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BWW Review: Equality Echoes at Tennessee Women's Theater Project

Tennessee Women's Theater Project (TWTP) kicked off its twelfth annual Women's Work series with a dance program on September 7, 2018 at 7:30pm in the Z. Alexander Looby Center Theater. The festival continues through September 23, with a different performance every night. Founded by Maryanna Clarke, the festival initiated as a platform for underrepresented artists and narratives - women - to produce work from all levels of participation.

TWTP's commitment to equality resonated in the eight works presented, visibly so with the significant range of experience in the participating artists. Choreographers addressed issues of race, immigration, gender roles, hierarchy, privilege, colonization, and the power of perspective. Very much a hometown crowd, the environment was casual but direct as audience members audibly affirmed the artists' call for social justice, equality, and diversity with claps, snaps, and cheers. TWTP provided voter registration resources on site, which made its effort to catalyze the female voice tangible.

Amanda Cantrell Roche introduced her work, Braid, which included members of her troupe Blue Moves Modern Dance Company and guest artists from Global Nashville Project, urging audience members to take at least one action step towards supporting local immigrant and refugee communities. (The program supplied a guide with recommendations). Roche collected content from a forum with refugees on stereotypes and challenges encountered to make the piece. Statements beginning with "we are not", "we are", and "we need" built the narrative. To accommodate the range of physical backgrounds, Roche incorporated pedestrian movement. Her vocabulary wove dancers in and out of each other with sustained eye contact and an emphasis on breath.

Belmont University professor Erin Kouwe's Sissyphus Always Wins, a trio, played slapstick games. Dancers moved in slow motion and repetitively as they enacted domino effect sequences of fist to face, wheelbarrow games, wound legs over each other's bodies, with cheeky nods to codified steps from tango, lindy hop, and Martha Graham's Turns Around the Back. The humor of repeated physical comedy slowly diverged into more somber notes of discord and confrontation; the frequent fist to face act transformed the fist into a weapon at point blank range. Could the startling imagery recall recent mass shootings in schools, where halls once filled with laughter now echo sorrow?

On behalf of the Chinese Arts Alliance of Nashville, choreographer Jen-Jen Lin created Memories for two dancers. In a stark, mostly black and white palette, Pegah Kadivar and Sally Bigham moved independently of each other. Photos of the two laughing and moving together in a park scrolled on the backdrop. The photos indicated a previously happy and meaningful relationship, while the movement suggested some kind of separation or disconnect. Perhaps the joy of movement provided their tesseract, as they briefly played a game of follow the leader, before disconnecting again. Left alone, Kadivar sat. Bigham's portrait loomed over her on the screen.

Kevana S. West's Latency, announced its concept, in a shout, "this is a piece about" with other dancers chiming "identity", "memory", and "perception". Each dancer maintained her own train of thought, overlapping with the group, yet never directly conversing outside of the individual's own cognitive space. Dancers assembled through a sequence of falling and catching, finding a cohesive pace. One dancer moved independently of the group, darting in and out.

McKay House and Utam Moses stood downstage, slowly rotating around each other to begin their collaborative work over and over. Connected by the joint braiding of their long hair, they spiraled around and away from each other. As their range of movement expanded, their connection grew looser. They rolled over each other, embraced, and jerked apart. They bounced and tugged, eventually separating from each other. Their independence did not last long before they re-attached their hair. The connection changed the impetus of moving. Their awareness focused on their relationship to each other, giving and receiving cues from unseen, but felt initiation. What is the difference between connections that empower and those that ensnare us? Here, perspective defined everything.

Ashlyn Cianciolo's The Fine Line moved dancers through power poses such as super(wo)man, yoga's Warrior III, and ballet's deep plies in second position. Brisk walking connected these dynamic shapes, with an emphasis on breath. Controlled balances were integral to transitions, as dancers mostly travelled forward and backward.

Windship Boyd and Beverly Love's work in progress, Papalagui, dealt with colonization and offered multiple perspectives simultaneously. Love's statuesque presence echoed Carmen de Lavallade's dynamic in Geoffrey Holder's The Creation. Hicks operated more in the style of powerhouse Camille A. Brown. Seeking to bring Erich Scheurmann's text (The Papalagui) to life, Love and Hicks narrated Saul Rodriguez' movement with word, breath, snaps, and physical manipulation. The trio maintained their rhythm without music. A furious flow built for Rodriguez as he continually sought to establish hierarchy despite Hicks' domination of his trajectory. As in House and Moses' work, perspective reigned paramount. There were hierarchies within hierarchy, so position or status remained in flux, which created the need for domination and control. The completed work will be presented at Oz Arts Nashville in May 2019.

Brandy A. Rogers closed the show with The Ascent, joined by Summer Chanteal Shack, to a medley of songs from Marlon Riggs, Kate Smith, Miles Davis, Octave Minds, Lauryn Hill, and Gnarls Barkley. Textual references included black mammies, lil' Sambo, and gospel phrases, accompanied by black power gestures, Beyonce-esque charisma, and stepping. Rogers and Shack shone when operating fully in what Thomas DeFrantz called africanist aesthetics. Rather than focus on the concert dance dictum of uniform movement, the dancers embraced unified experience, celebrating the get-down of their own bodies. Rogers is tall, with powerful legs and a highly expressive visage while Shack is petite and lithe. These dancers performing the same movement manifested differently and they used that difference to demonstrate unity, and the equality of bodies. Rogers approached her music choices similarly, using a slowed down, bluesy cover of Gnarls Barkley's Crazy to deconstruct hip swivels and twerks. As momentum built, Rogers and Shack ditched their long pants and shirts for shorts and tanks eventually shouting, "I want change, I want freedom," ending with fists raised to the sky.

With recent events related to the #metoo movement within the dance world, notably at New York City Ballet (NYCB), the voice of women in a setting such as this felt sacred. Among art forms, dance is the ultimate challenge to the agency of the female body, which is often at the direction and control of male directors, choreographers, and partners. While Alexandra Waterbury asserts her right to her own body at the demarcation of NYCB's brat pack, TWTP and its artists hold the mantle. We cannot raise the ceiling alone. We want freedom. We want change. We are in formation. We are not the enemy. We are here.

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From This Author Melia Kraus-har