Shifting ground

Visiting choreographer Cynthia Oliver explores complexities of race and gender in a preview of her new dance-theater work at VPL

BRATTLEBORO — Choreographer Cynthia Oliver is winding up her two-week July residency at Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) in Guilford, where she has been developing a new dance/theater work, “Virago-Man Dem.”

With her collaborators - composer Jason Finkelman, musician Geoff Gersh, and dancers Duan Cyrus, Jonathan Gonzales, and Niall Noel Jones - Oliver is exploring the complexities of the representation of black masculinities through movement, spoken language, and visual design.

An audience will get a chance to sample what she has been up to when on Friday, July 29, at 7:30 p.m., in the Arts Barn at Hilltop Montessori School on 99 Stafford Farm Hill, VPL presents an “in the works” showing of “Virago-Man Dem.”

This free event will be followed by a post-performance conversation with the artists.

“I am very interested in folks' reaction to what they see,” Oliver said.

She is receiving multi-year residency support from VPL to develop the show, a process that began in 2015.

That year, her two-week research residency included interviews with local black men about their experiences living in southern Vermont.

In the summer of 2017, VPL intends to present the final production of “Virago-Man Dem,” which will include animation and visual design by graphic novelist and Afrofuturist John Jennings.

VPL, which describes itself as “a laboratory for creative research and community engagement,” has brought artists of regional, national, and international stature to rural Vermont since 2006 through its artist residency program.

“Cynthia is using the medium of dance to dig into the nuances and complicated subject matter of black masculinity,” said VPL Director Sara Coffey on VPL's website. “And, in the wake of more police violence on black men, 'Virago-Man Dem' is increasingly relevant.

“It's our hope that the performance and residency will provide an opportunity to foster a dialogue with audiences around race and gender issues in our own community, and bring attention to some of the important work that is being done by some of our local social-justice organizations.”

Oliver creates, as Coffey writes, performance collages that “move from dance to word to sound and back again toward an eclectic and provocative dance theater.”

A former dancer with numerous companies, including the David Gordon Pick Up Co., Ronald Kevin Brown/Evidence, and Bebe Miller Company, her dance theater work has been performed across the country.

In addition to being a performer and choreographer, Oliver holds a Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University. She is professor of dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Her ongoing research is focused on performance in the Anglophone Caribbean, and her interest in the black female subject is evidenced in her book, “Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean.”

Now living in Urbana, Ill., Oliver was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and was raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where her father lived in St. Croix. Her choreography often incorporates textures of Caribbean performance with African and American aesthetic sensibilities.

“My Caribbean heritage and culture absolutely infuses and informs all my work,” says Oliver.

However, “Virago-Man Dem” marks an important shift in choreographic focus for Oliver, as she turns her attention to black men of differing nationalities, ages and class sensibilities.

“Now as a mother of a boy, my eyes have opened to issues men face as they negotiate coming into the social world,” she says.

In our current environment, Oliver believes that, more than ever, black men are forced to negotiate, examine, and question the spaces in which they live.

“Masculinity is something black men have to perform, even for one another, and certainly within the larger culture.”

Reflecting on the impetus for this new dance-theater work, Oliver wrote in a press release that “it is my moral obligation to offer something else to the world that I know to be true about black men, and this choreography is my medium to do so.

“Virago-Man Dem is timely, and resonates on multiple levels with men of color, with their loved ones, and with allies of all races. At the same time, it speaks to those who connect to poetics, to movement, to sonic and visual environments that reference the complex materials we use to manage adversity.”

Oliver feels that black masculinity is a much more nuanced sensibility than it is normally characterized in our culture. She believes she has an obligation to represent the full spectrum of black masculinity that she had “been fortunate to bear witness.”

“Growing up in the Caribbean, I watched men and boys who were always around,” she says. “From them, I could study all kinds of masculinity.”

“Being black is different in the Caribbean than the States, partly due to the fact that there blacks are in the majority,” she observes. “In the Caribbean, black men show great pride in their culture and heritage.”

She saw masculinity ran the gamut from the gentle nature of her grandfather to forms that were much more macho.

“The visual style men in the Caribbean sported was remarkable,” she says. “Although Caribbean men are known for their intensive homophobia, they display a range of fashion that seems peculiar in North America, much of which would strike Americans as feminized, or at least too strongly associated with the iconic image of woman.”

Oliver proclaims that she is full of awe and amazement at black masculinity. However, at the same time, in our post-feminist age, when so many forms of masculinity have been critiqued, she feels a certain defensiveness about celebrating masculinity.

“With 'Virago-Man Dem,' I hope to offer something to broaden the conversation about black masculinity,” she says. “Since I am a woman presuming to look at masculinity, I need to keep the porousness of the project open. This is difficult for a choreographer who wants every movement in place.”

“It's a work in progress, and the final show might be radically different from what we are exploring now,” she said.

Movement and words

Oliver is delighted to be working on this project with “four stunning black male performers.”

“Three have families in the Caribbean; one is an Afro-American who does not,” she says. “With their help, I am tapping into a wealth of lived experience. I hope to offer something that will broaden the conversation about Black masculinity. Yes, in creating 'Virago-Man Dem' I have to address the stereotypes of black masculinity, too (which may have some cultural validity, also), but as place to depart from them.”

'Virago-Man Dem' employs both movement and words.

“Language is a significant part of the show,” says Oliver. “I love movement without language, but I also love language. I am not sure exactly how I will use words in 'Virago-Man Dem.' For now, language will not be overdubbed, but rather spoken by the performers.”

Another thing that delights Oliver in putting together 'Virago-Man Dem' is working with old friends.

“My husband, Jason Finkelman, composed the music for it. I have worked with Jason since 1991. I also am pleased to use images of masculinity by John Jennings that play with male stereotypes, which ultimately we may project on the bodies of the dancers. We are still experimenting.”

Oliver feels that the most gratifying part of artistic creation is not the finished piece, but rather the day-to-day rehearsal process.

“I am very pleased to be offered the time and space to explore a work such as 'Virago-Man Dem,'” she says. “Few choreographers can afford a dance company in these times, so a serial residency like this one at VPL is how so many theater/dance works come into being.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates