On Last Yearz Interesting Negro/Jamila Johnson-Small’s BASICTENSION

Last Yearz Interesting Negro/Jamila Johnson-Small | BASICTENSION | ICA | 10.02.18

Originally written for Exeunt Magazine. Link here, text reproduced below:

The two ends of ICA’s downstairs exhibition space are semi-sealed off with plastic sheeting. A terrain of grey carpet is littered with Joey Addison’s textured black objects: a sleeping bag, shiny cushions, a marbled thing that makes me think of a giant rice cake. Five figures in black-bloc clothing (with socks, gloves, underwear smuggling in brilliant accents of colour) enter and cocoon themselves in transparent sheeting. They rest, and then slowly emerge: a preparation of the body – a rebirth – a state of transcendence.

They store away these sheets reverently, careful to preserve their precarious folds, seemingly with a total disregard for the audience, who are mostly seated along the long row of steps that run down one side of the space, or in the alcoves along the opposite wall. Two bored-looking DJ’s play expansive, fragmented sounds (Josh Anio Grigg, Phoebe Collings-James, Junior XL and Shelley Parker) that are cool and antagonistic and sound fun to dance to. The five performers gently test their bodies – repetitions, looking down at themselves, shifts in weight (one leans forward and attempts to balance themselves on the back of the wrists) and tentative collapses.

These movements grow to incorporate everything between club dancing, contemporary and somatics-y stuff: BASICTENSION is open to each performer’s individual enquiries, which I can recognise from seeing them in other performances. I delight in Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome’s steps and sways, Eve Stainton’s  textural play and odd kinetic looping, Malik Nashad Sharpe’s energetic and space-filling hysteria, and Jamila Johnson-Small’s twisting, unfolding, and offhand displays of masterful technique. Stephanie MacMann is vividly transformed through a dystopian half-mask the group sometimes wear (the ones that make cyclists look terrifying and hot), delivering a lurking, swaying, thuggish presence I’ve never seen before.

The DJs back off, and voices bubble up through the sound system: spoken prompts for dancing that range from the practical and technical to the imaginative: “turn, head forward, step step, something from ballet you can’t remember the name for, keep going, release outwards, pretend to rest.” There are pleasures to be found in the odd synchronicity, but rather than a ‘see how they interpret it’ sort of thing (or worse – ‘see what we can force them to do’), the score offers an imprecise cloud of possibilities. Even if one could make sense of all of these muddy utterances, their rapid and layered delivery encourages the performers to take or ignore whatever they want. They are used to sustain (or exceed) their individual dancing, to keep finding new things, to resist self-consciousness or anxieties.

Within this collection of voices, Johnson-Small’s own stands out: working under the moniker Last Yearz Interesting Negro, she has used this audio to externalise her role as choreographer, yet simultaneously undermine her authority through its blurry excess. A friend leans over to note that there’s something very Deborah Hay-ish to these prompts – except infused with a more sardonic tone. It sounds like someone weary and wary: someone who’s attended too many classes and workshops, and danced for too many choreographers. As Johnson-Small writes in the description for her forthcoming workshop at Artsadmin: “I have been exposed too much to the dubious power-relations in rooms supposedly for education and learning.”

Music comes and goes. The performers come and go. Some lie still as others dance energetically throughout the space. Some pick up a mic to drawl out (what I remember as) lists, instructions, evocations of dancing/living in these times, this industry, this country. At rare moments, duos come together for moments of touch or rest; but for the most part they work separately.

The piece as a whole is expansive, additive, open, not only in its three-hour duration, but through not being tightly bound to some of the tensions of gaze that I’ve enjoyed in Johnson-Small’s previous works. These are restless bodies, perpetually uncomfortable, exhausted, dissatisfied and distrustful of their own gestures of relaxation and rest; but the ‘fuck you, why are you watching me’ I had come to expect has been undercut with new doubts: Johnson-Small’s voice speaks out: “Are we seeing bodies saying no? The privilege of refusal. Saying no no no no no no no no yes.”

I get bored. I shift about to try relieve the pain growing in my back. I get cold. I get interested. I get up to chat with some friends. I watch. I wonder: across all this flux, what persists? Rather than proposing any political hope, or sense of communality, the work pins itself to the continued practice(s) of movement. I turned to my friend in near-genuine shock: “Wow, these people really like to dance!”

We see dancing; a commitment to dancing: a dancing that is invested, complicated, masterful, and restless; dancing-as-refuge; dancing-as-the-answer; dancing-as-the-question. Dance is the thing that perseveres – even if this requires one to (temporarily) acquiesce to the persisting problems of gaze, labour and institutions. While a couple of key sections involve clearly prescripted action, BASICTENSION proposes a space and choreography that both relies on, and seems to support, the improvised dancing practices of this group of peers: a choreographic anchor that avoids the significant funds required for extensive rehearsals.

Part of me loved this dancing, and loved the group of dance artists who had turned up to dance and to watch; but another part of me resented the work a little. I wondered about this visual arts crowd watching this, the deliciousness and coolness and seeming-ease of this dancing, and its potential to be fetishised (dance as uncapturable, dance as unmediated expression of the performer, etc.). I don’t think the work offered much to undermine this gaze, but at the same time: is this fetishisation a price they’re happy to pay, as long as they’re getting this space – to lunge, collapse, crawl, lie – and opportunity to do their thing?

They seem to love dancing, they seem committed to dancing, and this kind of context might be the only way they can do so (where else this group might dance this way?). These are performers that train, that have trained, that dance in all sorts of professional and recreational contexts, that continually negotiate uncertain demands and terrains. While I wasn’t totally wild about BASICTENSION, I think it represented what felt like a very new configuration of London’s independent dance artists; a group who might insist on new ways in which we might maintain our practices; new ways to negotiate institutions; and new ways to persist with the possibility of dance.

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