The Chicago debut of D. Sabela Grimes has finally come. The LA-based choreographer teaches at the University of Southern California, and is perhaps best known for his time in Puremovement as part of the original cast of Rennie Harris’ “Rome & Jewels.” Harris is considered a hip-hop pioneer, developing street dance as a concert dance form to create space for blackness and black stories in historically white spaces. In the development of his own work, Grimes appears to operate in the same solar system as Harris, but on a totally different planet. His evening-length piece called “Electrogynous” appears at the Dance Center through Saturday.
“Electrogynous” reads like a series of essays, thoughts and quibbles written on the stage that amount to some kind of whole, but don’t tell a singular story. I think that’s the point, evidenced by clear moments given for each cast member—Grimes, Brianna Mims, Austyn Rich, Johanna Blunt and Tatiana Desardouin—to be at the center of our attention. These aren’t solos, per se; rather, each highlight is like a blip in a bubbling brook, improvisational risings that draw your eye in that dancer’s direction as the others back up and observe, or move more slowly in the background.
At once casual and refined, much of the first half of “Electrogynous” is anchored by these meanderings, the movement an intriguing blend of aesthetics which appears to be derived from hip-hop, African forms and post-modern concert dance. The music, by Grimes, is a soundscape that likewise evades categorization, as if jazz, house, electronica and John Cage were mashed in a mortar and pestle—not so much as to make a mush, but leaving recognizable chunks to admire before rather abruptly shifting to something else.
Wait, strike that. Those solos and duos aren’t the anchors. It’s Grimes, the central character in a blithe and magical universe that dips into somberness, but on the whole, doesn’t take itself too seriously. At intervals, Grimes cracks a joke, or directs his voice to the audience by asking us pointed questions. In a pairing with Austyn Rich, in which the two men physicalize various shades of masculinity, Grimes has the upper hand, in part because his voice is amplified and Rich’s isn’t, and in part because we, the audience, had already established a relationship with him earlier in the piece as he sang soulfully under a metal coil suspended from the rafters, breaking at intervals to challenge our reactions to his lyrics.
Still, we form kinships, if more muted ones, with the other figures onstage, which sparks enough curiosity to contemplate what “Electrogynous” is trying to do. The visual landscape is dense and colorful, with projections, by Meena Murugesan, flooding a soft white backdrop and white marley floor. Projected images oscillate between reality, a city street in summer, close-ups of dreadlocks, or historical figures from what looks like the ‘60s, for example, and futuristic scribbles, like those of a spirograph, or silhouettes of bodies surrounded by beams of light. Not all of these images are legible unless you sit way back in the house; from a vantage point in the middle or the front, you have the advantage of letting each image wash over you like the sound score, picking up bits and pieces along the way.
Grimes constructs a metal pyramid about half way through the evening from poles whose role on stage wasn't initially clear. In a process not wholly unlike pitching a tent, he creates a monument, like those in Egypt, which could also be seen as representing a container, a fort, a cage. Improvisations happen here, as does the most salient moment of the night: Grimes clutches at the diagonal frame of the pyramid, screaming "I can't breathe," words now indelibly linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and Eric Garner's last words as he was being forcibly held by a police officer. Grimes' vociferousness here extracts uncomfortable laughter from the audience. But he recovers, shifting his words to, "I couldn't breathe," leaving us all to exhale a little, but with the space a bit more charged.
“Electrogynous” exists in a fantastical realm that is at once past, present and future. The costumes, a combination of fringed skirts, body paint and fluorescent-colored accoutrements, later accompanied by twinkle-light vests and crowns, again nod toward Grimes' playful teasing of time and locale. The stated message of the work, which deals with breaking down stereotypical gender norms, is muddled by “Electrogynous’” sci-fi trappings. But, honestly, I'd rather live in Grimes' world, which isn't yet another dance about black masculinity. His is a planet I'd gladly visit again.
“Electrogynous” continues tonight and tomorrow, 7:30 p.m., at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $30, available by clicking the event link below.