Friday, September 15, 2017

Maria Bauman sweats truths of life, rest, dying, freedom

Cast of Maria Bauman's dying and dying and dying
l-r: Bauman, Audrey Hailes, Valerie Ifill and Courtney Cook
not shown: Alicia Raquel
(photo: Scott Shaw)


At the close of dying and dying and dying--the new work by Maria Bauman (MBDance), just opened at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center--my guest, another Black woman, turned and asked me to verify the words of a particular line of text. Was it, she wanted to know, I have the right to die a natural death? How interesting that she should pick up on that particular line.

A few weeks ago, Bauman's Open Studio preview made me think about the history of Black death in the Americas, so much of it anything but natural. A history of dying dominated by brutal violence or illness due to poverty, due to lack of healthcare access or access to malignant care. A history of final moments that could have been solemn, sacred, even exalted, but where many Black bodies suffered hard deaths, in some cases, experienced profound dishonoring that should be no one's fate. These are endings of lives lived in the zone of an undeclared war.

I also flashed back to the title of Melvin Van Peebles's 1970s musical, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and Audre Lorde's line from her poem "Litany for Survival": "So it is better to speak/remembering/We were never meant to survive."

In this context, the assertion, "I have the right to die a natural death," takes on power and poignancy. And the same can be said for Bauman's expressive ensemble piece.  More than a few times, she and Courtney Cook, Valerie Ifill and Audrey Hailes, all circling an assemblage of ancestral memorabilia with warm, graceful, exuberant movement and vocal work, drop to the floor and lie still long enough for us to wonder what just happened. These sudden, decisive breaks in the flow evoke yoga's Savasana pose (corpse pose), a cessation of motion that allows bodymind time to absorb and integrate the energies of its previous actions.

Bauman aims to reorder what we value in life, to give space and time to rest, to surrender, to lying fallow, now and again, like a patch of good, growing earth, as we regenerate energy needed for the future. In her view, key to the purposefulness of that humble rest is the space and time to listen for and take in what our ancestors have to offer us. And that is why this piece--her "performance-ritual" and "earnest offering" with spoken word performances by Alicia Raquel--continually takes its strength from all of those treasured artifacts and photos of departed loved ones in the center of the space.

Try to imagine a viable way to introduce the notion of "death as the opposite of capitalism," a task Bauman sets for herself in dying and dying and dying. Video work and some mechanistic movement and aggression between Bauman and Cook do evoke the capitalism part, showing the women as having fallen prey to toxic, destructive values. But I'm still not completely convinced that death as a metaphor for needed rest will work for many people outside of a yoga class. It's a tricky conceptual leap for most. (When Death turns up in Tarot layouts, readers like me do quite a bit of verbal tap dancing to allay most querents' immediate fear.) But I do think dying and dying and dying succeeds in its accessible humanity and especially when dancers draw in, embody and ferociously release the personalities and energies of those whose bodies are now permanently still, at peace.

Bauman is Gibney Dance’s 2017 Community Action Artist in Residence and has also received Gibney Dance’s Beth Silverman-Yam Social Action Award. Go a little early, and you can enjoy Bauman and Cook's gallery memorial, To Rest, while you wait for the theater to open. The exhibition will be up through September 22.

dying and dying and dying continues tonight and Saturday at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
280 Broadway (entrance at 53A Chambers Street), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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