IMPRESSIONS: Johnnie Cruise Mercer's “Revival 2023” at 92NY
Director/Choreographer: Johnnie Cruise Mercer
Movement Artist/Performers: Brooke Rucker, Paulina Meneses, Alicia R Morales, Alicia Dellimore, Jordan Brookins, Erykah Jenins, J Beardsley, Abigail Linnemeyer, Yolette Yellow-Duke, Luyan Li (Lili), Bria Bacon, with performances by youth movement artists from The Appomattox Regional Governor’s School of the Arts and Technology and Brooklyn Prospect Charter High School
Featuring new music by: DJ Om-Amari and Young Denzel
Live Vocalist: Jay DeAmour
Vocal Score: Johnnie Cruise Mercer and Monstah Black
Writers: Brooke Rucker, Paulina Meneses, Alicia R Morales, Alicia Dellimore and Bria Bacon
Lighting & Production Design/Stage Management: Vamir // Make-Up Design: Kyrstal Collins
Creative Manager: Abigail Linnemeyer // Company Assistant: Holly Trentbath
Presenter: 92NY Harkness Dance Center
[Cover image: Bria Bacon with Brooke Rucker, Paulina Meneses, Erykah Jenkins, Luyan Li (Lili), Yolette Yellow-Duke, Abigail Linnemeyer, J Beardsley, Jordan Brookins, and Alicia Dellimore]
I showed up at Johnnie Cruise Mercer’s Revival 2023 expecting to see a performance, perhaps even to bear witness to an experience. I did not expect to be moved to participate in a ritual of physical and spiritual community building. This interactive format is no small undertaking, as the attempt to break the proscenium’s fourth wall is often where participatory projects can stumble in theatrical concert settings. This, however, is no concert — this is a revival. And those assembled are active, willing participants, not mere spectators or consumers.
Revival 2023 is the fruit of genuine artist, audience, youth, and community engagement paired with an abiding tenor of joy. It is the embodiment of its central parable: planted seed, nourishing rain, and abundant harvest. As a ritual, it is tenderly moving and immensely rewarding. And as a dance, it is as liberated as it is finely crafted.
Mercer’s methods and processes as a creative leader and educator are clearly apparent in the balance of structure and freedom within each artist’s movement and the stage composition as a whole. Each dancer moves with a fullness of investment that can only come from a place of shared personal passion and shared commitment, and the effect is thrilling. The cast moves like they’ve talked together, played together, laughed and perhaps even cried together; they move as whole individuals and as mutually supportive communities.
The evening’s opener, sowing a mustard seed; the sounds of heaven, showcases eleven professional dancers, five of whom will somehow catch their breath to sing a vocal score following their ecstatic dance. The house lights dim to the sound of organ and voice in the African American gospel revival tradition, quickly morphing through DJ Om-Amari's beats and mixes, leading off with Beyoncé’s 2022 anthem “Break My Soul.” One by one, dancers begin to pop up from the audience, loping through the aisles to sit casually on the lip of the stage. With a subtle bop of their heads they fix their gazes directly on us, the audience they came from, inviting us in as they rise to take the stage.
TheRedProjectNYC's movement artists; photo by Richard Tremine
The dancers warm up into their bodies before our eyes with an easy jog, occasionally offering themselves to support or be held. Small conversations and games of tag bubble up, their bodies shifting, feinting, questioning, and relishing moments of rest. Mercer’s choreography and direction give just enough structure and visual interest to the melee, with small groupings, wide bounding circles, intimate flocking patterns, and bursts of unison that are more viscerally felt than meticulously shaped. Trios traverse the stage, arising and dissolving with simple, graphic gestures: outstretched arms waving, legs tracing subtle arcs, raised hands reaching with fingers splayed in earnest.
Luyan Li (Lili) and Erykah Jenkins; photo by Richard Tremine
Throughout, a continuously shifting mix of pop music, instrumental and electronic interludes, and snippets of speeches by Black artists and thought leaders echo and support the driving air of possibility that emanates from the dancers. At times the sounds of marching steps ground the disparate movements in the group, the loose freedom of their self-assured bodies bolstered by the shared beat. By the end, we can almost feel the dancers’ heartbeats in their heaving breaths and openmouthed smiles.
Young artists from the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School of the Arts; photo by Richard Termine
This outpouring of movement seems boundless, as if perpetually renewed by the act of exertion. The dancers climb down from the stage to take their seats among us as the curtain lowers. Five performers remain, mic stands (and well-deserved water bottles) appearing in front of each. What happens next is a feat of intimacy and generosity: Mercer introduces and leads an a capella vocal arrangement drawn from Pastor William McDowell’s contemporary gospel album “Sound of Revival.” The five artists begin to sing in soft unison, building and layering harmonies, overlapping spoken phrases to weave a clear and tender melodic tapestry.
Mercer pauses, turning to face us — it’s time to learn our part. The performers pick up their melodies again, and on Mercer’s cue every voice in the auditorium (your critic’s included) rises to complete the song. As I sing I am reminded of the delicacy of my voice and its power when joined in a collective. A palpable sense of focus fills the air as Mercer conducts us through a swelling crescendo to a whispered closing, by which time I feel one breath all around me.
Bria Bacon and Erykah Jenkins; photo by Richard Termine
With the revival atmosphere in full effect, when gods descend on earthly bodies opens with a solo by the quietly powerful Bria Bacon, whose sweeping gestures and loose limbed leaps stir magic from within. A shadow chorus of three dancers expresses warring emotions as Bacon’s spirit moves through a journey of languid falls and labored recoveries. This offering brings a sense of scale to its message by toggling between solo and small group movements, its emotional arc leaving us just shy of closure.
Mercer next introduces us to an extraordinary group of high schoolers in to reap, to rock, to shout! This is a full scale celebration that buzzes with the raucous energy of youth set loose on a stage. The dancers are clearly at varying stages of training and development, though this only adds to their expressive individuality and shared exuberance. They look perfectly themselves, dressed comfortably in their own clothes that range from cozy athleisure to jeans and tees to sparkly prom dresses. Like any high school dance, some are self conscious, some unabashed, but their energy is contagious. Mercer deploys similar techniques to manage the group’s movements, arranging legible gestures and simple patterns for pairs, trios, and unisons to give shape to the rise and fall of live vocalist Jay DeAmor’s smooth stylings over a Daft Punk soundtrack.
The evening closes to selections from McDowell’s album in to those who have seed in the ground. Mercer weaves an impassioned solo for himself, sculpting gestures with incremental breadth and breaking loose into a run up and down the auditorium’s aisles. The sincerity of his open face and expressive form are undeniably captivating, and it’s hard not to feel his breath as he calls the young dancers to join him on stage for a final celebration of their project. I struggle to stay in my seat as he leads the group to a rousing conclusion. I leave the theater feeling full, exhausted, and above all, revived.