Song as Catharsis
November 8, 2016
by Alex Fialho
For the concluding number of Darrell Jones’ moving performance for the Platform 2016: Lost and Found event on October 15th, Conversation Without Walls, Roberta Flack’s sensational voice rose over the audience in her supple tone singing “Do What You Gotta Do.” With the cue of Flack’s audio, Jones’ movement shifted, from the vogue femme floorwork from earlier in his performance to elongated, exquisite movement that rhymed with the emotive quality of Flack’s vocals. Flack’s lyrics resonated deeply with a sense of longing for those lost that had been a theme throughout the day.
My wild sweet love
Though it may mean I’ll never kiss those sweet lips again
Pay that no mind
Just find that dappled dream of yours
Come on back and see me
Come on back and see me when you can
As Flack’s song ended, Jones gestured for each of us to place our bodies and hands on the floor as his dance slowed to a halt, unleashing an emotional crescendo that washed over the audience, tears bursting from the eyes, and hearts, of multiple viewers. What felt like many minutes passed as the room sat, floorbound, in near silence, the only sound being overwhelmed sobbing, guttural and free flowing, in response to the dance and music to which we had just borne witness. Throughout Lost and Found, I’ve been particularly touched by this sense of communal catharsis that has resulted from movement paired with moving songs and the outpourings they inspire.
A similar torrent was reached in Love Song, choreographed and performed by Brian Francis Taylor (1957–1992) in Carl George’s stirring 6 Feet: Dancers That I Know and Love. A digital version of George’s 16mm film was screened on October 18th as part of a presentation for Jack Waters and Peter Cramer’s Zine Project; itself an engaging publication context highlighting wide-ranging responses to HIV/AIDS in the age of “gender queer post corporate pharma experiences.” George’s film in three parts featured short solo dance sequences by Taylor, Waters and Cramer. Taylor’s affecting dance, set on a basketball court across from the decades-long Lower East Side apartment residence of George, Cramer and Waters, was accompanied by Nina Hagen’s rousing “Natureträne.” The operatic German song evoked the arias of East Village denizen Klaus Nomi (1944–1983) and empowered Taylor’s dance with an out-of-breath bravado that left me similarly speechless. As Hagen’s voice reached incredible heights, Taylor’s lithe movements raised to a fever pitch before he collapsed onto the ground in apparent ecstasy, only to rise and walk somberly “offstage.” Learning that George’s film was created just months before Taylor’s passing from AIDS-related complications infuses the dynamism of the dance and song with a heartwrenching resonance.
A more upbeat yet no less moving pair of songs united audiences in remembrance around those no longer with us. In her tribute performance to Assotto Saint on October 15, Mariana Valencia provided a layered reading of history and popular culture by noting that Saint, who passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1994, would never have heard the Fugees 1996 cover of Roberta Flack’s classic “Killing Me Softly.” A touchstone track for Valencia, Saint would only have heard Flack’s original version. Valencia concluded her performance by singing high notes of the song acapella as if she were the most high Mz Lauryn Hill herself, and then seamlessly inspired the audience to join her in a chorus of the jam (impressively, everyone in attendance appeared to know all of the words). Raising our voices in unison brought the audience together powerfully around the energy of Saint’s presence that Valencia’s performance evoked; though he may have never heard the Fugees’ cover in his lifetime, I felt heartened that somewhere, Saint was listening to our communal choir.
In a similar vein, Julie Tolentino’s October 6 performance Tracing A.L. for her friend Anthony Ledesma, also lost to AIDS-related complications, included an excerpt of Soul II Soul’s 1989 chart-topper “Back To Life.” The song and its lines “back to life, back to reality” provided a spirited, uplifting energy to Tolentino’s touching tribute to the lost Ledesma. Walking out of the event long after Tolentino’s presentation, artist Kia Labeija hummed the tune to “Back to Life,” which inspired a group of us to sing the catchy chorus as we exited the theater. The vibrant song was indeed stuck in our heads, while Ledesma’s legacy remained present in our hearts and minds. Music may not be able to bring those lost back to life, but song remains with us closely, rousing memories and keeping legacies ever present and lively.
* I dedicate this and all of my responses as writer-in-residence for Danspace’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found to the late Buzz Bense, who passed away on November 19, 2016; coincidentally, the final day of Platform 2016: Lost and Found. Buzz was an ardent activist, seasoned performer and sex-positive force in San Francisco throughout the ongoing AIDS crisis. He has been the single most influential gay mentor in my life, and working closely with Buzz to co-curate the exhibition “SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters” with Dorian Katz at the Center for Sex & Culture in 2013 was where I found my voice in relationship to writing about HIV/AIDS. If it weren’t for Buzz, I don’t think that any of my Danspace responses as writer-in-residence, or my work at Visual AIDS for that matter, would have happened. I am deeply grateful for his presence and impact on my life, and I miss him dearly already. [Alex Fialho]
As part of our online Journal, Danspace Project has invited artists, curators, scholars, historians and others in our community to contribute entries as Writers in Residence and guest Respondents. Each contributor has been offered an open invitation to respond to work presented by Danspace Project; writings gathered here do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Danspace Project, its artists, staff, or Board of Directors.