Friday, November 17, 2017

Marjani Forté-Saunders: The story we've always known

Marjani Forté-Saunders
dancing Memoirs of a... Unicorn
(photo: Maria Baranova)

Marjani Forté-Saunders
(photo: Ian Douglas)


Memoirs of a... Unicorn--a breathtaking work by dance soloist Marjani Forté-Saunders--fills the Westbeth underground now known as The Collapsable Hole. The space is rough, roomy, multi-leveled, multi-surfaced and multifaceted. You enter and look around, dreaming of all the talented artists who might dare to try it. But for now, presented by New York Live Arts, Forté-Saunders owns every corner and staircase, every recessed area and side room with intricate, unexpected treasures, every inch of concrete floor and brick wall. With her design team--including dad, Richard Forté--she has turned this basement into mythic space and immersed her audience in Black-centered story.

You reach it, appropriately, through labyrinthine corridors. But instead of confronting a minotaur, you eventually spot the Black unicorn concealed in her lair. Maybe not right away.

The installation opens to the public a half-hour before performance time, and you might wander the space unguided or get distracted by a noisy conversation with your buddies or just sit, stare at your phone and wait for something to happen not realizing that something already is.

At some point, you become aware of the unicorn, her fearsome vulnerability, her defining feature with its awkward, unreasonable length, its prickly yet delicate construction. A structure that will both confine and exalt this strange captive has been built (by Forté-Saunders's father) to endure. By the end, that reassuring durability, coupled with a long-remembered song by Gil Scott-Heron, might move you to tears.

The space, filled with a light haze, balances precariously between dark and light, looks a little dangerous for any number of reasons--among them, the painted spikes of wood affixed to a wall like metal studs. Forté-Saunders is similar--a mix of audacious power and trembling sensitivity, an archive of damage and of ingenuity, a warrior and a mother. She's a woman capable of channeling exacting, telling details of masculine personality, energy and movement, neither afraid for her body nor afraid of it. Her speech patterns emerge sly or wrecked and disrupted, her singing voice imperfect yet Sending Its Message. A fedora-clad figure, she can be a little scary and quite a bit seductive. Direct, elusive. Controlled as she loses control. She dredges up memories--some personal, some collective--that sometimes wound or sometimes soothe. She makes you chuckle with her determined yanking of a man's jacket over costume wings, those stiff yet flimsy things jutting out from collar and hem.

In a generous, informative chat with Okwui Okpokwasili, post-show, Forté-Saunders expressed gratitude for having unpolished space in which to tell her complex, miles-deep, centuries-deep story. To my eyes, not one element of the many, many here seemed out of place, and even excess felt like the right move in The Collapsable Hole. Forté-Saunders is a confident, important, extraordinary performer hitting a new high mark in Memoirs of a... Unicorn.

Medi design: Meena Murugesan
Original composition and sound design: Everett Saunders featuring violinist Juliette Jones
Set design: Mimi Lien
Set built by Richard Forté/Build with Forté and August Hunt
Lighting design: Tuce Yasak

Memoirs of a... Unicorn continues tonight through Sunday the 19th with performances at 7:45pm. Doors open at 7:15 for a gallery pre-show. For information and tickets, click here.

The Collapsable Hole
55 Bethune St (enter at Bethune and Washington), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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