Black, Kinetic Counter-narrative: Dance Theater, Storytelling, and Racial Inequality

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Professor Charles O. Anderson, head of the UT dance program and producing artistic director of the B.F.A. dance company, Dance Repertory Theatre, led the February 21st meeting of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Anderson described “(Re)current Unrest,” the performance project that was originally presented at Fusebox and is on tour this spring, as presenting “the self-acknowledged choice to be a Black body in rhythmic motion… the Black body reconfigured within spaces of white imagination… a site of projected fear, abhorred yet desired…the Black body as trope, strange fruit, postmodern, plural.” The samples of “(Re)current Unrest” that he performed for the seminar provided Faculty Fellows with a sense of the project’s intensity and how Anderson uses what he calls “kinetic storytelling” to convey a narrative through movement and “promote dance theater as a tool for social change/justice/activism.”

After explaining the Afrocentric framework within which he works, which is informed by seven aesthetic precepts of the Afrocentric tradition, including radical juxtaposition and wholism (the embrasure of something in its totality), Anderson began the performance part of his presentation by asking Faculty Fellows to stand loosely grouped in the middle of a mostly empty room with their hands over their hearts, as if preparing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He then donned a black hoodie and a mask depicting a hangman’s noose. As Steve Reich’s haunting Civil Rights Era composition, “It’s Gonna Rain,” played, Anderson stood just in front of (sometimes only inches away from) Faculty Fellows and engaged in kinetic storytelling by pounding his fist on his heart, laughing wildly, making sudden dramatic movements, putting his hands up as if being commanded to do so by police, and falling to his knees with arms out and masked face up. Anderson’s movements and vocalizations presented a dynamic, confrontational, and raw mixture of pain, anger, irony, and unrest within the context of a defining gesture of American patriotism, a combination that produced what Anderson describes as a kinetic “testimony” to historical and contemporary experiences of Black Americans in a society of persistent racial injustice and inequality that is necessarily a counter-narrative to the often white-centered hegemonic narratives of American culture.

Anderson explained that the choreography of “(Re)current Unrest” draws on Afrocentric conceptions of movement to foreground Black movement and experience while subverting the significance of movements associated with hegemonic American narratives and “high” culture, such as European-derived ballet traditions. Anderson views “(Re)current Unrest”’s subversive choreography as an opportunity both to expose the impact of cultural appropriation of Black creative acts and engage in “‘re-appropriation’” to “reclaim terms or artifacts previously used in ways that were disparaging of” Black Americans.

A vigorous discussion followed Anderson’s performance, including his posing the following challenging question: what is the significance of the fact that he was the only Blackperson in the room? Anderson clarified that he wasn’t criticizing specific individuals or the selection process for the seminar, but thought it important for all Fellows to keep in mind that the intellectual community fostered by the seminar is constituted as a primarily white space.  Seminar members were powerfully affected by the performance. Some pointed out that not only their minds but their bodies were affected by watching as the dancer moved among them. Among other responses, Fellows  noted that the chest pounding Anderson employed also signifies emotional pain and distress in Korean culture; wondered what, given the prevalence of cultural appropriation, actually counts as an original work; and asked why Anderson describes “(Re)current Unrest” as a transmedia narrative. In response to the question about originality, Anderson pointed out that originality functions quite differently in the Afrocentric tradition, which values work that captures an “original experience” and emphasizes ongoing communal creativity that assumes the influence of preceding sources within the tradition. He also explained that he classifies his project as transmedia because it relies on multiple kinds of media to tell its story, including a website through which other dancers post videos of their own related projects, thereby extending the project’s dialogue and expanding its narrative.

For more about “(Re)current Unrest,” see Sight Lines’s interview of Anderson, “Dance Staying Woke: Anderson’s Choreography Bears Witness.”

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

 

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