FLEXN Evolution– the dance-activism panel, performance, and photography exhibit opened Thursday May 18th at the Park Avenue Armory. Under the direction of choreographer Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray and Peter Sellars, Evolution is the re-envisioning of the original D.R.E.A.M. Ring’s premier in 2015. As history and humanity continue to develop, these artists open a much-needed dialogue on current political and social issues through creative prowess and physicalized storytelling.
Presenting on the impressive 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall stage, performances opened with a panel discussion in collaboration with Common Justice. Thursday’s participants included moderator Sellars, Gray, Common Justice graduate and current Case Coordinator Donnell Penny, Harvard Kennedy School professor of history, race, and public policy Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and a female associated with Common Justice. The speakers offered thoughts on the current climate of the reality of justice in America; the opportunity to demonstrate equality through art and the lack of equality as is related to opportunity and the justice system, particularly incarceration, in America. Through personal story, research, and provoking question, the panel illustrated the problems surrounding power and who is allowed the freedom of expression due to those powers. The speakers also identified the 5 main elements of FLEX dance – bone-breaking, pauzin, gliding, connecting, and groovin- and how they serve as vocabulary beyond aesthetic decoration. The panel was a necessary aid for this performance is it provided context for the movement and the Movement of Black Lives Matter.
The dance aspect began with a social, inclusive feel. The dancers ran together up to the stage, warming up, stretching, talking amongst themselves. Overall, the show bounced between the lines of the vernacular and theatrical as was appropriate to the context at hand. Lighting design by Ben Zamora provided stark, abstract, and changeable dashes of white light against a black backdrop, then included emotive reds or blues, a cubed grid like individual prison cells for specific sections. Music mix by Epic B included a mix of the contemporary popular hits with tone-setting lyrics, as well as instrumental pieces, or songs whose lyrics went hand in hand with the dance movements. Masterful blending of illusory pantomime, pedestrian costume design by Angela Wendt, and performers interaction with each lent to an easy connection to the human reality within the work. Non-theatrical dance forms, usually the creation of many individuals over long periods of time, serve the lens of anthropology and sociology as sensitive cultural barometers to the societies that produce them.FLEXN Evolution however, incorporated elements of theatricality as a tool for activism, a demonstration of the societal impact of art from not only a participant’s but spectator’s role.
Many selections in the program were autobiographical in choreography. In each of these sections, different techniques and moves were utilized to great effect by the performers to tell their specific story. The dancing, requiring absolute strength, musicality, and energy, could fill an audience for the sheer entertainment factor alone, but these artists strive for something more. What could have slipped into aesthetic trickery, each D.R.E.A.M. Ring dancer used their own personal skills to showcase individual personality and style as it served true-to-life inspiration. As every emotional state in all people tends to express itself in the physical manifestation of body language, it is still a tremendous challenge to convey these various states without the use of cliché. For the most part, the choreography successfully avoided these stereotyped concepts of emotion, the dancers infusing dance vocabulary with variance of focus, showcasing outwards or quietly internal, speed, and attack as helped set tone. Occasionally, there was use of easily-recognized gesture- a hand shaped like a gun, a pantomimed snorting of cocaine- which were easy to understand but detracted from the artistic transformation of everyday life. These were less bothersome as a spectator when performers did these facing each other rather than to the audience. The attempt to express personal accounts of dramatized behavior reads a bit absurd while standing on a stage under a designed lighting scheme. A few times, moves became unnecessarily overused, the ripping off of shirts for the men (we get it, you’re in impressive shape!) or the showy-without-substance chin-stand flawlessly done by dancer Shellz. But if you ask me, one chin-stand is too many.
The dividing factor between vernacular and theatrical dance has largely to do with societal function and purpose; the former a participatory act with a desired outcome, the latter, where dance usually resides in current opinion, a spectator sport. As faith that the inherent magic in communal dancing to influence the world was lost, the Greek translation of ‘theater’- literally defined as ‘the seeing place’- led to the removal of collective purpose and the division of participatory inclusion versus the act of watching. The artists of FLEXN Evolution, however, masterfully used this theatrical platform to re-establish contemplated relation to the world and reclaim human experience. Through brilliant choice in theatrical elements (lighting, costume, sound, choreography) and effortful performance, their movement served as a medium for transferring aesthetic and emotional concept from the consciousness of one individual to that of another, the audience. The awareness of our own human bodies, sedentary and comfortable in our seats, is what creates the impact of their incredible speed in intricate choreography, the lightning reflexes, the flexibility and strength. Through the shared connection of the human form and the displaced fantasy of art we can come to embody their stories in a way that produces emotional and lasting resonance. There were a few moments of unison, a straight line upstage with fast, sharp arm movements for instance, where they weren’t quite together and the power of unison was lost in those group moments.
During the introductory panel, Gray stated that the work “intended to hold up a mirror, to show through the performers own bodies what was going on”. At one point, the panel questioned why certain individuals did not engage with the conversations surrounding Black Lives Matter, with the protests for Treyvon Martin or Michael Brown, with possible reasons such as ignorance or political indifference.
As a former St. Louisan (one of the most racially segregated cities in the country) who has taught in over 30 elementary to high schools in the area and has seen the huge unavoidable racial divide in the school system that accompanies a city or suburb’s wealth, I would like to think that I am not completely ignorant to inequality within our country. (Remember when I was teaching at this weed dispensary/ elementary school? Yikes ) However, as someone who has heard enough outrage that people of my skin color have no place speaking up in the conversation, I admit that I have been hesitant to get on any sort of soap box beyond engaging when someone in person asks for my opinions or doing my best to pay attention to what is being said while being sensitive to the notion of ownership, of whose turn it is to speak on these issues. Speaking up through dance activism, telling their own stories, the artists of FLEXN Evolution allowed those in the audience a chance to listen to a beautifully articulated, powerfully shown representation of the life and society that has informed and formed each as a representative of their culture, art form, and individual artistry.
Here is the D.R.E.A.M. Ring performing at TedxTeen via youtube if you want a taste of what they do:
- The most beautiful and terrifying representation of racially-charged events I have ever seen onstage: Big Muddy Dance Company in Robert Moses choreography
- Previous Park Avenue Armory (this space is incredible!) Coverage by me: Tree of codes
- How to Plea for Attention in the World, the RIGHT way
The FLEXN Evolution performance was masterful use of the theater that in this instance, places societal function back into performing. In the musical Rent the collection of aspiring artists sing, ‘the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation’. The creation of these artists works in twofold purpose of illuminating the war on racism, and creating an opportunity for each to express their own experience and for viewers to engage through the shared experience as performer and audience member. In the theater, it’s an even give-and-take relationship. It is through the power of imagination, the potential of expression, that art can engage everyone in the important conversations of race and equality.