Bellow: A response by J’Sun Howard

A response to Bellow: Gathering, Claiming…

September 16th, 2018 at Links Hall

Created and Performed by Marceia L. Scruggs & Noelle Awadallah

Presented by Catalyst Movmnt and Links Hall

images by: Philip Dembinski (left) and Ashley Deran (right)

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When I first arrived at the lobby of Links Hall/Constellation, I noticed that the setup of the bar tables was different than usual — there were three tables positioned equidistant from each other creating a triangle. I didn’t think anything of it, so I sat down, opened my laptop, and continued writing notes for yet another proposal. Not until the House Manager mentioned the tables were part of an installation did I understand that the installation was for Bellow. The most interesting pieces in the installation were the scrapbook of writings and colorings in protective plastic and the white poster with the questions where are you? and where are you going? in black ink. I imagine those writings are from the rehearsal process for Bellow, and if the audience truly wanted a secret understanding of what they were about to witness, they would’ve needed to parse through the text. The questions were meant to be answered by audience members, but that request felt like an afterthought because the curation of it was lack.

If I were to answer those questions: I’m still in Kobe, Japan wondering what part of me is present in Chicago now: a shadow clone, a doppelgänger or an imposter? Who knows? But my sense is that to know where you are you have to sit still for a minute and hope that stillness isn’t shattered by your doubt and other insecurities that play with your mind. I don’t think you can answer where are you going? Aren’t we always going whether we know the destination or not? I know I want to go from Chicago; I know I want to go into the studio to make; I know I want to lie in a field under a moon; I know I only want to eat Häagen-Dazs butter pecan ice cream (knowing that would be fatal)…If these questions were the spark for Bellow to work through identity and agency, then where was the question who are you? The white mask with the leaf-like fascinator alluded to that, and to aspirations for whiteness; however, it doesn’t confront as boldly as asking who are you? does.

I’m on my third read of Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez, a debut collection about being a first-generation Mexican immigrant. In Olivarez’s poem “Interview”, the question Where is your home? is repeated and answered seven times. In subtle and jarring ways, “Interview” deals with similar complications of identity and agency that Bellow poses. Even through the answering, there’s still more to uncover and question. I mention this poem because Olivarez modeled “Interview” after another poet’s poem, and that poet modeled their poem after another poet’s, and their works intersect with each other to create a philosophy on humanity and existence. Bellow plays with “aftering” in striking ways too, especially in the video projection where—I’m guessing—Awadallah’s family is in a desert at a historical site (not sure which one) and a sparkler is superimposed. It’s a harrowing metaphor, but black and brown bodies mainly know America through violence and [our] identities are attached to that violence. Through the “aftering” of violence, how are we to know ourselves?

Entering the dimly lit performance space a strong, flowery/woodsy fragrance wafted throughout. (At first, I was turned off because it reminded me of my roommate’s unpleasant smelling incense.) Noelle Awadallah was dancing alone in a pool of light near the entrance repeating a strenuous movement phrase until it took her diagonally across the space. A lone person in a desert like Erykah Badu’s music video for “Didn’t Cha Know” came to mind. This movement phrase felt like the base for most of the choreography that came afterward. There was a moment of stillness and wind from the overhead fan softly billowed Awadallah’s skirt.  This moment was, of course, happenstance but made me wonder why their costumes were basic and without identity. Awadallah ended in dim light with shadows undulating across her shoulders and chest, as Marceia L. Scruggs entered walking towards a thin spread light.

The athletic repeated phrases of going in and out of the floor, visible choreographic patterns and mechanisms, and more intense floorwork in Bellow made me feel like Awadallah and Scruggs where at the edge of someplace. In Awadallah’s second soloing, the stomping that bookended the running and sliding back and forth across the stage was potent. I wanted more stomping and for Awadallah to go beyond the edge of someplace. Even with all this chaos, Scruggs’s stillness as she watched on was just as potent. As I’m thinking about identity and agency, I wonder if this scene in Bellow could be classified as virtuosic because of the sheer commitment to an unapologetic self, authenticity, and being seen. I definitely felt a “bellow” —two brown bodies coming together with their here-ness is a bellow.

Ok, yes,  I read a lot of poetry. And I use poetry to find myriad connections to what I’m experiencing. This poem by Candace Williams speaks to the stratums that peak through Bellow:

Desk Lunch Poem

 

I eat leftovers

at my desk

because being a black

woman who can always be found

working is the only reason

they let me eat.

 

A hard truth that Awadallah and Scruggs know. Nonetheless, Awadallah and Scruggs’s individual stories became more pronounced with some repeated gestural movements, like the miming of cutting bangs and other domestic work.  You wouldn’t think Bellow is a coming of age story but I felt it was one without the stupid love story and nonsensical fuss. Yet, what I missed throughout is the literature of their dance identities. Why modern dance? Knowing Scruggs has a background in Jazz dance, I wanted to see how that could shape and/or morph identity into something new. Where were the social dances Awadallah and Scruggs learned as kids? Bedsides modern and postmodern choreographic strategies, what choreographic strategies can we invent from our personal histories to tell our stories? And if making work about identity is one way to “queer” societal expectations of identity, where were the quirky disruptive idiosyncratic behavioral/movement nuances?

Overall, I’m not sure how much the video projection was effective. I think I liked it solely for the installation. There were a few lines of text in the projection that had the potential to go somewhere but was left unresolved. The landscape of the soundscore (by Scruggs)  was strong, although it could’ve helped the piece propel more. I always think of Okwui Okpokwasili when she says she wants to see bodies sweating [profusely] on stage. Maybe there’s a moment when identity is let go and Awadallah and Scruggs go for it and lose themselves completely. That may be the ultimate “bellow”.

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J’Sun Howard is a PRJ Guest Editor.

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