Making dance out of survival skills and reckoning with grief

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Making dance out of survival skills and reckoning with grief
The dance platform class of 2022, from left, Iele Paloumpis, Rashaun Mitchell, Mayfield Brooks, Silas Riener and Ogemdi Ude, at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the home of Danspace Project, in New York, April 21, 2022. Live audiences return for new performances at Danspace Project in which artists touch on and explore moving intersections between life and dance. Sasha Arutyunova/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- How does dance persist in trying times?

When she began to sketch out the first live platform event at Danspace Project since the shutdown of 2020, Judy Hussie-Taylor, the organization’s executive director and chief curator, had a question: With so much of the dance world on lockdown and the line between art and life more blurry than ever, how were artists being influenced by what they were doing outside of making dance?

Certain choreographers came to mind for the platform, a selection of performances and conversations organized around a particular theme. Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, partners on and off the stage, bought a 1970s house in upstate New York before the pandemic. They basically remade the home — and became carpenters in the process. Dance artist Ogemdi Ude works as a birth and postpartum doula. Mayfield Brooks has extensive experience as an urban farmer. And Iele Paloumpis, a visually impaired artist, has been an end-of-life doula. For all of them, their skills speak to aspects of survival.

All are participants in Platform 2022, curated by Hussie-Taylor, along with the curatorial team of Benjamin Akio Kimitch and Seta Morton. Its title, “The Dream of the Audience (Part II),” comes from a 1977 poem by artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who refers to the audience as “a distant relative.” In Part I, which Danspace presented in 2021, that was especially true: It was virtual.

For the latest iteration, which runs through June 11, the artists touch, in personal ways, on intersections between life and dance. This week, Mitchell and Riener present “RETROFIT: a new age,” an improvisatory performance installation that points out how much they are negotiating and making choices in both their carpentry and their dancing lives. “I feel like the two processes began to collide,” Riener said. “We were dancing our home renovation and home renovating our dance at the same time.”

If previous platforms have focused on individual artists or overarching ideas, this one is more of an awakening, exploring grief and connection, loss and love, lies and truths. Accessibility is important; audio description is an ingredient at select performances at Danspace Project where dreaming of an audience — and taking care of it — is no longer just a dream but a reality.

Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener

In “RETROFIT: a new age” (which opened Thursday and runs through Saturday), Mitchell and Riener continue building improvisational structures and considering the way they relate to everyday objects. What is the connection between dancing and watching dance happen?

“There’s a way that your attention is moving through time and space when you’re inside the project,” Riener said. “We wanted to create a version of that for the audience as well — that you kind of watch things change over time if you want, or you go and come back and it’s a completely different experience.” (Audience members are free to come and go during four-hour sessions; timed tickets, however, are required.)

Choreography and carpentry — moving bodies and everyday objects or breaking down walls — have shown Mitchell and Riener a new way of looking at their dance making. How do the two relate? “We really have completely transformed this little house,” Mitchell said. “It’s completely unrecognizable from when we first started. And it also feels like we can be doing this for another 20, 30 years or maybe the rest of our lives, honestly. It’s kind of similar to dance in that way where it doesn’t ever really feel like it’s finished. It’s always in transition.”

Mayfield Brooks

For “Sensoria: An Opera Strange” (June 9-11), Brooks, who uses the pronouns they/them, continues research into the sonic life of whales and the whale fall, which refers to the decomposition that happens when a whale’s body, after falling to the ocean floor, provides food and nutrients for creatures of the sea.

“I don’t know how to make an opera,” Brooks said, “but what I do know is that the enormity of this mammal that has been kind of guiding me through this process is operatic.”

Brooks’ previous work, “Whale Fall,” created last year at Abrons Arts Center, was a film, a visual experience, but “Sensoria” will be an auditory one in collaboration with composer Anya Yermakova, who works with underwater sounds.

Brooks is thinking of it as an episodic event with built-in pauses during which the audience can choose what they want to do. “It’s really just about offering space, breathing space,” Brooks said. “You don’t have to stay the whole time. You can go home and come back tomorrow or not come back at all.”

“Sensoria” is part of a larger exploration: How do you decompose grief? Within the work is a moment honoring Brooks’ former dance partner, Indira Suganda, who died in 2009 at 44. “We gardened together and we danced together,” Brooks said. “In the piece, I do a duet with her. It’s a lifelong grieving process.”

Ogemdi Ude

What is the difference between telling a story and telling a lie? In “I know exactly what you mean” (May 12-14), Ogemdi Ude looks at how both come into play when reviving cultural memories. “I like to describe the piece as that feeling when you are at a party and a song comes on and every single person in the room is singing along,” she said; and if you don’t know it, “you are going to fake for the life of you that you know the song.”

It shows how much you value acceptance and just being in others’ company, for sure. But what, Ude asks, does it show about the little gaps in our connections with one another? The work draws on many things: Black femmes, personal stories, popular music and the work of Toni Morrison, specifically her ideas around memory and rememory, or recalling forgotten moments.

“How can we take the fragments of ourselves and our stories and restitch them in a way that is autonomous?” she said. “If I decided to reconstruct myself, what would that look like on my own terms?”

Iele Paloumpis

The emphasis this year on accessibility is perhaps most evident in Iele Paloumpis’ “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky” (May 26, 28), which was intended to have its premiere in 2020. Paloumpis, who uses the pronouns they/them, includes audio description for each performance; in the work, they have created a sensory landscape that decenters sight as a way to experience movement.

As “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky” strives to expand how we consider perception and dance, it also explores trauma and resilience. How does it pass from one generation to the next? Paloumpis was thinking about how catastrophes and trauma happen all around us. “The land that we live on is really quite literally soaked in blood,” they said.

Personally, Paloumpis has over the past two years experienced the effects of long COVID; they aren’t able to dance in the same way they could before. In a necessary switch, Paloumpis will describe the movements of Seta Morton, who was originally going to be Paloumpis’ audio descriptor. Vocalization has become a movement practice.

“I’m still relearning my body,” Paloumpis said, and “I can feel subtle movement happening in my vocal cords. One of the things that I was exploring was ancestral inheritance and resilience, so I looked to the Byzantine chanting that I grew up with in my youth. I’ve started to integrate that or even the rebetiko” — Greek blues — “and different folk songs.”

Paloumpis is estranged from the Greek side of their family. That can be painful. “Now, I’m finding ways to be with it on my own terms, to be with the complexity of it,” they said. “And to share it with others.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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