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IMPRESSIONS: nia love in "UNDERcurrents" at Harlem Stage

IMPRESSIONS: nia love in "UNDERcurrents" at Harlem Stage
Cecly Placenti

By Cecly Placenti
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Published on May 24, 2023
Paula Lobo

Choreographer/Director/Performer: nia love
Movement Collaborators: j. bouey, Cyan Hunter, Lela Aisha Jones, Makeda-Lily Love-Roney, marco farroni Leopoldo, Jesse Phillips-Fein, Diana Uribe, Jessica Ziegler
Composer: Antoine Roney
Musical Collaborators: Kojo Melche Roney, Emanuel Ruffler, Jeremiah Kal’ab
Additional Sound: Conch Shell Invocation by Coni Lewis Lopez; Quotes from Undrowned by Alexis Pauline Gumbs; Poem by Kamau Braithwaite; The End of a Love Affair by Billie Holiday; Petal of a Rose by Duke Ellington
Video: Rhonda Haynes, Aidan Un

Performance Date: May 5, 2023

Choreographer nia love doesn’t merely create dances, she designs experiences.

Walking into the theater at Harlem Stage, audiences are immersed in a sensory adventure. Sounds of gurgling water drift through the space. Projected images of whales float across sheer curtains that billow from the ceiling. Serene blue lighting and the ebb and flow of ocean waves along the floor establishes a deep-sea environment. UNDERcurrents, the newest iteration of love’s multi-year performance research project g1a9host):lostatsea, continues her deep dive into embodied memory, Blackness, and healing, using water as metaphor and vehicle. The Harlem Stage Gatehouse, originally a pivotal source of freshwater distribution to New York City within the Croton Aqueduct system, is an ideal venue for love’s investigation.

Photo by Paula Lobo

The cast enters the space one at a time in an undulating line. A long passage with the audience on two sides, the stage corrals the performers as they drift. Suddenly, they erupt into whirling turns and careening jumps, diving under curtains and gathering in a protective clump. As love explores what remains of the Middle Passage in her ancestral memory, she carves a substantial path with much to ponder. Presenting her research through a movement medium allows love the opportunity for abstraction, offering audiences a chance to connect to images, feeling states, and ideas in a non-linear way.

love does not undergo this research alone. Performers j. bouey, Cyan Hunter, Lela Aisha Jones, Makeda-Lily Love-Roney, marco farroni Leopoldo, Jesse Phillips-Fein, Diana Uribe and Jessica Ziegler find their own connection to history. Their movements, at times solemn and at times unrestrained, successfully conjure universal emotional states. With a blend of improvisation and structured choreography, UNDERcurrents conveys a sense of buoyancy, as if the performers are caught in a shifting tide between calm and turbulence.

Through movement, text and projection, UNDERcurrents asks audiences to examine how they conceptualize and envision the history of slavery in America. Usually focused on land-based models emphasizing plantation life, love highlights what came before. The performers pull, push, and roll each other in the hanging fabric like bodies in a shipwreck, emphasizing water’s destructive aspect. They blow bubbles into bowls and skitter on their knees, diving low and rising to force air out of their mouths as if from blowholes. 

Photo by Paula Lobo

Close to two hours in length, UNDERcurrents is, at times, too stimulating.  Musicians Kojo Melche Roney, Emanuel Ruffler and Jeremiah Kal’ab improvise at a painfully loud volume. This ongoing auditory assault, perhaps designed to invoke suffering and to desensitize viewers, depicts water as a tool of violence. As slaves were transported across the Atlantic, the ocean became a repository of bodies. Pain was at every turn. Audiences, surrounded by constantly shifting images and a wall of deafening sound, are confined like human cargo on a slave ship.

Photo by Paula Lobo

However, UNDERcurrents is not all darkness. love honors both the heaviness and the light held within her ancestral memories, accentuating the restorative properties of water. In a gorgeously elastic solo, dancer Marco Farroni rotates and extends in surprising ways. His long limbs ripple like liquid and he seems to evaporate and collect everywhere at once. A map, showing tiny bubble of light emanating from Africa that extends to the Americas and the Caribbean appears on one of the screens. The bubbles, represented by tiny hand-held lights that the performers manipulate and attach to their clothing, spread out to fill the space as they slide them across the floor. The performers hand audience members their own orbs and invite them to participate. These points of light jostle and gather in random configurations, illustrating community, safety, and new beginnings. 

Photo by Paula Lobo

A giant wooden frame is brought onto the stage. The performers position themselves inside the glassless square in a series of familial tableaus. Costumes of sparkling spandex are replaced by 19th-century dress and the portraits morph to illustrate the passing of time. Set to the music of Billy Holiday and Duke Ellington, love leaves us with a conclusion: from the history of a people transported and enslaved, a future of hope and resilience grows. Just below the surface of our own realities, our collective past is calling, asking us to dive in.

Photo by Paula Lobo

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