A woman sits or stands in front of us and begins laughing. Or is she crying? When she sighs, it is unclear whether she is exhaling from exhaustion or pleasure. Her noises slowly become more specific, the beginnings of words that are never quite formed, that can’t be understood. This scene, with minor variations, is repeated a number of times in choreographer Marjani Forté’s first evening-length work, being Here…, performed at Danspace Project in March. The struggle to be understood, to find one’s voice, and to express oneself is at the heart of this work, which purports to examine “mental illness and addiction in the face of systemic injustice.” The work was informed, in part, by the stories Forté hear from women from the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, where she spent time doing research for the piece.
The cast of six women (Rebecca Bliss, Tendayi Kuumba, Jasmine Hearn, Autumn Scoggan, Alice Sheppard, and Samantha Speis, each powerful and captivating in her own way) included performers of diverse skin color, body types, and abilities. Difference is in many ways at the heart of this piece, and yet Forté refuses to reduce any performer to being defined simply by a particular difference. I am reminded of a phrase from Audre Lorde’s “biomythography,” Zami, where she writes that “our place was the very house of difference rather than the security of any one difference.” As the women of being Here… come together in various groupings (if only to separate again), Forté asks us to consider the ravages of mental illness and addiction as one of many (non-defining) iterations of difference.
In one section, introduced by the tell-tale ding-dong that signals the closing of subway doors, three different women enter and alternately amuse and frighten the passengers with their antics, ranging from overly brash singing along to an imaginary Ipod to brash, expletive-laden rants. Forté asks us to look more closely at these interlopers we so often ignore: at what point do we consider someone “crazy” and thus ignorable? That the two white performers are the passengers, and the interlopers all women of color, forces us to think about the racial dynamics of this question: are certain bodies, dressed in certain ways (here, mismatched oversized layers) more likely to be interpreted as disruptive, as “too much”?
Forte’s choreography makes the connection between body and speech explicit: the women’s muddled enunciations are mirrored by facial and bodily twitches and shaking: the effort to speak is made visible. The role of breath and of the tongue as integral components in speaking are foregrounded as well. At one point, the dancers draw large lateral arcs in the air with their tongues, seeming both to taste the air and to mark the space as their own. Later, another dancer, her back to the audience, voraciously sucks, licks, or kisses her own arms, exaggerating the smacking sounds of her lips.
In a duet with Bliss, Sheppard, in a wheelchair, assumes the active role, supporting and pushing her partner, driving and guiding the action with the same easy sureness she displayed in an earlier solo. Their duet, which began playfully, later turns aggressive, returning to the theme of emotional volatility that characterizes the piece. Having cast off Bliss, Sheppard puts her hand to Scoggan’s mouth, in what is at once a violent silencing and a potentially compassionate act: relieving her of the burden of explaining herself to others.
The powerful penultimate section took on a militant tone, as movements became larger and powerfully aggressive. While the group continued to fragment and re-form, the more frequent collective movement in this section added to its forceful impact. In the final moments, Sheppard and Speis came to face each other, with a mix of compassion and curiosity. Their outstretched fingers almost touched, but then slowly changed direction to point back toward their own chests, in a shared moment of self-realization. This final image illustrates the hopeful potential of living and loving together “in the house of difference.” This dance is not about making oneself intelligible to others, but about the ways that we view and respond to what we consider unintelligible.
Friday, March 22
originally published in the CUNY Advocate