Glasgow-based choreographer Mele Broomes returns to Dance International Glasgow this year, following the success of the award-winning VOID in 2017. Her new work, GRIN, is a wordless autobiography of Caribbean and African dance, with a mesmerising design and pulsating score.
GRIN’s stated ambition is the self-emancipation of black artists from the white cultural canon, operating through the methodological tools of both opacity and refusal. Black histories are presented in totality, refusing dissection into component parts. Countries, ancestries, timelines and peoples are mixed, rendered as a complex whole. The effect is that GRIN refuses a white gaze – my own analysis, for example, struggles to digest what I’m watching. This struggle manifests itself as boredom and frustration. I find the opening sequences, where both performers climb to their feet, birthed into a dark world of twinkling materials and a droning soundscape, to be wearisome. This boredom and frustration, while possibly a product of this segment simply being pretty dull, could also be read as my dissatisfied reaction to being denied, being refused. GRIN takes its own time – it takes the time it needs.
When the work hits its stride, it erupts. At its best, GRIN is a constellation of movement, dance, costume, sound and joy. Levent Nyembo and Divine Amy Tasinda move, flex, pop, lock, duet, solo and krump. Patricia Panther’s compositions range through ambience, dub and jazz. Costumes, designed by Zephyr Liddell, are striking, particularly in their interplay with Dav Bernard’s lighting design. The materials of African masquerade clothing are brought to a shimmering life. Their surfaces continue to shiver after the body arrests, moving both with and beyond those who wear them. GRIN is full of majestic images that underscore its strategies of invitation, opacity and refusal. In one moment, the whole stage blurs, shifting out of focus. I don’t know how they did this, but I panic – fearing the work has left me behind. Slowly, it comes back into focus, dancing as before.
These strategies are woven into the work’s subversion of the sexualisation of African and Caribbean dances. Tasinda performs a solo at the front of the stage, in neon lit athleisure wear, lying on the ground, fixing the audience with a stare and intermittently daggering on the floor. In the pauses, she doesn’t look away. Her gaze transforms the room and commands your attention. Performed with an almost disdainful ease, Tasinda makes a mockery of attempts to reduce entire dance traditions to singular, and distorted, moves. These traditions persist and grow, dances for those who dance them, rather than for those who watch.
The work’s aim to present an indivisible whole does not always translate fully into its choreography. At times, segments have clear starts and ends, or the piece of the choreography itself follows rules that are clearly intelligible to the audience. Seeing these building blocks undermines the intended effect of GRIN’s complex, mesmeric dramaturgy. On a similar note, the mesmeric nature of the work is led by a soundscape that is continually present, continually loud. While the sounds are hugely varied there is no silence. This feels like a missed opportunity, as the movements of those bodies onstage remain unheard, drowned out. Patricia Panther’s soundscape has clear thematic ties to the rest of the work, yet it sits somewhat adrift, occupying a position in stark contrast to the interplay between the work’s lighting and costume.
The scope and ambition of GRIN is both vast and small, social and individuated. The work is complicated, knotty, bold. All the while, beneath this complexity, GRIN is infused with an irreducible sense of being alive. The work demonstrates a humanity that can’t be split, divided or altered; a web of histories that are deeply, and inseparably, connected. On this night at Tramway, GRIN invites and nurtures this connection with its audience. When the lights come up, the applause is loud. We have witnessed history.
GRIN was on at Tramway, Glasgow as part of Dance International Glasgow. More info here.