Giving Voice to Collective Memory
May 2 – 4, 2019
St. Mark’s Church on 10th Street first began programming artists almost one hundred years ago, when writers such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Kahil Gibran echoed their words into the building. Before that, the church’s Episcopal congregation worshiped, prayed, and sang in the church as early as 1799, the year the parish hall was completed. Whenever a contemporary performance begins at St. Mark’s Church today—it is now home to Danspace Project, founded in 1974, among other art and performance programs—the church bell tolls the hour. The bell is a reminder that whatever new work is about to transpire, it is tied to the expansive lineage of artists and actions that have occurred at this site for centuries.
The Friday performance of Tatyana Tenebaum and Jasmine Hearn’s shared evening, collective terrain/s—which premiered at St. Mark’s Church from May 2 to 4—began with an acknowledgement of country for the Lenape people on whose land we were gathered. Tenebaum and Hearn collaborated with Danspace Project Program Director Lydia Bell to create a mini-festival with a focus on vocalization and the moving body, and on how our voices connect us to voices past. As well as presenting their own works, Tenebaum and Hearn programmed Tendayi Kuumba and Samita Sinha—who presented works the previous week—as well as producing a collective terrain/s publication.
In Tenebaum’s work Tidal, the first of the evening, the seven performers sang together, their harmonies, both pleasing and atonal, leading them into movement. (The work brought to mind Meredith Monk, who first presented her interdisciplinary vocal performances at St. Mark’s Church in 1975). With her ongoing practice of vocalizing as a means to unlock new physical patterns, Tenebaum draws one’s attention to unseeable movements of the body. Hearing the dancers’ voices, you can imagine how sound and resonance—micro-vibrations inside one’s physical frame—initiate subtle physical shifts. As such, the dance in Tidal was softened; the dancers mostly stood upright, feet grounded, allowing the movement inside their ribcage to ripple outward to their gestural arms, which would then take shape to support the sound.
In a post-show discussion, facilitated by artist Okwui Okpokwasili, Tenebaum described her work with the phrase “sensual atonality,” the human voice possessing a tactile quality that finds harmony with others even in dischordance. Listening to Tenebaum speak, I understood why her onomatopoeic fascination has become an obsession. Tenebaum paused before every utterance, then slowly and deliberately chose her words. Language doesn’t pour out of her effortlessly, and much like a stutterer, she found it easier at times to sing her way through an explanation of her work than to speak it. The somewhat struggleful process of shaping her ideas into words seemed more about weighing each word for truth than about being lost for words altogether, and this fastidiousness will likely keep her curious about vocalization for a lifetime.
Dissent, Tenebaum said, was crucial to her practice, to permit her performers to break the rules of the work (although Tenebaum admitted that she is fastidious about pitch). Yet the singing and subsequent movement in Tidal had a hesitancy. When Tenebaum talks of “what the sound unlocks” in one’s body, that unlocking is sensitive and brittle, rarely disruptive or collectively forceful, perhaps to a fault. Given the church setting, along with Tenebaum’s admitted interest in “sweet Americana musical theater” (both her grandparents were Broadway producers), Tenebaum and her chorus are almost puritanical. Interestingly, Tenebaum later described an “empty yearning” at the heart of her practice, that within this spiritual act of singing there is a negative capability. Tidal conjures histories, but it conjures by emptying out, emptying out to fill with space—much as our ribs expand to let in breath.
Jasmine Hearn conjures to complicate, to pack with life, to fill to the point of bursting open. Hearn’s piece, you think you fancy, began with two performers running back and forth, passing each other center stage while calling out “Hey sis!” until one caught the other by the hand, snapping their divergent momentums and flinging them into the dance. That initial rupture would be the first of many—some quiet, some devastating—that kept you think you fancy humming with possibility. When choreography can make it seem that anything might happen at any moment, while such unpredictability is held by the artists with severe clarity, the vitality of dancing bodies is thrown into sharpest relief. This is precisely the tension that Hearn and her collaborators wield in you think you fancy.
The eleven performers, all people of color, were dressed in outfits that perfectly married disparate references; sports jerseys, college sweaters, head scarves, and sequined “Sunday best” dresses. Athena Kokoronis of Domestic Performance Agency—who designed and constructed the wardrobe in collaboration with Hearn—had built some of the outfits onto the performers’ bodies as they danced, giving the costumes their own motion—their own life.
The performers moved at times like they were in a dance class (flocking across the floor in unison), at times like at a block party, at times as if they were alone in their bedrooms. One performer knelt, cradling a swath of fabric, sobbing and gasping, her throat clutching at the air in grief. Others congregated together to cross the stage on a diagonal, finger-snapping and “Hey girl”-ing and singing along to Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick. One performer took a microphone to give directions to the airport—“past the Waffle House”—while another took the microphone to preach about protecting the lives of black girls.
All these distinct performative worlds existed simultaneously, akin to Childish Gambino’s “This is America” where dancing and violence and joy all live inside the same frame, competing for our attention. Okpokwasili later likened this structure to the African diaspora, seemingly disconnected worlds that are all parts of the same story. In a discussion from the first day of Hearn and Tenebaum’s Danspace residency, included as a transcript in the collective terrain/s publication, Hearn said she was looking for “a way to come together but also respect that we all have our personal truths and we will never understand where each person comes from, really, ever.” Hearn’s capacity to house each of her casts’ distinct performances in this crowded choreography is both generous and virtuosic. Or, to borrow a word from the written response to you think you fancy by Rochelle Jamila Wilbun, supreme.
Choreographers have long been facilitators of collectives, and a choreography is almost always the work of multiple artists. collective terrain/s carries that concept further, whereby choreography, be it of bodies or of voices, draws the bodies and voices from the past into the present, making time of a geography that we might traverse together, even as we may never fully decipher each other’s maps.