For a composer, the choreographer’s language of dance, rhythm and movement is made manifest through sound; the musician is trained to economize physical movements (fingers, hands and occasionally feet) to optimize instrumental technique. With today’s awareness of the origins and history of forms that have influenced both disciplines, it is difficult not to envision work which steps beyond conventional artistic boundaries, such as the visual artist Edgar Arcenaux’s Until, Until, Until…, based on Ben Vereen’s 1981 televised performance for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
The questions that are at the core of any experimental practice often announce a distant journey long before its destination could be imagined, and the reportage of Freddie Gray’s death in the custody of Baltimore police and their acquittal, acquittal in the Cleveland deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, and murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police, began my exploration of violence, its volition and manifestations.
Part of an epidemic, these events inspired my series Pledges of Allegiance, which includes Freddie’s Feet and Pinball Justice, whose titles conjure the physical movement I associated with the violence of their victims’ deaths: the pattern of fifteen rounds white Cleveland Officer Brelo emptied into the windshield at Timothy Russell and his passenger, and the unprovoked shooting of Laquan McDonald by a white Chicago officer, both of whom claimed they feared for their lives; the “rough ride” that severed Freddie Gray’s spine was owed in the defense of a black officer to “the system.”
The system, of course, has long been institutionalized by the prejudices and stereotypes of a people dehumanized by blackfaced performers in minstrel shows, for laughs. In “The World’s Best Book of Minstrelsy” (1925, Penn Publishing Co., Philadelphia), Herbert Preston Powell guides churches, charitable organizations, and educational institutions, step-by-step, in the production of minstrel shows. “Blackface,” he writes, “is the easiest make-up in the entire box, and requires little or no experience to do acceptably. While any other character requires a great deal of thought, study and experimental work, the ‘nigger’ make-up is most elemental in application and anyone using the least care can achieve a satisfactory result, with little or no practice.” Its final section features a sample skit with a wise-cracking judge and a black-faced stooge.
Having learned it from his father, it is Ned Haverly’s Sand Dance from the 1951 film “Yes, Sir, Mr. Bones” that represents the system in my video loop Freddie’s Feet; the center of a triptych flanked by the pedal-work of a white harpist in black feet whose music she plays replaces the original, and part of a larger triptych: the left part of the triptych in black-feet, the center exchanges different parts with its negative (i.e. white), and at right in negative. Whereas idiomatic harp writing aims to minimize the pedal-work, the music I composed for Freddie’s Feet was conceived to accompany Haverly’s visual rhythm with the busiest footwork possible. The music makes constant use of pitch slides up and down (shortening or lengthening strings controlled by their corresponding pedals) to produce a kind of stereotyped shuffle feel. Because sound results from action, the sonic and visual composition of Freddie’s Feet involved making sound correspond to the visual action of all the feet en ensemble, and thus the action of the harpist’s feet doesn’t appear asynchronous.
Although conceived by a distinctly musical sensibility, dance, history and dance traditions are central to the concept and realization of Freddie’s Feet. Thus, in the spirit of the coinage “dancer citizen,” who freely incorporates whatever means necessary for social critique or social change, my intrusion on dance’s conventions in the way “citizen” does is a reminder that Will Rawls’s “nondisciplinary” alternative to multidisciplinary artist is a signpost along our journey: Be open to ideas from other sources; be willing to corrupt our orthodoxies as happens when attaching “citizen” to our artistic practice. Take risks.
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