Speak to Me!

Dancing and Drumming and Talking: Which Came First?

Text has haunted postmodern dance—in ways both provocative and deadly—for long enough to foment satire. Dean Moss, who curated two February "Talking Dance" weekends at the Kitchen, clearly knows this. He invited Lucy Sexton—alone and with her Dancenoise partner, Annie Iobst—to host. Smart as foxes, extravagantly nutty, they paraded an array of outfits that included frying pans taped on as bras and towel turbans topped by dildos. Miguel Gutierrez and collaborator Sarah Michelson wittily tackled clichés as well as heirlooms of the dance-language phenomenon, affectionately spoofing Trisha Brown's Accumulation with Talking plus Water Motor, offering lofty theory and outrageous examples of the genre. Michelson's own I'm in Fawn played loony word-movement games that evoked postmodernism in deshabille.

Since the '60s, one provocative strategy has been to comment on the making of the dance being performed, as Valda Setterfield did in a fastidious re-enactment of passages from two '70s works by her husband, David Gordon; one incorporated a tape of their rehearsal bickering, and the other played on unexpectedly literal word-gesture correlations, such as four fingers held up for "for." Foofwa d'Imobilité alternated brilliant dancing with crawling around bemoaning the derivativeness of his choreography and the dated sensationalism of his outfit (mostly a glittering snake of fabric looping from one ankle up between his legs and onto his arm).

Some choreographers use words to identify their demons. Blondell Cummings moved powerfully while taped voices spoke of the complexities of aging. Cynthia Oliver stormed through an excerpt from her SHEMAD, expressing an explosive, borderline-crazy, Virgin Island soul and the things that drive Oliver's 2001 self insane. Jamie Sneider, as a feather-decked burlesque queen, bitched wittily about her career through costume changes and butt-shaking displays, before donning a less revealing outfit to expose her dancing self.

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Sometimes talking and dancing connected very obliquely. You could believe Michael Lomeka, performing Yvonne Rainer's Talking Solo, to be the butterfly in the Nabokov essay he was reciting, or simply enjoy the fugitive correspondences between the struggle from the cocoon and his precise athletic tasks. In Douglas Dunn's Aerobia, performed by Dunn and Grazia Della-Terza, the two spoke words by Jim Neu that occasionally alighted on their shoulders like birds: "I'm aiming my ambition at something I can hit" or "The body you forget may be your own."

Katie Duck, a stunningly articulate dancer and improviser, came right at us with talk about love that ran deep, and some of the people to whom Ann Carlson addressed her "Dear so-and-so" messages were in the audience. The dog in her striking 1988 The Dog Within the Man Inside also kept trying to talk to us. "Woof!" How should we take that?


Abdel R. Salaam opened the 651 Arts series "Black Dance: Tradition and Transformation" with an homage to some charismatic black dancer-choreographers. We saw them on-screen (oh, that Dyane Harvey!), then alive onstage, where some, like Eleo Pomare, performed a single arresting gesture; others, like Dianne McIntyre, cut elegantly loose. We also got a tantalizing preview of footage from the upcoming PBS documentary Free to Dance.

Salaam and his company, Forces of Nature, saluted a cornerstone of black dance—of all dance—in Rhythm Legacy: The Living Books. This ambitious, sprawling, bighearted piece set to live music designed by Salaam and Michael Wimberly began in a primal age when breath and heartbeat birthed rhythmic awareness, where the accidental smack of hand against belly led to drum-making, and where people copied the movements of birds, snakes, monkeys.

To track the diaspora in 18 brief episodes, Salaam sped us back and forth from a vision of Egun to a Southern U.S. ring shout to a Yoruba possession ritual to a satirical cakewalk to a vodun rite to three break-dancers spinning on their heads. In "Book III—Gray Flannel Matter," griot Jasiri Kafele acquired a laptop and told us that in the world of Microsoft and Burger King, the heartbeat no longer sets rhythms. It took a fantastic beggar-shaman (David Pleasant) with harmonica, tambourine, and a cymbal strapped to his thigh to get a crowd of straphangers rocking back to their rhythmic roots. In the finale, "Club Legacy," Afro pop and amazing breakers faded into tribal drums, vital African-based dancing, and a reprise of earlier motifs.

A voice in my head kept saying, "Cut this, tighten here, reorder these sequences, direct that moment more pointedly." Yet even in its somewhat raw debut state, Salaam's huge undertaking burst with beauty, imagination, and powerful dancing.

 
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