Saturday, June 2, 2018

A meditation on Ni'Ja Whitson at La MaMa Moves

Ni'Ja Whitson (above) and Stacey Karen Robinson (below)
perform The Unarrival Experiments #4', described as
"a ritual digging into the 'vaporous body'
via relationships between astronomy, cosmology, time,
Blackness, and premature death." 
(photos: Theo Cote)


Opacity is in the very nature of what award-winning dance artist Ni'Ja Whitson created in The Unarrival Experiments #4, a presentation of La MaMa Moves at The Downstairs.

A ritual to which you have been invited and for which you have not prepared.

A space in which you are kept in the literal (mostly) and metaphoric (almost always) dark and in which you learn, deep into 90-or-so uninterrupted minutes, that it's all about darkness.

A dark in which much happens to which you are not privy, like the engulfing dark of the ocean at night or at its greatest depths. Or the dark of the vastness of space between stars.

With their audience scattered in clusters, Whitson, dressed in white, begins the evening by beating large fronds against one of the theater's risers. The rhythms of these strikes are clear but keep changing so much that you begin to listen for a language-like pattern, a message. Straining for this might be your first mistake. If this effort wears you out a bit, good. Just stop it.

Stacey Karen Robinson is also in the space with her supple, musical voice. She takes Whitson's dense text on a long, long stream of a flight. (Whitson will also perform a few soliloquies.) She molds it like clay. But, like the rhythms Whitson beat out at the start, her words slip right by you as you reach to grasp them.

I tried. In the middle of jotting down a sentence, I'd lose the rest of it. I'd labor over the start, and the remainder would evaporate, and Robinson would be way past floundering me, on to something else and something after that and more after that. And even what I thought I had managed to capture in my darkened-theater scrawl turns out to be no good to me today. A senseless, hopeless tangle. Or gone. Mostly gone.

Not all, though:

It is not every day I die, not every day I find me a new body....

These walking glories, these transmigrators....holding the North in themselves....the only direction was free!

He broke her. He broke her.

It seems like a contest. Who is the more distracting?

Robinson--distracting us from the largely fugitive Whitson in their dim environment or in darkness or scurrying out of audience view, so that when we catch sight of Whitson again, faint white clothing peeking out from a different part of the space, we're momentarily startled? Maybe momentarily reassured?

Or do Whitson's movements, weighty while enigmatic, distract from Robinson's speech?

To which artist do we owe our attention, our witness, our loyalty?

Body? Or Voice?

And what of that moment when a shredding blast--sounding random, meaningless--obscures both artists?

We, audience, may cup the used space--be space-holders in a way--but we appear to matter only in the way cosmic bodies matter to one another. It doesn't feel personal. It feels functional. Even arbitrary.

A strange feeling. One I'm on the fence about. It's a provocative ask of an audience. But I found myself wondering about (and resisting) all the literal and metaphoric darkness. I felt we had been abandoned. Stranded in space.

And something more. At one point, Whitson drew a ball of twine from beneath an audience member's chair. Whitson unraveled it, spider-like, stringing it between the legs of some of our chairs.

I noticed immediately. I was right next to this action and felt the twine as it touched my ankles. I reached down and ran my fingers over it. I noticed where it connected. I wondered what it meant.

When the piece concluded, I happened to remain in my seat for a few moments and watched as two women--hastening to leave, an impulse I must admit I shared but resisted--nearly stumbled because they did not notice (or perhaps remember) the twine at their feet. Oddly, it took a few moments more before a staffer finally warned the audience to be careful of the twine.

Hard to know if this was deliberate--yeah, in a way, I could see that fitting this piece--or an oversight.

What we don't know could fill a multiverse. Whitson's text offered a brief crack of light for me in a few places--the most dramatic being their mention of how infinitesimally huge is the place of black darkness in the cosmos.

How little there is, really, that we can say with certainty we know, define and control.

Sound design and performance: Jeremy Touissant-Baptiste
Lighting design: Tuce Yasak
Lighting and Sound Supervisor: Hao Bai

The Unarrival Experiments #4 concludes tonight with a 7pm performance. For information and tickets, click here.

La MaMa (The Downstairs)
66 East 4th Street (between 2nd Avenue and Bowery), Manhattan

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