Space, Place, Possibility: Embodied Work on Empowering Community: a response by Ayako Kato

Links Hall* Co-MISSION Fellow Meida McNeal’s FIFTH CITY REVISITED

Artistic direction, choreography, text, and performance: Meida McNeal

Projection & Animation: Justin Botz

Lighting: Celia Calder

Videography: Stephanie Jester

Camera Assistant: G’Jordan Williams

Set & Decor: Keli Stewart

Dramaturg: Vitaliy Vladimirov

image: ICA USA

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Meida Teresa McNeal and her team did it. Having been watching dance over 45 years in my life, I have never encountered this much strong performance piece which truthfully, multidimensionally, and thoroughly addresses sociopolitical concerns and social change. The reason why she could accomplish this work must be because she dove into creation with her whole self, honesty, and her undefeatable quest for hope. Opening on Thursday, June 20, FIFTH CITY REVISITED-Imaginal Politics Embodied brought deeper understanding and awareness by viewers who must have had so many questions for a long time on segregation, discrimination and possibilities of community building in Chicago and beyond with enriching learning experiences, the sense of humble and weighted acceptance of the reality, yet still with empowered feelings in the end.

The piece brought up the universal question of what is community and who is it for? Successfully layering movement, text, sound, projection, and light, McNeal weaved and revealed how the historical, racial, political, economic, social, personal, and mental strings are intricately interwoven and tied together, showing one of the keywords projected: “We are image makers.” For “everyone” to perceive the current condition differently to desegregate as well as to practice community development, McNeal addresses this is, “…easier to affirm and pray for, so much harder to practice,” yet encourages, “Keep the vision,” with ample insider information of the winding roads.

Where is the Fifth City? It’s originally the area surrounded to the north by Fifth Avenue, to the west by Central Park Avenue, to the south by Congress Parkway and to the east by Kedzie Avenue, and in the 50s and 60s, the second wave of migration brought more African Americans to the city. After Martin Luther King’s assassination, the city exploded, but it then went through the significant recovery due to community’s power. By the early 1970s, it expanded to the north by Madison Street, to the west by Central Park Avenue, to the south by Congress Parkway, and to the east by Kenzie Avenue.

McNeal guides us through five sections: 1. Iron Man Beginning/Nostalgia; 2. A Condensed History of Garfield Park/Westside; 3. Fifth City’s Fall/Release; 4. Who Plans?; 5. …for those who are concerned by the concerned (dreams of what the great Westside can do).

It is not easy to achieve the unity of literature research and movement. Yet, applying from poetic to hardcore realistic scholarly approaches even with some sense of humor, McNeal succeeds to enrich this sophisticated and emotionally engaging dance movement work by giving gravity/weight on it through what she has experienced, went through and discovered. McNeal set the stage clearly dividing it into certain areas: a desk to share family memories, podium to share historical facts, central area to enact movement from history, community, and personal reflection overlapped with the projection on the back wall and on the ground.

With and without McNeal’s presence, the projection informs viewers: historical, community and family information and moments as well as message/statement by historical figures and writers; facts and numbers; maps; videos of Fifth City and the image to address significance and potential of “everyone”. Text by McNeal and sounds as historical speech, interviews, artists/songs such as Miriam Makeba, Mavis Staples’s “No Time for Crying,” and Tyler, the Creator’s “Where this Flower Blooms” transform McNeal’s presence, and her sensitively nuanced and deeply felt body start to connect all the strings, and her movement questions viewers “Where do we belong?” and “What can we do?”

McNeal conveys undeniable facts that we are made from, or our human bodies and movement are impacted through, ancestral history, traditions, parents, education, living experiences, relationships, and love. Here, her movement functions as the filter, storage of experiences/memories and the bridge between, among and with those facts we take on, carry, reject at times, yet accept after all to step forward. Then, she moves, eventually creating very clear strong diagonal like which seems forever connected to the past and future, and unfold the three, four or even five-dimensional intricate landscape of interdependent matters on segregation and show the path to “practicing community development”.

Should we call her movement-based work still dance? No one can define what dance is. However, McNeal’s approach and usage of dance movement in this piece go beyond the traditional notion of dance. She used her body as the conduit to recall personal, humane, racial, gender and historical memories as a member of community or “everyone” who is a part of the community which we ideally imagine. Dance has the power to reveal the intangible tangible. If dance can take one of responsibility which other art forms cannot, it is “embodiment” of what is even unconsciously residing in our body and mind. McNeal proved that there are certainly layers of things which seem to be overwhelmingly complicated and endless underneath and behind what we can see on the surface. Yet, if we desire to embody what we imagine, “everyone” becomes capable and responsible to embody ourselves as “image makers.” It’s quite a work.

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“Able to evoke whole landscapes in a single exhalation” (New City Stage), Ayako Kato is an award-winning Japanese-native contemporary experimental dance artist originally from Yokohama. Recent years, she has been extending her realm of movement to the experiential and participatory field–through her own work in both traditional venues and site-specific settings (including in nature). She has been directing her company Ayako Kato/Art Union Humanscape since 1998 through interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly focused with over 60 musicians/composers in the US, Japan, and Europe. She is a recipient of 3Arts Award in Dance; 3Arts Residency Fellowship at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France; “Best of Dance” in the Chicago Tribune; Links Hall Co-MISSION Fellowship; Players: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago by Newcity Stage, Meiner Achievement Award; Chicago Dancemakers Lab Artist Award and beyond. www.artunionhumanscape.net
(*) PRJ is partnering with Links Hall to celebrate their 40th anniversary by providing a platform for artist-to-artist responses to the work that is presented as part of the Pay-the-40th-Forward season. Thank you, Links Hall, for all that you do for the dance and performance communities in Chicago. Congratulations on 40 years!