(photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born
Abrons Arts Center
One young black girl becomes alert to her inner signals, finds the strength to resist expectations, and revolts against efforts to straighten her hair. -- from Abrons Arts Center's website
Out of the blue, a thought visited me over breakfast today:
No, you can't touch my hair. My hair is part of my body. I do not give you permission to touch my body. So, why do you think you can touch my hair?
I'd swear I don't know where that came from, but I do know it's something I should have said, years ago, to one man--the husband of a fellow dance critic--whose white hand shot out and touched my woolly head. Happened so fast, I didn't have time to cringe, flinch or launch a preemptive strike, which I now so wish I had done.
And I also know Okwui Okpokwasili (with director/designer Peter Born) must have triggered something with a new ensemble work, Adaku's Revolt, just opened at Abrons Arts Center. It's not about white people touching Black people's hair, the site of both painful and glorious historical experience and culture. But it is about how white aesthetics touch Black people's hair...and bodies...and values...and lives.
Dear Okwui, as you must imagine, I know all about the perils of getting the "kitchen" straightened with a hot comb. I think you must have reached out and touched a nerve.
Urban Bush Women's dancers are also looking at the Black hair thing this season with Hair & Other Stories. But Okpokwasili's concept and Born's visual design appear to have the potential to help Adaku's Revolt work down into the subconscious in a way that UBW's far more direct piece--with audience participation that keeps our conscious minds centered and on high alert--might not.
|Above: Dancer AJ Wilmore as Adaku|
Below: Wilmore with Okwui Okpokwasili
(photos: Ian Douglas)
The audience is directed to its place on the stage of Abrons's theater through a back channel and instructed to take seats lining three sides of the performance space. As we enter and get settled, the scene has already been set, a compelling visual atmosphere already built. Before a white screen, four dancers lie on the floor with torsos stiffly arched and heads thrown back. Above them, a large windsock of pearly-white gossamer continuously flows out from a big fan, its hypnotizing, watery fabric reaching for another dancer, our Adaku (AJ Wilmore), who writhes, wriggles, tilts, chops and revs up as she sits in a chair. A dense assemblage of what appear to be ordinary desk lamps lights the area.
Within Born's vision, Okpokwasili's placement and movement of individual and group bodies take the shape of dreams with nonlinear but soul-tugging storytelling. White fabric engulfing and molding itself across faces. Bodies emerging from beneath pulsating fabric. Hips and feet twisting, pelvises rocking and left hands raised high in the air over a captivating--and destabilizing--polyrhythm of music and women's voice-overs and live singing.
I tried to jot down something Wilmore said before her turbulent yet mutually-supportive duet with Okpokwasili, and I think I got it right:
I'm going to open all the doors in my head.
Doors opening bring music and voices--both louder, brighter, undeniable--and the birth-like reclamation of bodies. I think the piece, just under an hour, seemed longer. For me, its conclusion fell short of grace or definitude. But something about it all clearly reminded me to revolt.
Choreographed and created in collaboration with Peter Born and performers Khadidiatou Bangoura, Peter Born, Audrey Hailes, Breyanna Maples and AJ Wilmore
Adaku's Revolt runs through March 24 with performances at various times. For information and tickets, click here.
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), Manhattan
DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.
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