Week in Review: Kyle Abraham / Jaamil Olawale Kosoko / Nick Power / Mitkhal Alzghair / Meg Stuart

by Nina Branner, Sep 5, 2016

Credit: Laura Giesdorf
Wednesday / Thursday

Two elderly white women are sitting in the front row of Jaamil Kosoko's “lecture performance” #negrophobia. They're wearing bright, shapeless T-shirts, linen pants and open, foot-shaped sandals, the socks sticking out of them like lazy cat tongues. On stage stands a Black, long-legged trans* woman. Except for a G-string, she's naked. And her body is enviable: Smooth as a sculpture, lithe as a gazelle. She is staring directly at us, confronting us, completely grounded in her sexuality. She performs a dexterous strip tease, nestling close up to the audience in the front rows. The two elderly women stare at her as were they attempting to look through the opaque windows of a limousine.

This year's Tanz im August placed a considerable focus on Black perspectives with three performances dealing with the role of the Black person in today's society. #negrophobia was one of them. We like to think of festivals like this as little open minded oases within a city of “Wilkommenskultur”. But watching these women--and hearing about the heated response to niv Acosta's work this week-- makes me think that the way we think, talk, and watch dance about race needs some adjustment.

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko offers us that adjustment in #negrophobia. His homage to his younger brother, who died as a late teenager (it isn't revealed how) is an eccentric, exalted lecture – almost mockery – addressed to the predominantly white (and presumably ignorant?) audience. Kosoko plays the role of the toastmaster presenting himself and his co-star, the transgender performer IMMA/MESS, in different master/slave scenarios while videos of American policemen harassing African-Americans run in the background. The atmosphere is charged and unpleasant, and that is surely intentional. White viewers are meant to feel guilty: guilty of not making the effort to look squarely at this brutal history. Injustice and violence are not ghosts of the last century but on the contrary still very present. And so Kosoko introduces the white audience to some important books by Black authors, the literature we have to read “if we want to know what he's talking about”: Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? and The Autobiography of Malcolm X chief among them.

Kosoko's approach to his urgent matter is aggressive and insistent. He isn't trying to win our sympathy. He's lecturing. Reprimanding. At one point he throws his used towel in my face before handing me the microphone: “They criminalized our bodies and we believed them”, I have to read out loud. Not just me. In turns, the spectators all have to repeat these words. Because that, it seems, is the only way for us to get into our padded white brains, the cruel realities facing Black people. When IMMA/MESS gives the microphone to the two elderly women in the first row, her sweaty, limber legs almost touching theirs, I'm overwhelmed with the absurdity of this confrontation between such different representatives of humankind. How can we, as protected white European viewers, begin to actually understand the suffering and righteous anger of the criminalized Black body?

Of course I'm immediately set straight about my biased ideas about who these people are. Art is wonderful that way. After the performance, the two elderly women are the only ones who go to the stage and take the time to examine the pile of Black literature, which Kosoko has left us to read. I guess that proves a thing or two.

#negrophobia was, whether one could deal with its aggressiveness and rather patronizing tone or not, a much more intense and relevant performance than Pavement, which I saw on Wednesday evening at the HAU. The setting: a basketball court in a predominantly African American neighborhood in 1980s Pittsburgh. A group of black and a couple of white youngsters enter the track chatting, dance a bit and then take to their heels at the sound of police cars coming from videos shown on a screen behind the basketball net.This repeats itself around 15 times. By all means, the dancers could dance. And it could have been an interesting and funny juxtaposition to give such tall and muscular basketball players delicate choreography heavily inspired by ballet and accompanied by an opera soundtrack.

The problem was not so much the seemingly randomness of this approach, as it was choreographer Kyle Abraham's unawareness of it. The setting is inspired by the 1991 film Boyz in the Hood, which deals with questions of race and violence in the Crenshaw ghetto of Los Angeles, and thus it presents us with a highly realistic social universe. For me, the mix of this realistic orchestration and the more abstract ballet steps - which must be said to be a rather unusual sight on a basketball court - never came together. Were they a symbol of the way to a different identity or a brighter future? An attempt to unite black and white dance traditions? I don’t know. As Abraham himself said in an interview, Pavement is “thinking about two or three different subject matters blended together in a certain way”. But what exactly these subject matters were (ballet and hip hop?), I never really found out.

With Pavement he wants to evoke conversation and discussion, he said in the audience talk after the performance. But again: about what? What does this performance in particular add to ongoing and important conversations about race in America? Maybe this performance would have come across differently to a Black audience member in Pittsburgh than it did to me. I kept wishing that the aesthetic choices were more consistent and clear. When the dancers repeatedly fall to the floor at the end of the performance, as if to show how exhausted and fed up they are, it feels not like a nuanced depiction of the toll that repeated street harassment and racist policing take on the Black body, but as a cliche. And that’s unfortunate.

Saturday

From one cliché to another: The Australians are said to be a charming bunch. And at Saturday's showing of Nick Power's Cypher, which refers to the circle in which break dancers gather to, well, show off, the atmosphere was indeed a jolly one. The performance was staged as real breakdancing battle with the audience circling the four skilled dancers. The scenography was elegantly conducted, the big circle turning into smaller ones as the show progressed. The audience giggling followed the four B-boys’ head spins, top and down rocks around in the big hall: to top it off, a vice move from Power, who himself gave a little demonstration of his breakdancing skills towards the end.

One could object that the guys could’ve have played even more on their easygoing charm to really get the crowd excited. They could’ve gone deeper into their “roles”. But hey, they’re break dancers, not actors, and, admittedly, on a lazy Saturday afternoon it was nice to see a performance just looking to spread good vibes.

So I wasn’t exactly in the mood for the more serious themes of Syrian Mithkal Alzghair’s Displacement. But this little pearl of a performance, which examines the physical effects of the instability of war, completely won me over.

With Syrian folk dance as focal point, Displacement is a poetic journey into the  rituals of Alzghair’s native land. First alone on stage, he carefully investigates his own body and its reactions to the circumstances it faces. It is distressing, arduous and sometimes slightly boring in its repetition.

But when his two co-dancers join him on stage and the three of them repeat the same dance patterns, the point suddenly becomes painfully clear: this is not an individual story but the destiny of millions of people. Normal people who’ve been forced to flee. In Displacement - the title's meaning is underlined by the complete lack of scenography - the ritual of dance becomes a means of survival. And that, I think, we can all relate to.

Sunday

This year’s Tanz im August has indeed been an educational, adventurous and challenging one for me. I’m impressed by how well-attended almost all of the performances have been-- and how truly diverse the program is.

But no festival without a spectacular, over the top meta-layered freak show at the good old Volksbühne. In thus, in a way, Meg Stuart’s nutty dance/stand up/theater/strip tease performance UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP was the perfect way to end this year's Tanz im August festival. Why? Because throughout the performance, I experienced almost all of the so called primary emotions:

Anger when the desperate people on the stage couldn’t seem to reach each other despite countless physical efforts to hold on to their fellow human beings.

Aversion to the nakedness, which provocatively is rubbed all over not only the entire stage but also me, leaving me no choice of looking away.

Desire caused by that same nakedness.

Despair when thinking about there’s another hour and a half of the performance to go.

Fear when the dancers invite an audience member to the stage and locks her in a closet, then make her disappear.

Hate of the kind of performance that I know won’t stop picking my brain.

Hope to one day be as good a pianist as the amazing one in the band on stage.

Sadness when the dancers reveal how pathetic we humans can be in the search for connectedness.

Love of the craziness and diversity of the performing arts and the way it again and again refuses to be put in a box, no matter how hard we bloggers and other “experts” try  ♥ 
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Lily Kelting Born 1986, Stage editor, Exberliner magazine. Works internationally as a freelance dramaturg, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of California, San Diego. Postdoc at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Originally from New York City, she lives in Berlin.

Nina Branner is a freelance cultural journalist from Denmark, based in Berlin. She has studied at the University of Copenhagen, Berlin University of the Arts and at Copenhagens Academy for Music, Dance and Performance with awarded choreographer Kasper Ravnhøj. She writes about theater, performance and music for publications like Weekendavisen and Gaffa. Writing for Exberliner since March 2016.