Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Southern Discomfort

I was so moved by Southern Discomfort, performed and created by Aimee Rials and Trebien Pollard at Dixon Place June 4th 2017, that days later I am still being nourished by my reflections. The work was impactful, not only in the content expressed, but also because of the aesthetic ingenuity employed by both artists.

Aimee and Trebien are both remarkably seductive performers, but not in the way we usually consider that word. They are seductive because they are completely self-possessed. Whole and complete in and of themselves, they invite the audience to join them on very personal journeys. As viewers, we are willing and able to be carried along with them because the weight of their performative presence makes it easy to trust them. As an audience member, I often feel that I am being sold something, but in this performance, I felt honored to be witness to the profound sense of generosity, that flowed from every turn of Aimee Rials and Trebien Pollard’s wrists.

Rials is a remarkable mover. She conducts energy through her body in a way that is both grounded and fantastically fluid. Her movement vocabulary demonstrates deep movement research, as powerful in its subtlety as it is in its considered use of attack. Her solo, Modifi(her), was deeply moving, both because of the strength of her performance and because of its refined compositional craftsmanship.  She used repetition effectively, as the repetitive movement allowed the audience to experience the emotional evolution within the work. Repetition also created a trancelike quality that enabled the dance to exist in the space between memory and presence. The space between the longing, regret, desire, and hope that we felt in the past and that which we feel in the present, blur. The body is always caught between past and present, scars and postures being tangible manifestations of memory, yet every breath is potentially attuned to the now. Rials milks this temporal indeterminacy as the dance orbits a single chair, beautifully designed by Emanuelle Schaer, a symbol of all of the, “should haves,” and, “could haves,” that haunt us. Rials dances circular memories, familiar to many of us. She embodies roles both accomplished and resented, as well as those that we cold not fulfill; yet we are still bound to as they define our defiance. In the final section, her liberation from this web of reflection is wildly open hearted. She gives back to the audience all that she has gained in her processing, facing us unapologetically, radiant, and whole.

It is also important to mention that Rials offers the audience a gender expression rarely seen in New York dance. Most theatrical gender play consists of the juxtaposition of culturally defined extremes. Drag, in its many iterations, plays on the gender based social expectation and subversion of dress, make-up, posture, hair, etc.... Drag creates an expansive space to define gender through beating against the edges of the binary spectrum. The flashiness of this tug of war makes for excellent theater. However, the quiet, yet fierce embodiment of androgyny I saw in Rials, is much less common on stage.  It speaks truth to power in a very different way than drag does. It does not use cultural codes to flip audience expectation, but rather exists as a whole alternative, an expression of completeness that is not ruled by indoctrination, but by a hard won honoring of the individual self.  It threatens the status quo, not by revealing and manipulating the game, but by decidedly refusing to play. On a personal note, it was incredibly validating for me to watch Rials in performance because in my life I am relatively androgynous, but in my dance career I have mostly been asked to perform (for both male and female choreographers) as a hyper-femme, and hence dishonest, version of myself.

Trebien Pollard’s work is a wonderful pairing with Rials. The works are equally powerful, yet they utilized very different means of aesthetic expression. As a dancer, Pollard’s satiny movement quality is unparalleled. His whole body moves in a way that is simultaneously deeply considered and at the same time open to the wild pulls of his vast heart. Like water deep in the ocean, Pollard moves in response to unseen currents, made visible through an on-going commitment to multifaceted articulation.  As an artist Pollard is interested in visual density, effectively incorporating a set, projections, and multiple costume changes into his solo performance of Seeing the Unspeakable/An Eye on Struggle (work in progress).

His costume design incorporates numerous layers of black cloth that play with varied gender expressions, but perhaps more importantly, extend the movement of his body. The shifts in costume transform him from terrifying creature, to rooted tree, to wise yet questioning human, to swirling vortex. In coordination with original spoken poetry, a relentless projected slide show of gut-wrenching visuals by artists such as Kara Walker and Barkley Hendricks as well as photos of Ruby Bridges on the steps of her formerly all white elementary school, and a cloth set that lists the names of some of the POC who died at the hands of police in just the last few years, the performance presses the audience right up against the history of racism in America that conditions and affects us all.

It is a heart breaking, overwhelming reality, well expressed through Pollard’s use of different media. It is so easy to feel helpless in the oversaturation of human rights violations that constantly threaten POC in contemporary culture. As a light in this darkness, Pollard’s work was a balm, which did not sugar coat a thing, but did remind us that life, in all its complexity, does go on, and that we are all in this together. Pollard’s strong voice allowed the audience to experience a wide range of emotions; anger and disgust, but also the respect for community, history, and progress, and the potential ecstasy of spiritual beauty that transcends cultural and religious views. His spoken poetry is as captivating as his movement quality, evoking a multiplicity of meanings that leaves the audience’s mind swirling with possibility. It is through this vivid ambiguity that we are able to thread together the personal and the political, the past and the present, and to entertain the possibility of hope.

I look forward to seeing future work by both of these artists, and I thank them with all of my heart for their courage and their work.

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