Project O is a collaboration between dancers Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, “two brown women” intent on disrupting the conventional power structures that shape views of gender and race. Their latest work, Voodoo, is an effective – and affecting – exploration of partiality and visibility.
It cleverly inveighs against the reality of being a singular brown body upon which expectations about ethnic representation are heaped. At one point, the dancers drag around heavy sacks before dumping the contents – bones – onto the studio floor. Ancestral burdens, the heaviness of racial history, are seemingly cast off, leaving the performers free to dance blithely. But perhaps the very visibility of these bones only renews the weight of ethnicity in another way.
While the title points to a historic miasma of white misunderstanding and fear surrounding black culture, the piece embodies its own form of partiality and partialness. For a start, it’s performed in four consecutive two-hour chunks, subject to inevitable change during each iteration. The audience only experiences a quarter of the work and from the beginning our prejudices about what to expect from a theatrical performance, in particular a dance show, are capsized.
Denied the usual privileges of sauntering into the space at leisure and claiming a designated seat, we’re let into the auditorium in small groups and told to put ‘time-keeping devices’ in brown envelopes and seal them. We’re led by stern black-robed figures into the middle of the studio space, around which are dotted cushions and benches. We sit or stand and read a list of non-chronological events projected onto a screen – dates and detail range from the OJ Simpson trial to the dancers reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman and hating it.
Hemsley and Johnson-Small, meanwhile, remain aloof through all of this – they’re slightly uncanny, space-agey presences sitting still behind us, clad in spongy white jackets, culottes and round sunglasses. Eventually they begin to move, snaking and slithering their way to the front, only to cocoon themselves in white sacks. Naturally, a sense of puzzlement and anticipation ensues. When the dancers re-surface, there’s more discomfort to be had – they nuzzle up to audience members, who are presented with shots of liquor by impassive black-robed figures.
Who is entertaining who? This question is made all the more pertinent when Hemsley and Johnson-Small take pins from their hair and pop a bunch of white balloons while swooning along to a Whitney Houston ballad. Is performance-art pretension being summarily burst? Is it an aggressive act? The Whitney soundtrack also draws our attention to the entrenched ways in which white consumers view black performers – and by extension to the objectification of black and brown bodies throughout the centuries. Before long we’re physically wrenched out of our passive state as spectators – a voiceover instructs us to lie on the floor, close our eyes and embrace the darkness. Then, to a series of club tunes, we’re told to dance. Reactions range from stiff bewilderment and embarrassment to enthusiastic abandon and lurching experimentation. It’s an artful move, a power move – the ultimate plunge into an unexpected vortex of visibility and vulnerability.
To find out more about Project O, click here.