Editor’s Note: For more insights on this story by dancer/videographer Sarah Stearn, read her preview report—“Red Clay Dance Company LA FEMME DANCE FESTIVAL Preview – VERSHAWN SANDERS-WARD Reveals the Festivities”
Red carnations are scattered about the stage of the brand new Green Line Performing Arts Center in Washington Park. We see a wooden box with a tattered American flag laying across it. This is the set for Slow Burning, a dance theatre piece by L. Graciella Maiolatesi, one of La Femme Dance Festival’s selected choreographers showing new work.
The piece is charged with history, visceral memories of lynchings of black women in America. Three performers march on stage with a unified, constant rhythm. They bear white and blue flowers, dedicating them to women--whose names are known (including Sandra Bland, Rekiya Boyd) and unknown--who were lynched in America. We hear graphic stories of lynchings over the speakers as one dancer moves in and out of the floor with urgency. Another has taken the American flag and deliberately wrapped her hair in it. The third performer emerges anew with a piece of fabric large enough to eventually be wrapped around her body, as if dressing herself in a lappa, or a skirt-like garment worn when dancing Umfundalai, or contemporary African dance. The images created by these specific moments, props and text combined, are deeply chilling. We witness these performers living their current, ancestral, and cultural realities on stage of life as a black woman in America.
The next piece, Open, a solo danced by Talia Koylass and choreographed by Jasmin Williams, touches on empowering oneself by knowing what lies within. We see Koylass grappling with herself as her movements fill the space. We feel close to her, literally (the house was packed, there were even seats on the stage floor) and figuratively, as she kneels on the stage, looking back at the audience while we hear a voice over the speaker reminding her, and us, of the power she contains within herself.
Yemaya de la Diaspora by Brittany Chantel Winters reminds us of the joy of being a black woman. A drummer accompanies three performers clad in colored skirts and tops, flowing with their percussive yet flowing movements. Following this energetic dance section, the three women approach a basin of “water,” signified by a royal blue fabric. Each one washes themselves with relief, and returns to the center of the stage with a basket. They begin to take turns sharing anecdotes about their life experiences, things weighing them down or tiring them out from their own lives, but also from their histories. At one point, they each pull out a photo of their mothers. Showing them to the audience, they all begin talking over each other about how great their mothers are, gushing in honor of them. One performer eventually has the floor and reminds the audience that “if you are a woman, even if you are not a mother, you are still a mother to everyone on Earth,” signifying the sheer importance of women in society. Some audience members utter a term from the Yoruba tradition, axe (pronounced ah-shay), in acknowledgement.
Next we see a duet by Marceia L. Scruggs in collaboration with Dedrick “D. Banks” Gray, performed by themselves, entitled Rebuke It (excerpts). The two begin with a dance-off, one-upping each other until they meet in the center and turn to face the audience. They address us now. Gray tells us “They like it when I say ‘How are you doing?’ but not when I say ‘Whaddup’” and approaches a man in the front row for a handshake. Scruggs repeats “They like when I do this and not that,” pointing in different directions, speeding up and fading her voice. The lights change to stripes, like sun rays shining through wood panels, and the two navigate around each other until their heads touch. This physical contact feels significant, and we then see Scruggs lifted upside down by Gray. Their following movements become more interconnected, lifting, embracing, and leaning on each other. The last image we see is of Gray struggling to support himself, fatigued by the dance that came before and perhaps by what he looks toward in the future. Scruggs supports him from behind, barely audibly muttering “boy… boy you can… you can do anything, boy…” as the lights fade.
The final piece of the festival, Wat-u-see/wat-u-keep by Lindsay Renea Benton, showcases four female dancers. Dressed in patches of gold and brown fabric, with a golden sparkling sash around their waists, is that a braid fastening their tops? These repurposed items create stunning outfits for the dancers to grace the stage in. These dancers explore the music of Sun Ra, using solos and each other to interweave their experiences before us. They perform a series of gestures repeated toward the end of the piece, closing out the show with a unified story of self-exploration.
Red Clay Dance Helps Launch Green Line Performing Arts Center
La Femme Dance Festival activated the new Green Line Performing Arts Center with dance for the first time. This dance writer left with chills, reflecting on the research and clear consideration that went into building each piece. Brava to the choreographers! Chicago dance enthusiasts will hopefully be seeing more work like this more often.
L. Graciella Maiolatesi
Brittany Chanel Winters
Marceia L. Scruggs
Lindsay Renea Benton
L. Graciella Maiolatesi, Ama Gora, Cierra Woods, Talia Koylass, Rajeeyah Bey, Sadira Muhammad, Brittany Chanel Winters, Marceia L. Scruggs, Dedrick “D. Banks” Gray, Laquangela Littleton, Ke’yana Robinson, Erin Burch, Thea Jones, Najah Malone
Vershawn Sanders-Ward (Red Clay Dance Company, Chicago)
Lela Aisha Jones (Flyground, Philadelphia)
Aaliyah Christina (Catalyst Movement, Chicago)
All photos by Raymond Jerome
For more information about Green Line Performing Arts Center, visit Green Line Performing Arts Center website.
For more information about Red Clay Dance Company, visit Red Clay Dance Company website.
Learn more about dance by seeing dance through dancers eyes in the Picture This Post series, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”. Watch this video preview of the story here—
Sarah Stearn, a native of Chicago, is a dancer and videographer. She has recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a BFA in Dance, and is excited to be back in the city. Currently, she works with Tuli Bera as an administrator for J e l l o Performance Series.