Tonight I was fortunate enough to see one of the final performances of the third part of Ralph Lemon's dance theater Geography Trilogy: Come home Charley Patton. I saw it thanks to wonderful colleague who's a major scholar of dance and who participated in several events surrounding the show. She was able to get me a comp ticket, so I drove down to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art to experience Lemon and his troupe performing.
Come home Charley Patton is an emotionally provocative, wrenching and uncanny show. Wrenching and provocative because of the many tragic thematic threads (racism, lynching, suicide, the Civil Rights movement, etc.) than run through it, for two solid hours. Uncanny, because Lemon, in this work, enters into dialogue with the past, with the ancestors, with the spirits and the Spirit, with (our) ghosts, and he embodies these home-y and yet defamiliarizing conversations in the dances themselves, in the show's multiple screens (one showing a cartoon James Baldwin, the other scenes of Lemon in Duluth, where the lynching the show focuses on took place, but also in parts of the South), in the doublings and pairings and moves far beyond naturalism or the commonplaces of 20th century avant-garde dance practice--there's a moving mic stand, two (hidden) ladders (Nardi Ward's, but also the Jacob's, Puryear's, Cixous'?), two video panels, a table that horses itself forward....
Charley Patton is a collage, layers upon layers, a densely tissued dance-text brimming with parallels, correspondences, fractures: It begins and ends with Baldwin's speaking figure, which frames two scenes (in part) with water: the first is a screened video of Lemon "wading in the water," in a bayou-like setting, as he carries a teacup and tries to read a short story by Arna Bontemps, of a suicidal black couple who've lost five children (to the Great Migration?), while the second is a startling moment in which Lemon literally dances, struggles to, falls down, while being jetted by a (Southern) fire hose.
In between Baldwin and Baldwin, the wading and the waterhose, we get snippets of narratives, from which Lemon migrates through motifs that become the ground for individual and group dances: holding up (a wall), blues jigs, buck(s) dancing, whistling, circus performances, falling down. The Bontemps narrative shades into one about a man, Elias Clayton, who was lynched in Duluth, Minnesota. Lemon, on video, visits the spot where the tree stood, where a monument stands. He dances in commemoration, in echo, on screen. The quintet of dancers mirror his performance--hanging, leaning, lying down--and deconstruct it on stage. A counter-memorial. Woven into these fragment-currents are stories from Lemon's research travels, his encounters with aging blues musicians and their families, his grandmother's gun-loving boyfriend who mirrors a character in one of the stories, various songs (the Smiths, Rogers & Hart, Dumaine's Jazzola Eight, Giuseppi Verdi):
The screens, one high above on stage right, the other larger and moving from center stage to the wings, evoke documentary, spectacle, the media, the panopticon of history, law, society--what is being seen, televised, viewed (can I get a witness?) and what has been and is being lost, except to memory, mourning, re-membering, revival. The performance, as a show, as a series of dances is not only embodiment--in the strikingly beautiful figures of satin-shirted Ralph Lemon and his five fellow brightly clad dancers, two women (Gesel Mason, Okwui Okpokwasili) and three men (Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, Darrell Jones, David Thomson), but also disembodiment--the videos, Baldwin's animation (by Lemon), his and other voices from offstage, whispers, lip-synching, hidden sets (visible only to parts of the audience). The simulation (video) becomes the real (the space/place of the performance and our experience of it). Ephemerality--no performance of Come home Charley Patton can ever be the same, no experience of our pasts, are ever fully isotopic with another, and yet the echoes, the traces, of our run through all we do. The spirit(s)=the thread=the dance(rs). What is communicated, translated, transferred, lost. Literally body moving. After Chicago, the troupe goes to Pittsburgh on March 19, to the African American Cultural Center there, and then this third part, and the entire trilogy, end.
Lemon conjures spirits, lets them stir and dance among the dancers, in them--Baldwin, Bontemps, Clayton, the couple, Aunt Tempe and Uncle William, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Jacques Brel, and so on--but plays with impersonation as well--Okpokwasili plays him, sings Nina, Roland Hayes "Liedering." Unfolding, unpacking, decomposing--the motifs, linguistic and performative, become the starting point of improvisation, repetition, revision, decomposition. The dancers literally fold, unfold, battle themselves, among themselves, before they can reunite as one. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. At times they are mirroring each other; at others, they are slamming body against body, falling (to the floor). Blacks and blues, bruises. Circles, patterns. Ladders--there are two, and no one can stay on them. The chair collapses: the trapdoor=hanged. The hoop becomes a skirt, a noose--no basketball, but a body, p[ress]asses through it.
(And here in Chicago, another significance: in every whistle Emmett Till's smiling, and later mangled face, Mamie Till Mosley's anguished and courageous voice.)
There were moments of obscurity, passage of the hermeticism Lemon himself has decried in his earlier work. In parts, a difficult [language] game and system, as all artworks are, though I felt I was able to enter this one even with reading the extensive notes in the program. At least once during a slowly and steadily unfolding, repetitive sequence, which I later realized was an attempt to make the audience literally squirm, I glanced at my watch and thought, "Is this show going to go for all two hours?" Then the dancers broke apart, sped things up, and we arrived at the fire hose scene....
"Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?"--Gauguin's greatest painting, yes, but also the questions Lemon is asking--who are we as Americans spiritually, socially, politically, aesthetically, ontologically, in the 21st century? What is memory, and what does it mean to re-member, to memorialize? He's answering, in part, through dancing. Paraphrasing Clyde Taylor, how can we be post-modern when we are still grappling with modernity? But then, Baldwin says (the one thing I was able to write down) at the very end of the show, of the presence of Africa (in us), "The center of the world has shifted, and the definition of man has shifted with it."
If you're in Pittsburgh on March 19, don't miss this astonishing work. If not, let's hope it's issued, at the very least, along with the first and second parts of the trilogy on DVD.
Addendum: After the show, through the graces of my colleague, I got a chance to meet Lemon, had him autograph my copy of Geography: art/race/exile (Wesleyan UP, 2000), and also speak to several of the dancers (Thomas, Mason, Gervais, Johnson). I have to say, Lemon and his fellow dancers--lean, lithe, bolt-upright--were as beautiful in person and presence as in their performance. The aesthetics of dancers: a topic for a future post.