by Gina Palumbo
Tommie Waheed-Evans is a renowned choreographer, former Philadanco dancer, Princess Grace Honoraria Award Recipient, and University of the Arts professor, to name a few accolades from a highly successful lifetime with dance. On October 14th, The Philadelphia Dance Projects, hosted by director, Terry Fox, invited Waheed-Evans to speak for their Informance series. He said his upbringing in the church prepared him for speaking, but not necessarily for doing so in this virtual format. I had my notebook ready to fill as a writer, but he asked the participants to have one too, so they could write down any memorable words or questions that may arise within the discussion. The word identity spoke to me softly, but this question throbbed: Who Am I? As I continuously define my place in this world, this question is always lingering on the tip of my tongue.
In tears, we cannot stop, a duet performed by Waheed Works members Antonio Wright & Tony Bobby Rhodes, Waheed-Evans symbolizes what it means to be black and gay in America, and how that identity becomes vulnerable not only in the face of hostility from strangers but also in the presence of police officers. The dancers wore plain clothes, a reminder that we are all human beings, regardless of how forceful the agenda of exclusion is. Some movements expressed the solidarity of finding one another in the mire of racism and homophobia, and others quite literally articulated the black experience in America: one where hands are raised, but still, as the blows rain down.
He spoke on his latest work, HOME, and how it unraveled and became whole in a transformative year. His movement generation approach comes from a combination of “inventing & uncovering” and meeting with the dancers individually. Two sources that had inspired the framework were the movie Moonlight and the book called No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore, a memoir of the author’s life as a black and queer man. A series of solos from the dancers followed in living rooms that became their stages. Thankfully, in its infinite capabilities, technology simultaneously captured the soloists moving and Waheed-Evans watching, side by side. This was commented on later by a participant who relished Tommie’s gaze at his dancers and how that is lost in the darkness and anonymity of theaters. The solos were the dancers’ private interpretations, but they shared a common fixation on the most vulnerable parts of the human body: the chest and the stomach, where the pain of hatred parks itself for much longer than it is welcome.
He spoke of his experience as a University of the Arts professor and how some days, the virtual environment really digs deep under his skin. He read a reflection from one of his students, and I was so moved that only these words found their way to my notebook: “It’s been a while since I’ve danced…when there are so many black bodies on the ground. I miss black bodies.” I want so badly for this student to continue to dance for them, even when it is this difficult.
Tommie wants to do “work that matters” and work that acknowledges the rejection of the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities from society. He wants HOME to be what so many of us want the world to be: a place of love, community, and acceptance.
After the solos, The Sermon on the Mount was presented, a silent work-in-progress between dancers Kira Shiina and Jamaal Bowman. Exceptional partnering drew Shiina and Bowman together like magnets, and they moved like they could not exist without each other.
In the end, we were given time to have our questions answered. I originally thought to ask Waheed-Evans what his greatest test was but instead asked what his ultimate reward as a choreographer was in the artist’s hell on earth. He said that he was most moved by his dancers’ hunger to continue working, despite the circumstances. I’ve learned many things in 2020, but I am certain of one thing: Dancers are here. They have never left, and they are ready to do the work.
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