What Remains: Rankine and Rawls’s Mindscape
Will Rawls and Claudia Rankine
DANSPACE PROJECT | FRENCH INSTITUTE ALLIANCE FRANÇAISE CROSSING THE LINE FESTIVAL
In her book-length poems Claudia Rankine weaves together highly personal anecdotes with collective memories of politicized events and popular culture: an inadvertent racist comment, the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin, Zidane’s head-butt in the 2006 World Cup—these are the fodder for her filters. Her work uses the accessibility of the shared memories relating to race as an invitation to explore personal ones. Addressing similar artistic concerns, the choreographer Will Rawls is known for bringing together movement and the spoken word. Last year, Bard Live Arts brought Rankine and Rawls together to collaborate on the topic of surveillance and adjacent themes of being black in America and struggling against dominant power structures. The two, in turn, invited four performers to inhabit the mindscape of Rankine’s poetry and bring to it their own experiences. What remains when the majority of text is stripped away?
The premier of What Remains—co-presented by Danspace Project and FIAF’s Crossing the Line festival—feels not so much the polished result of a year’s collaboration incubated at the Bard residency, but rather a particular frame placed on an evolving work that extends far beyond it and out of view. Four performers—Leslie Cuyjet, Jessica Pretty, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, and Tara Aisha Willis—subtly step into the frame from the seating border of St. Mark’s Church’s central sanctuary to mark the beginning of the performance; the dancers continue to reconfigure the postures and pairings they had been shifting through as the audience filtered in. A harsh fluorescent floodlight reflects off the wooden floor and creates a dreamscape tinged with anxiety. Hiding from the light, the dancers in full-body black costumes spread out in the shadow to the ambient sound score (designed by Toussaint-Baptiste) that layers crashing waves with the disturbing moan of a muffled whale cry. Cuyjet, Pretty, Toussaint-Baptise, and Willis breathe audibly. Their bodies jerk into a collapsed break, shimmy forward, and roll back. They make little progress; each is stuck. Two turn to face each other on opposite sides of the space. They utter a garbled syllable: “you”… “you” … you.” Crawling onto black chairs, they build words: “you”… “shouted.”
It’s a challenge to follow them through this inscrutable atmosphere, to make sense of the thick residue of pitched voices and nonsensical utterances that accompany their fitful movement. One thing that remains when the text is stripped away is the conscription of the viewer’s inner world as a full partner in creating the work’s meaning. A work shown earlier in the Crossing the Line Festival, Trajal Harell’s Caen Amour, offers a good counter-point. Harell invites the audience on the stage in an early twentieth century hoochie-coochie show replete with a deliberate orientalist conflation of all that is exotic and erotic to the Western gaze: Spanish dancers, Middle Eastern Belly Dance, Japanese Butoh. In this visually saturated show that evokes (and brilliantly critiques) the traditions of modernism and primitivism, the audience is fed artist statements, narration, and detailed imagery. In contrast, What Remains offers set, sound, costume, and libretto that are bare, minimal, dark, and fragmented, asking, if not demanding, the viewer to lean in and respond to the prompts with their own memories and imaginings. Where What Remains interrogates the world by teasing out the viewer's inner experience, Caen Amour relies on the external—elements of history—to demonstrate how our own imaginations can be complicit in reductive social categories. The two works are equally effective in the depth of their reach.
What Remains is most gripping when the fragmented undercurrent of words coalesce and the scant external references surface before re-diffusing, like when performers move from syllables and single words to articulating full Rankine verses: “some nights I count commercials for antidepressants.” Likewise, the choreography itself moves from the abstract and disjointed to the rhythmic and integrated. Three dancers discontinue highly idiosyncratic movements distant from one another to huddle together and sway as if in a psych-up session before a sports match. The formation devolves and an impersonal state of electronic looping and thuds descends like that found in the depths of a techno club. As the lights dim further, the dancers gather around a black piano in the far left corner, their shadows silhouettes against remaining photo-shoot spotlights. A disco ball lies on the ground by the Church’s pillar, refracting the light. The recognizable drum and piano intro of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” fills the air and the performers unify into their own parody of the bop: “I’m a classic man / I’m a dick pic man / I’m a tinder man.” In the original version Jidenna sings: “I can be a bull while I'm being polite.” With their satirical play, the dancers expose the bullish vulgarity behind “classic” and “polite” figures abusing masculine power.
This performance came at a time when the politicized event transfixing the nation was a Supreme Court nominee’s violent sexual behavior cloaked behind a façade of wholesome, traditional values. Kavanaugh’s facade is made possible by the fact that—unlike those addressed in What Remains—when white male bodies are surveilled and caught, they prove as yet impervious to consequences. This event was busy burrowing roots in our collective memories, the kind that Rankine might fuse with personal experience in her poetry. By reminding us of the strength of a personal narrative as a healing agent for collective trauma, it intensified the meaning of this portion of the work.
The traumas the world often inflicts tend to operate on its victims at multiple levels and the performance heralds this reality. The French translation of the title What Remains, “Ce qui reste,” calls to mind the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work “Ce qui reste d’Auschwitz.” As Agamben takes on what remains after the trauma of a historic genocide, the Holocaust, so Rankine and Rawls take on what remains after going through the contemporary, daily trauma of racial oppression. And it’s a personal, embodied trauma. “She did say it was okay to cramp, to clog, to fold over at the gut,” a dancer both performs and recites, remixing the line from Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Poetry and dance come together to portray trauma as an intellectual, emotional, and physical experience. What language lacks, movement supplies, and vice versa. What remains is the need to express.
Gillian Jakab is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.