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George Jackson reviews Mortal Tongues, Immortal Stories


“Shivoham”, “Lament to the Birds”, “Mortal Tongues, Immortal Stories”
Dakshina / Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company
Dance Place
Washington, DC
May 2, 2015

by George Jackson
© 2015 by George Jackson

Photo by Stephen Baranovics

Photo by Stephen Baranovics

Forget-me-nots are small but persistent flowers. Daniel Phoenix Singh planted a field of them in his new “Mortal Tongues, Immortal Stories”, a dance in memory of the poetry and poets of AIDS. It was a terrible time in history and not that long ago when the epidemic first hit. In the absence of facts, fear grew rapidly and so did feelings of shame, guilt and remorse. The illness seemed to thrive among three sorts of people – homosexuals, hemophiliacs and Haitians. How it passed from person to person wasn’t yet certain. Could misery and death result from a touch? Nurses and doctors became wary of handling patients. Would perspiration spread the sickness among dance partners? Although darkness concerning the topic persisted for quite a while, the stage for this new dance is awash in white – a ghostly light that projects images of cells and shards of text onto the floor and the backdrop*. There is nothing broken about the texts as recited by two of the cast’s eleven performers. We hear twenty fairly short poems (one repeated twice and another repeated four times) by sixteen poets**. The delivery (by Chris August and Sonya Renee Taylor) is exceptional for its clear enunciation, subtle intonation, acute sense of rhythm and – on occasion – apt motion. To dance about fear, shame, guilt, remorse, sickness, death, loss, memory, desire, love and life could be daunting. Singh meets the challenge in straightforward ways.

Gestures are important ingredients of the choreography, with the embrace as a key category. Some embraces signal desire, others are signs of love and a series can show the emergence of one from the other. Another frequent type of gesture is stretching an arm. Doing so strongly may be about self assertion, but if the arm is retracted tensely it may mean a call for help. Touching oneself with the backs of the palms happens often and is potent. It seems to reassure individuals that they are still themselves, still alive and must endure. With such motions Singh seems to be inventing a language of modern mudras for not just the hands but also the arms. Occurring too are passages in which total bodies are swept up balletically in movement reminiscent of the tolling of bells or of leaves driven by the wind. Distinct characters emerge in certain scenes. They include iconic figures such as the kouros (Mac Twining), a pair of nymphs (Julia Battist, Helen Marie Carruthers), and the diva impersonator (James Joseph/Trisha Bordeaux). The performers enact their stories, no matter how intense, with nuance and dignity.

“Mortal, Immortal” is long, lasting about an hour. I would not suggest any cuts, even of one of the repeated texts. Nor would the insertion of an intermission work. Singh’s dance builds gradually and steadily. It ends unsentimentally, as the cast, some still in character, does brave marching to an Edith Piaf chant.

Two solos from the Bharata Natyam tradition opened the program. “Shivoham” alternated forceful vectors and stamping with gentle motion or stillness, and dealt with the joining of mortality and eternity. “Lament”, with its aviary mudras, was about the longings of love and had a dash of irony. Sudha Radhakrishnan danced the choreography of Rama Vaidyanathan with finesse and vigor. In retrospect, this pair of items from India put AIDS into perspective. What at first had seemed to some a Western “decadence”, turned out to be a global calamity.
*Adrian Galvin’s visual designs and Ben Levine’s lighting.
**The poets were: Donald Britton, Richard George-Murray, Tim Dlugos, Melvin Dixon, Karl Tierney, Richard Ronan, Paul Monette, James S. Holmes, Craig C. Harris, Essex Hemphill, Adam Johnson, Charles Barber, Steven Abbott, George Whitmore, Thomas Avena, and David Matias, collected from “Persistent Voices Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS” edited by Philip Clark and David Groff. Alyson Books, 2010. ISBN-13:9781593501532.