Audio/Book

Dance              Hip-Hop

The rift      Stuart Hall

Poetry              Literature is Visceral

 

cut.

Re-focus: the readjustment which follows disorientation and confusion—an attempt to reestablish the parameters either to a former or new state of order.

cut.

Mend: a wound, a rift, a relationship between two severed pieces of a whole.

cut.

Rewind: restore to a former state.

Break.

It has been some time since I’ve written a research post, but I think I am realizing why. I keep getting

interrupted.

The first idea I had to write was a reaction to Abraham in Motion’s Dearest Home, a piece choreographed by Kyle Abraham. That was in June.

After that, I was invigorated by some lectures on hip-hop that I received, including one from UVa’s new hip-hop professor, A.D. Carson.

Then there was the guest lecture by Dr. Cornel West,

the seemingly endless applications to graduate programs,

and then, of course, my latest readings for my thesis: In the Break by Fred Moten, Scenes of Subjection by Saidiya Hartman, and Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.

cornel_west_header_3-2
Cornel West, PC: UVA Today, Matt Kelly

I just haven’t been able to catch a

break.

But I’ve recently come full circle, back to the dance, or more precisely, what I saw in the dance that stuck with me for months:

Abraham’s Dearest Home is an exploration in loving, longing, and loss. The intercultural duets and “episodes,” if you will, draw the viewer to witness the vulnerability of love and loss. Whether it is the lighting that projects a spectre of a loved one recently deceased or the rupture from the embrace of a companion, the audience undergoes repeated experiences of separation.

At least I think that was going on—I don’t really know.

It’s something I’m learning to deal with, not knowing

feeling, like I should know

based on the two or three books I’ve read about dance         or black culture           or

break

The audience is invited to observe HOME with or without an accompanying score. The dancers have never heard the music, so I chose to watch the piece without the aural partner as well. And one moment stuck with me, particularly:

DearestHome_AIM_CarrieSchneider_6166
Jeremy Jae Neal and Vinson Fraley Jr. photo by Carrie Schneider

Lights dimmed warm coffee skin over
tight deltoids. Muted expectation tugs at the hem
of grey Calvin Kleins until they lie limp
on the ground. The body is beautiful
in communion with the shadows hanging
like drapes waiting to be revealed to the sun.

And he danced, a powerful manifesto interrupted by intermittent retching in his moment of vulnerability. What was it about the solitude of the shadows that revealed the rift in his movement?

Black cultural scholar, Stuart Hall, writes in his chapter on cultural identity and diaspora that the rupture of the diaspora, including the middle passage, is a defining characteristic that arrives in black culture. That is rupture is inscribed within black bodies, recognized in their performance.

Fred Moten explores in depth the concept of “the cut” in images, referring to the aurality of blackness in the photograph that captures Emmett Till’s funeral. The cut, the break, interrupts—it disturbs—it disorients—it defies—

ap_emmett_till_funeral_jc_150828_16x9_992
Mamie Till; ABC, Avienne Tan

it is the scream embodied that unsettles, for it is not sound—but it is heard clearly.

This was the cut that I saw in HOME, the break of the diaspora, the doubling of memory and performance, the performance that refuses to perform.

In one of the hip-hop lectures, we talked about a legacy of fugitivity that appears in the cut. It is the resistance that is masked—the appearance of one thing while the performance of the other, inaccessible on the surface to those unequipped to understand.

Requiring a password.
and giving a false one—
invalid surname: x

Hip-hop embodies the break by employing endless samples that signify, flow that is multimetered, with opportunities for improvisation. I think I’m starting to understand jazz. In this way, hip-hop allows fugitivity a landscape to build. Artists communicate across space and time in coded language that is constantly evolving, yet specific to geographic context.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Kyle Abraham began his training as a hip-hop dancer.

art1main_07
Kyle Abraham of AIM, PC: Heather Mull

Read from a diasporic lens, “Dearest Home” takes on a different meaning. As Hall explains, diaspora creates a mythical homeland, one that is known but unknown, distant but intimate. Reading diaspora changes the semiotics of the dance, the music, and the literature of black traditions. The pause, the break becomes the moment rather than the margins.

There are days
when I see life
as 8 ½ by eleven
with 1 inch margins—
the space that stays
white

BREAK

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Capturing Queerness

This is a guest blog post I wrote for the Dance Exchange Summer Institute 2017

Can Dance Exchange Dance Queerness?

After leaving New York City and the Schomburg-Mellon Institute last week, I arrived in Takoma Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., to collaborate on a dance piece with the group, Dance Exchange. The piece, “‘[Growing our own] Gardens,’ unearths hidden histories and personal stories of the spaces sought out and created in the LGBTQ+ community – queer worlds – and how to come together across age and difference to build towards resilience and positive change.” Dance Exchange attempts to make meaningful dances that include community members of all kinds and many “communities.”

My first encounter with the group came in spring 2017 when they completed a residency at the University of Virginia. I had been struck by a piece they performed in Dallas, called “Bricks and Bones,” which was a dance that meant to reflect on the racial landscape of Dallas. But on my way to the studio for day one, I found myself asking, “Can Dance Exchange Dance Queerness?”

What does queerness look like?
How does queerness move?
Sound?
What is it?

The core facilitators of Dance Exchange have been wrestling with these questions for several years already, so by the time I entered the work in summer of 2017, there had already been several renditions and workshops “about queerness.” Material was created using Dance Exchange’s “tools” for excavating movement from abstract ideas. The tools are really just a set of games and drills that help dancers build movement into phrases, pieces, and collaborations.

Dance Exchange Post-Performance
PC Dance Exchange

Something about “excavating” movements about queerness seemed a bit strange to me. Occasionally, the tools are identified as frameworks that allow dancers to fill the open space. But in our conversations, queerness became that which defies boundaries—that which can’t be reduced to the scope of a framework. The ideas of frames, boundaries, and structures seem eerily reminiscent of sexual and racial norms that directly contrasts with queerness as it is defined in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens” by Cathy J. Cohen.

 

During this week of dance making, however, I had an interesting talk with a man I met during an Uber ride. My friend was a dark-skinned, Guyanian-American, Muslim consultant who had a knack for literature. We talked about Baldwin, black-consciousness, and Sufi poets, to name only a few topics, but the most interesting thing he said was that the two best weapons the colonizing British employed were religion and language. Once the colonized people began speaking English primarily, they could not express themselves through non-colonized methods. The English language, stemming from a patriarchal, capitalistic, and ostensibly white culture, is infused into the very framework of English-speaking people.

“May God bless the man who says less and does more.”–Umar ibn al-Khattab

But I wonder if dance might be a mechanism for thwarting this dynamic. Dance, in general, is an art form that does not require a particular language understand. It is expressed corporeally, and through the body, others are invited to watch, participate, and to feel. By extension, I wonder, is dance inherently queer? Does dance defy category and norms? I’m not entirely convinced that it does.

Dance, after all, tends to be incorporated (key word) into mechanisms of, cultivation, display, and evaluation. The process by which dance is enacted as art is the intervening process. The commercial market of dance is perhaps what alienates it from queerness. The audience ceases to be a pure observer and interpreter of the dance semiotics and instead is turned into a mark to be anticipated, positioned, and included in the commercialization process.

A distinction that deserves to be made is that this says nothing about individuals who identify as sexually queer and the community/culture that arises in those spaces. The distinction between danced “queerness” and the dance of individuals identifying as sexually queer is something that deserves further exploration.

If you are interested in learning more about Dance Exchange, you can explore their site here.

The Rest is Silence

I have no right to talk.

Days have elapsed since the Unite-the Right rally, aimed at bringing together members of the Alt-Right, KKK, and other white supremacist, ethno-nationalists, tore a hole through the Charlottesville community. In that time, social media posts from UVa students, friends, colleagues, Charlottesville residents, late night television hosts, news networks, and prominent congressional Republicans (if not presidents) have denounced the hatred and commended the countering bravery on that day.

I have not.

I wasn’t at the counter-protest against the white nationalists either. Throughout Saturday’s events, and even Friday’s unplanned white nationalist Torch March through UVa grounds, I remained indoors, heeding the calls for safety issued by University officials and by my employers in the office of Housing and Residence Life.

HRL training began on July 29 in Charlottesville, and I have been living on grounds since then.

I was not in Charlottesville, however, on July 8th when the Ku Klux Klan held a protected rally to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from what is now called Emancipation Park. Many brave students and citizens attended a counter protest where this photo of Officer Darius Nash of CPD was taken.

 

jill-mumie-charlottesville-officer-viral-kkk
CPD Officer Darius Nash. Photo: Jill Mumie

 

Nash is seen with a bowed head in protective formation backgrounded by a robed KKK wizard, a man in Nazi salute, and a man holding a Confederate flag. The picture is meant to capture the tension between professional responsibility and personal moral impetus. The yellow police tape acting both to separate the white nationalists from the protestors as well as serving to magnify Nash’s assumed desire to cross his professional line and react emotionally.

I first came across this picture several days after the rally, as Charlottesville residents debated the significance of Nash’s actions. Blue Lives Matter supporters commended Nash for his professionalism, a few profiles featuring black profile pictures critiqued him for his compliance, and I swore that I wouldn’t ever be caught dead using professionalism as an excuse to avoid morally imperative confrontation.

After all, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, appears to make clear an individual’s moral responsibility in condemning injustice anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere. He writes the letter in response to moderate church leaders in Birmingham who professed support for his cause but reprimanded him for moving too quickly on his progressive agenda.

King
Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King in Birmingham, AL. AP Photo

 

These were the thingfirst-gradegrade teacher, my great aunt, and my college professors taught me. These were things my parents taught me.

These were the same people who texted me, called me, and prayed for me on Saturday, August 12, encouraging me to be safe, to do what was right. Instead, I stayed safe and did what was wrong—what I believed to be wrong. I stayed in training.

As updates rolled in on twitter and news media outlets, I encouraged my staffers to go about their training routine, which was, ironically, a day of practice scenarios in case they needed to be first responders to residents. After that, we went back to my air conditioned apartment and talked about how we would create an inclusive living space for our inbound residents.

That was while bands of white nationalists scoured Charlottesville after being dispersed by law enforcement.

I knew all twelve of my Resident Advisors were looking at me for guidance. In fact, I could feel the eyes of staffers in other parts of the program looking at me, waiting to see what I would do or say. If I, as a black person, could remain diligent to my professional responsibilities in lieu of hate speech, crimes, and threats then so could they.

I couldn’t help but think of Officer Nash.

The true significance of the picture became suddenly apparent to me.

Earlier this summer, I had read some of Harvey Young’s Embodying Black Experience, a book that explores moments of subversive stillness. Events such as boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to literally cross a line and volunteer for Vietnam, serve to highlight Young’s claim that the black people have used stillness as well as active protesting to subvert societal expectations of them.

A modern example might be Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to sing the national anthem on Monday Night Football in 2016.

Kaepernick.jpg
Colin Kaepernick #7 and teammate Eric Reid #35 Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

But Officer Nash’s stillness, and my own by extension, complicates Young’s argument. Indeed, our stillness seems to speak to an obedience arising out of our inability to spurn the respective forces telling us to obey authority figures and their calls for deference when protest is required.

Instead of leaving me dejected, this realization forced me to reckon with a more challenging reality. The problem is not that Nash remained calm in the face of adversity; it is that Jill Mumie, the photographer knew that she could capture a controversial picture by waiting for the right moment to unfold around Nash. Thus, regardless of action that he takes, Officer Nash becomes the object of analysis, dissection, and exploitation. His assumed moral dilemma is put on display to be interpreted and reinterpreted by the viewer.

Regardless of action, black people are seen as the litmus test for arguments surrounding racism. They are used as pawns, and their experiences as tokens, in what should be a larger conversation about capitalistic exploitation, neocolonialism, and historical erasure.

This type of exploitation does nothing to combat the actual causes of these diseases; instead, it resorts to victim blaming, as if analyzing a black person will answer the deficiencies of white power structures.

This level of analysis renders the object unable of taking real agency. Our movements are analyzed, our stillnesses are analyzed, the reality of which left me paralyzed.

Simply put, the events in Charlottesville this past weekend left me dumb.

Silent in the face of injustice.

Complicit in violence by not taking action against it.

Wondering how I will justify my inaction to my future children.

Unable to process the events because I was safe when others were not.

But now, I’m processing them the best way I know how.

Permission and Protection

My hands were sweating profusely. After edging and shoving my way past the other onlookers to the inner ring, I realized that I was wholly unprepared for what to do next. Eyes were darting around the circle. Who would dance in the middle next? Flickers of advances toward the center spot —a half-step, a chest-heavy lurch, a push in the back from a friend—indicated who might get to claim the coveted opportunity that several veterans of the circle had owned off and on for the last two songs. “What business did I have dancing in front of these people?” I thought, “What if they kick me out for ‘killing the vibe?’” I wracked my brain for something, anything creative that would carry me through the fear of dancing in the middle. I had something, but it was risky. What the hell, this was my now or never moment.

Here goes nothing…

314Well, it went terribly. My plan only carried me through the first few seconds, then the music changed, so my steps were off the bass beat. The intro to the new songs began with some sampled vocals that made my hard two-count stomping seem absolutely ridiculous. Not to mention that I had been so focused on my feet that my hands were frozen at my sides. What kind of dancing incorporates a lot of hands? Voguing, yes voguing! Which might have worked if I knew how to vogue. Instead, I flailed a little bit, hopped around one foot, then my sunglasses flew off my face, so I tucked tail and shuffled out of the circle as the bass kicked in for the new song. It was embarrassing, and my cousin got the whole thing on video.

As one of the seasoned vets came in and rallied back the energy from the crowd, I skulked back into the mass of people swaying on the margins of the circle. I had blown my chance to shine, proving once and for all that as much as I read about dance, I still couldn’t do it to save my life. Talk about embarrassing.

I have never wanted to disappear so badly, but I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a gentleman in a crème-colored suit, replete with dark shades and long dreadlocks, who was staring at me from the periphery. When I turned to face him, I noticed that he was an older man who clearly had no intention of dancing himself. Nevertheless, he occupied a clearly distinguished position among the veterans, who clearly respected him.

Luke Dancing 1Then I noticed that he was signaling at me with his right hand. First pointing to the sky with a boney finger, then two thumps over his heart, followed by a final point at me. He repeated this cadence twice before I realized that he was giving me props for dancing in the circle. I signaled back by beating a fist over my heart with a bowed head. He smiled, and the crème suit man turned back to the circle to watch the next dancer who had already dove in.

Despite my awful performance in the circle, I had been supported by a veteran. It was then that I realized the power of “the circle.” Dance scholar, Thomas DeFrantz, writes about the circle as the place that “permits and protects” in Africanist social dance. It is a place of improvisation, self-actualization, and community participation. The circle comes about as an Africanist trope in African-American social dances like the ring-shout, hip-hop ciphers, and vougeing. Its potential to create black, queer, and nonconformist space is fundamental to its ability to help individuals negotiate a society that is anti-black, anti-queer, and rigidly normative. In my own dancing stint, the important thing was not if I danced spectacularly; only that I had danced in a way that was uniquely mine.

Still, it couldn’t hurt to practice.

Interview with a Panther

I admit, I was nervous. I always get nervous before I conduct an interview. In an interview, it’s harder to mask my lack of knowledge of a topic and lack of experience in the field. The interviewee almost always skeptically asks, “How old are you again?”

As an element of my stint into thesis research, I’ve coordinated a number of interviews with subjects ranging from dancers in their M.F.A programs to museum directors.  I understand why most of the interviewees are hesitant at first—I have less than a year’s experience doing independent research, fewer than a few months’ interest in their life’s work, and not even an undergraduate degree. I would be skeptical, too.

black-panthers
(John Peterson 09 July 2015)

But I was particularly nervous for my interview with the Black Panther Party member. Sitting in front of me was a true revolutionary—not only did he talk the talk, he had walked the walk. In popular memory, the BPP has been disparaged as a hate group, founded on reactionary, racist politics after disavowing nonviolence as a civil rights tactic. That idea is wrong for a whole host of reasons, but I realized that history and memory is shaped by historians and journalists alike. Depending on the skew of the writer, history and public understanding can be dramatically altered.

(Black Power 50 Digital Exhibit at the Schomburg)

One example of an egregious misrepresentation through an interview can be found here, regarding the rapper Young Thug, who was interviewed by Devin Friedman for GQ magazine. In the interview, Friedman never actually establishes a real connection with Young Thug, relying instead on observation rather than questions to shape his writing. The piece comes across more like an 18th century anthropologist’s take on native cultures than a professional journalist trying to represent a person. This racialized representation is not new, and it is fundamental to understanding the established power dynamic that comes from the positionality of two bodies: the interviewer and the interviewee.

(For a reasonable interview of Young Thug, go literally anywhere else, but here is good).

Interviewing, too, is a performance; it communicates through body language, tactical questioning, and an established rapport. These elements work in conjunction to perform an act that grants access to information that might be otherwise inaccessible. The information is thus valuable, but the value can be ascribed differently to the interview and interviewer respectively. Valuable information then requires an exchange, and this is what opens the potential for exploitation. The unspoken price for information might be the hope for accurate representation, which confines the liberties of the interviewer, but the enforceability of such a deed is entirely up to the conscious of the interviewer. Exploiters tend not to be generous.

The power that arrives for an interviewer is access to a source of publication where their word, and not the interviewee’s, becomes truth. Truth is the dubious operator because it is subjected to the viewpoint of the presenter. Exploitative interviewers lead to reinforced stereotypes, flat narratives, and a substantiation of their own claims which allows the perpetuation of the cycle of exploitation.

Bill Whitfield
(PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM P. STRAETER, AP)

So as someone pursuing interviews, I have been forced to recognize that my failures are not confined to the page. The responsibility to present the interviewee’s ideas as they would want them presented is a burden than demands attention. I also have the added responsibility of needing to understand the context of interviews, so that I don’t insert my own conjectures into the picture.

So when it came to accurately representing the Black Panthers New York chapter, I asked, “What do people need to know about the Panthers?”

It’s about community. Knowing that someone has your back and you have theirs 110%

In political activism as in interviewing: Ujima.

The Means of Production

I haven’t written anything in a while. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying. I could have written about Paloma McGregor’s Building a Better Fish Trap performance at New York Live Arts, or either of the Alvin Ailey Company shows I watched at Koch Theater where they performed incredible new works, including a piece called Untitled America (2017) from choreographer Kyle Abraham. Each of these pieces presented profound messages that excited the audience, and of course, the performances were exciting displays of athletic ability. Yet I found myself unable to write a single thought about them.

In each performance, I found myself taking thorough notes on the dancers, the setting, and the aesthetic, but none of the performances actually made me feel anything. In analyzing the performance I failed to simply enjoy it.

I first took an interest in learning dance studies so that I could understand my embodied experience as a black man. That experience had shaped my approach to all of the material I watched, but now that I found myself at a loss I wondered: Have I become disembodied?

Just the notion frightened me. What would “disembodiment entail? Is it a cyclical relationship? Could I ever become “re-embodied?” Or even more practically, could I reestablish a visceral connection to my work, so that I could complete my thesis?

untitledamerica
(Credit: Paul Kolnik)

As tends to be the case, dance was two-steps ahead of me: Bill T. Jones of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company created a piece that experiments with the idea of disembodiment.  Ghostcatching (1999), by Bill T. Jones was created in a motion capture animation studio.

In the dance, Jones (or the abstraction of him), moves and lunges about on screen, his movements traced by various colorful lines that leave a visual trail. There is no corporeal body, there is no unintentional sound, there is no sweat. It is a dancing automaton. It’s hard to tell if something is lost or if something is gained in the creation of this piece.

Danielle Goldman writes on Ghostcatching; she finds a relationship between the dancing automaton and Marx’s analysis of the engines of history—technology. Namely technology that can outlive human capacities, thereby allowing those who own the means of production to exploit those who don’t. The abstraction of Jones does not sweat as he does, but perhaps this is what draws us to a more human presentation of the dance. This too, might prove problematic.

The consumption of bodies in labor can quite easily take a racialized connotation depending on who is enjoying Jones’s dancing. But if this is the case, what do we do about disembodiment?

ghostcatching
(credit: Barbara Castro)

Perhaps, my solution lies not in solving disembodiment but in seeking to understand my desire to feel embodied. When I pay for a dance ticket expecting that the performance will provide a visceral rush, my commodification of the bodies on stage establishes a relationship of exploitation. The denial of a visceral reaction is not faulty then, it can be rebellious.

When I talked with Paloma about her goals in creating Fish Trap, she stated quite simply that it was to create a space for others to explore their relationship with the space in the studio but also their own respective environments. The space was there for me to find what I could.

If I didn’t find anything, it means I need to keep looking.

Research Interlude 1

My exploration into living within a black body in motion began with a feeling–a feeling that never quit.

It was this feeling that spurred me to take dance lessons, read books, and ultimately, pursue an undergraduate thesis that explored the questions with which I grappled. The research continues, and I was fortunate enough to obtain a position as a

IMG_2987Schomburg-Mellon fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The Schomburg is home to hundreds of thousands of items related to Black people and cultures all over the world. A link to digital collections can be found here. I especially recommend the Livestream Events and Video Archive. Tuesday (6/6) I watched an electrifying discussion of a new book by Ibram X. Kendi called, Stamped from the 

Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Ain’t nothin’ new, folks. Anyone interested in American history or the history of political and social thought will have to think seriously about these ideas.

In addition to attending Schomburg events, research fellows are responsible for producing their own original work with the help of the Schomburg facilities and archive. In conversation with a current exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the rise of Black Power, I have been dovetailing my dance research with the extensive collection the Schomburg possesses of Black Arts and politics. It’s still taking shape, but here are some of the topics I have been wrestling with below:

“Politics is the art of thinking about power within the body politic: who wants what from whom, and how much can they get via what methods? But the “body politic” exists not merely as an abstract term; it is comprised of actual bodies. It is comprised of individual people, and ultimately, these tensions come to rest on them. The political tensions that govern our decisions ultimately fall upon individual bodies. How do we understand this body? More importantly, how do we understand the tensions at play that control the individual’s body? Though it has been historically divorced from the political discourse, dance is quintessentially the study of the body and the forces that govern it.

In this realm of the corporeal, all bodies, and the politics around them, are not the same. Black bodies, for example, have drastically different experiences than white bodies in America. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted one way in which black bodies are at the center of political discourse. But the problems BLM discusses are not new, in fact, the black body has an extensive political history in America, which has changed by region, gender, class, sexuality, occupation, and many other defining characteristics. So what can the history of black bodies in motion tell us about the politics in their contemporary moments? What can it tell us about our contemporary IMG_2986.JPGmoment? Perhaps now more than ever, it is vital that Black dance is studied: its exploration of the black body, politics, movements, and movement are ultimately how we can come to understand the intricate politics that govern the spaces in which our bodies live.”

I don’t know where these questions will take me, but at the moment it looks like I won’t be able to fit everything I want to talk about into one undergraduate thesis. With any luck, I’ll be doing it for awhile.

Thanks for coming with me on the journey.

Cheers,

Luke