Performed Friday, February 24, 2017
Marguerite Hemmings and Collaborators
New York, NY
It feels a little strange to write a recap of Marguerite Hemmings’ we free at Gibney Dance. It’s like reviewing a party––you just had to be there. Artists and critics have argued over the viewer-performer relationship ad nauseam, but Hemmings and her collaborators have taken things one step further, blurring the line between practiced performance and joyous fête.
The work began in Gibney’s upstairs gallery space, where Flamenco dancer and musician Arielle Rosales initiated audience members into the show’s community. As she coached the circle of attendees into finding a group rhythm of claps, stomps, and vocalizations, the expectation was clear: if she could bring her entire spirit to this space tonight, so could you. Rosales led her chorus downstairs, where Hemmings and her collaborators were already in motion. The four dancers––Hemmings, Italy Welton, Courtney Cook, and Jessica Phoenix––circled each other in the center of the room with movements from street and social dance styles while dancehall beats played from DJ BLKWYNTR’s mixing table, backed by Solo Woods’s guitar.
Though the audience is initially seated outside the dancers’ central huddle, Hemmings wasted no time in removing any sense of separation. Before long, she had the audience on their feet, strutting their stuff down a Soul Train line. As the first couple embarked, she gave a simple direction: When it is your turn, your job is to be seen. Cheering, clapping, and scatting soon filled the room, as the witnesses urged on their fellow audience members-turned-performers. As several people noted in the talk-back after the performance, this was their joy, celebration, and liberation embodied.
Ironically, in many other spaces, this type of movement would not be freeing. America has a rich history of scrutinizing, criticizing, and policing Black bodies in motion. Where I grew up in the Midwest, kids got kicked out of school dances for whining or twerking. In we free, these moves are vehicles for the dancers’ virtuosity. In the compact performance space, we see the sweat that comes from getting low, bending back, and popping fast. They make us want to get up and dance, and we do. By cultivating this urge, Hemmings breaks the traditional viewer-performer relationship that relies upon the passive consumption of bodies. She negates the sexualizing gaze. Here, the body isn’t just celebrated, it’s the celebration.
Early on, before the jubilee really took off, Hemmings asked the audience to watch a video with her. It’s a brief clip of Nina Simone answering the question, “What does freedom mean?” At first, she responds, “It’s just a feeling…You know it when it happens,” before adding, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me––no fear.” Murmurs of agreement rippled through the audience, as Simone’s words ushered in an unspoken group compact: a commitment to freedom, a rejection of fear, and hope for this feeling to continue after the night ends.