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  • Nicole (Johnson) Williams

36. reflections toward revision

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

Last week, I worked with Urban Bush Women as a member of the Community Care Chorus for their site-responsive piece, Haint Blu, presented at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA). This is a piece I originally saw in proscenium back in the fall of 2022. As described on their website, “Haint Blu is an ensemble dance-theater work seeped in memory and magic. Known as the color that Southern families paint their front porches to ward off bad spirits, Haint Blu uses performance as a center and source of healing, taking us through movement into stillness and rest: remembering, reclaiming, releasing, and restoring. It is an embodied look into familial lines and the movements, histories and stories of our elders and ancestors. It reflects on what has been lost across generations and what can be recovered. Haint Blu takes us to the magical place where spirits share their legacies, journey onward, and leave the thick residue of their knowing behind.” Working with this piece while exploring my own ancestral journey, artistic praxis, and pedagogy has helped me to feel affirmed in my process and contributed greatly to the questions that drive my work. 

As mentioned, my first encounter with Haint Blu was viewing the piece in proscenium as an audience member in November of 2022. The use of live music, dance, spoken word, and technology helped me to locate myself inside of the work, even though I was separated from it by distance. I can remember the piece taking place as if it were moving through a house, from the porch to the inside, and finally, down to the basement. The movement of the dancers accurately articulated the intent of the music and text and solicited a visceral response from the audience. I felt connected to the piece because it spoke through so many mediums to many of my own personal experiences, and those of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and many other Black women whose artistic work resonates with me. 

When I encountered the work again in January of 2023, the company was in residency at MassMoCA to develop the piece as a site-responsive experience that was to take place throughout the museum. During this 10-day residency, I joined the company and many other community members in connecting the work inside of myself, inside of the physical location, and inside of a community of other artists. First, community and company members came together in a movement practice that allowed us to engage our physical bodies while tapping on memories that gave me access to an ancestral connection. As part of my praxis exploration, I am working to figure out how to find out; or what tools to use to uncover stories that have been lost, unconsidered, or unexplored. One exercise that was memorable for me was an improvisational prompt. The facilitating artist asked the participants to think of where we call home, then to think of someone from home who made us feel loved or secure. From there, participants were prompted to think about, and begin to embody, how that person walked, how they danced, and other physical mannerisms. I remember in that moment wanting to channel my grandmother, who passed on before I was born, but realized that I had not known her and therefore had difficulty recalling her mannerisms, so I picked someone else, but this experience stayed with me throughout the work as my connection to it and to her continued to deepen. 

When I came back to the work this spring in preparation for its official showing, we started off similarly as we had before. In our group movement practice, we warmed up using a strategy I use routinely in my own classes and rehearsals. We walked around the room, becoming present and intentional about seeing the space. Then we were intentional about making eye contact with one another. We followed one another. We mirrored one another. This helped to warm our bodies up, but more importantly, it helped us to see each other, laugh with one another, and build community all in a short amount of time. We then moved on to review some choreography from our winter performance. The facilitating artist shared a story with us about where the movement had originated. Building upon that base choreography, she then gave us the visual of Ernie Barnes’ painting, The Sugar Shack (which I could only recall once Marvin Gaye’s album cover was mentioned). We looked at the picture and talked briefly about what the artist was communicating in the picture. Places like the ones depicted in this painting were often spaces of safety, refuge, and restoration. They were places where Black people could feel free in their practices. Using this photo, we chose three tableau shapes. Alternating between these shapes, we played with making them big and small. We did them together and we showed them in groups. By investigating this art (its colors, meanings, history) and then welcoming that movement into our own bodies, we evoked the untold stories of our ancestry, just as we did when we thought of loved ones from home months prior. These movements we had evoked were then placed into the set choreography, grounding us (individual community performers) in the work with intention and purpose. 

My mother also came to town for the showing. I took this time to try to get to know more about my grandmother, her mother. When I first asked her to tell me about her mother, she repeatedly said, “I didn’t know her. We didn’t really have a relationship.” But over time, as I asked smaller and more specific questions, our understanding began to change. I asked what kind of cigarettes she smoked and what she liked to drink. That led to stories about typical, uneventful Saturday afternoons spent with my great aunt eating smothered pork chops while listening to music and talking in the kitchen all day. Intimate details about her life (some casual and some extremely heavy) and who she was trickled in little by little over the course of the week, giving me a clearer picture of the spirit I believe to be sitting in the middle of my back, and what kind of healing she has come for. I am unsure of exactly how this will manifest itself in my work on this solo. There is more uncovering and understanding to be done. But the seeds have been sewn for the way forward in the revision of this piece. My job now is to be still, listen, and follow.

Lastly, being a part of the piece each night (one open dress followed by 4 shows) affirmed my understanding of improvisatory communication with a piece. Because the audience members were active participants along this evening length journey, AND because this piece is designed to respond to its environment, the paths that were taken and choices that were made changed slightly every night. Some aspects of the piece carried over from previous iterations in New Orleans or Miami. There was a clear structure for the story, but how that narrative was in relationship with the company artists, the community artists, the audience, and the physical location relied heavily on open channels of communication and an acceptance of intuitive knowing. I felt this in my own work as I tried to choreograph each step – giving it a name and a neat place in the narrative. In the end, I realized that the piece needed feeling and breath. In order to fully embody the intention of the piece, I need to be open to what it is trying to communicate with and through me, not just what I am trying to communicate through it. Maybe those parts will never be nailed down. Perhaps they will always be subject to how I am moved through the spirit of the piece.

I am confident that the next version of this piece will continue to follow the journey of ancestral uncovering.

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