University of Massachusetts Amherst
Cassandra Jackman is hot. If you are into dance and you haven’t yet heard of her, you will – of this I am sure.
Watching with Untrained Eyes
I had to be coached not to clap at the wrong time, to be appropriately attentive. I was exposed to dance (mainly ballet) as a kid and didn’t get it. Enjoyed an Alvin Ailey show at some point and knew there was something going on but didn’t pursue it. Wire Monkey got me excited a few years ago. Going in, all I knew about UMass’ annual “Alive with Dance” show is that each number was an original work by graduating dance majors. These seniors selected their topics a year in advance, did research, created the choreography, auditioned and selected dancers from among their peers, designed the set and chose the accompanying music. I was unprepared for the quality of every performer and absolutely blown away by what I experienced as the collective intelligence of the troupe.
A Visceral Experience
The first three dances washed through me like emotion. Color, motion and sound swirled and merged seamlessly, one piece into another. This was not a fluke: return viewings on the 2nd and 3rd night elicited similar responses. With each show I realized there was so much I had not taken in, either not noticed at all or not been able to retain in the glut of stimulation. On the first night, during the fourth number in the first half of the show, all of a sudden I discovered myself wondering, “Why is that (big black beautiful) man naked?” (He wasn’t actually!) It was not that I hadn’t been paying attention – I was taking in all that I could! It was the surprise of his appearance that rippled my perception at a level of imagery below words. Everybody needs to see this, I thought to myself. Something is happening here.
The Strategic Use of Body
The fourth piece in the first half of the show, Lateralization by Cassandra Jackman, highlighted an African/African-American couple. For me, it signaled a dramatic shift in the storyline of the show. Prior to this piece I had not yet noticed individual details of any of the dancers; it was as if I’d seen with soft eyes, taking in only the gestalt. Suddenly, a focal point emerged, casting the previous pieces into the realm of context. I began to marvel at how these young people had orchestrated their discrete works of art into a collective statement about empowerment, including even race relations and suggesting optimism for social change. Parallels and a narrative became apparent in the second half. I almost came out of my seat during the final, closing number when Cassandra, cast in one of her classmate’s pieces, kick-starts a wild profusion of creative resistance to the masks so many people seem resigned to wear. It is as if she throws the switch that changes the game.
Starting with a Silent Bang
The audience’s pre-show hubbub quieted immediately to the Orwellian announcement about emergency exits and prohibitions on the use of technology. A soloist is illuminated as soon as the curtain opens and begins to move. I found myself waiting, as if expecting something else to happen, and then realize this is it: the show has begun. One dancer becomes three, music swells, a welter of emotions, red leotards, steady rhythm, perpetual motion, different threads of story, expressions of life’s cacophony of light and dark, the soloist isolated behind a scrim, a graceful sense of mourning followed by the emergence of joy. Layer upon layer unfolds but all I really see is pattern and distinction, no details no brown or white only coordinated bodies.
Then the rain begins. Gentle. Persistent. The second dance resonates with the season of spring, moistening and warming the hardened remains of winter, offering salve for wounds not yet healed. “We walk through the shadows our hearts cast on our minds.” Unless, that is, you are one of the perky pink girls who follows in the third dance – seemingly untouched by pain. Light and carnival-like, an assembly line of frivolous, interchangeable white girls provides an airy release from the poignant plunge of reality. Give us the Scott Joplin illusion of that happy era between the World Wars!
Lateralization enters a consciousness already stretched to the edges of emotional exertion. The fourth dance evokes the show’s beginning but with a twist. Like the show’s first scene, the soloist begins in silence. However, in contrast with the brightly illuminated first dancer, Tara Brown is shrouded in shadow, the outline of her body tracing lines of quiet force into empty space. Complication emerges swiftly: two small non-symmetric groups appear in vibrant turn. Their bold blue and striped black-and-white costumes and compelling motions fade into peripheral vision once the couple appears. Soon, Cassandra’s bold embodiment fixes my gaze.
A Catalyst for Movement
I needed to watch the show three times to grasp its structure. No doubt there are well-established logics for sequencing a dance program of individual works. I’ve since learned some details about the motivations for a few of the pieces: taken individually my read is hopefully recognizable as a viable interpretation of each choreographer’s intent, even if I failed to grasp the exact details of their visualizations. I wonder how they imagined the accumulated narrative, with each discrete piece aggregated into a whole story . . .
The five pieces in the second half of the show parallel the first half’s four parts in a few interesting ways. After intermission Sabra and Faded and Alive present a mix of a varied emotions much as Trouver la Lumiere did to open the first half of the show. Then, the third number in the second half, It’s All About Me, I Mean You, I Mean Me, provides a contemporary commentary on the ‘50’s rendition of the Roarin’ Twenties. These sassy dancers move nearly always in unison, perfect clockwork functionaries keeping up playful appearances despite the harsh and cynical backdrops from Barbara Kruger depicting the ironies of what it’s like to live now.
Gimme Five by Angela Bennett was the most complicated piece. It moved the mechanical behaviors of technological living to the foreground, almost as a counterpart to the sociocultural perspective offered in Jackman’s Lateralization. The psychological fluidity of Cassandra’s piece is counterpoised by Angela’s representation of rote, routine, automatic surrender and recovery. We watch humans copy copy copy each other, if not in mimicry than still in lock-step: one behavior triggering a reciprocal response in unvarying repetition as if this is the most to which humans can aspire. Yet something does change in the end, the push-pull of exclusion/inclusion and competing desires for belonging/autonomy moves the singularity of our human being through time, enabling re-orientation should one choose.
I am fascinated by how the first eight dances of the show can be understood as a repeating cycle. The first four pieces in the second half of the show reprise the first four pieces from the first half. Do humans need to witness repetition in order to recognize the social pattern? Once the pattern is realized, the stage is set for the dramatic action of the ninth and final dance.
Un-Masking One Reality to Create Another
A huge benefit of watching the show three times was increasing respect for the quality of all the dancers. Although my attention was riveted by a few at first, each viewing brought more of everyone’s talent into view. My appreciation for these young performers has continued to grow as I’ve sought to find the right words to express their accomplishment. These UMass Dance Majors have embraced art’s highest calling: to use illusion in service of illumination. They have achieved this by disciplining their bodies to perform at the very edge of courage.
The closing dance, Lasciere Me Eliminato, is dense with detail. Most of the dancers begin with masks, only three without. But I don’t notice this until the third time I watch, my eyes rapt in amazement of the sophisticated synchrony of syncopated motion on display from every dancer. There is a struggle. Something prevents forward motion. They reach in yearning and are hauled back as if shackled. “Going nowhere” – this phrase from the soundtrack. One dancer’s mask is removed, re-tied around an arm. Randomly (it seems) the dancers align in precise configuration, there is a slight pause, then WHAM! Cassandra’s triggering move sends an instantaneous ripple coursing with precision through the line, masks come off and all that shit gets wiped away. Free! Free at last! I can almost hear the refrain as the mood turns to peace: quiet, solemn, and graceful.
That a brown person was cast to dance-kick this new gear into motion is likely not pure coincidence. There are white dancers throwing off their masks too, choosing to refuse the current state of affairs. Meanwhile, the three originally unmasked dancers were all white. Were they pulling the strings before? A small percentage controlling the rest? I would have to see the show again to assess that hypothesis.
In the end, one of those unmasked dancers finds herself masked. Alone on stage, there is barely time to adjust before she sees from her new vantage point – and gasps.
Alive with Dance 2011: A Catalyst for Movement
Trouver la Lumiere by Shirah Burgey
Inner Shadows by Sierra Boyea
Ready . . . Again by Sarah Goddard
Lateralization by Cassandra Jackman
Sabra by Hannah Katz
Faded and Alive by Jonalyn Bradshaw
It’s All About Me, I Mean You, I Mean Me by Emily Jacobson
“Gimme Five” by Angela Bennett
Lasciere Me Eliminato by Kayla Skerry