Ancestors Echoed: A Reaction to the BlakTina Dance Festival
As a woman of black and white ancestry, a musician, a wordsmith, I walked away from the BlakTina festival with a new understanding of dance, an art that allows its witnesses to experience the many shapes our human bodies can form. Dance positions the body as the medium to consume, to notice, and remember. Yet in this show, these bodies—movers and choreographers—reject consumption. Instead, they invite us to experience—intimately and powerfully—what black and brown bodies can hold:
air rising to the sky
While the movers on stage created these experiences, the BlakTina festival presences choreographers: black and brown beings within and between the sculpted shapes of dancers onstage. They may work in collaboration with performers, or they may present their own work. Regardless, it was important for me to remember that while the people on stage have sacred histories and voices, it is brown and black choreographers speaking.
I’ve elected to share my thoughts on five pieces to which I gravitated. My connection to these pieces range from my experiences as a black/white mixed person and familiarity with particular artists, among other personal reasons. Regardless, each piece at BlakTina continues to ring in my memory. In Elisa Marie Cavellero’s “Echoes,” a movement sequence accelerates like a question intensifying, bringing ethereal ghosts to whisper an answer. The Primera Generación Dance Collective—four Latinx men and women—lets us laugh, look, and remember as they perform “Ni Fú, Ni Fá,” the Anglicizing and colonization of Cinco de Mayo. In “The We in the I,” Sydney Jackson and Reyna Montoya powerfully show the divinity of friendship, presencing both a black and brown woman sharing one stage. Performed with live music and poetry, Raquel Denis and Ileana Salinas transport us to this dimension, recalling ancestral echoes and reminders of humanity. Angel Castro, in “Crash,” engages force, violence, as lace-dressed female-presenting bodies tear one another to the floor, until—alone, weakened, and afraid—one remains. And in Joan Rodriguez and Taimy Miranda’s “Rise and Shine,” this pair pulls me to the edge of my seat as they flip around, scoot beside, and balance on top of one another, at every possible angle and orientation. Their sheer strength matches the exquisite shapes and story they evoke, showing two people’s growing curiosities of and tangled connections to one another.
The opening piece, “Scarred from Being Scared,” left me with a palpable sense of inherited trauma from fear and violence. Yet what I saw was not violent. My memory of this piece reflects much fluidity and delicacy and I must believe that it is the medium that allows for this paradox. This piece begins with three male-presenting bodies in black, moving in unison to a monologue. Their movement—in their touches, lifts, and elegance—feels gentle, easy, loving. It’s when I hear a flat line tone, and one of the dancers falls on his back, when I realize that amidst the gentleness, these men are swimming through perpetual fear. The piece shifts when, three female-presenting bodies enter, two moving in unison, and one holding her head, moving in grief. The three men return and form couples. They dance with sensuality and tenderness among a spoken monologue: “He won’t listen when I tell him to stop smoking over and over again. Stop drinking over and over again, to go to the gym every now and again.” I’m left thinking, how can we take care of our bodies when traces of perpetuated trauma and fear reside in our bones?
Jenny Gerena, performer and choreographer of “Self Portrait of a Dying Soul,” pulls me through a rigid, dusty frame into the twists of her inner/outer war. Though alone onstage, repeated motions of bringing down long thick curls from a bun then twisting them back up again introduces her hair as a second character. It undulates, flips, whips, and covers her face. Hair, in its thickness, textures, and dark tones, is oftentimes a physicalized representation and reminder of our ancestors, and the very inner and outer wars black and brown bodies wrangle. In Jenny’s hair, I see both a dance partner—a being with its own motions and manipulations—and an extension of herself.
I recall the image of Jenny’s face bursting into a silent scream towards the ceiling. She stands with lunging legs, draped in a high-collared burgundy dress. In the dimension where this piece exists, deep and telescoping away—from the portrait, from stiff shoulders and spine, from embodied colonization—Gerena moves like no one is watching and screams to a sky (or a god) who cannot hear her. This is her release until she is coaxed back to her chair, delicately returns her hair back in its place, and turns the light out.
In a forward to Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes: “There are 40 million black people in this country, and there are 40 million ways to be black.” Witnessing two pieces, “Mirage” and “Mulatto,” I return to this quote. Alexander Patrick, in “Mirage,” shows the complexities, pain, and art of an experience of depression. Patrick stands tall, muscular, draped in white. Moving with grace and strength amidst the stage and around himself, I hear a monologue: “You are so stupid… pointless… worthless.” This spoken piece melts into Ledesi’s “Lost and Found”: “I wanna feel again / Please someone find me.” Patrick swims through pressures to be okay, invalidated and unsupported sadness, and shines a bright light on the mirage, both what we—as friends, witnesses, passersby—want to see and what we choose to ignore.
In “Mulatto,” Ashley Baker appears standing in a gray spotlight and clothed in a white and black patterned dress. Set to Venessa Marco’s spoken word poem “Off White,” Baker makes visible the black and brown bodies born to a white mommy or daddy. Like Gerena, Baker’s hair falls from a high bun at the top of the piece into a free form that flows with her every move. Marco’s poem holds light skin privileges right up against ancestry erased by racial ambiguity. And Baker stumbles, drunkenly, around these words, on unsteady ground moving beneath her feet, leaving her to her own devices to find balance. Baker’s hair assumes position again wrapped in a bun as a Kendrick Lamar’s remix of Boris Gardiner plays, “Every Nigger is a Star.” When she exits, I’m left seeking my own solid ground, wondering why I’m seeing stars.
I’m drawn to reflect on the closing piece, though I’m unsure why. Perhaps its because I still see the bodies of Chantel Davis, Mychal Harris, and Porsche Norman, donning the rich red tones of dresses, shirt, and rose petals. Perhaps it’s their bodies: elegant and strong. Perhaps it’s the echoes of Maya Angelou’s spoken words I’m still hearing. I can’t help but imagine her, one of our ancestors made present in this room this evening. I can’t help but see her words—their vibrations and reverberations—sculpting the legs, arms, shoulders, heads, hair, and fingertips of these three people. Hearing the words of Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” and “Rise,” I know (cerebrally) that these words mean more and run deeper than just sheer beauty:
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me…
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
I know (cerebrally) that these words contain and communicate Angelou’s inherent dignity, her radical self worth, and DuBois-like double-consciousness. These things I’ve read about and discovered for myself. Yet choreographer Michelle Funderburk shaped a piece that brought these things to the experience of the BlakTina festival, inviting me to feel the resonant beauty of Chantel Davis, Mychal Harris, and Porsche Norman, and Angelou’s accompanying words.
BlakTina was an event to feel and remember. The choreographers and performers in Phoenix’s first BlakTina festival evoked experiences like these, rooted in history and brought by truth. They shared with this audience a privilege to experience—not consume—the depth, pain, strength, and divinity sourced from their stories.