Benedict Nguyen on Johnnie Cruise Mercer/TheRedProjectNYC
April 8, 2019
By Benedict Nguyen
Johnnie Cruise Mercer/TheRedProjectNYC
Process memoir 4: The word, the spirit, and Little Rock.
February 28 – March 2, 2019
I almost miss a beginning to Johnnie Cruise Mercer/TheRedProjectNYC’s Process memoir 4: The word, the spirit, and Little Rock (PM4) scurrying behind us. Just as Angie Pittman’s “Came Up in a Lonely Castle” ends, a garment rack of fabrics—different shades of blacks, navys, and a shiny bright red—is tussled through by the hands of Shanice Mason. Thomas Tyger Moore, Adrianne Ansley, and Mercer enter the audience’s direct sightlines with sheets of cloth draped over their arms, deliberate in their pathways near the space’s perimeter before entering what could be called the main stage. This stage is also the nave of St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, New York.
“But there’s a place, a secret place where I can go.”
As used in PM4, Karen Clark Sheard’s modern classic gospel track underscores a very public ode to a secret. For all the transparency JCM offers in his work (more below), the song’s interpolations with what’s happening—its clear parallels and illegibilities—are delightful. Impetuses for shifts in energy and configuration aren’t always discernible. Impossible to ignore is this work’s place within the company’s six-year process of building eight dance works. These process memoirs culminate in two epic docu-theses set to premiere post-election 2020.
The trance-like state blurs any precise moment where Ansley, Mason, and Mercer band together, orbiting each other as they orbit the stage. Their lips sing along to “A Secret Place,” softly, or maybe the volume of the track is that loud. Moore continues arranging fabrics around the space before standing sentry in the raised seats at the perimeter of the space. Mikaila Ware enters from behind us, looking on as Ansley and Mason begin a duet that drifts away from Mercer, who cheers them on. Ware’s expression ranges from wistful to disdainful to bored as Monstah Black’s sound re-innovation introduces syncopated repetitions of the song’s refrain.
A spotlight close to the audience is the first indication. A bundle of red fabric laid in this halo forms a stage onstage. Ware approaches the altar and slams a copy of Genesis in its center, the sound muffled by the nest of red waiting for it.
Ansley and Mason find each other in another duet that feels more direct in its tender fluidity, or more confrontational in its knowing accumulation of passion as they push against each other’s hips and chests.
As the work progresses, the performers continue playing with polyrhythms through the repetition of certain phrases and atmospheric score that bridges us between tracks, all shifting the space’s textures. At times, when they come together and pull away, they generate clouds thick with energy that rise above the non-static threads of Black’s warped bops. At other moments, the music itself becomes the strata, a distant cloak bounded by the high ceiling of St. Mark’s Church.
In two such sequences, Ware walks from the audience up to the altar, the other performers crowding for space behind her. The sound’s staticky oceanic noise supersedes the calm procession. The performers sans-Ware reclaim the sonic score with overlapping monologues that deliberately resist the desire to solidify something literal. In a forced calm, Mason, covered in fabric as “The White Figure” (recalling PM1: “plunge in/to 534”) assures the microphone that everything is going fine. Ansley shouts the duration of quantum leaps, as measured in seconds. Mercer procures a trumpet and jumps in place with buoyant urgency. But when he runs across the nave and blares into the instrument, the sound isn’t even audible against the burst of thumping beats that take over.
Ware begins vocalizing. At first quiet and indiscriminate, noises and syllables finally becomes recognizable as words. Her movement channels the energy that everyone has helped stimulate around her towards someplace new. It’s an opening, the birth staged minutes before by her head shrouded in red fabric, nestled in Ansley’s lap.
An opening that, with the stiff uncertainty of the attentive audience, still feels uneasy.
“Let me be your fantasy”
“Touch me in the darkest place”
“Paint the city pink”
According to one artist, the Thursday opening night audience felt as attentive as the Friday show I see but occupied a raucous enthusiasm in response to these moments—the music shifting from trap snares to ’80s synths within minutes. When the dancers dive into a step dance sequence, the Friday crowd is placid. When some of the restraint in their movements eased, deepening the verve in their hips, the audience stays quiet. I catch eyes with some folks who want to tear through and shout affirmations into the sanctuary, but the cloud above keeps most vocal cords taut.
“I’m at an absolute loss”
Mercer delivers an ode, a direct expression of gratitude to the Black women who have supported him. Its vulnerability catches me off guard and as I’m still processing how this offering was performed, the work keeps moving.
“For every mountain
You brought me over”
The worship cycles up to come down, this time to “For Every Mountain” by Kurt Carr and the Kurt Carr Singers. Following Mason’s lead, the performers aim their sternums to the sky above in a phrase that lopes in soft ovals all over. They re-assemble, in the same fourth position lunge we’ve seen, hands hung at hip level on straight diagonals. Ware, once again on the perimeter, looks on, eyes uncertain, maybe even unwilling.
When they exit, and Carol Mullins’ lighting design raises, slowly bringing in yellows after waves of whites, blues, and reds, the audience is still, still. I look around again to see how others are processing this end. Eyes are glazed, not blank but seemingly turned inward, contemplative. Someone starts the applause.
There’s a lot I don’t address —gender dynamics and minstrelsy were just some of the topics that came up in Thursday’s post-show chat. To write about them here would simplify how the performers’ moved through and beyond these topics in live performance. I’m still feeling the shifts of PM4 in my body: held breaths, tension molded and suspended among us and above us within the gut of my sitting body. A tension not of strain but attunement, of rigorous channeling into that nebulous something.
In a time where Black dancers also share their work through Vine/Instagram, which gets stolen and sanitized by corporations like Fortnite, Mercer both complements the curves and surpasses the flows of distribution while centering PM4 in live performance. The complex structure and thematics that shaped each evening’s performance is available for perusal via a QR code in the program that leads to a Google doc, which contains notes—some complete sentences but incomplete (of course) context for how and why this work came to be. The ‘Manual SCHEMATIC’ honors its influences, anticipates questions, and resists full comprehension. The conceit is too big, too layered to code into a video game, even if Mercer spelled it all out.
Johnnie Cruise Mercer/Angie Pittman: A Shared Evening of New Work was presented by Danspace Project February 28-March 2, 2019.