October 4th, 2018
What Remains: Reflections on Blackness, Dance, and Curation
By Tara Aisha Willis
When we land in the position—heads down, hands on the floor, one leg lunging forward in a deep knee bend, other leg extended behind, reaching for what feels like as far as the opposite wall—it is a collapse and a suspension all at once. The weight of an accumulated day, or week, or years of small wounds received in passing might be in that landing. Jessica Pretty, Leslie Cuyjet, and I have just completed an endless pattern of walking, strutting, stumbling, running, and sound designer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste has left the group and finally come to sit at his onstage technology table, which trails wires out around the feet of a grand piano. During this final rehearsal for What Remains, a collaboration between choreographer Will Rawls, poet Claudia Rankine, creative consultant John Lucas, and four performers including myself, our three bodies are suddenly low and lost from verticality, but held and at the ready, our backs marking a landscape, our legs pointing to the air just beyond our frames. We might begin to sprint from there, or simply collapse.
We are making a dance that feels from the inside like it might hinge on certain distinctions in orientation, like one proposed recently by artist Torkwase Dyson and scholar Christina Sharpe: the possibility implied in thinking laterally rather than horizontally, embodying relations rather than positions in space. Or, more importantly for this performance, how we move in and out of focus, into and out of ourselves. When we first began to work on What Remains in 2016, it was a way to ask how black life and living, as it is affected by a society that asks constantly for its curtailment, might manifest on a stage. The piece continues to ask the same question, and has come to perform several incomplete answers: by using improvisation scores to fold body and voice together in what Will has called a “sound-shape body”; by becoming at once an indistinguishable mass, individuating personas, and intricate social microcosm; by practicing a kind of existence on stage which at the very least we control and have chosen willingly to display.
The lunge movement begins here in this question, between my spine sliding across the horizon, the fold of my left hip, and the stretch across my right thigh. My ribcage finds new dimensions of weight against gravity, rising and falling as I begin to rock, forward and back, almost invisible at first. It’s a necessity. The position grows difficult to hold, and small shifts in weight are the best way to remain in place. Will has asked us to linger at each level of intensity as the rocking builds, knocks us onto the other leg, or into a low undulating side-step that drives us sideways across the room. Sometimes the intensity sends us pushing off from our hands til we rear and buck from one leg to the other, our weight so heavy and low that we begin to throw our torsos, arms, and heads into the air. The word “conjuring” has been used a lot in this rehearsal, and Will keeps mentioning the Okefenokee Swamp his father lives near in Georgia. We’ve decided to avoid the tendency to perform our physical exhaustion outright. Instead, an aesthetics of keeping going, working through keeps us on track. We’re not pushing off the ground, but through it with each rock, fall, step, fling. We are knitting the systems of our bodies together: the breath, blood, vestibular, and nervous systems.
In making What Remains, we are trying to imagine the state of being both living and already slated for death as a habitable place, a vast void or tundra where we use our voices and bodies to call ourselves into existence. It may be the “already-dead” space, but it is ours, or at least a space where we are already accustomed to its particular discomforts. What does it mean for us to welcome an audience into our space? Sharpe describes the desire of white readers of Rankine’s Citizen (or audiences of What Remains) to repeatedly consume black suffering as “the ground that we stand on, the space that we enter into.” I am interested in looking more closely at that ground, that space, as it emerges in the event of performance.
How I navigate that ground as a performer begins to dovetail with another uncomfortable position I occupy in the work: as performance curator, shepherding the show to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago where we will perform it in December, 2018, and where I will simultaneously be responsible for welcoming audiences to the performance in the context of a major Chicago institution. From my vantage point, the current reality of the field of experimental dance and performance in the US is this: while seeing a range of black and brown artists on the bill has become increasingly common, audiences at venues like those where What Remains will be touring remain disproportionately white. This is in part due to the very real exclusionary histories of those forms of performance and our very definitions of “experimental,” but also to the racialized geographies of the cities, buildings, and institutions in which these performances occur. To speak only of the limited terms of race, I’m interested in a baseline approach to curating that shows mostly the work of black and brown artists: by my math, this would need to be the norm for several hundred years to really take effect on our collective psyches. Perhaps long past the existence of dance and performance as we know it.
As C. Davida Ingram, an artist who grew up in Chicago attending the MCA, recently said to me about the institution: What happens when we imagine that edifice, those galleries, walkways, and that state-of-the-art theater no longer in use as it currently is? What happens when the programs, institutions, and structures of going about business-as-usual in the performance and art worlds lose their cohesion or momentum? How might that building still be useful as a different gathering space than what capitalism typically allows us? Who might show up to use its spaces, infrastructure, and materials, after it has been crumbled and rebuilt with a different sense of what being together—to watch or make a performance—requires? This imagining is perhaps unreasonable, but it allows me a kind of tenderness toward the work to be done in the present, under the circumstances, or perhaps laterally alongside them.
After articulating the project to Chicago educators and artists, Will expressed to me his hope that the work might be experienced by black women, girls, and femmes and black creatives. I understand this as more than a desire for audience members to see themselves represented onstage and us performers to see ourselves represented in the audience. Thomas F. DeFrantz urges: “begin with a need to create particular space for people who are not finding that live art regularly or reliably attends to their imaginative concerns.” How do I welcome an audience into this room? I don’t know if I am the best person or have the right institutional resources to create an effective space for those audience members to leave feeling that their “imaginative concerns” are being attended to. But I can work to imagine how—and for whom—the black imaginative space we create together onstage in What Remains takes up those concerns, and begin there.
It is somewhat untested ethical (not to mention logistically complicated) territory to be in the dual role of performer—physically, sonically, emotionally bringing to life the imaginative space of What Remains on stage—and curator, responsible for finding a way for the work to show up to an audience and vice versa, granted the power to distribute resources and extend the life of a project as it tours. Accordingly, my relationships with artists come from my position as a performer and writer, as well as administrator. It feels important that What Remains might become an example of how the boundaries between curator and artist are being blurred, or an occasion for testing those boundaries. But the stakes are larger than myself or the piece. I see fellow women of color in the arts multitasking intensely all the time, being responsible for representing many things at many different tables. That takes a lot of work and energy, and sometimes requires doing less of one thing to make sure you have the bandwidth to make your voice heard elsewhere. What Remains literally brings the multivocality of black women to life on stage. We are performing that capacity to code switch, to speak multiple social languages, to hold both our own voices and the voices of other folks not in the room.
In rehearsals, we’ve laid out the physical phases of the lunging ritual that I described earlier, though how each of our bodies executes them varies—how we each recompose ourselves occurs differently in each of our joints, muscles, lungs, and skins. Old injuries and imbalances surface, nudging us to switch legs or lean torsos. I use my arms and hands to draw in the air, Leslie dips forward til her extended back leg flies, Jessica’s spine curves and uncoils with each rock. Will has made clear that the starting place is the form of the lunge, and that temporal trajectory finds, not its end, but perhaps its arc, when we begin to come into contact, still hunched over but wrapping an arm around a sweaty shoulder or leg, aligning our lunging rhythms in formation. This final phase is not unison or uniformity but, “togetherness,” as Will has put it. What else could it be, as our bodies keep going, finding their way around each other and around the disintegrating, reemerging, shape-shifting form?
Newly teetering toward upright, we improvise together, sustaining the rhythm as we cross the floor attached at the hip. Then suddenly we’re a vamping girl group, the Three Fates, kids playing a hopscotch with mysterious rules. Consonants and vowels shudder up through our systems, now a pattern, now a lone utterance. Recognition sets in: a common knowledge allows us to pick up what the other two are putting down, to shimmy ourselves into and back out of legible images and references. Who will show up in the room to see us? Who are we addressing when we call out “You” over and over, bending the word through our bodies? Either way, we work at it, hover and hold, and keep going, keep doing the thing.
Tara Aisha Willis is Associate Curator of Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, after working on programming and diversity initiatives at Movement Research in New York. She is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at NYU and co-edited a special issue of The Black Scholar with Thomas F. DeFrantz. Other writings appear in Movement Research Performance Journal, The Brooklyn Rail, Magazin im August, Voices from the Bush, Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance, and Performance Research (forthcoming). In addition to What Remains, Willis has recently performed in works by Kim Brandt, Megan Byrne, and Yanira Castro. She danced in the 2017 "Bessie"-Award winning performance by The Skeleton Architecture.
1. Marguerite Hemmings collaborated on and performed in an earlier version in 2017.
3. https://read.dukeupress.edu/theater/article-abstract/47/1/3/24500/Identifying-the-Endgame?redirectedFrom=fulltext (pg.11)