It begins with a collage of faces.
And have you ever noticed that if you flip really fast through a series of faces, even if they aren’t intentionally symmetrical or precisely aligned, the fact that the eyes are all in approximately the same place means that they become a sort of flickering constant, an almost-still point as the jaws and cheeks and hair and skin around them shift endlessly into new colours and shapes.
Similarly, dancer/soprano Neema Bickersteth, also a co-creator of Century Song, becomes the constant point as history flies past around her, a collage of projections (by fettFilm), a symphony of music moving from past to present, a wardrobe of costumes layered and pulled on and thrown off.
The programme lays out a procession from 1915 to 2018, with stops in each decade along the way, where Bickersteth sings wordless songs and performs emotive dances that resist narrativisation. Many of the sequences bespeak fear and loss of control, emphasised by the fact that Kate Alton’s muscular choreography is necessarily more limited when Bickersteth is also singing in her pure, operatic soprano, and sometimes can only take the form of arm and upper-body movements that sometimes seem to be rippling through Bickersteth’s body against her will. But despite this prevailing moody tone, Bickersteth feels best-suited to the impish confidence she wears along with a dazzling orange jumpsuit in the sequence representing the 1970s.
This temporal journey is designed to convey what the program describes as ‘the largely untold history of Black women in the Americas.’ So what does it mean to call something with no words, with no dates (except in the programme), with no clear settings or people or events, a history?
Though billing a history as ‘untold’ implicitly suggests the importance of telling it, this is not a history anyone but Bickersteth can tell; we, the audience, cannot pass it along. We can only bear witness. Like the wordless songs and narrativeless videos, it is a history to be seen and heard, not spoken. It resists quantification; it rejects the trappings of the kinds of history that have left these stories untold, these figures forgotten. If she—this timeless black woman, Bickersteth’s nameless character—cannot fit into history as it has been told, then she will find a new way to tell it.
Century Song is on at ZOO Southside until 18th August. Click here for more details.