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Avenging Angels

I’m really into vengeance, sadly,” Maurya Kerr told the 92nd Street Y’s Harkness Dance Center director Taryn Kaschock Russell following Kerr’s “black calls to dark calls to deep underneath.” “I try to get it out in my work instead of in person,” Kerr added.

Performance

Maurya Kerr, “black calls to dark calls to deep underneath”

Place

Digital stream from The 92nd Street Y Harkness Mainstage, New York New York; recorded March 9, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

Maurya Kerr's “black calls to dark calls to deep underneath.” Photograph by Alice Chacon

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This was the New York debut for Kerr’s company, tinypistol, which I have wanted to see perform in Kerr’s home base, San Francisco, ever since watching one of her first choreographic forays in 2012. Kerr, a former member of LINES Ballet, has been a rising leader in West Coast dance over the past decade, serving as a grant panelist, curating ODC Theater’s summer festival, and speaking frankly about the need for anti-racism efforts at San Francisco Ballet and other institutions. Finally catching Kerr’s choreography again, even on the small screen instead of in person, it was easy to see that she is as gifted choreographically as in her advocacy, and to understand why Russell commissioned her.

Kerr also has a growing body of work as a poet, and “black calls to dark calls to deep underneath” struck me as very much a poet’s work, even though it uses no text. (Kerr did say during the post-performance talk that she uses language prompts to generate the choreography with her dancers, but did not elaborate on this process.) The poet’s sensibility here is not in verbiage, but in the organic inner form of the dance, its intense ambiguity, its calibrated rhythms, and its careful attention to the minute morphology of its images.

Maurya Kerr's “black calls to dark calls to deep underneath.” Photograph by Alice Chacon

Alex Carrington and Chelsea Reichert led off, starkly shadowed in Haley Burdette’s lighting, Reichert on all fours reaching for Carrington’s highly articulated, stage-circling feet. In her post-performance talk, Kerr spoke of collaborating with composer Joel St. Julien to achieve a “celestial” sound to the score, and that’s the aural quality that immediately struck me on first viewing, as thick synthesizer chords seemed to burn like stars inside my brain. Reichert finally latching onto Carrington’s shoulder led to Carrington catching Reichert’s head, a recurring motif in the dance. As Carrington rose up on her toes, frighteningly totemic, Reichert began gasping, then melting. Even as heavenly voices entered the soundscore, the two could not embrace, but instead locked head to head.

A new couple then wormed into the spotlight—Styles Alexander and Kerr herself, filling in at the last minute for an injured performer. (“Being in my own work is the last thing I want to do,” Kerr professed, eyes blinking rapidly with tension, in the post-performance talk.) The dancers never break presence in this work; it’s like butoh in that way, a performance of relentless, roiling immersion, and Kerr’s unspooling arms never ceased unfurling. Again there was crawling after another’s feet; again there was head-cradling and convulsion. But in this second duet, there were also African dance gestures, and moments of Kerr pressing her hands to Alexander’s heart, though any sentimentality was quickly undercut as Kerr drove her hands hard into his, lifting her feet of the floor in a frightening yet beautiful levitation.

Maurya Kerr's “black calls to dark calls to deep underneath.” Photograph by Alice Chacon

A blackout then brought the final duet: Alexander Diaz and Tatiana Barber, both more muscled dancers with vulnerability in their faces. The images in their duet were the dance’s most memorable: at first snapping fingers, jiving; then her riding on his back; then side by side swaying and, at the high point of feeling (and after grunts of agony), Diaz raising his arms overhead in a terrible V, Barber clinging to him. The hands-to-heart image returned as a pulsing of intense distortion entered the score, and a preacher began to shout “God will! Carry you through the storm, the rain, the heartaches.” Another preacher promised that you can “live your life sure in God in spite of what you face,” as Barber and Diaz shifted from convulsions to fierce air punches. The ambiguity here was especially thick: Is this preaching heartening? Condescending? Revelatory? Ironic?

In her extremely terse post-curtain talk, Kerr said the work was about “avenging angels”—“a creature too phenomenal to behold.” This I had grasped. As for the question of what the angels were avenging and whether this can be related to Blackness and U.S. society, I again admire the work’s thick ambiguity. Does it matter that the first two dancers could be perceived as white, while the second two pairings could be perceived as people of color? Does it matter that the first pairing didn’t do anything that might in the U.S. be coded as “Black,” but the second two pairings did?

Maurya Kerr's “black calls to dark calls to deep underneath.” Photograph by Alice Chacon

My experiential answer as a viewer is that yes, yes, it all matters. But my humble speculation is that how it matters will be different to each viewer bringing her different experiences. And my even more humble speculation—not meant at all as a cop-out from the attempt to interpret—is that, as a white viewer, I am bringing considerable blind spots.

In a 2021 conversation between Kerr and fellow dancer Alaja Badalich published by the Bay Area publication In Dance, Kerr spoke of being “really defiantly against any sort of monolithic or stereotypical or didactic representation of Blackness.” She has remained true to that commitment in “black calls to dark calls to deep underneath.” She also speaks of a line from a favorite Mary Oliver poem about wanting to be “married to amazement.” Her triptych of celestial, avenging duets has certainly generated amazement in this viewer.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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