Screendance Club in review: You have our attention—we’re watching, part II

Editor's note: Last March, See Chicago Dance kicked off Screendance Club, a bi-monthly dance film watch party and guided discussion. While I personally haven't been enthusiastic about digital dance, Screendance Club was a perpetual joy throughout the year. The curators each wrote beautiful responses about their experiences with the films they chose, all published here on See Chicago Dance. In addition, SCD writer-at-large Gregory King shares his reflections on the series as a whole in a two-part essay. The first part is here, with the second below. Enjoy!

In the aftermath of the world galvanizing to protest the killing of unarmed Black men, women and children, there was a “Dancing in Solidarity” dance party in Kent, Ohio. It was an event organized to celebrate the lives of those murdered by trigger happy cops existing in a racist system designed to harm Black bodies. The band played jazz — rhythms of resistance allowing participants to be radical cheerleaders for social justice — and all who attended danced. It was a gathering to invigorate the soul …and that was why we danced. Similarly, some of the films in the Screendance Club series were poignant reactions to events of 2020, whether they be racial injustice, the global pandemic, or both.

Like the dance party, Lorin Sookool’s “Prayer Room” invigorated the soul and illuminated community. Breathing hope into the morose and stabilizing the vacillating inevitability of Black women’s hardships during South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown, “Prayer Room” was a hymn, crooning nourishment into my Black soul. Black women conversed about government support and faith, girdling each other’s despondency and offering sanguinity as a coping mechanism. The accented linguistics of Sookool’s female relatives served as a soundscape (recordings of their What’s App calls during the lockdown), irradiating care in their discourse as they sought solace amidst forced isolation. There was tension in their merriment and a kind of mourning we were asked to consider. The film made me contemplate those who suffered the hardest during the pandemic, prompting reflections on the social, political and economic injustices many continue to bear. “Prayer Room” displayed tactics for survival, knowing the pandemic conjured our collective desire to cry.

Choreographed, filmed and edited by Antoine Hunter, “The Spirit Dance with Me” opened with Hunter wearing black trousers and a red blazer, standing on the brink of a body of water. His physical presence reflected larger social constructs and representations of race, gender, class and ability, at different intersections asking who gets to perform in what space.

Hunter identifies as Black, Indigenous, queer and Deaf and Disabled, enabling his multiple identities to act as a vessel through which his manifold of experiences in the world could be an arrival to something neoteric and a departure from marginalization—if only as a concept. Shot on a beach in Berkeley (Ohlone lands), familiar images associated with San Francisco were made visible. The rippling waters led the call and response; it called, and Hunter’s body responded mimicking the undulations of the waves. His relationship to his environment was a tacit political expression. His othered self, disrupted the norms of a male, white, straight and able-bodied dominated world, reminding us that we are vulnerable to the work that burdens our bodies, knowing dance also frees me from that burden.

A critical orientation grounded each work, even if some context was needed to help us understand some of the narratives. And because the computer screen had become way too familiar, I felt compelled to be mindful of its limitations and boundaries, questioning what was beyond. Because we live in a global society where the reality of a pandemic stares us in the face, COVID-19 didn’t just confine us, it wrangled us, and we were caged by that confinement. But with films and videos, there was very little confinement, freeing all the probabilities.

“Same Sky,” directed by Grammy-nominated director Andy Hines, triangulated our understanding of liberation. With music composed by Steve Hackman, “Same Sky” featured the original choreography of German break-dancer, Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit. As the dancers relied on each other, a tacit need for balance and stability, they navigated endlessness. Their counter balancing skills were powered by a legitimate response to loneliness. By cradling, cupping and caressing on another, each dancer investigated their own relationship to the camera, to the grassy environment and to each other. As the spatial patterning of the dancers in “Same Sky” expanded, I was admittedly thinking about confinement—of the lens, the camera, even my computer screen. And because I didn’t witness them traversing the space in a live performance, I started questioning boundaries and my understanding of place as I moved between narratives of belonging and home.

“Venus at Home,” the final feature in the series, directed and choreographed by Meghan Frederick, intended to ask if dancing can be invisibly carried out in isolation as an act of survival, but I struggled with the work’s narrative and found one its main themes triggering, inviting critical probing.

Frederick utilized her dance experiences to bring abstractly embodied concepts of motherhood to the screen, sharing the version of the film that displayed her costumed in her glorious childbearing nakedness.

It can be said that nudity on stage allows performers to lay themselves bare – a kind of exposition suggesting vulnerability. Maybe nudity in performance represents resistance to censorship allowing freedom of expression that extends to the body. It could even be a colossal “fuck you” to those deemed to have power. But I couldn’t help but wonder if actors and dancers alike aren’t being gratuitous when they resort to nudity as a way of demonstrating commitment to their craft if the level of provocation the artist intends is not achieved. When I witness a nude performer, there’s a level of distraction that I contest with, as I work to stay committed to experiencing the piece. When this happens, I question how much of the audience might be experiencing a similar distraction.

There’s no doubt nudity can imply strength, power and vulnerability. It could be a performer’s commitment to a type of truth telling within their creative narrative. All things considered, nudity could represent some facets of which I’ve alluded, while still being grounded in rebellion—I don’t know! But in “Venus at Home,” I contended with the power in Frederick’s vulnerability, but in the live discussion after the screening, asked “Why?” 

Frederick’s presence curated some semblance of feminist imaginings: a wonderous cavalcade of sister, girl and mother imageries. Her naked child joined in; both cavorted as the music commanded them to dance. She held the little person against her frame – mother and child in solitude, together. As the film progressed, I wanted to know more about the whys…why nudity? And in my questioning, I landed on a reason that made me equate her display to the ways in which I imagined motherhood may make a person seemingly exposed. Maybe an unearned rationale from me, a man, as I am not a sister. I am not a daughter. I am not a woman.

We watched Frederick masticate, eating an apple before exposing what she was chewing on from her chomping estuary. She palpated her epidermis, pausing before frolicking, and articulating a physicality that showed her reveling in her mothering joy. I found myself wishing the same kind of rapture for the mothers of all the Black men who have been senselessly killed by police officers. That was my trigger.

To be clear, Frederick’s art does not have to speak to anyone else’s reality. Maybe I am biased in my criticism, but I offer this insight to insert some nuances.

And while I was triggered by the film’s indirect nod to a specific type of motherhood/mothering, I appreciated the ways in which time in isolation made Frederick shed her exterior, acquiesce to the mundane, and connect with her child through movement.

Part of what I enjoyed about these films was that the choreographers paid homage to collective memories, experiences and community. The works made in isolation as a reaction to socio-political issues or the global pandemic, were worthy of discourse, and each post viewing discussion gave breath to the viewers’ own stories.

Every work didn’t chronicle a socio-cultural or political focus, but each was a mirror or a crystal ball, revealing issues of today or forecasting hopes for the future. Contemporary works of art do not exist in addition to social justice works, they are intertwined into them. If artists offered audience members more space to be critical, would they listen if each viewer answered the prompt, “How did you see yourself in the work you just witnessed?”