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Observed Online Reviews

Saint Heron Centers the Intimacy of Black Dance Films

Part of Solange's 'Eldorado Ballroom' series, 'Coeval Dance Films' invites us to consider the relationship between dance and cinema across decades.

By Zeba Blay

From Coeval Dance Films, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, 2023, photo by Silvia Saponaro, all images courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Cinema and modern dance have always shared an intimacy.

From the late nineteenth century hand-tinted films of Annabelle Whitford, all the way to Rosie Perez in the opening dance montage of 1989’s Do the Right Thing, filmmakers have been preoccupied not only with each form’s ability to tell a story through movement and perspective, but also with the power and magic evoked when the two are intertwined.

In Coeval Dance Films, a 53-minute tour of Black experimental dance from the ‘60s to late ‘80s, this intimacy between movement and film–the power of it, the magic of it—takes center stage. A collection of five dance shorts, the films were presented last month as part of Eldorado Ballroom, Solange Knowles’s and Saint Heron’s curated series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which continues through September. Other offerings in the program include music performances by Kelela, Res, KeiyaA and The Clark Sisters; installations by artists including Autumn Knight and Maren Hassinger; a reading by playwright Claudia Rankine; and a screening by the Marxist film-club Unseen Nuyorican Pictures. Coeval Dance Films, as part of this larger series, contributes to Saint Heron’s overarching mission to celebrate, remember, preserve and perpetuate the revolutionary Black artistry that came before. When viewed collectively, they offer a sense of yearning, a desire to move.

From Glory to Glory (A Revival to Devotional Art), Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, 2023, photo by Silvia Saponaro, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The exhilaration of this desire was introduced by the first short, Fred Baker’s On the Sound (1962). Through rhythmic cutting on the beat of Gigi Gryce’s jazz suite “Rat Race Blues,” Baker shapes and compliments the movement of Martha Graham dancers Donald McKayle, Mary (Bunny) Hinkson, and Matt Turney as they gyrate and booty-bump on the Long Island Sound.

Building on this feeling and then taming it, A Thin Frost (1996) features a dance trio, seated across from each other in simple metal chairs, dressed in white. Over the course of the film, they move from a place of unease to something like harmony, as their bright and unexpected gestures begin to converse and coalesce. A Thin Frost was also the first-ever piece performed by the dance group PARADIGM, which exclusively spotlights dancers over the age of fifty. The group was co-founded by legendary dancers Carmen de Lavallade, Gus Solomons Jr., and Dudley Williams as a way to capture and celebrate the depth that age and experience brings to movement.

Coeval Dance Films continues incorporating legendary makers with the next two films, Four Women (1975) and Relatives (1989) by filmmaker Julie Dash. Four Women, widely considered one of the earliest examples of an experimental film by a Black woman, takes its name and story from Nina Simone’s eponymous song. We watch as dancer Linda Martina Young steps into the different personas from Simone’s lyrics. While Young’s appearance changes each time she embodies the movements and gestures of Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, Peaches, it’s her physicality that really communicates the transformation into each stereotype. Throughout the film, the camera never stops moving, nor does the light, rendering Young’s personas abstract. What we can see is that Young, too, never stops moving.

Similar themes of self-fashioning and autonomy come through in Dash’s Relatives, a collaboration with Arthur Jafa and dancer/performance artist Ishmael Houston-Jones. As his voice fades in and out in the background, his words perhaps purposely difficult to decipher, Houston-Jones carries his tiny elderly mother into frame. He sits her down on a chair placed in a grassy nook in the backyard of his family home, and moves his body improvisationally as she dyes eggs, tells stories about dead relatives, reminisces on what he was like as a boy. Of all the films in the series, this is the most elusive and most haunting.

From Coeval Dance Films, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, 2023, photo by Silvia Saponaro, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

If the first four films in the series highlighted the sense of yearning to move, the final film underscores how power is derived through movement. Cake Walk, a Houston Conwill performance piece and installation, was filmed in 1983 at Just Above Midtown gallery. The performance’s name refers to the 18th century “cakewalk” dance, originated by enslaved Black people as a way of surreptitiously lampooning the rigid and affected stride of white slaveholders. In Conwill’s piece, five dancers move around a large white pillar in the center of a painted floor to the tune of solemn choral ballads, driving gospel music, and the syncopated nostalgic melodies of Scott Joplin. As they strut, skip, glide, twirl, and walk two narrators discuss the mechanics of walking, the culture of walking.

“Sometimes, when I have an especially difficult problem, the only way I can deal with it is by walking it out,” says one narrator. “Walking is a way of communicating. I don’t think there’s any correct way of walking. Each person has his own way,” she says, as they leap into the air in unison. “Ask a mugger about walking, then you’ll really get some insight,” she concludes, as two of the dancers pantomime beating up another.

The choreography is as much constructed by the movement of the bodies as it is by light, by the color of the silver and black and brown leotards the dancers wear, by the angle of the camera that watches the dancers from above or below but never quite directly, as if to look straight on would unravel the spell and disrupt the ritual.

Cake Walk is at once funny, charming, graceful, reverent and irreverent, activating in a way that entices. It’s free. It speaks to that feeling of yearning—a collective yearning to explore and exhaust the potential of the body, to consider the possibilities of the Black body in movement, the stillness before the gesture, the world-bending implications of the gesture itself. “Every step is a risk,” the narrator in Cake Walk warns. And yet, we move anyway. This is, perhaps, a distillation of the Eldorado Ballroom series as a whole: the beauty of moving from our own inner impulses rather than external forces, the joy of progress in spite of precarity.

Eldorado Ballroom continues at BAM through September 22.