Performing Arts: Dance
February 18, 2016
When asked by Celia Ipiotis in 1991 when he first realized he was black, David Roussève recounted his adolescence, at which point socializing with white girls was suddenly forbidden. Twenty-five years after that episode of Eye On Dance, Ipiotis posed the same question to Chafin Seymour, the mixed-race choreographer commissioned by Gallatin’s Interdisciplinary Arts Program to create a work inspired by the issues the episode raised. He summoned the memory of an incredulous classmate asking what he actually was if he was two races. The young Seymour replied simply, “Yes.”

African-American Footprints Leading to the Future uses the relationship between two time periods of black dance-making to measure progress. The Eye on Dance interview pairs distinct African-American choreographers, David Roussève and Pat Hall-Smith, who force us to dig deeper into America’s pluralism. Their specialties, albeit sharing skin color, are highly individual: Roussève’s Louisiana Creole lineage and Smith’s scholarship of Haitian lore. Sensitization to African-America’s subculture spectrum facilitates understanding how such themes fuel the creative process.

After the screen lifted, Seymour began his physical reply. Facing away proved motivic, yet was utterly inviting. Establishing a standard contemporary vocabulary of articulate ripples and slides, Seymour establishes a familiar language from which to trace its evolution through hip-hop’s pops and locks to the popular dances of Roussève and Hall’s upbringings. We are invited to an investigation of identity formation and presentation. Avoiding a museum tour’s lull, he periodically jolts back to the present, referencing present violence to a soundtrack including Langston Hughes, Kanye West, and Jack Kerouac woven amongst ironically chipper musical impressions. By the end, Seymour has abandoned his formal movement for the basic groove driving it all.

One of Eye on Dance’s invaluable features is its embedding of footage, allowing us to see Seymour’s work not only as a response to ideas, but as a continuing of form. Roussève’s “total theatre” uses text, song, and movement, often incorporating childhood songs and games against more urgent imagery to offset the innocence. While Hall sticks true to Haitian customs, she draws other sources into the aesthetic, reworking the Spinners’ hit, “Sadie,” into a traditional orchestration. Seymour flows in and out of dancing in time with his music and is not so presentational with his folk references, donning a smoother style that is less obviously disruptive and can pull mainstream audiences into his not-so-mainstream dialogue. In all three we see the inherent postmodernism in African American dance forms that relies not on the esoteric, but the times in our lives when dance is not something we sit politely and watch.

An Ipiotis-moderated talkback brought together Roussève and Seymour along with playwright Michael Dinwiddie and Gallatin professor/dance historian Julie Malnig. We are at a point, noted Seymour, at which eclectic hodgepodge is taken for granted in art. Roussève illustrated this in his personal identity, discussing retiring his Creole label for an African-American one. Such transculturalism reframes progress as a nonlinear process and unbinds identity politics from time as loosely as the universal struggle to form a sense of self.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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