Dara J. Meredith

Reclaiming Bodily Freedom with Dara J. Meredith in The Bridge of Our Roots

by Gina Palumbo for The Dance Journal

On Saturday, September 18th, I had the pleasure of seeing The Bridge of Our Roots, choreographed by Dara J. Meredith, at the celebrated Suzanne Roberts Theater. Meredith, whose own roots trace from Atlanta to Philadelphia, is a faculty member at Temple University and a full-time educator in the Philadelphia Public School System. In this evening-length work, Meredith brought to life the familiar studio and street styles of Philadelphia that I have come to recognize and love, and most importantly, the unfiltered insight into the lives of black women in America. The Bridge of Our Roots is a living, breathing answer to a painting titled Southern Souvenir No. 2 by Eldzier Cortor. Divided into 12 movements, Meredith’s artistry and each dancer’s possession of it brought to light after an intense period of darkness.

Farewell was the pre-show movement, a rapidly paced work that stirred my body even though I remained sedentary as an audience member. Meredith casually mentioned that the intricate work was learned in four rehearsals, but it was as if her dancers knew the work before rehearsals even began. Their knowledge of the patterns and the ability to effortlessly navigate a space was beyond belief. In the program notes, Meredith wrote: “Farewell to antiquated ideas of the past that hold us hostage.” The movement closed as a recording of the infamous Nina Simone cried “power” repeatedly.

After a brief pause, the show continued with Their Silent Screams. Meditative in nature, with Trish Morris seated at the center, the dancers revolved around her, each mouthing a forceful scream of anguish and frustration. The tension appeared to change with Morris’ healing presence. Morris followed with a solo called The Matriarch that opened my heart to the capability of the feminine spirit to provide life, but most importantly, to provide comfort. As Morris hummed aloud, I was brought back to my childhood and forward to my present life in which the most reassuring women tend to hum while they work, move and provide.

Deeply Rooted was driven by the song called “Yondership Mariah,” which retells the arrival of the Gullah people in America in the late 1600s. A soothing hymnal played as each dancer recited a moment in history through movement. Following was Sistahs Catching Sistahs, which was commanded by the words of poet Kai Davis in her poem “Ain’t I A Woman.” Every element of Meredith’s work, whether music, silence, or spoken word, is seamlessly transformed into a movement that takes hold of the soul and shakes it.

The Angry Black Woman, Death Warrant and Embodied Lost traversed even further into the dark reality of racism. Childless Mothers, performed by dancer and vocalist Shaness D. Kemp, was the closure of these works, acting as one final outcry for all mothers who have lost their children to the horrors of police brutality and racism. The grief and the outrage at the loss of a child are unspeakable, and yet so many mothers suffer silently. Meredith’s art, born from the pain of her truth and the experiences of many others, not only informs audiences about the ongoing fight for justice but encourages healing in due time.  

The final three movements offered a path forward to hope for healing. With Everything Must Change from Nina Simone and spoken word from Oprah Winfrey and Janelle Monae, there was a rush of emotion as the performance drew to a close. The final movement, Resilience, sparked the spirit within my heart and an awareness that this group of dancers cherishes movement beyond measure. A pure partnership is perceptible amongst the dancers, in their ability to be vulnerable with one another, even in their simple, courteous act of nodding at each other to keep time.

The mental and physical stamina it took Meredith and her dancers to complete and perform this work was deep-felt. One could feel the spirituality, the support of family and love that heals, and that the only way to healing is through love. Post-show, Meredith held a talk-back, and an audience member told her that her artistry was a gift from God. I truly believe that too. Grief and fear are often manifested in the body. The Bridge of Our Roots can perhaps show us a way to settle it.

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