Parallels writer-in-Residence Carl Paris on From the Streets, From the Clubs, From the Houses
March 13, 2012
Thoughts on performances by Darell Jones, Niall Noel Jones, Nicholas Leichter and Regina Rocke (February 23-25, 2012)
In what ways do popular dance forms inform experimental modern dance? What do individual choices by black postmodern dance choreographers say, implicitly or explicitly, about representations of blackness, gender and sexuality and how do these representations play with or against postmodern dance ideals? These are the kinds of questions that curator Ishmael Houston-Jones invited us to consider in last week’s installment of Danspace Project’s PLATFORMS 2012: Parallels, which attempts to explore parallels (or links) between past and present black postmodern choreographers and questions around the notion of black dance. The line-up for From the Streets, From the Clubs, From the Houses (February 23-25, 2012) featured choreographers Darell Jones, Niall Noel Jones, Nicholas Leichter and Regina Rocke whose experimental works are informed by hip-hop, voguing, house, and free style. However, the show began with an excerpt from dance scholar and choreographer Sally Sommer’s much-anticipated film Check Your Body at the Door (Michael Schwartz, Director), which is an exceptional document of interviews and dance footage from the underground voguing and house dance movements of the 1980s and 90s; and it served as a brilliant opener for the program.
First on the program, Regina Rocke’s Boy Troubles intertwines fragmented, self-reflexive dance sequencing with hints of sexual ambiguity and feminism. First, though, she enters the stage space, walking hard on her heels and posing with “mucho attitude,” and then integrates modern dance and voguing in a way that seems to say “yes I am a contemporary black woman and I can be this and I can be that.” This is then conveyed through a mini-suite of solos and a smoldering duet with Niall Jones set to popular music by Rufus Wainwright, Antony and the Johnsons, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. The interfacing of sensuality, pedestrian routine, and gendered humor was intelligent and relatable.
Next Nicholas Leicther offered Twenty Twenty (excerpts from a work in progress), which was also a suite of solos and duets between himself and Bryan Strimpel. A little older than Rocke, Leichter’s strengths are in his new-millennium high-energy blend of street, West African, contact improvisation, classical, and theatrical modern dance. Created around the music of James Blake, Ken Lupper, Terius Nash, Lil Louis and the World, the Dream, this preview of “Twenty Twenty,” like many of Leichter’s dances, reads like a club-dance party where b-boy and queer identities merge in innovative partnering and extraordinarily fine musical phrasing. For some, Leichter’s all-out dance style may not be enough, intellectually. But for people like me it is precisely the almost-spiritual quality of his dances that powerfully engages my mind and body on deep levels. And, while, with his idiosyncratic facial expressions and almost exhibitionist performance style, it is expected that Leichter performs his own work fabulously, Bryan Strimpel who is white, was absolutely incredible in the smoky funkiness of his dancing. I say this also because I have long admired that Leichter, who is the product of an interracial marriage, consciously (according to interviews I have had with him) finds ways to reflect this identity in his choice and use of dancers.
In Niall Noel Jones’s forget it, Courtney Cooke, Leslie Cuyet and Jones himself are described in the program as “daughters,” apparently an homage to his mother, Niall Phoenix Jones, which I surmise from a rather unclear program note. Apart from that, though, Jones is adept in his open-ended approach, which deconstructs conventional associations of meaning, symmetry, musicality, space, and perspective. Here the dancers’ movements teeter playfully between form and formless abandon, as they react to the odd sounds, writhe and moan on the floor, scream and shake each other madly and shine spotlights in each other’s (and the audience’s) eyes. What it all meant was clearly open to interpretation, but that is what made it interesting.
Hoo-Ha (twister pump breakdown), performed by Darell Jones (the choreographer), Damon Green, and J’Sun Howard, invokes the black and Latino drag houses of the 1990s made famous in the film Paris Is Burning(directed by Jennie Livingston) where the contestants vie for trophies based on their “drag fabulous” fashions and innovative “walking” routines (voguing) and where rhythm, visual virtuosity, and above all, originality are the point. Except for what I thought was a missed opportunity to effectively use the long pony tails attached to their stocking cap hoods at the beginning of the piece, the dance was very successful at transforming this aesthetic to a theatrical dance setting. The flamboyant throwing of flower petals all over the floor, the performance of mock fights and camaraderie (typical of vogue houses), and queer identity performance all beautifully integrated into a well-constructed dance, also exposing conceptual as well as practical lines between the celebratory, the subversive, and the artistic, to great effect.
As I have written in an earlier blog, the question of what black choreographers do and do not do in terms of blackness, black dance, and postmodernism is, in my view, important, not for claiming a reductive black representation. It is important precisely because the question itself reflects the polyvalent and, therefore, irreducible black experience. In this sense, the black popular cultural infusions are clearly crucial to understanding what individual choices by black postmodern dance choreographers say (or not) about representations of blackness, gender and sexuality.