Saturday, October 24, 2015

Colleen Thomas Dance: Looking beyond the blueprint

Samantha Allen of Colleen Thomas Dance
in Her(e) Repetitive Blueprint
Photo: Alex Escalante

"We see what we think we know, not what stands before us," Colleen Thomas writes, introducing Her(e) Repetitive Blueprint, presented by 92Y Harkness Dance Center's new Dig Dance weekend series.

An artist's handiwork gets complicated, re-imagined and completed by what the individual observer brings to it. In the shifting gloom of 92Y's Buttenwieser Hall, we encounter Thomas's sensibilities, ideas and decisions, bringing "the stories we keep telling ourselves" about ourselves and about everything else. As she writes further, "Life is here, this moment. Now....and now...and now."

With the exception of composer John McGrew, who performs his score live, every single one of the men in Her(e) Repetitive Blueprint--Ehizoje AzekeMarc MannNathan Trice and the striking Orlando Hunter--are Black. Startled to notice this, I returned to Thomas's words and wondered if anyone else had experienced a similar jolt.  (Tamara Joy Clarke, also Black and also a dancer, passes through and around the space. But in this work, she's primarily serving as vocalist.) Thomas and the other women dancers--Samantha Allen, Jenna Riegel and Jessica Stroh--are white, and we had just watched them, stationed across the space, scaring us with images of obsessive self-grooming, as if they wanted to rub every bit of clothing, hair and flesh away from their inflamed bodies. And then, BLACKOUT. And now, these four men--each one grand and vulnerable.

Knowing of Thomas's concern with how we get ensnared in "the web of perceived social, gender and racial narratives," I felt she'd just dropped a grenade in our midst. We have seen multicultural dance ensembles; Thomas, herself, has danced with some of them. But the demographic makeup of Her(e) Repetitive Blueprint--and the balance of prominence and power within it--are rare in contemporary dance.

Tricia Toliver's preternatural lighting turns this hall--a dimly-lit space with a heavy, heavy feel--into a camera obscura or chamber of hallucinations, the perfect setting for the stark and fiery choreography. We're made aware of an outside--a black drape gets pulled aside; an opened door emits a blast of white light--to this tense and murky inside. Toliver takes the simple facts of folks--Have you seen dancers when they are off-duty?--and splashes harsh light across bodies, turning them spooky or monumental.

We can't trust our eyes. Or maybe sometimes we can. But it's important, first of all, to make the effort to look. For "life is here, this moment. Now....and now...and now."

Her(e) Repetitive Blueprint continues tonight at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm.

92nd St Y (Buttenwieser Hall)
Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, Manhattan

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