Harlem Stages presented E-Moves 14, a three-night series spanning two weekends, on Friday, April 12, 13, and 19. I had the pleasure of attending the program presented on Friday, April 13, which featured three, thirty-minute dances, each choreographed by a different team of three dance makers. These collaborative teams were comprised of past E-Moves participants.
For thirty years, Harlem Stages has bolstered the creative contributions of artists of color whose work engages with the aesthetic, political, and social facets of human experience. E-Moves 14 continued that tradition.
I often walk by the Harlem Stage Gatehouse on my way to work, but had yet to attend a performance in the beautiful, historic space. The Gatehouse is a New York City landmark, built in 1890 to serve as New York City’s source for clean water, and was comprehensively restored in 2006. My journey to the theater took me up a stone-lined, spiral staircase, and I felt more like I was exploring a medieval castle than going to watch a dance performance.
The first work presented, Spitting on the Sidewalk, was choreographed by Germaul Barnes, Maurice Chestnut, and Nia Love. The three artists evoked images of violence, mourning, and aggression within a landscape of white pantyhose clotheslines and the chalk outline of a human body downstage left. At one point, Chestnut pointed a gun at the audience while tap dancing center stage. After aiming at different areas of the house, he pulled the trigger, revealing that his prop was only a toy gun. This section would have been more effective had the toy gun never been “fired.” Doing so dissolved the sense of fear that these artists had masterfully conjured up within the audience, and lessened the impact of their overall message. As a colleague of mine pointed out, this was a bold choreographic move in the context of current political debates on gun control.
Next up was Ajjkkoiaujdz, a collaboration between artists Satoshi Haga, Nelida Tirado, and Adia Whitaker that incorporated contemporary dance, flamenco, and theater. My impression of Ajjkkoiaujdz was that it lacked cohesion overall, though it was comprised of separate, interesting elements. I was also surprised by the limited degree to which the group had drawn collective conclusions about their own piece.
A particularly memorable example of this came during the post-performance talk with the artists, when an audience member asked Haga, Tirado, and Whitaker if he was pronouncing the title of their work correctly. Laughing, they replied that they didn’t know how to pronounce its title, and told him that the way he pronounced it sounded good to them. A possible explanation for their answer came later, when talk attendees learned that the group had limited knowledge about one another before beginning their collaborative process, and had faced challenges meeting regularly.
The evening’s final piece was co-choreographed by Marguerite Hemmings, Nathan Trice, and Hattie Mae Williams. Entitled How is Everything?, this dance integrated many—maybe too many—elements, including spoken word, props, sung melody, recorded music, and contemporary dance movement. Using these media, the three collaborators explored cases and causes of obsession, developed in solo, duet, trio, and ensemble sections.
Had I not stayed for the post-performance discussion, I likely would have left E-Moves 14 inappropriately disappointed with the experience. I say inappropriately disappointed because, after hearing the artists recall their respective journeys through a collaborative process, it occurred to me that I had misunderstood the end of this, and maybe any, choreographic endeavor that is displayed to a public.
And so I find myself wondering—what are we presenting to an audience when we perform a danced artwork these days? Are we displaying a product? I’d like to fore go that interpretation in favor of what I think is a more interesting perspective. Perhaps, when we perform any choreographed work we are testifying to the power and potential of the collaborative, creative process that is the hallmark of contemporary dance and dance making. We are providing a portrait of the 21st century dancer and dance maker—a resourceful, flexible, generous, and persistent individual.