Review of SHE: A Multimedia Suite on Sexual Violence, Sandra Bland, and Healing

SHE premiered to a sold-out crowd at New York Live Arts on Monday, April 11. Conceived of by dancer and choreographer Jinah Parker, the performance included a sweeping array of art forms including video, poetry, storytelling, voice, instrumental music, a DJ, and of course dance. The suite was born out of a Parker’s desire to confront violence against women. She states, “After some reflection, I realized that I have been living in oppression for years and I believe it to be no coincidence that I ended up choosing a theme that presents other women that have been oppressed.” That said, SHE was intended as “an artistic form of self-expression to promote healing from sexual abuse and gender violence at the hands of men.”

From beginning to end, SHE delivered incisive, evocative commentary on the subject of sexual and gender violence. The suite opened with a memorial to Sandra Bland, a 28-year old African American woman arrested after a minor traffic violation in Prairie View, Texas, on July 10, 2015, and who died in police custody three days later, sparking nationwide protests. The piece opened with video of Bland including both her statements in support of the #blacklivesmatter movement as well as still shots of her at other moments in her life, including some in her final days. Candles flickered at the base of the screen, set like funerary offerings before the altar of Bland’s life, and dancers lithely emerged to place flowers amidst the pale shimmer. Then the piece evolved with DJ Misbehaviour spinning Wayne Shorter, Francesca Dardani leading her string quartet, and singer Christina Sajous all taking turns honoring Bland with their music. Against this backdrop, Parker danced solo with swift, powerful movements that utilized the full breadth of the stage. Parker’s movement vocabulary is extensive and mixes dexterous leaps, agile forward and lateral movements, all while making intense upper body expressions. Her arm, shoulder, and hand movements are particularly crisp, decisive, and electrifying.

The second piece titled “Taken,” an extended suite of stories and short vignettes, followed with more video, beginning with sexually-explicit advertisements and other images in which gendered aggression and domination were a consistent theme. DJ Misbehaviour worked an array of music from Madonna and Amy Winehouse to John Coltrane and the Ramones while the dancers performed a riveting piece. At one point, the storytellers emerged and sat next to one another, wrapped in a long piece of cloth, suggesting strength and resilience through unity.

Then the heartbreaking stories of four survivors of sexual violence followed. In each case, the stories themselves were told while being accompanied by four or more dancers, though each unfolded in unique ways: a story of childhood sexual abuse told in the form of a children’s story read by Sajous, the reenactment of unsympathetic responses to another survivor’s story, a monologue of one survivor working through amnesia, and a particularly descriptive telling of rape exhibited as an entry in a journal. Each story conveyed the voice of the survivor, with movement from the dancers giving life to those experiences and trauma.

Set after the first story, and about at the midpoint of the overall performance, violinist Francesca Dardani played a solo piece, a new original composition by Fraser Campbell. Beginning with strong downward bow strokes, the piece gradually evolved into a resolute ode to the survivors of sexual and gender violence. While most of the rest of the suite involved multiple movements, sounds, and voices on stage in close succession or all at once, the solo coalesced the multifaceted and multidimensional production down to a solitary pulse. In a similar vein, following the fourth story, the production turned to a video of Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, speaking about the possibilities of ending violence against women on a massive scale and the role men must play as part of the solution. The work of Ensler, who was in attendance at the performance, served as inspiration for Parker, along with other plays such as Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls.

After the final story, the full cast, including non-professional dancers, all came together for “One Breath,” a piece about healing. This closing piece gave emotional buoyancy to the evening, after displaying so many harrowing experiences. The movements were sublime, continuing to push the collective experience forward–to tell of rebirth and renewal in the wake of violence. At one particularly moving turn, the dancers embraced each of the storytellers in a graceful act of love and solidarity.

Throughout the performance, the colors exhibited on stage were truly eye-popping. The dim background required to make the video visible, coupled with selective lighting made the dancers–generally clothed in a pastel palette–glow like enduring embers against the darkness. This was all part of a greater conceptual mosaic that drew together themes of women’s resilience, courage, and power.

SHE was a truly stunning and powerful artistic statement made up of so many individual contributions. But what truly stands out is how Parker managed to link together movement, images, stories, and a number of genres of music into such a coherent and dynamic performance. Parker, having barely taken time to breathe, is even now planning subsequent performances in Fall 2016 with the long-term goal of touring nationally and internationally. Click here for more information about the future of this multimedia project.

Click here to see an earlier interview that Jazz Right Now conducted with Jinah Parker.

–Cisco Bradley, April 18, 2016

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