“Accounting for Customs”–a new site-specific ensemble work by choreographers Andréya Ouamba (a Congolese performer from Senegal) and Reggie Wilson (U.S.)–utilizes the main entrance steps of the former Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at 1 Bowling Green at the lower tip of Broadway. Some months ago, during an interview for “Dance Magazine,” Wilson told me of his fascination with the history of this building, designed by Cass Gilbert, that now houses a federal bankruptcy court and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He spoke of the slave trade–foundation of the rapid economic development of colonial states–and of his eagerness to dig into the story of the Custom House’s connection to slavery.
The collaboration, including several dancers from Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group as well as six guest dancers, is a project of Sitelines, curated and produced by Nolini Barretto and presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as part of the annual River to River Festival.
Publicity for “Accounting for Customs” alluded to “questions of memory and loss and how people innovate within and against traditions, of preservation, continuity, stolen pasts and troubled and hopeful presents…” All of this led New York Times senior dance critic Alastair Macaulay to remark, “Such words…belong on grant applications.”
Indeed, some dance publicity, rather than offering an accurate preview of what will be shown, seems tailored to appeal to funders’ sensibilities. I suspect that Ouamba and Wilson have sincere, genuine objectives in mind. But the resulting 15-minute work led Macaulay to dwell on allusions to Florenz Ziegfeld and Busby Berkeley and to write, “It would be a pity to watch this work more for socio-historic meaning than for sheer sensuous pleasure.” (To read Macaulay’s review, click here.)
What’s a pity is that the original vision quest has not produced a work that more forthrightly asks more of us than appreciation of its “sensuous pleasure” and its craft. Or perhaps the pity is when powerful critics are reluctant to look beyond the surface reticence of certain dances to their more eloquent sociopolitical undercurrents. Or perhaps the pity is about how much depth of investigation you can realistically accomplish in fifteen minutes, or outdoors, downtown, at lunchtime. Whatever the pity is, I hope that these choreographers will have an opportunity to revisit their original themes, perhaps when the apparent aesthetic distraction of 1 Bowling Green and its staircase is no longer a factor.
In the meantime, I believe I saw in “Accounting for Customs” some signs of love and community (dancers embracing), resistance (rolling up the steps against gravity), crowding in the slave ships (bodies piled up), slave auctions (extension and display of limbs), as well as timeless images of hard labor, abduction and independent will and action.
Remaining performances are scheduled for today at 1:30pm. For further information, click here.
Eva, thank you for this review (which readers can also find on Eva’s web site, InfiniteBody), and its elucidation of another approach than the one Macaulay took.
I particularly liked your implicit call out to critics “to look beyond the surface reticence of certain dances” to the depths that have yet to fully emerge–in this case, African-American history during the slave trade.
When we critics catch a glimmer of some deeper concern, especially one that the choreographers have said mattered to them, I think it behooves us to talk about it–to elaborate how it might be elaborated or why it hasn’t been. It makes our own account both more interesting AND more sympathetic to the artists–both at once–without abandoning our primary audience, our readers.
My problem with Macaulay’s review is not that he thought the most interesting thing about the work was its Busby Berkeleyesque use of the stairs, but that he thinks the formal elements SHOULD be the more interesting. The review establishes a hierarchy of value, with the purely formal at the top. Here’s his concluding paragraph:
The selection of music, ranging from traditional African to old jazz, did much to suggest different layers of African-American cultural memory. Similarly, the range of movement — some of it spasmodic, gestural, driven — made its expressive point. But the main spell of “Accounting for Customs” is of a beauty that transcends any socio-cultural message. [my emphasis] Eat your heart out, Flo Ziegfeld: You never used stairs like this.
Maybe Macaulay just wanted to oppose “beauty” to “message,” and of course none of us wants our art lecturing at us. But in the context of the review, he seems to be equating “socio-cultural” with “message,” as if any dance that brings in history and the world were necessarily preachy.
Back to the era of critic Cleanth Brooks and his “Well-Wrought Urn,” which in the name of eternal values made of literature something immaculate and untrue.
Re those 1930s stairways to heaven: I can’t think of a more apt–and perverse– fantasy for the Depression than turning the Sisyphusean struggle (you climb and climb and end up farther down than where you started) into a dream of endless ascension. What makes the stairs powerful is the contrast of dizzying, giddy multiplication into infinity, on the one hand, and the shadow of dread that anyone who escaped to the movies would carry with her of a world that seemed to have no bottom to its misery, on the other. The reality makes the fantasy MORE powerful, not less.
Counter Critic also hammers Macaulay for “bask[ing] in the transcendent glow of ignorance.”
Tonya Plank (aka Swan Lake Samba Girl) also reviews the show–AND offers lots of live-action photos, so you can see for yourself what the movement calls to mind. (The bodies prone on the stairs look to me like human “cargo” in the hold of a ship–but I didn’t see it live. Not sure what it would have brought to mind live.)
In a revealing preview feature on “Accounting for Customs” by the wonderful Times stringer Claudia La Rocco, Wilson discusses his frustration with the false divisions and false assumptions that people (white people, as it happens) establish between culture and aesthetic forms, between his experience–and the experience of his people–and his art. How prescient! Here’s a bit from the article:
Mr. Wilson draws as much inspiration from 20th-century dance lineages as he does from historical and traditional sources rooted in the African diaspora. He is intrigued by the tension between tradition and innovation: artists who receive credit for advancing an art form versus those seen (or dismissed) as working in traditional cultures, even when these cultures use the same innovations as experimental artists.
“I’ll go back and look at a tape of Pina Bausch in the same way that I’ll go to Congo or I’ll go and get a history book,” Mr. Wilson said. “Like trying to find out about the Custom House: how, why is this here now?” he said, referring to the building. “It’s the story.”
Mr. Wilson wearies of the labels placed on him. European presenters expect him to teach tap and hip-hop in his workshops; faculty members at all-white dance programs in American universities are, he said, “amazed that I’m still able to reference the African diaspora without black bodies, or that I still have some sort of chops with time and with movement and with space.”
“I get really frustrated talking about race with white people that haven’t thought about race,” he added. “Somehow it’s something I have to figure out; as a black choreographer I have to talk about why this work is a black piece or why this issue is important. Nobody asks John Jasperse about being white. And it’s truly a white aesthetic and a white history that he’s coming from in doing his work. But that’s not something he’s put to task about.”
Coming up later this week on Foot:
–link to a feature I wrote for Newsday on demigod Rudolf Nureyev. Oh, okay (she says with modest restraint), you can sneak a peek now.
–long postponed (cuz I have a day job or two, and this doesn’t pay) conversation with Counter Critic on dance onscreen.