Years ago when I was working for the SC Arts Commission in the performing arts arena, I had a strong understanding of theatre and a basic one of music but I always struggled with dance, especially my ability to articulate what contemporary dance performances are about, what they mean and how they made me feel. I came to realize that I simply wanted more context before I saw a contemporary dance performance.
Over the next three weeks, I am going to tackle the challenge of explaining who Jasper Dance Artist of the Year, Terrance Henderson, is and what you should know about the upcoming premiere of his contemporary performance piece, “The Black Man… Complex” as part of the new Trustus Theatre and Jasper Magazine’s “Premieres” series. His performances are at 8 p.m. August 20 and 22 in the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus Theatre. For those who don’t know Terrance, among other things he was the winner of the 2009 Bronze Leo Award for Outstanding Jazz Dance Choreography at the Jazz Dance World Congress in Chicago and the only South Carolinian to ever win the award.
Terrance grew up in Newberry SC and took part in an after school theatre program there, eventually spending some time in Minneapolis at age 15 (when he didn’t get into the SC Governor’s School for the Arts) working in a program produced by the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis. It was in Minneapolis when he learned about public transit, i.e. how to ride a city bus. He also realized that being Southern was “something different.” He always thought he would become an actor and eventually enrolled at the University of South Carolina as an undergraduate in the theatre department. He also decided to take some dance classes there and dance instructors saw that he had potential. And the ability to do both theatre and dance started somewhat of a struggle. At USC, the theatre department thought he was more of a dancer and the dance department thought he was more of an actor. Obvious to Terrance, however, was that he would never make a living in ballet with a body that just didn’t fit in to that world.
I am hoping that people who do know Terrance’s work locally, and who have him pegged as a choreographer of musicals and dance pieces, a dancer and an actor/singer and a uniquely innate dance and movement teacher, see this work and think of him in a new way. Terrance says he sometimes has a difficult time maintaining his own artistic identity because as a choreographer he often works under a director and is part of that dream, not necessarily being able to affirm his own dream. But in this dream he is the sole creator.
The Voice and early snippets of this premiere
Ten years ago Terrance was participating in a text to movement class at the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston, Maine where he had a profound out of body experience brought on by his grief from the death of his grandmother. Through this experience, it became clear to him that as an artist he had permission, the responsibility and the talent to be a catalyst for change. In about 2006, he began to keep a journal where he wrote down his private thoughts about the world around him, specifically tied to who he was and how his role in society was manifested. Much of the text of the premiere comes from this journal. In 2011 the initial concepts of The Black Man…Complex began sparked by Terrance’s invitation to be a guest artist with a repertory company at the Rogue Festival in Fresno, California. Here, he presented a ten-minute duet called “Two Brothers.” The following year he applied to be a part of the festival and created another short piece called “A Hole in My Bucket.” These were the initial works that became part of this larger Columbia premiere.
I am always intrigued by why artists choose to create the work they do and the process of creation, how things begin and when an artist knows when to put the brakes on the initial creation process and just present their work.
Since this work is his own personal journey capturing his thoughts about his identity and how he participates in the acceptance of that identity, he calls upon all of his skills as a singer, actor, dancer, writer and poet to create “the voice” that drives the piece. The entire work is actually ten separate pieces but he most likely will not present all of them …yet. As far as the actual production (which is one act without an intermission) Terrance formally describes it as “A tapestry of movement, sound and images incorporating original text and choreography with a wide variety of music.” The performers are Mario McLean, Jabar Hankins, Kendrick Marion, Jonathan Smith, Sam McWhite and Henderson. With sections of the piece including titles like “A Farewell to Obligation,” “We Are The Sons of Misunderstanding" and “Naked Soul and My Feet,” it might seem driven by an episodic narrative but Terrance insists that in order to work audiences must be moved by the whole tapestry and that its success will lie in its feeling inherently organic, never like a “show.”
I am somewhat guilty in trying to assign meaning and motivation to everything artistic and creative and I beg Terrance to tell me whether this work is a tension filled angst ridden work informed by his being a black man growing up in the South but he simply won’t go there and says it’s not about black or white or color. I am curious and excited to see how his voice interprets inequality, racism, homophobia and the struggle of the black man … on some level, things that are part of my own understanding of being a Southerner.
The Experience for Me
The original audiences who saw the first shorter incarnations of the work in California were audiences used to understanding avant garde performances and original works. Terrance hopes that the content of this first Southern premiere will be even more meaningful to the audience who should identify with that aspect of the work that West Coast audience may not have understood. But I ask him if I going to feel uncomfortable watching the performance. Without missing a beat, he says that because he embraces and respects the power of art, he takes his responsibility as a human and creator very serious and that “comfortable” or “uncomfortable” are not concepts that enter the creative process. In this instance, it’s not his job to entertain but to awaken.
Original work is something that I have always been interested in and have participated in as a writer, director and actor. One of the major reasons for presenting this work is that Trustus wants to become more aggressive in presenting new live work eventually branding it as part of the Trustus identity. The challenges are many from engaging an audience to participate to figuring out what the next steps are once a piece is performed or executed.
Where do we go from here?
After each performance there will be a facilitated discussion with the audience about the work so that Terrance can get constructive feedback to help mold the next performance. He does not see this performance as the end of the work but hopes to get some great footage and submit it to other places to allow him to continue to grow the piece.
There is nothing more fun than to sit in a room of artists and talk about who has influenced their work the most. Terrance remembers seeing Alvin Ailey who he saw on the Phil Donahue show as a kid which was the first time he saw black dancers. He also gives the utmost respect to Cindy Flack of the USC Department of Theatre and Dance; Marc Joseph Bamuthi of The Living Word Project; choreographer, dancer, theater director and writer Bill T. Jones and Kris Cangelosi, Artistic Director of the Cangelosi Dance Project, who he says made it a possible for him to have a career in dance. But he does admit that his spiritual guru is Nina Simone, the high priestess of soul. My gut feeling is that we will hear her voice in this show alongside his. I hope so.
Part II - coming soon