A review by
Anne Bonny and Elma Francois, Hulsie Bhaggan and Bubalups (yes, Bubalups), Hazel Brown and Beryl McBurnie: these names, and the names of other powerful, perceivably difficult women, were shouted into the audience of the Big Black Box on November 29. This triumphant, pugnacious battle cry of women fighters, taken up by women dancers, helped set the stage for Continuum Dance Project's tenth anniversary production, The Museum of Difficult Women, presented beneath the artistic direction of Sonja Dumas.
Led by their raconteuse and fellow dancer Charlene Rollock, the evening's eight difficult dancing women were Abby Charles, Deliece Knights, Elisha Bartels, Joanna Charles-Francis, Lisa Beharry-Gift, Louanna Martin and Nicola Johnston. The concept they strove to illuminate and enact in physical, tactile space, was inspired by the poem For Women who are Difficult to Love, by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire.
Women who do not cleave to the understood, Caribbean-society-structured straight and narrow often find that they must run even more persistently unfair gauntlets than their more docile, diffident sisters. Dumas drew deep from the separate, interlocking wells of multiple symbolisms to assure that this complexity was made visible.
It was therefore a boon that the creative arc of the night's presentation, in her guiding hands, was not content to be merely assimilated–Dumas challenged her audience, forcing their gazes inward, as much as towards the lit proscenium.
Dress and ornamentation, curated by Simone Phillips, played a critical role in developing Dumas' overarching motif of the woman who cannot be restrained, yet chafes against unfair yokes in her work, art, and love lives. Beginning the performance all clad in white frocks and suits, each dancer strode to the Big Black Box stage in towering heels: some platform-wedged, some in glittering silver, much in the vein of the Wicked Witch of the East (herself, perhaps, a difficult woman felled by fate).
After the pronouncement of their rebel-heroines' names, each Difficult Woman dancer tore off her oppressive footwear. The majority of the night's dancing was conducted barefoot, or else in boldly-coloured Converse, an obvious statement towards claiming the unfairly-allotted tools of the patriarchy–as well as a declaration in re-establishing primal, possibly ancestral space.
The shift from ostensibly "pure" white costumes to colourful cut-off jeans, tank tops and ruched blouses signalled a shift in dynamic and intention: a demarcation between movements. The evening's first act symbolised dancing as an act of resistance against hegemonic mockery, including the first song of the performance set list, Roaring Lion's 1933 calypso staple, Ugly Woman.
In the second act, the Museum's unbowed ladies turned their attentions to the future, making literal leaps and bounds across the stage: these moves were not immune to a subtle, choreographed unease. The jittery hobble of the working woman was more than idly suggested, as well as the bold posturing of the woman whose affections are reputed to be easily bought.
The dancers utilised more than the traditionally demarcated space we tend to call "stage." All of the Big Black Box, including the audience's seating area, became the dancers' domain. The use of the entire venue as an interactive, spontaneously changeable auditorium was inspired, if occasionally haphazard in its literal execution.
Lighting designers and operators Rene Tam Wing and Curtis Bachan used floodlights and spotlights with vigorous accuracy. They bathed certain, dramatically crucial dance ensembles in a full backdrop of red mood lights, and accentuated the solo performances of the Difficult Women with white beam projection spotlights.
Sound management, overseen by Maarten Manmohan, included the physical installation of a live band (Aaron Low Chew Tung, Amanda Manmohan, Francois Harewood, Peter Telfer) to the immediate left of the audience seating. The intermittent distractions this inevitably produced could be considered part of the positive spirit of complex interpretation that Dumas sought.
Hosting both sound and movement with overlapping, intimate effect served to heighten the immediacy of the Museum's sensory appeal. That the sensory interaction often lent itself to overload status seemed to be within Dumas' aims.
Individual dancers, commanding the stage–and the off-stage ampitheatre suggested by the Big Black Box–generated a more visceral emotional response than the troupe of dancers working as a team.
Louanna Martin's syncopated foot-stomping, hand-clapping invocation, which incorporated a spoken narrative of both a woman's victimhood and the oppressions she faces, was a stunning composition of rage, grief and resistance. Lisa Beharry-Gift's manifestation of a "Water Woman" deity, in a flowing, sheer and blue-striped gauze skirt with an immense train (designed by Bene Caribe) suggested a series of liquid-immersed undulations in her movements. During her time on stage in this Mama D'Leau embodiment, she channelled connotations of woman's malleability, and of the purposeful strides women make in shaping guiding the course of their own voyages, amidst the incessant raging of life's rivers.
Freedom fighters, whistleblowers, insurrectionists and voluptuous queens of the dancehall–Sonja Dumas and her Museum of Difficult Women endeavoured to show that if you're a woman, you have access to fierceness and purpose, no matter the means through which you claim them.
?The Museum of Difficult Women
Continuum Dance Project, Directed by Sonja Dumas
The Big Black Box, November 29