Next month, independent dance artists Jessica Ray and Jenn "Po'Chop" Freeman will deliver encore solo performances in a shared weekend bill at Links Hall. Having premiered their work in June as part of Links Hall's Co-MISSION residency program, the artists have the opportunity to show their work again for audiences who missed the successful mini-festival the first time around.
( Note: The author of this article was also a participating choreographer in the Co-MISSION Residency program with Jessica Ray, Jenn "Po' Chop" Freeman and Darling Shear. )
Distinctly different in perspective and aesthetic, the two works share themes of embodied memory. Ray's work explores the memory of a passing moment through an exquisitely executed improvisation while Freeman uses memories of her grandfather to conjure and reconcile complicated and electrifying versions of herself. Both pieces demonstrate risk and vulnerability alongside displays of physical prowess.
It is a bold choice to dance alone on an empty stage with no music to fill the air or help pass the time. Yet that is the choice
Ray makes in her work "All That I Remember." In the program notes Ray writes, "In the absence of music we can follow this wherever it goes. The time we have will be sufficient." Indeed, the time of this performance seems to pass perfectly; not too long, not too short. The reason for this temporal success has everything to do with Ray's remarkably unselfconscious stage presence. Like a practiced meditator, she is distinctly "in the moment" on stage and does not cower under the pressure of the circumstance. She takes respectful ownership of time and space by simply allowing herself the entire room, the heaviness of the silence, and the expectant gaze of the audience as the essential structure for the work. As she performs, Ray mentally and physically remembers her improvised movements. She tracks her dancing and the audience tracks her tracking. Silently, she invites people to watch with a level of attachment equal to hers: honest, curious, lite and instinctual.
What sets Ray apart from other practitioners of improvised dance performance is that there is no apparent indulgence of her personal sensory experience. There is no performed devotion of internal feelingno potent execution of breath and no artificial importance inferred in moments of stillness. People may feel they are not watching a dancer enjoying herself dancing ( although that very well might be the case ). Instead, people may witness a dancer execute physical pathways that may or may not inherently make sense to her. Every movement achieved appears both deliberate and by chance. The meaning of the work, if one must be deciphered, involves the profundity of a body taking up space, of seeing and being seen, and staying aware of one's actions from one fleeting moment to the next.
In contrast, Freeman offers an expression of character, an evocative suggestion of environment and a rousing soundtrack in her solo "Dynamite." For this work, the audience is seated on the stage in a semicircle facing a lone wooden rocking chair and a single light bulb dangling from the rafters, slightly aglow. The lighting design, by Giau Troung, aims to warm the space by providing the sense that it is hot and stuffy and that time is sluggishly plodding along. Freeman emerges in a pale burlap-looking suit complete with suspenders and a tie. She moves around the stage defining the space with slow and sensuous movement over here, a sharp turn of the head and a suspicious gaze over there and a deliberate shove of the rocking chair to instigate its motion. All the while, the audience is listening to the soundtrack of a preacher's sermon.
Program notes compliment these aural and visual cues stating, "he was a man. born dec 26, 1931. his name was haywood harris junior. they called him dynamite. i called him grandad"leading to the possible depiction of a male ancestor on a female-bodied relative. Is she possessed by him or is she channeling his energy towards her own self-possession? Later, the audience is jolted into the present day by a mix of loud, pounding house music and a bout of unhinged physicality from Freeman. As she convulses, shakes, jumps and shocks, it's as if she molts the figure of her grandfather to emerge as the young, complex and fierce person that she is.
Freeman is also know as "Po'Chop," a queer Black burlesque performer with a national reputation for delivering traditional burlesque tropes with a political spin. However, "Dynamite" demonstrates dance without the burlesque formula and technique.
The Co-MISSIONS Residency Encore Performances will take place on Saturday-Monday, Aug. 12-14, at 7 p.m. at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave.; visit LinksHall.org .