Friday, June 2, 2017

Brownbody CoMotion's Profoundly Moving "Quiet As It's Kept"

When is the last time you saw African dance performed live? How about on ice skates? 


Photo courtesy of the Million Artists Movement

For most people the answer to the first question is likely rarely; the answer to the latter is almost always never.

Thanks to Brownbody CoMotion, that no longer has to be the case. Running for only three more days before it closes, Brownbody CoMotion is telling the history of African Americans from the Reconstruction Era on through interactive monologues, dancing and ice skating at the Highland Arena in St. Paul. The show is split into two parts: a locally created (by Thomasina and Charles Petrus) piece called Quiet As It's Kept, and a second act filled with translated choreography including Give Your Hands to Struggle, Walking with 'Trane, and A Journey to Solace. It's a truly collaborative effort, with the former a locally developed production; the latter an adaptation of choreography produced by NYC-based dance collective Urban Bush Women; and all performed by long-time ice skaters (some of whom came out of retirement) from around the country.

Photo courtesy of Brownbody 

Quiet As It's Kept is a clear focal piece of the entire performance. The audience is immediately led behind the arena under a gorgeously backlit tree of ancestors into a room filled with relics and reminders of the Reconstruction Era. Most of these visual cues, (which include stocks, clear signs of poverty, and outright lynching photos) leave little to the imagination. Before the performance even begins the audience collectively participates in a physical greeting to the ancestors. Thomasina, clad as Ida B. Wells, then leads the audience with Charles through a piece that is part dance, part drums, part monologue and part song, incorporating quotes about the time period, songs and dance of the era, and an overwhelming sense of legacy. Quiet As It's Kept then transitions the audience from the relic room into the arena itself, where original musical compositions (performed live) are complimented with a strikingly literal dance on the ice. Thomasina sings the skaters literally into the strange fruit they are born of in a gorgeously chilling invocation of Billie Holiday, and music and red and blue lighting are interspersed with the sound of gunshots, sirens and a single word: GUILTY.

Photo courtesy of Brownbody

The twisted movements and broken angles of Quiet As It's Kept's choreography are echoed in the second act's dance pieces, which more literally translate dances normally performed on land onto the ice. This obviously creates some awkward moments for those who are used to the more lyrical, balletic ice skating of the Olympics or Disney on Ice. In fact at times it's downright uncomfortable to watch - these performers do not glide or passe, they score and chop and hack at the ice, burning through their pieces in a blaze of passion. There are no swan-like, extended limbs slowly floating through the air here; these are dances of twisted angles, more like a peregrine falcon searing through the air as it seeks its prey (or escapes becoming prey of its own). It's a totally unique experience and unlike anything I've ever seen, and it definitely forces the audience into a very thoughtful consideration of our cultural expectations of certain sports and gestures, and of our own preconceived notions of what art (or ice skating or dancing or....) is "supposed" to be.

Photo courtesy of Brownbody

Brownbody has been around for some time but unfortunately dormant for the last few years. They have returned this year as partners with Urban Bush Women dance to help create these unique pieces and perform community outreach, such as giving free skating lessons to students of color. Brownbody's mission statement says that it aspires to:
1. Make the ice welcoming to communities of color by opening the rink doors and telling stories of significance.
2. Show that the ice is a medium for more than jumps, spins and sparkly costumes.
3. Bring stories from the edges to the attention of the mainstream, to expand horizons and change perspectives.
If last night's performance is any indication, Brownbody has succeeded at these goals swimmingly. This CoMotion piece is a truly intersectional work, a fact attested to by the artists in the talk-back after the show. Several (many of whom are veterans who have worked in ice skating and the arts for decades) said that this was unlike any experience they've ever had, truly collaborative and intentionally intersectional, and that although it was more difficult than previous work they have done, it was also the most meaningful career experience they've had so far. Several young black women in the audience said they were inspired to learn to skate after never having considered it before, and it was clear that this was a truly unique experience for the audience as well. I love Brownbody's mission (in fact I wish we had a whole lot more Brownbodys shaking up every industry!), so I do hope they are able to continue performing with a shorter hiatus this time in between pieces. Representation is so incredibly important, as is having a deep understanding of history. Brownbody CoMotion has provided both representation and history in spades here, and it was clearly a profound moment for many in the audience.

Photo courtesy of the Million Artist Movement

An additional testament to Brownbody's holistic approach to their subject? The lobby and arena are filled with power tree quilts from the Million Artist Movement (MAM), a project that "believes in the role of Art in the campaign to dismantle oppressive racist systems against Black, Brown, Indigenous and disenfranchised peoples." Community members work together to create individual works of art about their experience and beliefs on quilt squares, which are assembled and displayed as full size quilts with the power tree symbol at the center. The power tree is described thus:
"The strength of a tree is in its roots; the same is true for the movement. Therefore the roots represent the critical work that we must do to be grounded; 1) Explicate/Claim/Reclaim our narratives, 2) Honor and remember stolen lives, 3) Recognize and learn from our REVOLUTIONARIES, SHEROS, AND ANCESTORS." 
So far the MAM is based in the Twin Cities, and I'm sure it will spread further soon. For more information (and you want more details, it's amazing): click here.

Photo courtesy of Brownbody

It's such an interesting time to have debuted Quiet As It's Kept. With storms brewing over the Ordway's production of West Side Story, the Guthrie's questionable production of Refugia, and the brouhaha over the soon to be burned Scaffold at the Walker Art Center, there is quite a conversation happening in the Twin Cities over literal depictions of racial trauma. What sets Quiet As It's Kept apart from the aforementioned pieces is that it is the only one written, created and performed by and for audiences of color, in this case specifically to African Americans. Quiet As It's Kept is filled with troubling, dark subject matter, but it never enters the realm of the macabre or tasteless because this is simply a case of people telling their own story. There were many references to the ancestors, invocations for them to join us, and an overwhelmingly long eye towards history throughout the piece as it unfolded. This solid foundation of self-identity grounds Quiet As It's Kept and leads it to being a powerful statement for audiences of any stripe that will leave you much to ponder for days after you see it. For more information or to buy tickets (this only runs through June 4 so get your tickets now!), click on this link.