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With Marion

Leslie Cuyjet’s “With Marion” opens with a very particular coming-of-age tradition: the cotillion ball. In the the Kitchen’s temporary home at Westbeth, Cuyjet takes over the center of the loft space with a rectangle of screens. On the side where I am first standing—a caveat because throughout the performance I can never quite be sure what video is playing or what physical actions can be seen on the viewing space opposite me—a parade of home videos splicing together different moments from this rite plays to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake Waltz.” Among them: an endless stream of young Black women curtsying in the white wedding-style dresses, fathers presenting daughters in hotel ballrooms, and teenagers awkwardly dancing their first waltz. The atmosphere is a mix of self-consciousness, pride, and celebration. Etiquette and decorum reign.

Performance

“With Marion” by Leslie Cuyjet

Place

The Kitchen, New York, NY, November 30 - December 3, 2023

Words

Candice Thompson

Leslie Cuyjet in “With Marion.” Photograph by Walter Wlodarczyk

The artfully edited video ends and Cuyjet, crouched in the dark inside the partitioned square, begins placing objects on a digital projector. First, a photograph of a woman in an evening gown, arms gracefully rounded behind her. Cuyjet’s hand is seen on screen placing it and then arranging and rearranging miscellaneous items: a paper with what looks to be some kind of dance notation, a red patterned fabric swatch, a magnifying glass, a plate, a piece of knotted rope, and a knife. In the choreography of objects coming and going, an amplified sound of their material clinking and tinkling can be heard. 

Personal history and dance history convene, whether the viewer is aware of it, as the “Marion” in question refers to Cuyjet’s great aunt Marion Cuyjet, founder of the Judimar School of Dance. Because of her light skin, Marion was able to “pass” and study ballet at the Philadelphia Ballet Company, which did not admit Black students. Later, she would make it her mission to educate dance students of color, including luminaries like Judith Jamison and the recently deceased Delores Browne. The image of the woman in the gown is Marion and, in the program notes we learn that this portrait sits on Cuyjet’s desk.

Leslie Cuyjet in “With Marion.” Photograph by Walter Wlodarczyk

Selections of Cuyjet’s writing from January-May 2021 and detail images of objects titled “With Marion, 2020,” created as part of the Kitchen’s 2020-21 Dance and Process program during the pandemic, are included in the program and provide insight into the very personal nature of Cuyjet’s work. Her writing is poetic and evocative in its blending of the conceptual and the concrete, often in the same sentence. Amid a paragraph about a motherly attempt to tame her natural hair she writes: “This transference of transformation of what was into what can be, starting with a comb to my scalp.” Cuyjet also reads a selection from these writings, taking us back to a moment she shared with her mother on the way to dance class. The anecdote lets us linger with her younger self as a competition dance student, eager to make it to the regionals and the front row. 

The solo moves forward and backward as a series of fragments introduced, layered, pulled apart, and echoed. Though we remain quite literally on the outside, unable to grasp the whole composition in one glance or let into the fullness of Cuyjet’s experience, she is never alone. She confronts an unseen interlocutor with a monologue that teases out ideas of value and respect with regard to passing and social mobility—two prominent themes from her family legacy—under the premise of looking like a swimmer and therefore being treated as a swimmer; she tapes physical confessions sitting in a harsh light like a hostage, hands wringing, fingers pointing, arms waving upward; she dances a pas de deux with a chair where shimmies and slides cede to petit battements and penchés that eventually all break down into a percussive coda of thrashing.

Leslie Cuyjet in “With Marion.” Photograph by Walter Wlodarczyk

These episodes were cut, refracted, and/or amplified to the point of reverberation. Several times I wondered if my experience as a viewer following this solo mirrored Cuyjet’s multi-disciplinary approach to decoding the life of her great aunt. The dynamic collaging was not easily legible but could certainly be felt, often due to the Cuyjet’s sheer magnetism as a performer. She has danced for and collaborated with many modern dance choreographers, such as Jane Comfort and Niall Jones. Last December, she was a force running through Tere O’Connor’s “Rivulets.” In 2021, she won Bessie Award for her solo work, “Blur.” 

She scribbles the names of body parts, interspersed with qualities of being, on scraps of paper illuminated by the projector—lip, heart, eye, art, sass, ass, circle, bottom, hag—before presenting herself to us. In a rocking walk, reminiscent of the cotillion videos, Cuyjet emerges from the square to join us on the other side of the screen. At the midpoint, she is backed by a projection of great green waves as her body ripples in apparent exaltation. She is both the presumed swimmer and swimming, a reference to earlier in the solo but also to earlier works that have explored Black bodies in the water and her relationship with the sport. She disappears around the corner and I can no longer see how she moves on her way back. Strobe lights meet her as she re-enters her space; her body bangs around with rage and abandon as ever bigger waves crash. 

In the quiet wake of this exorcism, she sings a version of Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” inserting the words scribbled earlier into the medley that defies material lack with spiritual abundance. Her voice is clear and strong, accompanied by steady stomps. The song is remixed as two images appear, both presumably Marion: an older woman dressed up and a young woman in a swimsuit. In the final sequence, they grow out of the frame. We are left to zoom in on and contemplate the parts that make up this whole and complex being.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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