Last Yearz Interesting Negro – Jamila Johnson-Small and guests
Heavy Handed, We Crush the Moment
(no stars given – Jo Leask had to leave before the end of the show)
London, Barbican Pit
29 November 2019
Heavy Handed We Crush the Moment, an immersive performance is fittingly programmed late at the Barbican Pit. It’s a relaxed and fluid set-up with dim lighting, a DJ’s deck and sculpted podiums on which the audience can sit. I notice Jamila Johnson-Small and Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome lying on massage beds having acupuncture. Such holistic treatment which clears the meridians of the body releasing new energy seems like an effective pre-performance preparation. The atmosphere for this new work by Last Yearz Interesting Negro – the performance project of artist and dancer Jamila Johnson-Small is characteristically meditative, brooding and boundary less. There’s an air of expectation and slight nervousness amongst audience members as we wait for something to happen.
Suddenly the lights become bright, brash and exposing and Johnson-Small’s guest for tonight keyon gaskin appears uttering the words: This is for you/you are a community/this is my performance/you are my material/this is a prison/leave when you want. American born performance artist gaskin repeats this mantra then climbs down from the balcony asking someone to help them. They’re wearing a frumpy winter jacket, sporty shorts, thick socks and glamorous red stiletto shoes. Visually a series of contradictions play out over their body, in a refusal to conform to one particular fashion look or gender.
gaskin rearranges members of the audience in the space so they can see better, organising people through silent gesturing, pointing and nodding like a traffic controller. It’s fascinating how the artist curates the room – clearing bodies away from one place and replacing them with others, giving each instruction careful consideration. What seems to emerge is a privileging of black and brown people over white whereby gaskin encourages us to see the majority whiteness in the room – and to imagine what it feels like to be outside of that – always in a minority – the reality of most theatre, art and dance events.
gaskin’s mixture of care and confrontation as they both help people and critique hierarchical structures is effective, both in its subtlety and forcefulness. After sprinkling coffee around the space in a spiritual gesture gaskin then asks the group I’m sitting with to carry their body around the room, which they warn us will be totally limp. There must be about seven or eight of us – all white, who struggle to support this body as it violently contorts and flips into numerous positions from its floppy, prone state. We labour hard, moulding ourselves around gaskin’s body, dragging it, catching it, anticipating what they will do next. It feels like trying to contain a toddler seized by a tantrum but the symbolism of reversed power and control within this participatory movement interlude is poignant as we cradle and serve this black body in our white hands. Pushing us out of our comfort zone, this interactive situation forces us to ask many uncomfortable questions about institutional racism but being part of such a physical activity makes us feel engaged and responsive.
gaskin’s final interaction with their audience occurs when they ask a woman to play a mixture of pop and hip-hop tracks chosen on her phone. gaskin flings themself into luscious and commercial dance moves, working their way round a room, their energy violent yet soft at the same time. At one point they seem distraught, but their tears feel a bit fake unlike the rest of their performance. gaskin disappears leaving us tense, and for some possibly violated, questioning and empathetic. Not at easy performance on any level but gaskin carries it off, shaking up what boils down to the colonising and capitalist practices of the art world.
The Barbican pit is once again transformed into a dark, womb-like protective space filled with loud ambient sound by Josh Anio Grigg. Johnson-Small and dance artist Fernanda Munoz-Newsome writhe slowly in a cocoon of pale latex which is suspended from chains in the centre of the theatre. They are the ultimate in coolness, as they move purposely and seamlessly, semi-naked in black shiny latex designed by AGF Hydra. As we enter this fluid, intimate arena we’re invited to put on a subpac vest which vibrates when worn – enhancing the immersive experience. Curiously many people refuse the offer – possibly because of the warnings about pace-makers, pregnancy and other factors that could be contradicted by the software systems within the vest.
I enjoy the feeling, it soothes and connects me with the performers, although their work is affective enough without having to rely on such gadgets. As they interact with audience members their physical language spills out in an intoxicatingly explorative and sensuous embrace, that seems to go through our bodies. Although their movement is complex, sometimes even harsh, ultimately it feels like a healing process at work. Together with Munoz-Newsome and us participant/spectators, they negotiate the aural landscapes of sonic sound and sensational visual territory of lighting and set with care and sensitivity that dissolves borders and hierarchies. Last Yearz Interesting Negro makes works of resistance which kick back at the racialized and gendered structures of institutions and contemporary dance, and Heavy Handed is no different, but what is special about their work is how they create heighted sensory impact which generates embodied responses and reflections from audiences. And limitless possibilities for dance… if just a shame I had to leave before the end of this particular show.