These Strands are Related
UBW Choreographic Fellow Maria Bauman-Morales and MBDance premiere (re)Source at the Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance (BAAD!) in partnership with the Chocolate Factory Theater as part of 2019 BLAKTINX Festival September 25, 26**, 27 & 28. With (re)Source, Bauman-Morales is blurring the distinctions between audience and performer; between dance, visual art and performance art; between planning and improvisation.
Maria was recently awarded a coveted 2019-2020 Gibney Dance in Process (DiP) residency to develop her next work Desire: A Sankofa Dream which will have its world premiere at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in spring 2021.
This article was written by Maria to offer insight into (re)Source and is a companion piece to her previously released article/interview with Jawole Zollar.
*Thursday, Sept 26 show has been added due to demand!
Spirit, urgency, work ethic/efficacy, and a question. It’s a conjuring, a trying, an experiment, a work of art, a synthesis, a hunch, a bet.
(re)Source is an evening-length, live danced and spoken artwork performed inside an audience-co-created installation which I designed with scenic assistance from Zimbabwean-born interdisciplinary artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti. Dance and choreography charge the space and are interwoven with original text and strong visual design. I dance through, with, in and in spite of the visual, sonic and human landscapes which house (re)Source. Within the work, I employ some of my families' history as a complex microcosm of race relations in the United States, digging into the process of other-ing, being other-ed and reclaiming radical connection.
The installation and performance exist in and among audience members seated perpendicular to one another in duos and in clustered trios. Their empty chairs are tethered together with ombre yarn, which radiates from the walls and ceilings and is a three-dimensional color-coded map of my family tree, foreshadowing the relational nature of the performance. Once pre-arranged seats are full, audience members are invited to take a folding chair and place it wherever they like, co-creating the visual landscape and adding to the unique unfolding of each performance. Cat’s Cradle, spider web, tapestry--innumerable strands of yarn are spun and hung for (re)Source. They are both physical connectors--the yarn used for knitting and binding--and fragments of stories as in “Tell me a good yarn.”
Here is one strand, or several. In January 2017, while speaking with one of my grandmothers on the phone, she told me she was “great!” I could picture the smile on her face as she said it; when she spoke, I heard the jumped notes that made the word sound slightly musical. From her house in Brunswick, GA to the Brooklyn sidewalk on which I stood, her mood was palpable. I adore my Grandma Emma and so was thrilled to hear her so content, so excited. Yet I, a perpetual optimist, lover of people, a person determined to control my own destiny and in turn my outlook, was not feeling “great!”
That day I was feeling resentful, frightened, small, almost useless. I had been feeling so for weeks, coming up for air at times to dance, to spend time with my then-girlfriend now-wife, to continue my community organizing practice—but scared deep down. Donald Trump and his administration were in the midst of announcing their travel ban. Threats and fury about the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States had reached full cacophony. My partner and I were furious that a candidate who had bragged about the freedom he felt in grabbing women and forcing them to kiss him was leading the country in which we live. I was outwardly continuing my regular life, still endeavoring to help myself and my community members reach and retain our full humanity but, inside, I had retreated. I was in denial. I couldn’t take it. I didn’t know what to make of it all.
And my Grandma Emma was “Great!”
These strands are related. Each yarn has history, and each strand of the story has an ancestor.
Let’s follow this strand back and find its origin point. Since 2015, I have embarked on a series of outdoor dance improvisations on non-traditional, inclined and bumpy surfaces in multiple settings. I’ve danced on hilltops; on round, ridged logs; through playground jungle gyms; and atop thin rails which barricade small trees planted along sidewalks. I do this to test and hone my ability to navigate with my body and to marry my choreography to environments that feel more relevant to me than dance studios. I am learning how my physicality is both limited and expanded by the terrain. My exploration of inclined surfaces and uneven terrain as surfaces for dancing helps me know who I am. What do I really have and what can I really do? “Let’s see,” the outdoor dance practice challenges me.
(re)Source is an indoor work, but it is intimately braided with my outdoor dancing practice. The installation I created functions in a multiplicity of ways; some of the installation’s facets are an abstracted family tree, a web that ensares and tethers together audience members and performer alike, a literal matrix of possibilities. Some of the functions of the installation defy words; some facets are intuited like a whisper or like a shadow for which language is too rigid a support. One image that the hologram-like installation conjures for me—one that I can speak and write about—is of an obstacle course. In order to dance through and with it, I must jump, crawl, shimmy, aim, slow down, pick up speed, and maneuver. Unlike my dancing on an empty or near-empty stage, I don’t simply choose to enact those verbs. Within the web of (re)Source, I must bring my physicality to bear or risk bringing the whole installation crashing down and making a mess of the audience members. Like in my outdoor dancing, improvising within my carefully planned score for (re)Source is risky and unpredictable.
My empathetic nature and my choreographic emphasis on intimacy and risk are pulling me away from the proscenium stage setup. As Trump's US becomes more rigid, small and exclusive, I am charging myself and audience members to be more bold in our imagination of possibilities, more explicit about our desires, and more ready to connect with one another. While most of my early works are for stage, I am now fixated on utilizing the performer(s) not as “other” but as accessible entities charged with hyper-aliveness and immediacy. The proscenium, from which I have learned much, does not feel relevant enough to me right now. It does not feel urgent nor risky. I am a skilled and experienced enough performing artist to rest on (perhaps not to rest but to utilize comfortably) technique and charisma as modes of communication with audience members. Those communication modes serve many purposes including inspiring audiences, offering respite from both the gravity and mundanity of daily life outside the theater, and elevating stories and people who are often hidden pushed out of mainstream affirmation. However, I am in a period of pushing my own authenticity and experimenting with interdependence between audience and performing artist. Performing this way is a practice in intimacy and in meeting higher stakes; that practice feels urgent given the gross imbalance of power we are all living within. Offstage, in performance, I am practicing courage and inviting audience members to practice it with me.
Back to the other strand. The first one. Or was it the first? Perhaps the dream wherein my deceased father gave me lyrics and an image of me standing high above the ground on a narrow window sill was the first strand of (re)Source. Is it possible to know where a ball of yarn actually begins?
So my Grandma Emma was “great” and I was questionable, fair-to-middlin’. I meditated on our conversation and it occurred to me that my Grandma Emma has been through much worse. The travel ban, the wall, the sexual predator as leader were and are all heinous. We had and have a right and responsibility to be indignant about those maladies. Yet my grandmother had worked as a sharecropper as a little girl, had lived through obvious and legal white supremacy which affected every policy and institution in the U.S., had been welcomed to Earth this time around during The Great Depression. “How,” I mused “has she been making it this whole time?” How had my father made it, how had my great-grandparents?
And those were the Black people in my family. What about the white folks? How had my great-great-grandmother Maria Ascenson, for whom I am named, endured her only son hopping on a ship to “the new world” from Portugal, never to return to her? How had my ancestors who were formerly English and Portuguese survived trading their culture for whiteness, Americanism and power? How had they adapted, positively and to their/our detriment, to the thirteen colonies and then to the United States and to their role as oppressors within those new creations? My talk with my grandmother begged the questions “How can I make it?, What do my ancestors know and so what can I know?, and How are we able to survive the United States? Can we thrive?”
More strands. My guiding questions for the work are: What resources do I--and people like me--have for thriving within a national landscape which devalues us based on race, gender and sexuality? What specific, unique physical and imaginative capacities can we utilize to traverse this uneven and shifting terrain? What resources do my family members, both Black and white people, use to navigate racism and nationalism in the US? How, when and for what varying reasons did my ancestors--hailing from African countries, Portugal and England--assimilate into US culture? What instruments and maps do I, and we, have to guide our journeys--recipes, ancestral memories, daily routines and the like? What are costs and/or the gifts, especially to people of color and queer folks, of constantly tapping internal, spiritual and familial resources—physically and emotionally? What does it mean to be, and to have to be, resourceful--to source again and again and again?
The questions give birth to rich and juxtaposing themes including a metaphor relating mother-daughter relationships to refined sugar; contrasting the archival of George Washington's beer recipe at the New York Public Library with the archival of my Grandma Emma's biscuit recipe in my mind and in my cousin TaShawnta's muscle memory; and interrogating the similarities and differences between my (Black) disappeared Great Uncle Artis Lane's vanishing in the Southern US and African maroons in the Americas.
In dancing (re)Source, I speak with audience members, climb through them with safety and consent, ask for their help at times, and dance among them. This raises the stakes, the potential for failure and the potential for intimacy. Sometimes audience members/witnesses comment back to me as I am speaking and dancing. Sometimes they look closely at me and other times they do not meet my gaze.
With (re)Source, I am bringing my community organizer skills of building trust and mutual support to bear in performance. Because of the installation, at times I need to ask audience members for a hand in making it over or under the web. Of course, different people respond differently. Thus my skills in being resourceful, willful, honest, athletic, and vulnerable while still holding the performance space with presence and trustworthiness are tested.
The whole installation may fall down. The audience members may say “no” when I ask for help shimmying under the chairs. The strands may sag and unravel. They may not. If they do, my greatest hope is that we co-create something new together. In my dreams, we laugh out of nervousness and embarrassment and then spin a yarn to pass the time while we figure out what’s next.