From the Bottom to the Top, Dance in the Dirty South
If you frequently experience FOMO, From the Bottom to the Top, Dance in the Dirty South might’ve been a challenging piece to watch, but in a good way! This show, commissioned by Presenting Denver Dance, combined site-specific works from five local dance artists to explore themes of racism and resilience. Dancers interpreted art pieces in The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and Sonic Impulse exhibit at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday, January 20th and Saturday, January 21st, drawing audiences of over 300 people. More than with “traditional” dance shows on a proscenium stage, every audience member had their own experience. They wandered on their individual paths through the 3 floors of the exhibit, catching the tail end of one piece, the middle of another, or stationing themselves to watch one in its entirety. The works highlighted how integrating art forms gave Black artists a voice amidst extreme oppression and led to the blossoming of African American culture.
As I waited for a performance to begin in front of a wall of speakers, I looked closer to see that they were stacked to resemble a church-like structure. Classical music blasted from them, enhancing this spiritual atmosphere.Yet, as two Black males walked into the space and put their ears up against the speakers, I began to hear water from fire hoses and dogs barking. Police forces used both of these to confront peaceful demonstrators at a civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama. By exploring this juxtaposition between a peaceful church and violence, Jarrett Rashid’s dancers conveyed hope and strength through hardships, and these themes carried through the other pieces.
Staging the dance pieces in small spaces such as this allowed audience members to feel as if they were part of the world created by each performance. The powerful performance ability of each dancer intensified this intimacy. They were all incredible technical dancers, but I have never seen a cast of performers with such a physical presence when dancing. This was highlighted in Jarrett’s civil rights piece, one of the best duets I’ve seen in years. Breaking away from traditional heteronormative duet stereotypes, this duet between two men shifted between primal physical fights and intimate moments where the dancers wrapped their arms around each other or even just looked in each other’s eyes for a prolonged period of time, speaking volumes without uttering a sound. This made them seem human. You could feel their mixed emotions of fear, pain, and hope as they struggled in this world that didn’t want them there.
A soloist from Nu-World Contemporary Dance Theater explored intimacy in a different way through an engrossing solo set to the words of Black poet and preacher, Sister Gertrude Morgan. He explored both spirituality and the evolution of dance styles, starting with grounded, internal movements based in what would be considered a more west african technique. As he played with rhythms and expanded these movements, he let them evolve into battements and attitudes- elements commonly found in western European techniques. However, seeing them emerge from these African roots made me question how strict the lines between different movement techniques and styles actually are. His constant return to grounded, internal movements made me feel as if I was interrupting something. Like a prayer. Or a mediation. You could see the sweat dripping down his back under his mesh shirt during his movements that were often hinged at the hips, his bare feet emphasized the everlasting connection of west african movements to the earth below.
In other pieces, it felt as if the artwork itself was coming to life. Natalia Roberts created a moving solo inspired by Caspera, a RaMell Ross photo of a Black child with a black sheet draped over their body so only their feet are showing on the dry, red earth. As if coming to life as the person from the photo, Nicole laid down a black fabric behind a sculpture of a tree branch connecting an African drum to a record. She then left this fabric and moved into an adjoining room, performing full-bodied movements that played with tempo. This contrasted the fast-paced movie in the background that explored the water of the Florida canals built by slaves in the 1800s to transport cotton. There was joy and happiness in her full-bodied movements, as if the earth and nature was giving her the strength to keep moving forward despite the dark meaning of the footage behind her. She further embraced this strength by returning to the black sheet and slowly draping it over herself, as in the picture, reminding the audience how much of the world only saw the color of her skin and missed out on the passionate, fiery mover that she is.
This strength and joy spread to audience members in two hiphop/street based pieces: styles that traditionally encourage audiences to react and synergistically feed on that energy. A dancer from Lisa Engelken Breaking Barriers performed club movements while watching a TV screen that cycled through clips of famous Black performers who had a strong influence on African American music and art. While I loved watching the performer feed off the music, my favorite part of this basement exhibit was watching him teach audience members how to dance. For people like me, who grew up in more western cultures, dance was not a part of my everyday life and culture. I often find my body to be a bit stiff, and I love trying new movements that feel unnatural at first. Watching everyone else throw away any fear of judgment and just dive right in filled me with warmth as I experienced the power of hip hop and Black culture in joining people together and creating community. This warmth and sense of community was augmented as I watched The School of Breaking’s street-style performance. As each performer entered the cypher circle, the audience cheered and clapped, offering nothing but support as the dancers twisted, flipped, and spun their bodies.
While walking down the staircase and exiting the exhibit, I looked at the people around me. I realized how lucky we all were to have had this experience over the past hour. I left feeling very grateful to all of the artists involved for having the courage to present their vulnerable selves. It was a dance performance that I will never forget.
Presenting Denver Writer and Editorial Board
Gabrielle is a graduate from the University of Maryland- College Park where she earned a BA in dance and a BS in ecology and evolutionary biology. During her four years there, she performed in works by Ping Chong, Leslie Felbain, Alvin Mayes, Orange Grove Dance Theater, and Pearson Widrig Dance Theater. She moved to NYC after graduation where she performed with the 92nd Street Y Musical Theater Development Lab, Mary Seidman, and Nicole Colbert Dance/Theater. She is very excited to continue her dance journey in Denver!