Friday December 3rd, 2021. CounterPulse Theater, San Francisco.
“This is an accumulated sequence.” The words spring to life on the back wall of the stage while Gerald Casel moves through a simple movement phrase. Reaching, slight hip swing, retract, repeat. He considers the audience with a direct, deadpan gaze.
The stage is a white box—white floor, white walls. TLC’s “Waterfalls” pours from a speaker on the ground with a lo-fi, boombox feel.
“I am a brown body in a white cube.” The words again appear on the back wall.
Casel continues to dance, and the projected words change to describe the dance lineage of the piece like subtitles. The white cube and accumulated sequence mirror choices from Trisha Brown’s 1971, “Accumulation,” a pillar in post-modern dance. The title, “Not About Race Dance,” is a reference to the 1974 “Not About AIDS Dance.”
“”Not About AIDS Dance” made HIV more visible to audiences,” the projected words tell us. What is being made more visible to me?
Casel, with his brown body in this white cube, continues to dance an accumulated phrase inspired by a white body in a white-dominated form. Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls, pleads the song, as if warning of the dangers of grasping at something that can never really be achieved.
But despite the layers of history behind this dance, it feels undeniably Casel’s own. What other movement lineages am I seeing? I wonder as I watch him dance. What matrix of un-subtitled influences live in this moving body?
The song ends. Casel exits, and then re-enters with Audrey Johnson and Cauveri Suresh. Johnson takes a seat downstage left and begins a soulful a capella rendition of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” Primed to recognize the lineage of the movement language, I immediately ID Casel and Suresh’s opening moves as post-modern inspired. As the dance goes on, I get less and less sure. There are rhythmic sections, movements big and small, stomping and spinal contractions. Within minutes, Casel and Suresh’s dancing pours from their bodies in such a dynamic and blended mix of “recognizable” and novel-to-me forms, it seems the only possible source of the dancing can be their bodies themselves—their movement histories, influences, preferences and patterns.
Johnson’s singing soars over it all, at once tender, intimate, and vast. She introduces the role of internal witness to the work. Whereas Casel’s deadpan gaze in the opening scene made me acutely aware of my role as external witness, I am now also aware of the artists as witnesses to their own performance. Johnson, with her back to us, seems to sing primarily for Casel and Suresh. The timbre of her voice—tuned with pleasure—suggests that she is also singing for herself. As the audience, we are the lucky vicarious recipients of this song.
Who are Suresh and Casel dancing for? I wonder. The audience? Johnson? One another? Themselves?
This question becomes a driving curiosity for me as the work goes on—who is this for? I feel invited into a rich and layered secret space, as if each scene is just an iceberg of a profoundly deep process. The dancing at many points strikes me as the work of world-breaking and building—I see decomposition, devolution, disintegration, looping, primordial soup, breaking down, convergence, rupture, and rebuilding.
The object of this labor is never spoken out loud, but feels implied by the title: “Not About Race Dance.” In the conjurations of this all-BIPOC cast, I see the unraveling and reimagining of a world replete with systems designed to oppress all manner of intersections and identities; I see the interrogation of the artists’ personal experiences; pathways into their intimate internal worlds; and an exploration of being witnessed in the midst of this research. I also see a group of humans, just humans, dancing fully, generously, and, it seems, with joy.
In the layers and contradictions of how “not about race” and “all about race” the dancing seems, I am also invited to wonder: to what extent does my witnessing transform this work from “not about race” to “all about race?” This question is fueled greatly by the play between internal and external witnessing in the work. About halfway through, the artists huddle upstage to murmur in private communion. Under low light, they smile at one another, and after apparently agreeing on something (everyone nods), they slide back downstage for public viewing again.
This moment feels radical. As the artists prioritize their connections with one another, I am also invited to observe my role as witness. I sit with how it feels to be a white-bodied observer to the movement of this all-POC cast. Their choices at times place me as a voyeur, and actively signal that this work was not made with just my experience in mind. I also read it as a refusal to fall into the trope of the objectified Black or brown body. Though this performance has not been overly curated for me, I am left with no doubt that everything I am witnessing is willingly and authentically shared.
The use of projection and a mobile camera, often handled by the artists themselves, adds another layer to this witnessing. Over the course of the work, projected on the back wall we see a looping cityscape, a grainy photo of a wraparound porch (Home, I think), and various iterations of the dancing onstage through a distorted camera lens.
Mostly, the camera portrays an abstracted and delayed version of the action onstage. However, close to the end of the work, the camera’s eye clarifies for an unfiltered close-up of the dancers on stage. Styles Alexander has just completed a rabid rendition of an original punk song ending with, “I’m gay and it’s sick!”. Now they lie on the floor, back to the audience, speaking a poem into a mic.
Johnson and Suresh dance on the other side of the stage, and in between the dancers and Alexander, Casel holds the camera. First he gives us a close-up of Johnson and Suresh’s duet, and then he pans to a low angle of Alexander’s face, body stretched body fully along the floor. “If I continue to spiral, I am weaving through the alignment of being,” Alexander murmurs, their head halo-ed by a shin light beyond.
I am struck by the gentleness of the witnessing in this moment. A far cry from the detached or brutalist surveillance that camera technology often evokes, the projected image serves only to amplify the humanity of the artists in its eye. The image appears with a slight lag on the back wall, adding to the softness and creating a sense of time like a rubber band.
The piece ends with a tired and tender duet by Audrey Johson and Karla Quintero. As they turn around one another, I see a yielding and responsiveness. They eventually descend on opposite sides of the stage to crawl on their hands and knees towards the back screen. When they reach their destination, they turn to look at one another, and then the audience. As the lights fade, I wonder what they see in our sea of faces.
In the days since, I’ve continued to be struck by the complexity of my role as witness in this work. How did my own positionality influence my experience of the piece? What did others’ eyes see as they watched the same performance? What “unwritten subtitles” might I have missed, misread, or created of my own accord? And how does that map to how I write about the work? How would the subtitles for this review read?
I have also continued to mull on the question proposed by the opening image of the work: what was made more visible by this piece? At the top of the program, Gerald has included a note in which he thanks the cast for contributing so much of themselves throughout the process: “this was not always easy since we have worked to exhume and are constantly working to move past difficult histories as racialized bodies in predominantly white spaces.”
For me, perhaps the most powerful impression I had upon leaving this work was of race, not as an abstract concept, but a human one. One that lives inside of, on top of and between our bodies; one that shows up everywhere, but matters only because we matter. So in the end, what was made more visible to me was not so much “racism” or the “whiteness” of many dance spaces. It was the dancers themselves and the labor they contributed to staying present, visible, and connected to themselves and one another even as they performed for an audience. Every choice in the evening succeeded in amplifying their bodies, presence, and offerings. They were brown bodies dancing in a white cube, and they were also five incredibly generous artists sharing a small, incredibly substantial piece of themselves with us.
Thank you to Gerald Casel and his collaborators. I’m already eagerly awaiting the next offering.