by: Rohan Lewis
A few weeks, I saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, a remarkable dance company renowned for its origins in Afro-centric ideology, paradigm and discourse. I will not deny that they are excellent followers of modern dance, echoing the techniques of Horton and Limon with absolute precision and dignity.
I found myself, however, alienated by the wonderful work Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey. Through it, the costume designs and movements incorporate the discourse that constructs a representation of the African Diasporic experience in the Americas.
I was alienated for several reasons: one is that of gender, the other of nationality.
All the dances were very gender specific, deeply enforced by costume. Male-gendered persons would only appear in pants, whereas female in dresses. The movements then corresponded as such; only specific movements were allotted to women, such as the elongation of the legs, whereas men would elongate the arms to their full extent.
As wonderful this may be, it cannot be ignored that such displays of masculinity and femininity subsume the entire experience of African Diaspora participants into an imagined collective, in which all persons are categorized as masculine and feminine. The woman is only lifted as the man only lifts. Her femininity is on display with the splaying of her legs whereas the man is allotted his masculinity with the proud display of his chest.
What about those in gender variance? Are we not allowed the celebration of Carnival, nor the pastoral the space of the happy dancers? Is my dance of my Diasporic experience less valid because it is not acceptable to this audience? The crowd would cheer and clap and whoop as the manly man and womanly woman not only served as a display of the imagined communal “Blackness,” but also serves as an educational tool. As these symbols of gender are the only aspects that are acceptable to the predominantly U.S. Afro-American audience, I found myself immediately shunned. My gender display in dance, of legs elongated and chest displayed, is thus unacceptable to this mindset.
I was passively ejected from the African Diaspora in the Americas. I was being educated on my gender. It is not acceptable that I follow as a bachata and a tango dancer. It is not acceptable that I dance the dance of the “whites” (ballet) as opposed to that of the “coloured” (modern.) For not participating in this imagined community, I did not belong.
Revelations revealed to me another aspect of U. S. Afro-centric thought: that there is very little discourse between itself and other Afro-centric Diasporic experiences. One section that relied on Wade in The Water displayed an imagined Caribbean existence, in which Jamaican, Trinidadian, and more experiences were subsumed into one section.
This dance, that claims knowledge of the African Diaspora, knows little of it. It did not speak on the African Diaspora to the Arab world (Afro-Arab slave trade,) nor that to Asia nor Latin American nor to Europe. It aimed to represent a global and broad experience through a local and precise, unknowing of its assumptions.
Such precision of gender and race was also created when the company produced Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, which presented escapism and realism for me. In the first section, the group moved in a very unified function, save for the seventeenth dancer. As they would all stand and arch back from the chairs in which they sat, he would fall forward. As they would remove articles of clothing, he would only pretend. Such abjectness was easily appealing to me, given that I easily did not belong in this audience. This, of course, reveals what I do appreciate about Naharin’s work: that such a minimalistic and simple concept can mean so much to a person because they can imprint their values on a piece.
At the last section, a techno variation to “Over the Rainbow”, I felt that escapism was brilliantly provided by bringing people onto the stage to dance. My only problem was that it was a very gender specific notion of escapism: only male-female gendered partners were available on stage.
People like me are not allowed to dance over the rainbow. We do not fit into the paridiso that is somehow beyond human understanding. How can any one person in this mundane world know what Heaven, Nirvana, or the Blessed West might look like? How can anyone know the laws of these worlds, that none of us has yet to experience? Can anyone justify to leave people like me behind? Is it right to refer to a people as “one” when we as humans splinter ourselves in as many was as we can possibly fabricate?
Rohan Lewis is soldiering their way through their third year at Northwestern University. An ethnomusicology major with a minor in dance, Rohan invests time in performance and creation. A choreographer, dancer, trumpeter, playwright, composer, poet and fantasy writer, Rohan loves all things “fairytale.” Zie is inspired by Yo-Yo Ma, Lin Hwai Min, J. K. Rowling, Isabelle Allende, J. R. R. Tolkien, Tamora Pierce and Shakespeare. Rohan, born in Florida but raised in Atlanta, also carries a Jamaican dual citizenship.