Review by Wanda Sabir
How does one choreograph loss – the quick yet barely audible, the end? One doesn’t. Instead, Ralph Lemon in his latest project philosophically juxtaposes the lives of three relationships: his own with his dying wife, Asaka Takami; that of a fictional couple in the film “Solaris,” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky; and lastly that of elder Walter Carter, who when we meet him, Lemon tells us, had he been born 50 years earlier, Walter would have been enslaved.
“How can you stay in the house all day and not go anywhere?” is the rhetorical question in “Sunshine Room,” “Wall/Hole, “No Room” and finally “Meditation, An Installation,” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 7-10.
“Sunshine Room,” “Wall/Hole,” “No Room” (the three parts of the performance) and finally “Meditation” are the rooms, stages and walls which attempt to house and hold Lemon’s work. I say attempt because as with all emotional work, this too leaks. Four walls certainly don’t contain Walter, who we see walking down a Mississippi road one minute and landing in a field after a successful excursion in outer space the next.
When the lights come up on the stage opening night in the theatre, Ralph Lemon is seated in a chair sipping water and holding a script on his lap. His voice calmly tells us a story of “love, loss and possible redemption,” as he reflects on prior work, films he and his wife watched – she for just a few minutes before dropping off to sleep while he continues to watch and tell her sleeping form what she is missing.
The film then shifts to the wonderful couple Walter and Edna Carter, she 80 and he over a hundred – does the exact number matter to a man who tells Lemon that each visit might be their last?
The couple live in Bentonia, Mississippi, where Walter dances with his wife, naps with a rifle near his hand, boots on – literally ready to kick butt in his dreams (smile).
After much preamble, the lights go down more, and then like magic these dancers seemingly come alive – off the screen into the room and on stage. I am so excited for a minute I can’t breathe. Hm. Are they dancing the preamble? Are they actualizing what Lemon has been sharing for the past half an hour or 45 minutes?
How does one create a work where the goal is to appear formless – unstructured? Sounds like jazz. Is Lemon’s work jazz written with the human body? If a note could move, is this how it would look? What about “A Love Supreme?” If loss according to Lemon is a way to get to love, how does one get there inside oneself?
Did the dancers really get drunk first before choreographing the work? No, I am told regarding structure – not drunk (smile). Yes, I am told. Yes and No. The work, while appearing completely spontaneous and free, actually is quite structured and in this way repeatable. I wish I had time to stop by Friday evening or Saturday evening to watch it again to see how or if the improvisational aspects change and then note what was improvised (smile).
Since it all looked improvisational – dancers spinning and spinning, others in various stages of mobility, all standing, dancing together and apart – in form it reminded me a little of Sara Shelton Mann and David Szlasa’s recent work, “tribes / dominion” in May this year on the same stage. Hers too was ritual and ceremony.
Mann wasn’t as hard to comprehend – her narrative a part of the choreography language – whereas Lemon gave us the narrative first and, without a warning, without telling us there will be a test at the end and to take notes or pay special attention to this or that, plunges his audience into a world where the goal is freedom and not conformity. Yet there are rules?!
Huh? What are they?
Omagbitse Omagbemi, a company member, tells me one direction is not to use one’s hands and to not go to the floor, which is her inclination – the idea is to stay upright and to not collide – at least until that section of the work where the dancers – first the men, then the women – do free styling on the floor. It looks like breaking and freezes.
She says the choreography is inside, not external – you create the movement philosophically within. This corresponds to what Gesel Mason, another company member, the one in the hare suit, told me: that the work is shifting energy rather than changing form. In this way one can understand or appreciate the kinesthetic nature of these Black bodies moving. I guess in a piece about loss and transformation, to be able to move is a good thing: the opposite of death/life.
The narrative on stage is broken into sections. The cast for the first part come from the screen and then another character is added and a principle character is removed (dancers Okwui Okpokwasili and Omagbitse Omagbemi trade out). Okpokwasili returns wailing – her voice heard off stage – and then she comes on stage, her heaving back to the audience. Later, she and Lemon dance … well, share the stage yet remain disconnected. That’s how grief is … sometimes detached, personal, private, lonely.
The animals start appearing on the empty landscape … a dog and then a person dressed as a hare who then becomes the hare. Peaceable kingdom – are the animals the representatives of a peaceable kingdom?
And then the hare (Gesel Mason) stands up, becomes a person again masquerading as an animal, disturbing the peace – separating itself from the others, who slowly disappear and then the lights come up and the other dancers appear and then Lemon appears.
I lose track of the order in the retelling, but the end is as serene as the beginning. The crying woman returns, Lemon present and accessible.
I feel good about the access. I am not certain if I am getting the piece, and here he is – elegant and beautiful. The end is or can be beautiful. How does one choreograph loss? How does one choreograph the absence of grace and the absence of the life of someone who was so present their absence makes holes in walls – the walls of one’s life forever after – and how does one keep from falling through the holes or gaps left in one’s soul?
How does one continue to open the front or back door and get out of the house at peace – the world twirling and whirling without its necessary parts, the parts you found necessary – you the world, the world you, the two one?
If one could choreograph space – geography, emotional territory – then the space where one is stuck inside one’s heart and not able to leave the house to go anywhere is what Lemon has crafted for his audience here with his newest work.
And it’s OK to be stuck inside. Some of our more powerful insights come when we return to the core and be still.
There is a “Be Still” meditation next week, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010, 10-3, at the Jack London Aquatic Center, 155 Embarcadero (Oak and Fifth Avenue); call (510) 549-5990. This free retreat focuses on bringing various practices of meditation and self-care and healing to the African American community.
Perhaps the questions Lemon’s work raises are answered in the final aspect of the work: “Meditation, An Installation,” Sunday, Oct. 10, 12 noon to 6 p.m. The final part is free in the Novellus Theatre, where the dance performances take place Thursday-Saturday, at Third and Howard in San Francisco.
I didn’t mention that there is an art exhibit upstairs in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and that the film “Solaris” (1972, 167 min, 35 mm, archival print) will be shown Sunday afternoon, Oct. 10, 4:30 p.m. Tickets are $6-$8 and $4 with a Ralph Lemon performance ticket. Arrive early to see the exhibit; it helps to understand – an operative word – the performance. The last one is Saturday evening, Oct. 9, 8 p.m. Visit www.ybca.org and www.mappinternational.org.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7:30 or 8 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m., can be heard by phone at (347) 237-4610 and are archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network.