Movement, music and film combine in dance symposium opener

Photo Courtesy of WCMA.
Individual wire elements (above) were carried into the gallery by members of Kusika; the pieces will remain on view in the WCMA rotunda.

What do museum installations, Grammy Award-winning Benninese singer Angelique Kidjo and short films have in common? On Friday, all three were brought to life through the medium of dance at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA).

WCMA kicked off the two-day Dance/Performance in Interdisciplinary Perspective symposium, held in partnership with the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, with a  brilliant triple-threat performance celebrating the use of movement as performance to preserve memory.

The set opened with Walking, a collaboration between Director of Dance Sandra Burton’s Kusika ensemble and sculptural artist Maren Hassinger that served as a performative installation of her 1978 work of the same name. Walking’s individual pieces consisted of wire spun together into 148 distinct elements that were made to blend sculpture with movement improvisation on the part of the viewer. These pieces were carried in by the dancers in a slow procession following an initial dance by Burton, each dancer navigating the space with a distinct style before placing their element on the floor of the rotunda.

Initially conducted in an atmosphere of silence, various noisemakers gradually created an immersive background ambience that rendered an almost musicality to the interactions of the dancers with the space and each other. When the final elements were placed and the ensemble members dispersed, the installation stood as any other in the art museum; future patrons can now view it as visual art, but the art that brought it into the museum was a one-time experience.

Following the installation of Walking was Explorations in Embodying Diaspora, a performance by Associate Professor of Africana Studies Rashida K. Braggs. Based on her research in female jazz artists of the African Diaspora, Braggs played the part of Kidjo in her dance excerpt.

Making use of scarves as her primary prop and a voice-over narration as a framing device, Braggs embodied Kidjo’s travels to France, Germany and the United States. She used her powerful singing voice to evoke various other Diasporic artists, and she challenged the stereotyping of African music by validating cross-cultural influences in artistry. Closing the performance with a call to the audience to join in a Yoruba blessing, Braggs delivered a performance that was imbued with in-the-moment energy, even as she used dance to explore the past. 

Finishing off the evening was a presentation of a short film, Triggers, by Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Kai M. Green. An adaptation of a script also used for live performance, the film used Green’s voice, a jazz band, a trio of dancers and stencil art to explore the trauma inflicted on black girls and women who have witnessed and/or experienced domestic violence. Referencing not only his own life experiences, but also the infamous case of Marissa Alexander – who was sentenced to 20 years and served three years in prison for firing a warning shot to stop her abusive husband – Green created a film that is a powerfully personal interrogation of an issue that looms large in countless lives.

The title, Triggers, served as a motif that questioned how we deal with memory’s ability to harm. Its use within a poetic and musical narration, replete with repetition, complemented the energy of the dancers to create a performance that found its voice in collaboration. Green specifically praised the chemistry he achieved with the band during a post-performance panel discussion.

While all three performances dabbled in the abstract, their thematic grounding in the performance of memory and its relation to various aspects of black identity, as well as the ways in which their different media complemented each other, made the evening an engaging experience beyond one’s reaction to any of its individual parts. As an introduction to a weekend of dance events, it provided a compelling snapshot of how dance intersects with other arts and humanities in order to tell stories, raise questions and invite introspection while also serving as a strong example of how artistic creation can contribute to broader personal and academic discourse.

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