Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
New York choreographer, Marjani Forté, brought the newest version of her three-year work to the Alloy Studios Friday night. Being Here…/this time investigated mental illness, addiction, and poverty in America. Forté was initially inspired by an experience she had on the subway train with a “symptomatic” woman in crisis. That led her to various conversations with peers and ultimately to six women in Connecticut, all of whom shared their personal traumas.
The sixty-minute show was split into four installments. Audience members were free to watch the first three sections in whatever order they chose. To conclude the show, everyone came together for the final trio.
Two installments took place in the main studio. A diagonal row of chairs cut the space in half, creating two intimate places for solos and duets to occur. In the first section I watched, the audience was given earplugs to drown out any background noise. Alice Sheppard performed a solo bound by a wheelchair. She began with rigid gestures as local dancer, Jasmine Hearn, entered from the side and pressed herself against the back wall.
Sheppard quickly pushed her chair toward the audience, stopping within inches of one man. She stared at him intensely; her energy and movement became more heated. Hearn disappeared as Sheppard fell off the wheelchair smiling maniacally then gasping, twitching and even sucking her own toe. The effect of the section was almost frightening, certainly powerful and thought-provoking.
In the next installment, we were given headphones to listen to accompaniment for another studio duet. Tendayi Kuumba entered the space backwards from the far wall. The sound of kids playing flooded our ears, but quickly turned to cries of sadness and a voice layered over top insisting, “We’re okay.”
Kuumba’s movement was equally as severe as Sheppard’s, but the dynamic of her solo felt much more laden with grief. Perhaps it was the lullaby that morphed out of the sound and text. Or Kuumba’s delicate lift of an arm after pointing fiercely and directly. She, too, stared straight into an audience member’s eyes. Her gaze was notably different, though. We could feel her struggle, see her anguish.
Hearn weaved her way into this installment as well, alternating between laughing and crying, all while stumbling in a seemingly aimless pattern. Although she had moments of bigger, technical phrases, most impressive was the expression in her eyes. She searched the room with a lost but determined gaze.
Forté performed her installation in a small corner of the lobby. The audience sat all around her; she was perched slightly above us with a blurred video image projected on the wall to her right. Forté said the image was taken from a rehearsal, but represented angels or communication with others.
To start, Forté closed her eyes as if to center herself. She then pulled up a gospel song on her iPhone, called “I Won’t Complain.” The movement she used was subtle compared to the others’. Her gestures were sparse, held back in emotion as the lyrics suggested. She rubbed her knuckles with anxiety, pulled her fist to her mouth in frustration, and hid her face in shame. Eventually she teetered on the edge of her chair and fell off with open arms. The most powerful part of the section was when she walked away. The music remained for what felt like several minutes. Her absence was visceral.
Back in the main studio, Sheppard, Hearn, and Kuumba performed the final installment. Forté’s lack of presence was still notable, but we were hopeful her character had moved forward. The three others came together in a unison phrase that combined gestures from the earlier sections. They frantically counted down from ten as the movement escalated, then broke into their individual motifs.
The movement slowed, and Hearn spun in dizzying circles, arms wide in surrender to her experience. I got the sense that these women were doing the best they could with the lives they’d been given. I thought of my own experiences with strangers and people close to me who have suffered from mental illness and addiction. The piece drew out a sense of compassion for what Kuumba poignantly described as “the beast” inside us all.