Friday, January 18, 2019

In step with Joséphine: Julia Bullock at The Met

Soprano Julia Bullock
(photo: Kevin Yatarola)

Julia Bullock
Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine
The Great Hall
Metropolitan Museum of Art
January 16-17

The two-page, finely-written program notes Julia Bullock contributed for her production, Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine, performed on the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum's Great Hall, takes me back to a practice I abandoned a couple of years ago--saving programs from all the shows I see. I no longer save them much beyond the year of their season, but this one, this one, will live with me, just as the life, struggles and example of Joséphine Baker clearly live with Bullock, a Black opera singer of profound insight and commitment to social justice.

Bullock--the Met's 2018-2019 Artist in Residence--starts her notes by quoting famed New Yorker writer Janet Flanner whose references to Baker's "caramel-colored body" and "lovely animal visage," the "dawning intelligence" of her look, along with Baker's apparent failure to have "heard of Mozart" are like textbook examples of white supremacist arts criticism. Dropping this nightmare on the page, Bullock then proceeds to hail Baker for achieving superstar--and super-paid--status during Jim Crow when her level of success was unimaginable for any Black performer. Further, for anyone obsessed with the image of caramel-colored Baker dancing in a costume made of bananas, Bullock notes Baker's role in the French Resistance and our own Civil Rights movement, and even the way the entertainer turned her simplistically-eroticized image--her skin turned into a costume, as she says, her body a "shattered object" that wants a home, wants to be owned--into one of self-defined, self-determined Black power and woman power.

The essay--which goes on to detail a creative process encouraged by director Peter Sellars with a team of remarkable collaborators--ends in a proud, uncompromising affirmation of the complexity of human nature, Baker's and Bullock's as well. Both women aim to rip our stereotypes right out from under us.

Is it possible to not only save program notes forever but stand up and give them a rousing cheer?

Bullock's soprano has depth and edge; it draws you into a resonant cave. When she first comes into view, high on the Great Hall's grand staircase, she stands stockstill, an icon draped neck to toes in formal black, her hair a dark-russet 'fro which will eventually be lit to halo-ing effect. Remote and rigid, she seems an apparition from the grave, her face, seen from a distance below, a cloudy blur that does not resolve into recognizable features.

That will change. Bullock does descend, at times, to a mid-point landing to join the work's composer Tyshawn Sorey (percussion/piano) or to the lower steps where members of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) craft a sinuous and textured sonic fabric for her plainspoken testimony as Baker, channeled by writer Claudia Rankine. "One day, I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be Black," Bullock says, as Baker. And she calls the US "barbarous."

It's haunting, confusing, disturbing when she reveals that her dancing was actually a form of running. Would that mean fearful escape? Or would it mean resistance? Or some combination? How are we to understand this Joséphine (or this Julia who identifies so closely with her)?

The long-ago familiar--a dancing of the Charleston, a warbling of "Bye Bye Blackbird"--are rendered with an insistent, high-strung dissonance. Bullock's training in dance becomes clear immediately, but the entirety of the performance rests on her skillful ability to move various energies of feeling through her body--from the initial, regal dignity to mischief to brooding quiet to unnerving thunderclaps of anger and power.

Creative team:

Julia Bullock, soprano
International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE):

  • Alice Teyssier, flute
  • Ryan Muncy, saxophone
  • Rebekah Heller, bassoon
  • Daniel Lippel, guitar
  • Jennifer Curtis, violin 

Conceived by Peter Sellars
Tyshawn Sorey, composer, percussion, and piano
Zack Winokur, director
Claudia Rankine, text (featuring the words of Josephine Baker, adapted by Julia Bullock and Zack Winokur)
Michael Schumacher, choreographer
Mark Grey, sound design
John Torres, lighting design
Carlos Soto, clothing design

Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine concludes this evening with a performance at 8pm. Seating is very limited and likely sold out, but for information, click here.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (enter at 81st Street main entrance), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.

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