As a response to the performances presented in Momentum: New Dance Works, this year’s commissioned artists were asked to select writers who could provide relevant context on their work and speak to how each artist is pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance forms. Three of the four works are discussed here, and an interview with Leslie Parker, gives an additional window into the fourth piece in the festival.
A.P. Looze on estrogendystopiaeuphoricdysphoria
(working title?? ? maybe Just call it ‘ash’)
by Judith Holo (J. H.) Shuǐ Xiān
J. H. Shuǐ Xiān’s performance estrogendystopiaeuphoricdysphoria (working title?? ? maybe Just call it ‘ash’) broke my heart. This piece offered an exhausting, arduous, and overwhelming tribute to the inner pain of being trans femme in this world.
Shuǐ Xiān’s undertaking was huge—they choreographed a solo dance, in which they embodied painful stories of many trans femme people’s experiences, derived from interviews throughout their process. The stage looked like a closet that had erupted, with underwear, fur coats, and skirts and dresses strewn about. Musician Sophia Nearhood was on stage with Shuǐ Xiān, orchestrating grating, loud, synthesized music from a messy table with a desktop computer.
Shuǐ Xiān had cordoned off specific areas on the stage for trans and nonbinary audience members to sit and asked cis-identified people to sit in the seats away from the stage. As a trans person, I felt like I was being invited into a séance of our suffering, to hold each other, and not forget that even though trans visibility has soared in the last five years, and the general population is more aware of, and sensitive to, trans people than ever before, the world is still set up in a way that does not allow for complex, multidimensional experiences of gender to flourish in a safe and totally revolutionary way.
Shuǐ Xiān’s movements were fluid and languid, interspersed with delicate, intricate, and intimate gestures, and were then erratic, suddenly stopping or stomping on the ground and completely shifting gears with what their body was articulating. To me it represented a sort of self-flagellation—the second Shuǐ Xiān felt comfortable and open and free in their body, they cut themself off from the experience, as if joy or freedom of expression were not entirely deserved. Welcome to the inner world of a trans person.
It is internally confounding to be trans. It is disorienting, anxiety-provoking, and at times it can feel utterly disheartening and impossible. I saw Shuǐ Xiān tackling this in their sloppy outfit changes, attempting to embody a different type of femme each time and appearing to fail. Throughout the piece, Shuǐ Xiān interacted with differing faux fur coats, sometimes wearing them, sometimes using them to shield their face, and sometimes writhing around with them on the floor. They represented to me a conformist, heteronormative femme identity that Shuǐ Xiān was attempting to contend with. At the end, they wore four of them at once, layering them on top of each other, creating an armor of synthetic fur, illustrating to me the layers of performed fakeness trans people wear to protect their tender and complex gender experience from the violent world. It reminded me of an individual’s personal theorization of Jack Halberstam’s idea of the queer art of failure—I watched Shuǐ Xiān repeatedly “fail” at conforming to a heteronormative version of their queer femme identity. Shuǐ Xiān’s alternative, queered interpretation was that of layered faux opulence. As much as trans people create beautiful alternative ways of living in this world, they are built on a layer of unresolvable turmoil, and Shuǐ Xiān’s pain was still gleaming through, via their sobering facial expression and the sheer intensity of the music and dance.
What saddened me and simultaneously excited me about the piece was that Shuǐ Xiān never resolved it. It ended abruptly, at a heightened moment. I was left feeling their despair and my own despair and the despair of other trans people who never feel “real” enough, or even trans enough. It was an intense and generous reminder of how gut-wrenching, mind-bending, and utterly unfathomable it can feel like to be trans. I walked away holding compassion for my, and other’s, trans souls—as well as Shuǐ Xiān, who had mined and performed the wounding of a collective trans femme psyche. I could tell and appreciated how they felt no responsibility to make their work more palatable for anyone or to take care of an audience by putting some sort of fake cherry on top. They held their integrity, which is an admirable feat for an emerging artist.
This was a strong and memorable piece, and I look forward to more of Shuǐ Xiān’s powerful and arresting work.
Myra Dawn Billund-Phibbs on
estrogendystopiaeuphoricdysphoria (working title?? ? maybe Just call it ‘ash’)
by Judith Holo (J. H.) Shuǐ Xiān
The goal of estrogendystopiaeuphoricdysphoria (working title?? ? maybe Just call it ‘ash’) was not to make people feel happy inside, was not to reinforce the dominant culture, not to assuage or soothe or make the audience comfortable. The goal was to break barriers, and that isn’t always popular. This is why Judy’s work is so special to me, not only because I am a transwoman, but because it represents something beautiful and difficult and honest, something I’d never seen onstage before.
Judy’s movements, with an incredible accompanying score by Sophia Nearhood, are not perfectly fluid. Are not choreographed to death. Are not things you’ll see in every other dance show. They’re something much better. In the show, their movements ran the gamut from jerking and spasming to seemingly floating along to hopping and bouncing to writhing and stretching to running, and on and on. This was dance, but it was more transition, onstage. I felt viscerally that for the first time I was seeing the experience of transition writ large in a performance, and it put me in tears. Writhing and shaking on the ground, wanting to hide from the world, from the spotlight, from everybody. Not wanting to leave the house. Preening and posing, coming into a changing sexuality in a changing body. Dressing, undressing, flinging clothes, performing the everyday dance, performing gender roles, wrestling with clothing, with things that don’t fit, that don’t look right, maybe wrestling with your body itself. Every movement of Judy’s body was a memory I could recall, a feeling somewhere that maybe had been dormant, a place I could now access in my mind. Watching them take total control of their surroundings and their audience, and being taken along with them, led down a path somewhere exciting and maybe frightening, but definitely new. This is what I love about Judy’s work, every time. And watching the piece, I had a feeling that can’t be explained in a review, that can’t be shown in a picture. A feeling of a new world opening up before me, a world where our struggles and exultant beauty and resilience as trans people is onstage, is honored and cherished, is art. Maybe estrogendystopiaeuphoricdysphoria (working title?? ? maybe Just call it ‘ash’) isn’t for everyone. Maybe part of its beauty is that it doesn’t try to be.
Maia Maiden on
StagNATION by Herbert Johnson III
By definition, stagnation means “the state of not flowing or moving”, “lack of growth, activity or development”—that was until recent Momentum artist Herbert Johnson III gave the word new meaning through KRUMP. KRUMP, or Kingdom Radically Uplifting Mighty Praise, hit the Frey Theatre stage, bringing life and understanding to what it means to be an artist coming from a street dance form. Johnson, also known as Fair Warning, created an interactive, intricate work. Notably, the audience was engaged and amazed from start to finish, as applauses of affirmation and comments of excellence radiated during the evening. Aside uprising newcomer Stain from Minneapolis, with the founder of Wonder Women KRUMP Encore from Las Vegas, and pioneer of the Canadian KRUMP scene 7Starr from Montreal, the cast left nothing to the imagination when it came to technique, skill, and dedication to the craft. An invitation into the story from the program notes began with: “The ones that can move the earth with their fingertips; confined and isolated. The forming of barriers around deconstructed beings to simply keep them from being.” Barriers… deconstructed… being—soon these concepts should take shape through the artists’ choreography and interactions with the audience. As the audience worked together to unlock the doors of the theater, the stage was transformed to include mannequins with a puzzle to solve, a phone number to dial, and a key to find. The key unlocked a chained 7Starr, who repeated, “I am nothing.” The purpose of each character unfolded, as the original sound score created by Sleek revealed insights to enhance the story, giving another layer of meaning to its development. From the flowing strength of the arms to the staccato breaks in the chest to the embodied musicality of the rhythm, the journey was endless. A reflection of the societal “players” and messages received, this work showed us who we could be… or maybe who we already are.
Likhwa Ndlovu on
Atlantis 13 by Jonathan van Arneman
Two ancestral masked spirits, bound by a cloth of blood, sway to a guttural incantation.
Their articulate movement is echoed by a vibrant traditional fabric that drapes their bodies. Behind them knelt the souls of the undead. Black bodies prostrating behind blue and yellow luminescent caskets, thus drenching their white garments in a flurry of aquamarine. Their faces are void of emotion, of fear, of solace, and of remorse. Drifting in this purgatory, they witness the bond between spirits rupturing, calling life unto them, hence birthing the diaspora.
I sat in the audience and quickly realized that these dancers were not just performing—they were communing with the ancestors. Discovering themselves. Meditating. With their bodies as vessels, they were recounting an epic history: the story of Atlantis.
“Our mothers were pregnant African women thrown overboard while crossing the Atlantic on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb.”
—“The Deep” by clipping
These lyrics fostered the incipient ideas of Atlantis 13, a dance performance by Jonathan van Arneman, in collaboration with choreographer Peace Madimutsa. The pair paralleled the lyrics with the story of Igbo Landing: the history of Igbo people who took control of their slave ship but, upon realizing that docking destined them to slavery, committed themselves to the sea. Through this medley of mythology and history, Arneman and Madimutsa fashioned the tale of thirteen African tribes summoned to establish an underwater utopia. Each of the twelve dancers crafted a unique story to represent one of the tribes and their distinct arrival to Atlantis.
Arneman and Madimutsa’s union is one of individual perspectives, with an overarching collective story, that offered a non-monolithic representation of blackness through dance. It is not often that you see a performance that truncates various facets of diasporic identity in multiple characters on stage. I felt each movement reaching out, weaving through history with the cognizance and grace of oratory tradition. The dance became an extension of my identity, speaking to my lived experience. Genres ranged from krump, modern, hip hop, vogue, and capoeira to antsula, Afro-traditional, kwaito, gumboot dance, and more. This multifaceted choreography gave platform to each tribe’s voice and, conversely, invited the audience to find their own. Music functioned as the backbone of this introspection.
Each song was clearly curated to piece the sections of the story into an emotional prompt. The songs spoke of revolt, intergenerational trauma, rememory, the middle passage, and rebirth. Boldly opening with the Hebrew-sung “Incantation” by Moses Sumney, the performers assumed spiritual forms and challenge the audience to do the same.
I recall a remarkable scene, during “Ya Badimo” by Black Motion, where the two ancestral spirits, Gule Wamkulu, equip the tribes with the tools to enter Atlantis. The music transitions into The Soil’s “Unspoken Word,” during which each tribe ceremonially meditates on their past lives, highlighting what was important to them. Their family, their trade, their Gods. Then, the tribes cleansed themselves with water before entering the portal to Atlantis. This evocation of emotion was common throughout the performance. I was submerged in a range of emotions, from the lighthearted comic elements performed to “Toast” by Koffee to the solemn homage paid to all the lost black and brown bodies during The Internet’s “Penthouse Cloud.” I incessantly felt the tribes calling out to me, and after what felt like a buildup of tension in the form of silence, I finally responded.
I sat in the audience whistling, grunting, and ululating—essentially, conjuring all the spirits embedded in me. I was so entranced by the performance that I did not realize that I was not alone. Other voices from the crowd contributed to this cacophony of tongues. Each of us entered the performance with our own histories. The descendants of hunters, priests, tricksters, griots, peasants and royalty, yet we all ended up here together. We were lone voices singing a collective hymn. We felt the twelve tribes on stage call unto us, and we responded. We became the thirteenth tribe of Atlantis.