Marjani Forté-Saunders’ Unicorns and the Act of Becoming
2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate, Co-Founder of LOVE|FORTÉ A COLLECTIVE and Co-Director of Alkebulon Cultural Center, Marjani Fortè-Saunders offers insight into the intentions and influences behind the performance installation "Memoirs of a ... Unicorn: The Act of Becoming" and how the project is evolving. This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today.
Energy & Timelessness
“Once the energy body is within a certain range, which varies for each of us individually, anyone, through discipline, can forge it into the exact replica of their physical body; that is to say, a three-dimensional, solid being. Hence the sorcerers' idea of the other or the double.
By the same token, through the same processes of discipline, anyone can forge their three-dimensional, solid physical body to be a perfect replica of their energy body; that is to say, an ethereal change of energy invisible to the human eye, as all energy is.” - don Juan Matus
― Carlos Castaneda, The Eagle’s Gift
For me, this is performance. It is the act of becoming two, both earthly or organic, and ethereal or inorganic. In its otherness, its sacredness, the performance is (among many things) revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, and fresh. Beyond time.
“How did we come here, after all? Not with upturned chins and bright eyes but rather in chains, across a chasm. But what did we do? We built a nation, and we built its art.”
As I prepare to present Memoirs of a … Unicorn: The Act of Becoming, a work almost too close to my heart to perform, I wonder how it might show up in the conversations of its viewers. Unicorn weaves personal narratives, collective memories, and historical fragments into an embodied tale of spiritual exploration, unabated love, and metaphysical warriorship. The work continues to evolve and has landed as a performed non-linear installation, describing the celestial ecliptic journeys of folks identifying with—and building legacies within—the spectrums of blackness, maleness, and womb-ness.
I will feel successful if folks fail to come up with the right words to describe what they experience when they see this work. In that case, perhaps I should consider the aggressive imitation of a dance review by NY Times writer Alistair MacCauley a compliment (read more about this in Movement Research Critical Correspondence with Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Ali Rosa-Salas and Nia Love). Perhaps the empty, unimaginative, impersonal bottomlessness in the tone of his writing, reflected his utter incapacity to find himself reflected in a work about Gods.
Sankofa, looking back to move forward, I bring together ancestral memories, fevered dreams, and mystical visions, in a lofty attempt to describe the insurmountable awe I have for the Unicorns in my life, occupying roles like Father, Husband, Brother, Son, Uncle, Cousin, Homie, Pahtna, and Fam. These powerful male figures merge with images of the magical creature that has always been shrouded in mystery. Unicorns are full of mercurial passion, timeless purity, and unpredictable wildness. But, they can only be approached by kindred spirits. You can only see one if you know how to see it.
In the crafting of Memoirs of a … Unicorn, I found myself foraging and dwelling in spaces where the English language—at least in its common form—was insufficient. Fortunately, I’m a Black girl, steeped in the infinite fortuity and ingenuity of Blackness. I am in love with the way Black Folks have bent the English Language, and turned inside-out the Cultural Untruths that shape our reality. We take seemingly flat, linear binaries and flex them to hold the expansive conical and often contradictory reality of nature and our existence. I’m convinced we are Aliens, AT THE LEAST—defined and sustained by the cosmos, and the essence of energy itself.
So, note to the reader:
In the few places I drop into Black-Speak, I am accessing a Divine Vernacular.
I spend a large part of Unicorn taking my own stab at this bend, twisting text from don Juan Matus’ lessons on Warriorship, from legible sentence structures to illegible exclamations. I start with the act of twisting language, as I begin my labyrinth walk. With witnesses in tow, the combination of the walk, the mental effort of twisting language, and the witnesses’ efforts to decipher, become energetic forces I need to conjure my energetic body forward.
In Memoirs of a … Unicorn, and perhaps from now on, I craft and regard performance as: the act of becoming earthly AND organic, ethereal AND inorganic.
In its otherness, its “sacredness”, the performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh and (in the tradition of Blackness) Un-nameable.
"I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I'm forced to be an optimist. I'm forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive."
— James Baldwin
My father—one of my central Unicorns—has lived his life in a way that reflects the words of James Baldwin. He had to stop pursuing his formal education at an early age, but he persistently found alternative ways to accumulate knowledge. He read obsessively; and he was the one who introduced me to Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan Matus. His love of science-fiction led him to authors like Octavia Butler, whose books he shared with me. My father also deems himself an architect of his reality, and that led to his penchant for building things. In Unicorn I draw on the mystical knowledge he shared with me; and I draw on his crafting of both structures and realities. He constructed my central set-piece, a rough-hewn pyramid with all of its associations of celestial ancestry and immortality.
But what if we aren’t aliens? What if we are merely humans subjected to the baneful and worst of human existence FOR GENERATIONS!? What if Virginia Hamilton’s “The People Who Could Fly” was only a Folktale, and not the history lesson I took it to be when I first read it as a child? What if Octavia Butler’s Doro and Anyanwu weren’t the original X-Men, having pre-dated Stan Lee’s imagination, with only Butler to finally transcribe the story of their lives? And what if Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan Matus is in fact a figment of Castaneda’s imagination, not the Shaman-like Transcendental Warrior, Man of Knowledge, Teacher I’ve studied from through Castaneda’s Eagle’s Gift and Teachings of Don Juan? What if EZ Rawlins never had to check his murderous friend/alter ego Mouse, and if Tananarive Due’s David (Daweed) had never drank Christ’s blood and lived among a colony of African Immortals?
If so, I want nothing to do with that reality. I’ll live in the world of my art, where there is space for my wings in all their girth and might. Where the Sun doesn't wither in my Moonlight and in the place where our majesty and earthliness collide. My Daddy introduced me to this place when he shared the amazing beauty of his Unicorn-nature, showed me Kirikou, put Octavia Butler in my hand, and scared the shit out of my dreams with Freddy Kreuger. My Mommy showed it to me everyday, when she created mosaic murals from her shattered panes of family and partnership. They, too, were illuminated from within by beauty.
Sci-Fi is my map, and portal. It has given me permission to BEND time, to explore inter-dimensional occurrences. Such that in my storytelling a pyramid structure can live among a 10ft Unicorn Horn, made of chicken wire fastened to a red naked body. With breasts flapping and ass clapping, in Memoirs of a Unicorn, I imagine I have a scrotum, and then… the story begins.
In a millennial time of hard-earned resurgence and renewal, in collective imaginings of liberation, Unicorn invites its audience to bend, flex, squint, and most of all, ACCEPT, that in the dimension of this performance, all are not always invited nor will all “relate”— as within the construct of race-based thinking and imprisonment, some simply will not and cannot find themselves reflected in this work. I’m okay with that.
Because performance is the act of becoming earthly AND organic ethereal AND inorganic. In its otherness, its “sacredness”, performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh. It is Dimensionation.
I am a student. I study the occurrence of magic and the bizarre in seemingly mundane circumstances and concepts. I believe the infinite formulas for our elevation (of the human consciousness) are within our capacities to be both independent and deeply inter-connected.
That is the work of one of my richest collaborations, LOVE|FORTÉ, a creative partnership between, myself, and choreographer Nia Love. Our work oscillates between our individual and collective practices, moving through time as interconnected beings tethered by an intentional and metaphysical promise to be “Both, And”.
So the gathering of collaborators for Memoirs of a … Unicorn (Set Designer Mimi Lien, Installation Artist Peiyi Wong, Lighting Designer Tuce Yasak) adhered to the promise; that whatever we made or contributed would reflect the majestic, the mundane, and the mystical. That was our rubric, our measure for worthy content. Among those collaborations were also two thought partners, Unicorn’s media designer Meena Murugesan and composer/sound designer Everett Saunders (my partner). Each of these artists, their ideas and impulses became as integral to the development of the work, as they were to its performance. While Everett had long been a chief consultant in my work, I found, in Meena, a friendship that would keep me from being protective with the personal content that informed my choreographic choices. I believe these relationships emboldened my honesty and supported my sense of abandon in performance.
Thus the power of perhaps more than collaboration- but interconnectedness.
Moreover, after returning from a site visit in Chicago I was reminded that Memoirs of a … Unicorn, and the mounting of this work in various communities across the globe, would be an intentional, dedicated effort to be in alignment with local community organizers and organizations. Standing in solidarity and support of their work, while utilizing its platform as "guest/visitor" to echo the magic of our collective histories and the promise of our future. Unicorn, in its fullest execution, would not simply show up on stages and depart after closing night. Its collaborative nature and robust production grants us the opportunity to engage the local creative power and resources of the communities we visit.
Aaaah! This light bulb of a thought was the confluence of my many hats as a community organizer, cultural worker, experimental artist, student, and partner! Touring Memoirs of a … Unicorn is a commitment to connect!
It is a commitment to performatively share the grandness, the majesty, of Black Fortitude and Vision through the embodied parceled story of my Father. And, to behind-the-scenes, garner institutional and organizational partnerships that affirm the important work of the local organizer/organization. It offers the larger institution an opportunity to deepen its resonance in often geographically distant and marginalized communities.
If the formulas for our elevation lie within our capacities to be both independent and collective,, and if performance is the act of becoming earthly AND organic, ethereal AND inorganic; then in its otherness, its “sacredness”, performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh. And as a platform for organizing, it is intricately interconnected.
“For me, Art is the restoration of order. It may discuss all sort of terrible things, but there must be satisfaction at the end. A little bit of hunger, but also satisfaction.”
— Toni Morrison
The most Science Fictional, Alien-like, Divine shit I’ve ever seen or experienced – EVER! -- was my experience as a portal for Everett Nkosi Zaire Saunders’ entrance into this dimension. My son’s birth continues to be a deep well for me as I seek to tell my stories of past, present, and future. His amazing presence reminds me of the historical lies and contemporary dangers that stalk black men, that hunt my Unicorns. His amazing presence belies the fictions that characterize black boys as “less than.” Through my art I can change the conversation from those negative images to the positive manifestations I see in my son, my father, my husband, and countless other black men. And yes, in Unicorn I become them, donning a hat and a suit; because—in another instance of inter-dimensionality—my performance enables me to cross boundaries and transcend the fluid categories of gender.
When legitimized audiences insist on their authority within the binaries of “good and bad art”, our collective commitment as artists and witnesses:
To become earthly AND organic ethereal AND inorganic.
To, in our otherness, in our sacredness, revolutionize, transform, be wild, ancient, and fresh
To be un-nameable
To surf dimensions
And to Transcend
These actions, these mantras, render the authoritative limited supremacist view—USELESS.
Their voices become barren among the fruitful minds and hearts buzzing in the hot salty summer days and nights of protest. Tossed about, in the swift gripping winds of change. Winds that whisper #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #FuckYourPronoun, and #FUCKYOURPIPELINE! Winds that ROAR!
Memoirs of a … Unicorn is simply a chord, in a collective, timeless and timely ROAR.
Additional Resource Links:
Joy DeGruy Ph D, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Bell Hooks, We Real Cool
Contact Marjani Forté & Works Admin Partner, Nadia Tykulsker at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and video excerpt of the work.
Special thanks to Dance Historian and Independent Scholar John Perpener for his dramaturgical support in helping craft this article.