I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last few weeks embedded in Danspace Project‘s latest Platform project, Lost And Found – a four week program of dance work, works in progress, conversation and forums, co-curated by the exceptional Ishmael Houston-Jones & Will Rawls. Inspired by a trilogy of the same name by choreographer John Bernd, Lost And Found is an attempt to capture and impart the legacy of Bernd and countless other talents lost to the AIDS epidemic.
Being a small part of such a noble and mammoth undertaking has been such an honour – and as a queer man in 2016, to be able to so directly connect to a historical context of loss and care with the very people who were at the centre of a crisis that has taken the lives of around 700,000 people in the US alone, has been…devastating. And beautiful. And…there’s not many words to adequately capture a project that connects you to the visceral grief of a community bereft, of people who’ve lost all their friends, even as it strives to cherish those friends’ legacies and gift their artistry onwards.
But despite there being not many words that can do that, I’ve somehow threaded a lot of them together; thinking and writing in regards to how we communicate and learn intergenerationally with those who have been taken from us. I’m reflecting primarily on the Lost And Found mainstage work Variations on Themes From Lost And Found: Scenes From A Life and Other Works and the short commissioned performances by Mariana Valencia and Raja Feather Kelly as part of the Life Drawings program, presented during Conversation Without Walls.
ACTS OF TRANSMISSION: INTERGENERATIONAL LEARNING, AIDS, ABSENCE IN DANSPACE PROJECT’S ‘LOST AND FOUND’
The act of creation is more like a process of translation. Artists are not hermetic beings; we exist as part of our context, and our cultural production takes the world around us – what we know of it, what we perceive, what we feel – and translates it into creative output. Those with the clearest eyes and hearts, who see, perceive, and feel the most – these profound makers start a ripple that continues after them. It flows into the eyes and minds of makers that come after; of students; of their communities. Sometimes hard to find but more often hard to miss, the dead are in the room with us. If we turn our gaze side on, shine a light just so, hold our breath, we catch sight of the edges of a trace – the air vibrating just so as the ripple passes through. The dead are always in the room.
Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost And Found is an act of imagination; an attempt to turn the gaze side on. Across four weeks in October and November 2016, a program of finished work, conversations, works in progress, and community events strove to capture the legacy of what might have been – the creative output of a generation of queer and African American artists lost to the first waves of the AIDS crisis. In his curatorial essay in the Lost And Found catalogue, co-curator Ishmael Houston-Jones describes a community decimated as an unknown disease claimed artist after artist – and left survivors terrified of their own chances of survival; confused about how to maintain their own health; and awash with grief. Ultimately baffled at how and why their friends and lovers could be gone. Baffled by how to continue.
“Surviving love and death. Clearly, in the end, no one survives either of these.”
Before even our introduction to the performers, in white underwear and stock still as the sounds of SOS Band’s Just Be Good To Me echoes through St Mark’s Church, Variations on Themes From Lost And Found: Scenes From A Life, And Other Works begins with an empty red chair. Few stronger symbols for absence than an empty chair, it sits alone as the audience enter the space, spotlit for the first time in nearly thirty years. This very chair appeared in all John Bernd’s works; all seven that this performance is inspired by – borrowing gestures, images, aesthetics and ideas to craft a new work in homage to the legendary choreographer lost to the AIDS crisis in 1988.
Co-creators Houston-Jones and Miguel Gutteriez – the former a close friend and collaborator of Bernd’s, the latter new to his work – have crafted a new piece with an ensemble of young performers, composer Nick Hallett, and lighting designer Carol Mullins (who also worked with Bernd in the eighties – in this very space, St Mark’s Church) that glides fluidly between homage, memorial, and pastiche. Its returning ideas of healing, communitas, support and joy feel solidly contemporary – unweathered by time and far from the museum piece the work, in lesser hands, could have become. There is a dialogue that reaches back across time but here makes an offer to the future.
In the foreword to the Lost And Found catalogue, Danspace Artistic Director Judy Hussie-Taylor speaks about the design of the Platform series; embedded with intergenerationality, the exchange a core value – a source of productive friction. These ideas of how knowledge transmits, ricocheting back and forth to grow, expand, evolve – they seem an intrinsic necessity in the Platform structure and ethos, but also in how the arts can understand the past to reimagine the future.
Here we are in 2016, not even one generation in the wake of the epidemic that has killed around 700,000 in the United State alone. How then, do we – artists, a queer family, a culturally diverse community, disproportionately struck and grieving for so many lost – do we achieve a meaningful intergenerational exchange? When so many of the leading minds and bodies are gone, who do those that come after turn to for mentorship? So much knowledge and art lost; how do we commune with the dead – how do we exchange with an absence?
The little red chair is soon joined by another. The first variation of Variations; near-identical but for its more regular size – like a physical echo of the past in the space. This is a key theme of the work; early on, four performers circle in a wide arc, pause, mime a slap across the face. At separate points in the room, they’re like the one person in parallel times. Some freeze; for others the slap flows on to other gestures. There is connection here, but tenuous and far-flung; an irresolved shared solitude. Two performers dress on opposite sides, simultaneously. Images and movements repeat through the work, but not striving for simultaneity, instead allowing space in the difference of bodies, in the split seconds of time that disrupt concurrence. If John was the central point of all his works (as Houston-Jones tell us as he introduces the piece), at the centre here is a strange absence – resonating through the multiplicity of all the performers, none occupying a central place, none fully allowed to own even a single gesture. They appear, they grow, they ripple on and out.
We see this multiplicity in different ways. A slapstick sequence of Wild West golden era musical choreography, is like a film scene after all the cells have been thrown up and scattered; all fast paced fragments of saloon jigs and sheriff shootouts, at times a solo linedance wades out of the hubbub, but only for a moment before three cowboys on the one horse’s back burst through. Its playful, but intentionally unresolved; everything here zigs, zags, returns in circle, and refuses to behave or fit together.
In this, the work sometimes risks insubstantiality; a collection of gestures, jigsaw pieces with edges that don’t quite lock together. The images they show is built of different scenes – ultimately and heartbreakingly illuminated a sense of loss more than any cohesive story. Bodies trace out gestures that echo but fall away before threading together; its like a choreographic version of tracing a pencil over a drawing – by its nature, what you create is new but old; incomplete but pointing to something completely – highlighting what’s gone by being there. Sometimes these feel like triggers for memories I don’t have – for weight I can’t feel – for a loss I don’t carry.
“There are version of songs – covers of songs – versions of covers of songs that you never got to hear. There are versions of covers of songs that I never got to hear.”
In another room, on another day, Mariana Valencia paces back and forth. She carves a circle in the room with her body, marking it out with her body. Bright afternoon light streams through the large windows behind her in the Parish Hall of St Mark’s Church, where a small group has gathered to talk and share for the first of Danspace’s Conversations Without Walls program for Lost And Found. In attempt to address the question of how we approach intergenerationality after loss, Mariana is one of four artists, one of two performing today, commissioned to create a Life Drawing – a performative response to an artist lost to the AIDS crisis.
Her arms and legs, with a slow but decisive pace, strike geometrics – ritual dance moves of Belize that map the central space of the room. She speaks with casual but careful deliberateness to Assotto Saint, the Haitian-born queer poet, performer, and activist.
Together, we sing him Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly’ in the style of the Fugees – a cover he never got to hear of an original he lived through the time of – a cover deeply meaningful to a young Valencia. We clumsily but earnestly mimic Lauryn Hill’s gentle wail. Fingers snap. Someone interjects with Wyclef Jean’s “one time”, and we laugh. Voices rise across the room to gift those lyrics to a man whose passing was not soft. Mariana leads and weaves the sound into her invisible conjured circle, pushing through the veil to give Assotto Saint the gift of a version of a cover of a song, that he never got to hear. Too many years too late we try to sing him across the worlds.
Just a small gesture, a small gift to an artist. But that’s the nature of exchange. It flows in stops and starts. That, too, is the nature of loss. We discover more and more incrementally.
“I’m full after meeting you,
After meeting you, my ghost in the room.”
In a work found on absence, sometimes the remarkable presence in Variations is felt so strongly – it’s both John’s, and these performers, and it’s strongest when their communitas and exchange illuminate the work. In a collective effort to make a health-smoothie filled with leafy greens and medication (even in 1982, John Bernd was making work about being gay and about living with AIDS – at a time when no one else made this type of work, at a time when it didn’t even have that name), their hands touch and their voices rise over the roar of the blender –
“WHAT TO DO WHAT TO DO WHAT TO DO
AND I DO NOT WANT TO DIE UNTIL I HAVE BEEN OF SERVICE TO MY GIFTS
IT IS MY DESTINY TO LOVE
AND BE LOVED.”
My breath is suddenly jagged.
Interwoven are more joyful scenes – strongest in a sequence to New Order’s ‘Age of Consent’ which feels like an improvised marathon of offers and invitations. Performers share movements, sequences; mixing and grab-bagging at will from a vocabulary of leaping, running, sliding, rolling. Small ensembles form and split as performers peel from pairs and trios to reach out and join new partners. New ensembles form. Solos emerge. Movement is passed back and forth as easily as smiles, shed as easily as sweat.
While ‘New Order’ lasts, there’s joy here; but it can’t last forever. The track fades out; the movement becomes apoplectic, frenetic. It carries on in silence; out of context, lost, struggling.
His face painted white, Raja Feather Kelly sings us ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and immediately dismisses it – the anthem that was chosen for America. No; he tells us; this is the anthem he would have chosen.
Gotta move, gotta get out
Gotta leave this place, gotta find some place
Some other place, some brand new place
Some place where each face that I see
Won’t be staring back at me
Telling me what to be and how to be it
The second of the day’s Life Drawing Series sees Raja Feather Kelly channelling Ethyl Eichelberger by way of Barbra Streisand’s ‘Gotta Move’ – all urgent directives, sharp staccato, and pangs of the urge to reinvent, take charge. To move. A sharp pang of the type that maybe led Eichelberger to take his own life in 1990; under the heavy blanket of AIDS’ terror, sickness, and paranoia, for some this might have felt the only way to take charge.
An artist who reinvented characters and classics of the American and Western canons, Raja here calls Ethyl into the room to reinvent the tone of the day. Fierce, determined, joy stands strong here; despite the context, despite the loss of community the day brings to the fore. Confetti pouring down on us from a party-store twist canon as Raja hits the final notes of ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, we stand and cheer in Parish Hall, a tiny makeshift community in that dwindling afternoon light. And at Raja’s prompt we hold our cheers, and in silence, hold the space for the community of dead around us.
But how do we do it? How do we actively build and craft community when even decades later we’re still in pieces, made up of overwhelming absence, trauma and fear struck deep into us?
As Variations’ ensemble of young performers circle the central hollow left by the absent choreographer, reaching into and sharing his legacy with each other and with us, there are small glimpses of the tender revolutions that give us the strength and knowledge to carry on. Scenes of care and healing permeate the work as it goes on; in the small community the group forms, in pairs within it, in simple moments of self-care. A man carefully washes a woman’s back (as Bernd once did years before) – a man is carried carefully across the stage by two others – a woman is given her own portable platform, dragged by a man through the space. A single word is written in thick pen and shredded into a smoothie, an attempt to convince the body to rid itself of illness; self-love and desperation etched in the lines of that single word SCRAM.
How do we do it? All I keep thinking back to is that opening image of Variations; men, women, standing stripped to their underwear before our eyes. Meeting our gaze. Over the speakers, resonating through the air – it’s not much but it could be enough –
I’ll take my chance with you
And you, I won’t try to change
When you need me, I’ll be around
I’ll be good to you, you’ll be good to me.
Together, the living listening carefully for the dead, breath held, eyes wide for the slightest sign.