I enjoyed the working-out of all this material, and the beautiful dancers, but I sometimes felt I was back in the consciousness-raising ’60s and ’70s.
the future of our worlds, a performance by Skeleton Architecture at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA on July 23.
By Marcia B. Siegel
“Silence,” as in listening to others and to yourself, was a key idea for the Skeleton Architecture workshop at the ICA last week. The workshop and its culminating performance Sunday afternoon brought together black and Latino women artists to explore and celebrate a collective identity.
Last fall, New York-based dance critic Eva Yaa Asantewaa put together a group of women for a performance at Danspace, with the title drawn from a 1985 Audre Lorde essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” The group organized itself as a collective, and the Boston project, co-sponsored by Summer Stages Dance and the ICA, was its first venture.
Members of the original group who appeared on Sunday were Charmaine Warren, Davalois Fearon, Edisa Weeks, Grace Osborne, Maria Bauman, Marya Wethers, and Paloma McGregor. Eleven Boston-based dancers participated in the workshop and the performance. All were considered equal voices in leading movement practice and sharing music, dances, reading suggestions, and personal stories. Wearing individually chosen costumes, they ranged widely in age and physicality, from experienced professional dancers to students. The audience was supplied with their bios, but they didn’t identify themselves until the end. One remarkable outcome of the weeklong process was that the participants overcame their diversity to form a temporary community, and many believed they’d made much deeper connections.
Lasting a little over an hour, the Sunday performance was a series of events based on the material explored during the week. It hadn’t the continuity or the specificity of a choreographed dance, but all the performers were on all the time and they all could take prominent roles. The action flowed from simultaneous improvisational gambits to circles and lineups backing up spontaneous solos. From a space full of activity, a viewer could take in the whole field or pick out certain encounters to follow.
Two dancers lightly touched each other’s heads. Two others were playing a game of tag as they ran through the crowd. Couples played clapping games. Three women bourréed across the front of the space, lifting their arms like ballet dancers. I can’t remember if they were all barefoot or if one of them wore socks. There were sequences of implied drama. Pairs of people fell and caught one another; then the catcher would bend over the fallen in sympathy or grief. And then the fallen partner would be revived. Two dancers had a Capoeira-like duet, kicking and jabbing at one another but not making dangerous contact.
In one long sequence, Paloma McGregor hefted Charmaine Warren onto her back and shoulders, and then held Marya Wethers with her arms, shifting positions but keeping her support of the two of them. After a long time, McGregor put what looked like a ball of crumpled paper in her mouth, chewed it, and distributed bits of it like communion wafers into her partners’ upturned hands.
A constant stream of music and rhythmic sounds accompanied the show, inspiring dancing of many forms, especially African-inspired clapping, stamping rhythms and enthusiastic booty-shaking. Shea Rose sang a quiet song about getting out of bed in the morning. The group accompanied her with finger clicks and movement improvisations on the idea of getting up. This resolved into a clapping rhumba-like dance with recorded Latin music, and solo dancers emerged, cheered on by the group. From time to time Grace Osborne would play fluttering flute notes or a long ostinato on a big tuned brass bowl. The dancers glided into statue-poses propelled by her music.
Laughing, crying, vocalizations, and words grew out of movement scenes, and the audience was encouraged to join in the clapping or singing. There were moments when the energy level died down and the performers walked or stood meditatively in the space, but finally Williams roused the cast and the audience again into a big cheering section: “New York in the house!” “Boston in the house!” Then they brought it down again, joining in a line and swaying with arms linked while they engaged in fragmentary duets and talk. Applying new words to “This little light of mine” they enlisted the audience in a big community sing.
Like many improvisational performances, Sunday afternoon felt like it was more fun to do than to watch. Like most improv settings where the dancers have many choices to make, the gambits changed before I used them up. In an after-performance period, the audience was invited to look at the instructions that had prompted the show and the teaching tools that had been used during the preceding week, which were posted on large sheets of paper pinned to the theater wall and the outside windows.
Although I enjoyed the working-out of all this material, and the beautiful dancers, I sometimes felt I was back in the consciousness-raising ’60s and ’70s. So much of what was happening seemed to be not exactly a replay but a return to the structures and game-playing that people used to open up their sensibilities decades ago. I had to remind myself that most of the performers on Sunday hadn’t been old enough to experience the ’70s or the uptight era that preceded them. And, as we were reminded throughout the performance, the workshop was about “empowerment” for and by today’s women of color. During the post-performance talk-back, there were heartfelt testimonials by audience members affirming the process and making clear that the need for it is still with us.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.