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Thursday, October 26, 2017

It's complicated: Cynthia Oliver celebrates Black masculinity

At left, Duane Cyrus with Jonathan Gonzalez
in Cynthia Oliver's Virago-Man Dem
(photo: Chris Cameron)

The Latin prefix “vir” means “man”; the suffix “-ago” indicates female. Thus, the term “virago” has, since ancient times, suggested that elusive flicker between genders we know so well and deny so violently. 
--from promotional text for Cynthia Oliver's Virago-Man Dem

Dance artist Cynthia Oliver centers the human body in her adroit Virago-Man Dem, just opened at BAM's Next Wave Festival. In fact, the four bodies centered here--Duane Cyrus, Jonathan Gonzalez, Ni’Ja Whitson and Niall Noel Jones--comprise one of the most cunning, most satisfying performance ensembles on hand this season. But Virago-Man Dem also boasts visual and sonic design of strong-enough confidence to support its movement without distracting or detracting from it. Particularly impressive is the work of Black Kirby (Afro-speculative comics artists John Jennings and Stacey Robinson) with projections and animations by John Boesche and lighting designer Amanda K. Ringger's rich imagination of place, time and mood. With costume designer Susan Becker and composer Jason Finkelman in the mix, Oliver directs a dream team of adepts at BAM Fisher.

With this piece, Oliver cracks open masculinity as a fixed idea received and upheld by Black men. Inspired by her dancers' experiences as well as her dual sensibilities as a woman of Afro-Caribbean birth living and working in the US, she draws from observation of masculinities, finding material in a deceptively easy stroll down the street, a clever dash on a basketball court, a sinuous sashay along imagined catwalks and more. What makes her resulting dance not merely a patchwork of a bunch of stuff done by three male-identified performers and one gender nonconforming performer is her taste and talent for connective flow and her eye for how being willfully or ecstatically off-center or molten or in-between uncovers the more inside the person. More self, more capacity, more joy, more supple, resilient strength. It's this more that, sadly, often threatens individuals, families, communities, religions and nations. It's this more--isn't it?--that for which we secretly yearn and which artists brilliantly model for us.

It might not necessarily take a woman to watch these things from the outside and bring them to her canvas or stage, but it takes this woman, perhaps, with  apparently endless reserve of movement ideas to bring her concepts alive and keep us interested over 75 minutes. And from the work's beginning (in physical stillness and visual murkiness) through the hoodie-covered dancers' testing of bodies and selves and their growing clarity and enlivening, with Ringger enhancing the dimensions of Oliver's sculpted movement, we're kept on the edge of our seats.

Here's a journey ready to be taken more than once, but consider yourself lucky if you get to see Virago-Man Dem even just one time.

Virago-Man Dem continues tonight through Saturday evening with performances at 7:30pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Prior to tonight's performance, Cynthia Oliver will offer a free talk, Examining Black Masculinity, at 6pm in Wendy's Subway Reading Room, downstairs at BAM Fisher.

BAM Fisher
321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn

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