Lela Aisha Jones | Flyground : Native Portals Keeping The Conversation Going

Oiya Lowe. Photo by Johanna Austin
photo credit: Johanna Austin

by Gregory King for The Dance Journal

With bent knees, backs parallel to the floor, hands akimbo, and elbows as wings, the artists in “Native Portal” took a stand. As their torsos twisted, their elbows alternated between pointing to the heavens and jutting towards the ground. They woke the earth Gods by stomping their feet – the ancestors …  no longer resting. These images represented the downtrodden, oppressed, and the defeated. But these were not just dance positions, they were stories of lives lived.

On a mission to promote dialogue in pursuit of peace while encouraging diversity, Intercultural Journeys has a thirteen – year history bridging cultures through music, dance, spoken words, and other art forms. In a pre-talk oration, Intercultural Journeys curator and musician Alex Shaw, admitted that although the organization’s mission is to produce multiple disciplines, Lela Aisha Jones’ “Native Portals” was their first time presenting dance.

Having seen excerpts of “Portals”, I was prepared for the stories of transformation and restoration; stories told through moving bodies, accompanied by the edgy, vocal styling of singer Keisha Hutchins and opulent musicianship of saxophonist Nasir Dickerson and percussionist Jeffrey Johnson.

Jones along with other performing artists Amanda Edwards, Saroya Corbett, Peaches Jones, and Oiya Lowe, physicalized their social obligations by advocating for change – dancing for themselves but also for marginalized communities plagued by discrimination, intimidation, and tyranny.

Done in two acts, the first act of “Portals” was titled Lynching & Love (2012). As the performers entered the stage carrying baskets, I tried to inhale all the entire stage but the hanging noose grabbed and held my attention. It hung adjacent to the American flag, reminding us of the tainted history that still haunts us. The performers moved through positions of kneeling, walking, and stomping, using their bodies as story telling instruments. The hanging noose was central as the dancers approached the knotted rope, brushing it with their faces. Jones orbited the noose, meandering through the space to the recorded story of a woman being lynched. She touched her chest then her face, before touching the floor while we listened to the story that was not easy to hear.

Hearing recorded stories of lynching and watching the hanging noose dangling center stage, was uncomfortable. But I appreciated Jones’ courage for unapologetically tackling the subject of race in America with vivid images and provocative texts. I secretly hoped that my discomfort was shared with those around me, and that the discomfort was questioned, pushing us towards social change.
The second act titled Release Mourning Clearing, had very little direct connection to the first. Although I struggled to connect both sections, the movement vocabulary provided all the information I needed to anchor myself in the narratives of “Portals”. The dancers trembled vigorously, performing what appeared to be a version of the Yanvalou – a ritual dance originating in Benin to honor the spirits. Periodically the dancers fell to the floor before shooting forward.  Sometimes they lingered in still positions, always using their bodies as vessels of survival and hope.

In an article by Janet Eigner, scenic designer for Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company, Bjorn Amelan said, “one of the great hallmarks of art is that the work opens a relevancy that transcends boundaries.”

By using practices of the African diaspora in the forms of dance, text, and live music, the performers illuminated black experiences of activism, compromise, and resurgence. They told stories of history, oppression, protest, hope, anger, acceptance, community, and so much more.

About Gregory King

Gregory King received his MFA in Choreographic Practice and Theory from Southern Methodist University. In addition, he is certified in Elementary Labanotation. His dance training began in Washington DC at the Washington Ballet and later at American University. He went on to participate in the Horton Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress. His training continued at the prestigious institutions such as The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Alvin Ailey School. Gregory has performed with The Washington Ballet, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, New York Theatre Ballet, Donald Byrd /The Group, The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York City Opera, and Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.

His desire to integrate social activism into his choreography began with his graduate thesis, where he used the platform to push the conversation about homophobia and heterosexism. He is a lover of movement exploration and describes his aesthetic as a classical base with a theatrical flair.

He has taught at Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Texas Ballet Theatre. Additionally, he has served as a teaching artist in public schools in and around Dallas, as Resident Guest artist at Temple University and Assistant Professor of Dance at Dean College. Recently, Gregory received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College where he teaches Modern and continues to use his choreography as a means for social change.

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