Jessica Bertram’s new work relishes in strong feminine physique
By: Ashley Gibson
Thunderstorms clapped through the sound system as rain crashed in both real life and the pre-show audio. Flowers adorned the space. A bold mirror with a soft white cloth draped over it commanded my attention from across the room. Ivy spiraled up the two thin black columns that divided the space. A small side table popped out as an island among a sea of flowers. On the table, hairbrushes waited expectantly for their time to be used.
Our Hair Feels Like Flower Petals premiered on Saturday, June 19 with three shows at 2:30, 5:00, and 7:30, as well as an additional virtual showing on Saturday, June 26 at 6:00. Bertram’s choreography, set in collaboration with her four dancers — Aryanna Allen, Chrystola “Chryssy” Luu, Danielle Swatze, and Jada Willis — captured the very essence of healing. The audience followed the dancers through a tenacious journey built on a bright vision that rang true with hopefulness.
After a while, dancers emerged into the room out of a back door and moved to a large altar, where they reverently inspected and rearranged candles, flowers, and pictures. The altar, a tribute to strong female family members and ancestors, provided a home base where the dancers often gathered.
Later on, as the dancers moved away from the altar, they gathered at the mirror in a moment of casual bonding. They exchanged smiles and glances, asking each other’s opinions as they helped one another style hair. This moment brought us into what felt like a very casual, yet intimate, night.
The gesture of a fist lent a recurrent steadiness to the piece. On the introduction to the fist motif, each dancer curled up her fist and wound up both the arm and fist behind her own back, the movement dripping with tension. The hand shaked and quivered with an overarching fear, anger, and brokenness. Sometimes, the fist bumped the side of the dancer’s head, almost inquisitively. Other times, it released as if to shoot an arrow out of a bow. For me, the fist was a fiery semblance of drive and will to fight.
The stunning movement in this work combined swiftly calculated turns and stormily passionate artistry. Bertram’s dancers tackled the choreography with verve and vigor. It has been a long time since I have witnessed a work at this degree of physicality and finesse. Each moment, each dancer, and each step captured the gaze of onlookers in a powerfully commanding way that transformed the room into a truly sacred, shared space.
Bodies curved gracefully as the dancers gathered together. Then, suddenly and without hesitation, the dancers began to beat their fists against their chests. This flickering moment ended as quickly as it started. The dancers, as poised as ever, tossed their bodies upward, reaching into thin air, as the word “hallelujah” electrified the air in a hauntingly beautiful choir recording of Revelations 19:1. The powerful and touching spirituality of this moment simmered and slowly dispersed itself around the room in a sharp breath of air.
Bertram’s choreography never disappoints and is always packed to the brim with dazzling symbolism. Our Hair Feels Like Flower Petals was no exception. It provided the highlight of current dance in Atlanta, as the sky clears from a dark and silent pandemic year without many opportunities for live art.
All in all, Bertram’s piece was a breath of fresh air and a true standout. Her work, which was rooted in the resilience of Black women throughout these trying times, spoke so clearly through its movement. The dancing felt genuine in a way that touched the heart and shed light on a wave of change and healing. Bertram’s piece accomplished exactly what it set out to do. It gave way to an outpouring of love and compassion and spoke to the importance of leaning on one another to find solace in community.
Photos by Lori Teague
Ashley holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Kennesaw State University, where she performed in works by both Christine Welker and McCree O’Kelley. She currently serves on faculty at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education and Studio Go Dance. Ashley also volunteers for DanceATL and is the chairperson of its writing committee. She is a freelance writer/copy editor in the Atlanta community, contributing to publications such as DanceATL’s Promenade. When she’s not dancing or teaching, she enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors.