Choreographers’ Evening with Kenna-Camara Cottman: The Ever So Slow Unwinding of Jim Crow by Jennifer Arave

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I entered the Walker Art Center’s Annual Choreographers’ Evening with great expectation and a smile on my face. I had wanted and had been attempting in my own powerless ways to influence the hands of fate and get Kenna-Camara Cottman at the helm of Choreographer’s Evening ever since her Momentum Performance in 200?

I first told Kenna she needed to be the next curator of Choreographer’s Evening after hearing her vision for African dance in Minneapolis, then I told others, then I started spreading subliminal rumors that she was doing it. But, again, I hold no influence in this dance community and I held even less back then. My timid championing of Kenna fell on deaf ears. But, by some twist of fate, someone else thought the same thing and, with no help from me, here I was at Choreographers’ Evening curated by none other than the compact powerhouse of Kenna-Camara Cottman. No woman deserved this position more. No other dancer, African American choreographer, community and socially invested performer, artist, mother, teacher deserved this more. She had been given the reigns to promote her vision of dance in Minneapolis and I couldn’t wait to see what she was seeing.

The first piece, Blake Nellis and Taja Will are on the stage following the influence of what appears to be audible instructions for action. But no one instruction illicit a “sameness” in action from the two. Each idea goes through the filter of experience and conception of each dancer. Then at some point the dancers come together in contact and difference is what creates the charge between them. Then back to individual movers with the instructions again. And to further this discussion I will say that Blake Nellis reads as White, and Taja Will reads as Brown, and because I know her, she hails from South America. I am saying ‘reads’ instead of ‘is’ because race is a construction, not a fact. It is a way we as westerners have been taught to read difference, through skin color and the variations that go with it. I do not know how Blake and Taja identify, as well as, I don’t know how Kenna identifies them.

I’m taking a time out to talk generally about the cohesive visual beauty of the show. Each dance was backed by a stunning wash of color via projection screen up stage thanks to the quality infrastructure of the performance space at the Walker. The screen flooded the space with blues, pinks, golds; full and bright, tinted heavily or lightly (This also allowed some works to achieve a starkness when the field of color was removed). This brought a cohesive but varied visual space for the work to exist within and connecting, by a thin taut line throughout, the work to each together. This taut line was the black voice, the black platform, and a strong presence of (though not solely) the female of color.

By dance number three, Kenna makes her appearance, and dance three ends up not being dance at all, but a tribute, a concept statement, or a manifesto, in the form of a speech by Kenna and a poem, by her daughter, read by Kenna. Kenna takes a stand for herself and the other dancer’s/artist’s beliefs. The beliefs that bring the dancers together and the beliefs that keep them making work every day despite what they are they pushing against, stating, and I am surely mis-quoting, “We make work. That is what we do at times like these.” She speaks of recent national events: the two separate police killings of unarmed Eric Garner and Michael Brown that have gone unpunished. Kenna’s actions have all the excitement of an actress at the Academy Awards using her time at the mic to make a statement! She speaks about what many of us have had on our minds. Then the bubble bursts and we are left wondering who in the audience is or isn’t okay with this, who, if anyone, is upset, or just mildly annoyed. Speaking for myself, I am proud, proud of Kenna for diving in there and using her platform to speak, I am not surprised, I am proud to know her and know she is a part of the Minneapolis dance community. Not only does she do this, she does it with grace and poise though maintaining the air of the socio-political powerhouse that she is.  It is eloquent, educational and powerful (e.g, her tributing of the seminal murders of African American men through the ages,: the death’s of Emmett Till and Michael Brown). She then takes slow steps backwards up stage never dropping her focus from the audience (who sit in the light) as the conventions (lights and curtains) are stripped from space and the theater is laid bare.

The short history of Ferguson and the accompanying history of African Americans in America for past 300 + years (I will be brief):

The Middle passage (Non-slave persons of color are brought to America by the slave-trade industry on a deadly voyage of cruelty and disease. Those who arrived in America, are now deemed slaves and sold on the slave market as Chattel Slaves. (There is no working your way out of chattel slavery, it’s slavery for life.)

Slave Patrols (proto-police) created to apprehend runaway slaves.

John Brown (Abolistionist) Revolt in Harpers Ferry, VA , 1859 (Wikipedia)

The American Civil War (1861-1865)

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863). – Signed by president Lincoln intended to end Slavery This led to maybe a couple years of restrictive freedom before Black Codes were implemented and Jim Crow was sign into law.

The Black Codes- laws passed by the southern states in 1865 and 1866. These laws had the intent and effect of restricting African Americans freedom, and compelling them to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt. (Wikipedia) Black Codes was equal to legal slavery.

Jim Crow (State and local Segregation laws introduced between 1886-1965) these actions led to further disadvantages for Africa American’s (Wikipedia) and functioned as a form of legal slavery (Institutional Racism).

A Hundred years to the present of the slow unwinding and rewinding of the Jim Crow-type laws to hold control over the actions of African Americans; these occur in the form of drug laws, voting laws, economic sanctions, vagrancy and the recalling and re-regulating of social programs.

Ferguson, Michigan- Unarmed Michael Brown is shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. (2014)

Officer Darren Wilson is acquitted of the murder of Michael Brown. (2014)

Unarmed Eric Garner is killed by chokehold by NYPD officer, Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, NY for the alleged illegal selling of cigarettes; he had been warned before. (2014) The Chokehold is illegal for use in New York by NYPD.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo, is acquitted for the murder of Eric Garner. (2014)

After this Manifesto, I was amazed by the work in the remainder of Choreographer’s Evening. I saw new and known (but rarely seen) choreographers experimenting with forms and cross pollinating forms, presenting hip hop dance in traditional dance performance modes removing it from the often represented mode of contest to a lyrical form (albeit a snippet of a potentially larger piece), and young dancers with nuanced dance-chops. Work ranging from experimental, contemporary, sentimental, narrative, text driven, and potentially postmodern, afro-modern to jazz. The forms covered ensemble, duet and solo and topics ranged from gender, slavery, body image, and socio-political and varied vocabulary from positional/gestural to expressionistic to balletic. The transitions between pieces were graceful and the similarities, connective but diverse. The most graceful part of the curation was how each work was choreographed by a person of color. And though there were dancers whom I identified as white in each of the pieces, the dominant voice was that of color. The evening ends with a curtain call that references the recent protest tactic of bodies lying across the street “lifeless”, but in this case it was across the stage, a reminder of the strife that continues when we return to our homes. The bodies stand to complete the curtain call. This evening is about the black and brown body: the body in protest, the body in stress, the body oppressed, the body in action, the body in creativity, the speaking body; these bodies in America.

The question I posed today, based on my experience at Choreographer’s Evening by Kenna-Camara Cottman and recent conversations I have had the privilege to be a part of is this: “Why, when I see so many, I mean a coterie of talented dancers and choreographers of color, why do I not see this reflected in the twin cities Dance Community?” I mean really reflected to the point were I can’t avoid it if I wanted to. I want to see this reflected in the grants awarded (not just those aimed at people of color, yes those, but also others), dancers performing in the work of peers, and a constant performing as peers? Why are they not on my Facebook? Why am I not receiving emails and notices? How can I be so blown away by this potential in the dancing and choreographic work at Choreographer’s Evening but not know how to access more? The blame, I know, lies partially with me, but the blame is also with the institutions that control what gets through to me. These controls are not out front and intentional, they are insidious, learned and practiced. A mass of decisions made one at a time, through the years and through the day, each one seemingly not harmful, but when grouped together they add up to a silence, a gate, a difficult pathway made even more challenging. All is not fair; I am hardly on a panel for the arts with a person of color and even more rarely, more than one. Why am I not a minority, or at least, part of an equal balance with people of color on these panels? (I identify as white female.)

What institutional biases are implemented from the beginning of a career process, to the end? What dance languages that could be shared is withheld between ethnicities, cultures and forms. What styles are frowned upon, or just not preferred or go unknown. The powers that control need to go further, need to do the intentional, the obvious for as long as it take to rewrite and right the biases of control and comforts of white culture. (It this a defense of affirmative action? Yes.) Once it is in place we will all sleep easier, I bet we will hardly notice except we will be smarter and have more variety in our lives and better connections with more people. Society will experience yet another Renaissance when it relinquishes the illusory reins of control over the bodies of people of color in the judicial system, the social systems, the economic systems, and the intellectual and academic systems? It’s time to end Jim Crow for real by handing the control over the bodies of people of color back to the safety of the people.

This is where I could throw up my hands, and say that naïve statement of exasperation and faint hope, “Why can’t we all just get along?” (Rodney King public statement after the LA Riots in 1992). But instead, I offer these tools to help you and I gather more understanding of the tangled roots of control (because we can all use more help in understanding).

Books, articles and other media to get started and to lead to even more: (And you could always ask a black activist friend, I bet they would know.)

Video Blogger, Franchesca Ramsey

“American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow”, Packard, Jerrold, St. Martins Press, 2003

“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Alexander, Michelle, The New Press, 2012

“To Make Our World Anew, a History of African Americans to 1880”, Ed. Kelley, Robin D.G., & Lewis, Earl, 2000, Oxford Univ. Press

by Jennifer Arave

Choreographers’ Evening, curated by Kenna-Camara Cottman

Walker Art Center

November 29, 2014

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