By Abigail Levine
How to read Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s performance work Séancers (American Realness 2018)? Don’t. Open the program. He has given you a description of the work, a statement about the piece in his voice, and a critical contextualization by Dance Studies scholar Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild.
Séancers is an auto-ethnographic performance work that… traverses the “fatal” axis of abstraction, illegibility, identity, and gender complexity. (About Séancers)
I am attempting to describe myself into a canon that has tried to omit those like me…
I am performing myself into being…to reveal my survival and my revelry. (Statement about the work)
His concern… is our endangered Black identity which must be nurtured and nourished with a mojo strong enough to fend off the constant threat of ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Where is the Theology with final quote attributed to bell hooks)
Is it our role, then, to respond to Kosoko about the work? No. This, too, he has taken into his own hands. At each performance, he has selected an “intellectual medium” to riff with him on the themes, and to ground the dream-logic, of his work. Each invitee is a Black artist, in the two performances I saw, Okwui Okpokwasili and M. Lamar. These conversations model an engagement with Kosoko and his world and point us toward ideas and interpretations we might or might not notice on our own. They absolve those of us in the audience—or take from us the privilege—of being the sole live interpreters of the work.
These are agile, provocative closings of the circuit of performance and reception. Do not interpret me! See me, feel me, do not be sure you understand me. They may also be last-ditch moves. Certain circles of downtown performance have been live with conversations about how white privilege informs what gets seen in our theaters and galleries, by whom, and how it is understood. However, two recent reviews in The New York Times, one by Alastair Macauley and one by Gia Kourlas, suggest painfully that many, including the critic’s in the city’s “paper of record,” are doing little to expand the context which they bring to a work or question the way they see it. (1) Kosoko challenges back—if you are going to read me wrong, you are going to have to willfully ignore the mountain of information and analysis I am providing you about my work. His approach feels both patiently didactic and like a dare.
What, then, are we to do in this theater?
Our first job is to accept a gift, a literal one. As we enter the theater, Kosoko is a vision in a shiny, black and white geometric jumpsuit, a starlet’s cropped black wig, black satin gloves, and heels. He is, indeed, a lot to read. I find myself focusing on his knees where there is a slight bunching of the fabric. I try to tell if he is wearing knee pads. I hope so. Somehow I already find myself feeling protective of this character, though there is nothing to indicate he needs me. Kosoko smiles warmly and circulates through the crowd. As people settle, he approaches each of us in turn. He reaches out with both hands and offers us a chocolate kiss. If it were only a metaphor, it might fall short, but the shiny silver is exciting, and the chocolate tastes good. I feel special. I am seduced.
Kosoko gives us one more important job. As the performance begins, he picks up a small, brown baby doll, Tay-tay, and carries it up the aisle. He asks an audience member to care for the doll, instructing them to do the job for real, not to let anything happen to Tay-tay. At the first performance, the caretaker snuggles Tay-tay into the crook of their arm and keeps the doll there until Kosoko comes to scoop it up at the end of show. At the second show, the caretaker seems skeptical. Are you really asking me to care for a doll as if it were a real baby? No, not as if. Postmodern dance is literal. Take care of the doll! When I look over later, Tay-tay is lying, limbs in the air, on the person’s lap, their plastic APAP badge swinging unpleasantly close to the doll’s face each time they turn to follow the action.
Earlier in the week, artist-scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz’s delivered a performance-lecture on white privilege. Four times DeFrantz began again:
it amazes me that we still have to do this. we have to gather together to work through the terms of white privilege, white domination, white supremacy, and our responsibilities to each other as artists and people…
The talk ends forcefully, but more hopefully. At first, it feels too hopeful, too easy an assignment:
what are we to do now? to dismantle oppression might be to open toward care. care in listening and watching, sharing and shutting down the bullshit.
I think back to our shared semi-neglect of Tay-tay. In DeFrantz and Kosoko’s usage, the term care is not a question of good intentions or small gestures; it is a matter of life and death, requiring us to assume responsibility and taking action, at times, even before understanding why.
And, of course, we are at a séance. A séance requires everyone present to be a participant. We have to welcome those no longer living in this world into our presence, maybe even into our own bodies. We have to make space in ourselves for someone else, be an I and a you, or we and them at once—collapse that distance. We don’t have to know or understand. We have to receive and allow, risk becoming someone else. Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste is crucial to creating this receptivity. The sound he mixes opens perception, stretches space, sets us into shared rhythms, seems to make this theater a space for those beyond as much as us in here.
“No one moves in downtown dance anymore” says Adrienne Truscott midway through her work THIS, presented in the playhouse during the festival.
This is not true, but it is true that just about everyone on the festival stages is talking. We are in a moment of political urgency; voices that speak challenging messages are being willfully distorted and silenced. It seems this is a time to speak clearly and boldly. The ideas spoken, coming from the articulate bodies of dancers—Kosoko, Truscott, NIC Kay, Marissa Perel, Michael Portnoy’s cast of five—are strong, clear, and lodge deep.
I also found myself relishing the moments when these bodies communicated on their own terms. I recall: Perel sharing an intimate silence with an audience volunteer holding a text for them to read; Truscott bent over her own naked body and framed by the proscenium, pulling a LONG paper from her vagina, a send-up to Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll; Kirstin Shnittker performing an unrelenting petite allegro in silence, sweating, breathing harder and harder. The set-up was intended by Portnoy as a commentary, but as she kept going, her dance exceeded its intended message; NIC Kay letting us see their body shake with the strength and vulnerability—or Kosoko’s “survival and revelry”—of Patti LaBelle’s tear through Over the Rainbow.
And Kosoko… Early in the performance, he speaks Audre Lorde’s poem Power. He repeats and repeats the last line: “What beasts they are. What beasts they are…” He moves over to a pile of gold and silver metallic tape, grasping handfuls in both his hands. Facing the audience, staring, hunching, he raises and lowers to shiny thread, beating them on the ground. It’s literal again. He tells you he is a beast, then he become the beast. But then it slips. The monster becomes pattern, the rhythm that of a storm being stirred up. We leave abstraction and enter conjuring. The storm is here, the monster is here, Audre Lorde is here with the subjects of her poem, the killers and those killed. Kosoko is here with his living and dead, both those he carries willingly and those who won’t leave his body be. We are all here, quietly being blown by this storm. And it ends, and Kosoko exits the theater. We wait for him in Toussaint’s sound world. It takes some time; it really feels like waiting. Eventually, he returns—new glittering jump suit, new wig, dark, mirrored glasses—both someone we know and someone we’ve never seen before.
1. Both articles provoked strong and immediate responses by dance artists, critics, and scholars. In response to Macauley’s review of Marjani Forté-Saunders and Gillian Welsh, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Ali Rosa-Salas, and Nia Love gathered in a roundtable discussion for Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence.
Charmaine Wells wrote “Strong and Wrong: White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism” after Gia Kourlas reviewed BAM’s Dance Africa, also published by Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence.