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Komanse Dance Theater’s Permanent Reclaims and Activates Art

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

Photo by Connie Cross

On October 29, a chilly, misty Friday evening, Komansé Dance Theatre premiered the second installment of its Permanent series, “A Couple in Prospect Park (being, together).” The show drew a good crowd in spite of the weather. Permanent is a collaboration between Komansé and the African Diaspora Art Museum of Atlanta (ADAMA), in partnership with the High Museum, that aims to “take art ‘off the wall’ and into the hearts and minds of communities long underserved by the arts.” Featuring choreography by Raianna Brown set to original music by Okorie Johnson (OkCello) and Asha Harris, this performance activated Dawoud Bey’s black and white photograph, “A Couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY" (1990), recontextualizing it within a diverse, complex, and beautiful web of social relationships. The festival commissioned the work and this production was created specifically for this year’s ELEVATE Atlanta Art Festival. They recorded the performance and the film is tentatively scheduled for a premiere at the High Museum of Art in January 2022. The event was exceptionally well-organized, thought-provoking, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Komansé staged the work at historic Fort McPherson in a courtyard between two buildings. The dance opened with a pair of performers, a man and a woman, seated on the pavement in the center of the courtyard. Dressed in black and white, the pair echoed Bey’s image, which was projected above them onto the wall of a covered corridor connecting the two buildings rising on either side of them. Johnson and Harris emerged, Harris at stage right and Johnson at stage left, from building side doors set upstage. As the music began, the rest of the ensemble drifted into the space, casually grouped in pairs and trios. All of the performers other than the central couple could easily have been mistaken for last minute audience arrivals. Consequently, the beginning created an impression of organic spontaneity within what was clearly a carefully crafted work, prompting the audience to consider how Bey does something similar in the composition of his photograph.

“A Young Couple in Prospect Park (being, together)” took shape as a series of connected duets. The dancers wore comfortable street clothing, and the choreographic and visual aesthetic of the piece drew from musical theater and popular dance of the African diaspora, blending them with classical modern dance vocabulary, again echoing the down-to-earth realism melded with classical portraiture in Bey’s image. Over the course of the fifteen minute performance, as the couples emerged from and then faded back into the ensemble, the audience was shifted into Bey’s photographer’s perspective. As the gaze moved from one couple to the next, shared private moments came into focus and became public. Individuals stepped forward to represent the collective. The piece ended where it began, with a focus upon and a duet between the central couple who were the first to take the stage.

Speaking after the performance, Brown said each of the duets evolved through collaboration with a different choreographer. Rather than a collage or anthology, however, “A Young Couple in Prospect Park (being, together)” felt like a single, coherent picture or narrative. Brown deftly wove the variability of its gestural vocabulary into a cohesive whole anchored by Bey’s image of a young Black couple embracing. By creating a new context where Bey’s photograph is at the center of artistic work by a diverse collective, the performance quite literally pulled Black art and Black experience in from the margins where it is too often relegated in traditional museum settings. Further, the performance offered a compelling demonstration of how, by collaborating to educate and engage new audiences, artists and flagship cultural organizations in the city can mutually benefit one another.

The dancers all delivered technically strong and professional-quality performances, and the organizers and production team matched their professionalism. The performance was free, but registration was required. Pre-event communication via the registration platform was timely and informative, with details about how to get to the venue, what to expect and where to park on arrival, and even day-of notification about weather and plans in the event of rain. As the audience arrived at Fort McPherson, directions and signage were clear. It was easy to park, and the venue was accessible for patrons with disabilities, with ample seating. Ushers greeted audience members as they entered the performance space. These may seem like minor details and are often treated as afterthoughts. For an event intended to be inclusive and accessible to the broadest possible audience, though, such thoughtful touches really can make attendance easier and help everyone to feel welcome.

Given the overall quality of the production, the lack of a program, even an online program, was a significant omission. The dancers and crew deserve public acknowledgement for their good work. Nonetheless, the event was otherwise thoughtfully executed, drawing a diverse and enthusiastic audience, and it was disappointing that the rain cut short what promised to be an engaging post-show conversation.

Komansé and ADAMA staged and filmed the first Permanent show, “EW, SN,” in March at the High Museum, with the film premiere in July. “A Young Couple in Prospect Park (being, together)” definitely built on that success. According to Dr. Fahamu Pecou, ADAMA’s founder and director, Permanent project has another film release scheduled for early in 2022. If future contributions from the Permanent project are as well-done as this one, Permanent has the potential to expand the audience for dance and movement based art in Atlanta and enrich how Atlantans engage with our city’s art and cultural heritage collections.

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