SPEAK: PoemAnthemSong

By Maurya Kerr

Maurya with head turned to side
Dancer kneels over other dance lying down
Alexandra Carrington and Robyn Gerbaz in poem : one / photo by Andrew Weeks

poem : one
began when Hope Mohr invited me to participate in her company’s 2015 Bridge Project, Rewriting Dance, featuring work at the intersection of language and choreographic thinking. From my earliest choreographic attempts, text has figured prominently, usually as a movement germinator. I find it so easy to fall victim to my movement habits and affinities, so working alongside language allows me to ‘unknow’ and therefore access unfamiliarity. Since text was already a consistent, impactful presence in my process, I wanted to approach a relationship of magnified stamina and literality. I chose to work with Lydia Davis’ “Head, Heart,” a short story whose inevitability and lens on heartache has long resonated with me. I began as usual, trying to transcribe and manifest page to body, but instead of taking leave of the text once an embodied language began to develop, I remained ensconced and loyal to the imagined life of head and heart.

Inspired by Davis’ minimalism and also wanting to shift my artistic orientation, I tried to construct the resulting duet between Alexandra Carrington and Robyn Gerbaz with as much humanness (not dancer-ness) as possible, and also experiment with the durational possibilities of simplicity. I am decreasingly interested in steps and the virtuosity of the physical. While dance still requires a body, I long for it to not preside or impress. Give me the virtuosity of intimacy, nuance, presence, and affect.

dancer leaps mid-air with one leg behind
Alexandra Carrington demonstrating V of anthem : two‘s movement alphabet

anthem : two
was born in the aftermath of Trumpocalypse.

Just as I often rely on text as seed, I also turn to the alphabet to start a flow: usually after abcde within a specific template, something loosens. In the doom of the alt-right and the gleam of Colin Kaepernick, I decided to create a dystopian, sorrowful alphabet to spell, or perhaps gut, the national anthem. Did you know that the version America recites is only the first of four verses? The end of the third verse: No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave… Hardly national (national: common to or characteristic of a whole nation) or anthemic (anthem: a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body, or cause), unless we acknowledge its purpose for a whites-only nation and a white group/body/cause. Definitely a call to defy and eviscerate.

After creating the movement alphabet, I divvied up the lines equally between Alexandra, Robyn, Asha Benjelloun, and Stephen DiBiase, and asked them to create a literal, spelled bodily document. The initial result was predictably tedious. The work then was to edit, mutate, construct divergent personal landscapes, and infuse our communal rage and grief. That initial version is unrecognizable, with only faint alphabetic vestiges.

dancer kneels in blue light on stage
Alexander Diaz in song : three / photo by Kimara Dixon

song : three
contains, surrounds, queries, sings, and celebrates blackness. It is also my first-time attempt to pointedly engage with blackness via dance: fear of falling into the pitfalls of ‘black’ work that is blatant, didactic, or essentialist, combined with questions around my right to engage (I am a black woman with enormous light-skinned privilege), have made me trepidatious.

My thesis for my (recently completed) MFA was about the politics of wonder, more specifically how systemic racism diminishes, and often annihilates people of color’s access to wonderment. In a way, song : three feels like an extension of that study. Who is allowed to wonder and dream themselves into fairy tales (also known as wonder tales)? How does a child of color inhabit a story-book filled with blond whiteness? Where is a young black girl’s opportunity to see herself as a princess, the slayer of dragons? When can a black boy become the valiant hero, an elegant swan?

I worked on a solo with a beautiful young artist, Alexander Diaz. A black body on stage is political, particularly if that body doesn’t entertain, jive, jump, wow, play victim or beast. I wanted to dispute those reductions and create space for Alex’s multi-faceted, sparkling entirety to exist; an entirety whose very ontology challenges the reigning and dismembering pigmentocracy; a space for this black man and his blackness to simply be… quiet, fluid, vulnerable, non-performative, and resultantly vast and optative.

Maurya with head turned to side
Maurya Kerr / photo by Andrew Weeks

represents the nascent positioning of these three distinct works as newly one, kindred in their mutual reliance on words as catalyst and infrastructure. I’m now in constant consideration of how to connect them: perhaps as prefix, word, suffix; wing, tread, anchor; or moon, sun, eclipse? Should they intersect, penetrate, glide or chafe? Or maybe simply witness self and other.

I recently came across this quote by writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara: “The purpose of a writer is to make revolution irresistible.” I can only hope that our work as makers and movers can likewise compel us into devotion with rising up and radicality.

Help, head. Help heart. — Lydia Davis.

tinypistol presents PoemAnthemSong June 9-10 as part of ODC’s Walking Distance Festival. (poem : one premiered November 2015 as part of the Bridge Project; anthem : two premiered April 2017 as part of Dance Mission’s D.I.R.T Festival; song : three premiered (as fable : three) February 2017 as part of the Black Choreographers Festival. Thank you to Hope Mohr, Krissy Keefer, and Laura Elaine Ellis for their respective invitations and support.

Maurya Kerr is a bay area-based choreographer, writer, filmmaker, and the artistic director of tinypistol. Much of her work, across disciplines, is focused on black and brown people reclaiming their birthright to both wonderment and the quotidian. She is the Resident Curator for ODC Theater’s 2024/25 season and recently published her first poetry chapbooks, MUTTOLOGY with Small Harbor Publishing and tommy noun with C&R Press.