Walking and Talking

d. Sabela grimes in ELECTROGYNOUS. Photo by Gema Galiana

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May 22, 2019

The 8th annual Walking Distance Dance Festival recently wrapped up at ODC. Opening with the frame-and-thought-oriented “listening creates an opening” by Mary Armentrout Dance Theater and ending with the cornucopic Afro-Futurism of d. Sabela Grimes’s “ELECTROGYNOUS,” the festival could be said to cover a spectrum from the mental/intrinsic to the physical/explicit. For the sake of argument, I’ll offer up those binaries. Right away I’ll bump up against the problem with that sort of language.

Armentrout’s piece, though lean on on bodies moving in patterned ways you might call dance, has maximalist qualities. “listening creates an opening” is an invitation to a walking contemplation of contemplation via a black dress, Emily Dickinson, singing by Darcy Dunn and Allison Easter, Issei Herr‘s cello playing, time lapse video by Ian Winters, and sound design by Evelyn Ficarra. Winters’s projections filled walls, the singers’ voices were big, and Armentrout repeatedly invited us to contemplate the world happening outside the performance space. We were led to a park and a former blacksmith shop, and more than once asked to lie down (the audience was agreeable, except for those I heard say “You lie down! I paid,” and simply, “No.”) I have to say here that Armentrout is a friend, and I have participated in the Milkbar, the series she runs with Winters and composer Merlin Coleman. When I later spoke with her, Armentrout shared that she had received feedback that her invitation to listen and contemplate was contradicted by the many words she spoke. She did have a lot to say, and took what I consider to be the fairly sizable risk of talking about the reclusive bard of Amherst, Massachussetts, as well has arranging the poet’s lines for the singers. Armentrout considered Dickinson as an example of a creator disconnected from the socio-political realm they find themselves in, raising chewy questions about the artist’s role in the world. She didn’t offer any answers, and if she had I doubt she would have satisfied one child I overheard saying “I can’t take it anymore!” But “listening creates an opening” did open up a discussion I find equal parts irritating and compelling. I’ll almost refrain from declaring that anything we do that brings people together for something other than destroying lives for profit or fomenting ignorance and violence should be listed on the political plus side. I think that a dancer or a philosopher (which Armentrout is, though she would likely shrug off that label) shouldn’t let concerns about their relevance to the zeitgeist get in the way of making and exploring. Not everything has to shed light on current affairs, or even attempt timeless beauty. For me, Ficarra’s sound design and the singing were high points of the piece, as was catching a glimpse of the moon while lying on the grass. About the child who couldn’t take it anymore I’ll say that boring the young is among the experimentalist’s time-honored traditions. And while my own philosophy of making can be boiled down to “do something,” after watching the piece I felt more open to opening it up.

Ausia Jones in Monger.
Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

The impatient child might have been happier watching Barak Marshall‘s piece “Monger” and happiest of all enjoying “Canine Comfort” by Kimi Okada. I say that not as a value judgment about adult versus kid fare, but to note that both pieces offered hearty doses of joyous physicality and humor. “Monger” has a fairly straightforward storyline about people stepping up to resist oppression of all sorts. Servers rise up against the served, women get aggressive with men, and there is a satisfying grasp at autonomy. The soundtrack, which includes excepts from the Yiddish Radio Project, creates the atmosphere of a vibrant marketplace in say, Tel Aviv, where Marshall spends his time when he is not at USC’s Gloria Kaufman’s School of Dance.

ODC Dance in Canine Comfort.
Photo by Yvonne M. Portra

“Canine Comfort” took place in the park across from ODC, on the same grassy mound where I had seen the moon in the blue sky. It was raining on Saturday afternoon, but there were plenty of people and dogs appreciating the human/canine duets and interweavings. Okada created the piece to celebrate the companionship that dogs offer, in particular that her dog Howard provided after the death of her partner Leif Erickson. “Canine Comfort” is clever but not cutesy, and a delight to watch. The music by Uakti and Barbatuques was striking and I think included barking, though that could have been one of the members of the audience who seemed to want to get in on the action.

Kinetech Arts‘ “Resonant Frequencies” made good use of an in the round set up, seating the audience under a stretched canopy reminiscent of the fascia that connects our organs and muscles. As the audience filed in, one of the dancers offered a small flat box, attached by wires to another dancer who sat in a chair. “Want to hold Hannah’s heart?” he asked. I did, and it was alarming to feel the live signal of a heart beat in my hand. The heart theme was repeated throughout — an EKG line flashed on the floor, and lights winked on and off in rhythms. Founded by Weidong Yang and Daiane Lopes da Silva, Kinetech connects the movement of bodies to the movement of signals through wires and wirelessness. I would place “Resonant Frequencies” toward the explicit and physical end of the questionable binary with which I started this piece. There is much happening movement and image-wise and a great sense of play, but I wouldn’t call it thought provoking.

For me, the most enjoyable piece to watch was d. Sabela Grimes’s “ELECTROGYNOUS,” an Afro-Futurist mish-mash with gorgeous rigorous movement, splashy video and costumes, and thought-provoking commentary. Oh yeah and even a quick construction of a pyramid. “You can’t tell by looking at the wire what the energy is that runs through it” (I paraphrase here) was one of the lines repeated on the soundtrack. I wish I knew the source of that quote, which sums up so beautifully the life force that has kept a people moving through a history of extraordinary oppression and violence. Grimes spelled it out for us at the end, “this is about Black joy.” In one section, the small word “this” took on a great deal of weight as Grimes and dancer Austyn Rich copped poses that express assumptions about blackness, wire forms that can’t possibility contain the entirety of the cosmic life force. Yes, I said it, cosmic life force. Grimes and dancers repeatedly broke the forth wall, sometimes by sheer depth of a piercing facial expression, sometimes by direct verbal confrontation. “Yeah you thought I was going to say the n-word,” he said, and then shifted the pronunciation to take it inward. If they’ll have me, I hope that Grimes and company will take me on the ship headed for that new planet of purple, brown, black, and green. Especially if we’re listening to Funkadelic and Sun Ra and reading Octavia Butler on the way.

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