what is expected from me, and to return to what I truly know? -- Johnnie Cruise Mercer

This is not really a formal review of the "process-memoir" offered, last evening, by Johnnie Cruise Mercer/TheREDprojectNYC at NYU Tisch School of the Arts's Jack Crystal Theater. I write merely to ask you to consider going tonight for its final showing.

And, yes, I know this has been the season from hell with multiple dance events stacked atop each calendar date like acrobats forming a circus pyramid. But still, go see Mercer's to ascend past numbness and witness birth. You'll have fun, you'll see some amazing performers, and you'll experience surprises I'm not going to reveal. Mercer treats his audience like frogs in that pot of water that starts off nice-and-comfy then gets progressively warmer and warmer.

I had just one problem: this evening--reportedly the third part of a multi-part "process-memoir" moving towards a two-part work...well, maybe you get the picture--feels very long, stuffed with stuff in need of judicious pruning. Excess, though, does seem to be a necessary Mercer ingredient. You'll see what I mean.

Take your buddy who thinks they/she/he can't get into dance or simply get it. Take your mate who only makes time for pop culture. Take your woke co-worker who will surely appreciate how art can simultaneously entertain and question that entertainment. Take anyone capable of having their mind blown.

And then, let's all wait and see what TheREDprojectNYC will make of all of this.

Mercer calls his performers "company partners" and "a community of artistic dare-devils," and so they are: Shanice Mason, Thomas Tyger Moore, Nicholas Rodrigues, Erica Saucedo and collaborating artist Adrianne Ansley.

Visual design/creative consultant: Torian Ugworji

to ascend past numbness and witness birth. concludes this evening with a performance at 7:30pm. For information and tickets, email or click for the Facebook event page.

Jack Crystal Theater
NYU Tisch School of the Arts
5th Floor, 111 2nd Avenue (between 6th and 7th Streets), Manhattan

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Who is this body? Anabella Lenzu at La MaMa Moves!

Anabella Lenzu
(photos: Anabella Lenzu Dance)
"This is my body. The dance is coming from my body,
not the body of a 25-year-old."
--Lenzu in her post-show conversation with director Daniel Pettrow

What I most appreciate about Anabella Lenzu (Anabella Lenzu/Dance Drama), whom I have known since she took my dance writing course at New York Live Arts, is how fully she inhabits the moment. She's all there, a force of self-determination, and that serves her well in her vivid new solo, No more beautiful dances, a world premiere for La MaMa Moves!

It's a generous presence in which Lenzu--plunging headfirst into performance after a long time focused on making work for others--ramps up what it means to be a dancer. It means your body speaks for you; it is your art, one vulnerable to the judgment of others as well as your own, offered up for display and assessment. Lenzu aims to stay honest about all that. With the audience as witness, she desires to serve, too, as her own outside eye.

She marks thick lines in menstrual red around her feet and thighs, outlines she will then fill with the same color and with furious energy. She allows two live-streaming cameras--one from above, one from below--to snoop around every surface and crevice of her 42-year-old body. This reads a bit like feminism of the My Body, My Self kind, an effort to take look at herself, journal what she observes, understand and come to grips with the changes undergone with the years and after giving birth to her two kids.

With the help of director Daniel Pettrow and the mentors she will cite after the show, this "journal" has been distilled down to about 40 minutes. But it encompasses so much--all that can be seen and all that needs to be imagined upon reflection of the viewer's own history. It stretches across the walls of The Downstairs theater's waiting area where blown-up, drawing-enhanced selfies of the dancer have been hung. It includes Lenzu's sturdy, expressive movement, of course, and her husband Todd Carroll's video projections but also Lenzu's speaking and songs recalled from her Argentinian youth--all to recapture a grounding sense of a self almost lost here in a new land.

In her post-show chat with Pettrow and the audience, Lenzu answered the inevitable question about her title, No more beautiful dances, by calling it a warning: "This dog will bite you."

Oh, yeah, I get that. When I first read the title, I thought of it as: "No more beautiful dances...for YOU, MISSY!" I also could not help but hear a poignant question: "Am I no longer able to make beauty?"

But I think an audience member figured out something better, something true of Lenzu when he offered this:

"No more pretty dances. Ah, but beauty...!"

Costumes: Jennifer Johanos
Lighting design: Hao Bai

No more beautiful dances has a final performance tonight at 7pm. For information and tickets, click here.

La MaMa The Downstairs
66 East 4th Street (between 2nd Avenue and Bowery), Manhattan

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

June 8-10: La MaMa’s Squirts: Generations of Queer Performance

Madison Krekel, left, with musician Isaiah Singer (photo: Nina Fleck)
and (below) Bessie-winner Jasmine Hearn (photo: Scott Shaw)
will appear in this year's La MaMa's Squirts festival, June 8-10

I'm thrilled to announce that I've curated one of this year's La MaMa's Squirts shows, and I want you to come out, represent and support!

The annual festival of queer performance, created by Dan Fishback's Helix Queer Performance Network, will feature three evenings curated by Linda LaBeija, Shannon Matesky and myself, performed at La MaMa's The Downstairs theater, Friday-Sunday, June 8-10, all at 7pm.

I'm showing up for all three shows, because they're going to rock, and I hope to see you there!

Here are your details:

Friday, June 8, 7pm: Q(here)magiQUE

curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Q(here)magiQue is an evening of improvisation, manifesting multidimensional queer space for queer spirituality, casting spells through dance and the word.


Antonio Ramos
iele paloumpis
Jasmine Hearn
Madison Krekel (with Isaiah Singer)

Saturday, June 9, 7pm: The LaBeija Showcase

curated by Linda LaBeija

You can glimpse the House of LaBeija in great films like The Queen and Paris Is Burning but, in The LaBeija Showcase, peek into the life and history of the House and where it is today, with an evening of collaborative, devised theater. Through vogue and modern movement, original music, and lip sync performances, bear witness to the performative talents and fashions of this iconic collective. Learn who they are and learn what they stand for. Learn it and learn it well!

Commentator/Co-Director: Leggoh LaBeija
Choreographer and Dancer: Monster LaBeija
Sound Director: Skyshaker


Rozay LaBeija
NYC Father Legendary Freddie LaBeija
Krystal LaBeija
Egyptt LaBeija
and more!

Sunday, June 10, 7pm: Four Questions

curated by Shannon Matesky

Shannon Matesky, creator and curator of Queer Abstract, curates an evening of theatrical performances highlighting queer artists as they grapple with four pivotal questions in honor of Nina Simone's “Four Women."


Regie Cabico
Gary Champi
Aviva Jaye
Ni'Ja Whitson
Shannon Matesky

For information and tickets--including your 3-performance 50% discount pass!--click here.

La MaMa (The Downstairs)
66 East 4th Street (between 2nd Avenue and Bowery), Manhattan

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

My DanceAfrica wish list

Abdel R. Salaam, Artistic Director
of BAM's annual DanceAfrica fest,
presents Remembrance, Reconciliation, Renewal,
honoring the centennial of Nelson Mandela's birth
and the work of "freedom fighters past and present."
The season focuses on South Africa's
traditional and contemporary dance.
Below: Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre, founded in 1995,
under the leadership of artistic director Jay Pather
and resident choreographer Simphiwe Magazi

He said it himself. Several times. It's hard to choose.

Why do we have to?

Abdel R. Salaam--Chuck Davis's successor as artistic director of DanceAfrica--went to South Africa and fell in love. He auditioned several dozen dance troupes, knowing he could select only one for his festival. One. At most, two. He watched and watched. And enjoyed. And agonized.

Then he chose one (Durban's Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre). And then he combined a large number of dancers from four different companies into a supergroup, what became Ingoma KwaZulu-Natal Dance Company, made up of performers from:
Champions Dance Crew, which specializes in isipantsula, an energetic street style of movement that first emerged during the apartheid era; Kangaroo, a traditional Zulu ensemble based in Durban; the all-female Tswana Group, trained in Setswana, Pedi, Venda, and Xhosa styles; and Amatsheketshe, another all-female troupe that specializes in the traditional Zulu styles of Ushiyameni, Umkhomaas, and Umzani. -- from DanceAfrica 2018 publicity
And with thoughts of Mandela's birth centennial and mindful of continued struggles both there and here in his own homeland, Salaam began to create a way to introduce a range of South African artistry to his loving and loyal DanceAfrica audience for the 2018 season.

The head swims to think of Salaam's responsibility. And to think the next thought--which is that, since Baba Chuck gave Salaam his wholehearted blessing, telling him to make DanceAfrica his own, it might be time to do exactly that. What's the next level for this annual tradition at BAM--one which, given Brooklyn's struggles around gentrification and cultural displacement--is more significant than ever?

While Salaam is meticulous about thanking DanceAfrica supporters like Bloomberg and ConEd from the stage, I'm going to throw out a challenge to BAM and to funders to help DanceAfrica do more than entertain. It's time to make it an institution that thoroughly illuminates and educates year-round, not just for a single holiday weekend.

DanceAfrica 2018, which continues today and tomorrow, is entertaining and rousing as all get out, designed to be so, with everything from thrilling movement and acrobatics to breathtaking stage design. You can't beat it for that. Salaam inherited a jewel and, wonderfully, brings his own broad interests to it.

I can say that I saw much--and it was quite a range, stylistically, all presented with painstaking skill and openhearted verve--but I can't say much about what it all meant. I can't distinguish between the styles noted in the above description of Ingoma's component groups. I have a woefully imperfect understanding of the theatrical narrative presented in Siwela Sonke's Umsuka (choreographed by Neli Rushualang), despite what's written in the program notes' one-sentence description. And--like Salaam in his way--I want more.

I'd like Salaam to have the opportunity and the wherewithal to break DanceAfrica out of its box and build it further. Why, after four decades, is it not yet an institution that can bring companies--from traditional to hip hop and beyond--throughout the year? Why can he not open a permanent DanceAfrica building of studios at the ready to nurture African and African-diasporan dancemakers and new generations of excellent performers? Why can't young Black artists making searching, powerful work here in New York City and the states not have venues to find common ground with colleagues from the continent? Why can we not have year-round DanceAfrica residencies and retreats and networking and commissions and awards?

Why can we not have as many and as much as we want and need? And why, in particular, can't we learn--through adequate opportunities to see and document work--what we most need to know to truly give Africa's artists their due?

I want this. For myself. But also for Salaam and all the artists and audiences DanceAfrica has touched.

Dance Africa continues with 3pm matinees today and tomorrow, Memorial Day. For information on the season and related events and ticketing, click here.

BAM Gilman Opera House
Peter Jay Sharp Building
30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn

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