Spelman dance professor T. Lang may be accustomed to spending a lot of time on her feet, but she says she was grateful for the couch in front of Kara Walker’s work at the High Museum. She jokingly refers to it as “the fainting couch.”
“I was taken aback,” Lang says of her first encounter with Walker’s 58-foot-long monumental cut-paper silhouette, “The Jubilant Martyrs Of Obsolescence And Ruin,” last October when the High unveiled its installation of the recent acquisition. “It’s a lot to digest. It goes beyond what you think you see. I’m glad that couch was there. You can just sit and be with your thoughts for a moment. It’s mesmerizing and overwhelming.”
Chances are Lang isn’t the only one who’s been grateful for the couch. In response to the Confederate Memorial carved in the side of Stone Mountain, Walker depicts nightmarish scenes of racially charged violence and degradation that confront the viewer with the dark side of American history.
“I had this interest in the gestures,” Lang says. “Something about the palms, the fingers, the toes, the back, the mouth. The gestures are amplified in the silhouettes. It’s unsettling. But there’s humor inside of it. They’re shadows. They’re silhouettes. There’s no light on them. It addresses exploitation in America with brutal honesty. It really touches on what has colonized your own imagination. It stuck with me, the content, the courage, the audacity.”
Inspired by Walker’s work, Lang is creating a new dance piece, “A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now.” It will be performed each evening from May 22-24 in the Richard Meier-designed Robinson Atrium of the High Museum, and viewers will be invited to visit Walker’s work on the top floor before and after the show. The performance itself will take place in what has become one of Lang’s signature set pieces, a giant cube surrounded by semi-transparent scrim fabric onto which light and images can be projected.
At a dance rehearsal in The Movement Lab, Lang’s new studio in Atlanta’s historic West End neighborhood, the synergy between the two artists seems clear. Lang’s movement incorporates a number of different styles, from the dainty gracefulness of ballet to the robust groundedness of African dance. Her attention to detail is intense. Like Walker, she focuses on outline, form, line and gesture. “What I’m missing is the shoulders,” she instructs one of her dancers. The silhouettes from Walker’s work can seem to have suddenly popped to life. And as in Walker’s work, a complicated, unsettled sense of traumatic history hovers over everything.
Lang’s movement style isn’t easy to perform. During a short break, her dancers for the new work — Keri Garret, Aryanna Allen, Monique Wimby — lie flat on their backs, sweating and catching their breath on the floor.
“I’m always looking for a sense of grit, a sense of sophisticated line that can be deconstructed at will, that allows the body to reveal vulnerability without shame,” says Lang, who will perform briefly in the work alongside her dancers. “I look for movers who are in tune with, not just my voice giving the note, but with the whisper of their own intuition. I want dancers to connect with the audience so the audience can literally and figuratively see themselves inside of all of this. Perfectionism has to go out the window.”
For Lang, rehearsal of the work in her new space has been a significant milestone. Lang (the “T” in her stage name stands for her given name Tracy) has been an associate professor and founding department chair of dance at Spelman College since 2008, but she’s long sought a space in Atlanta to develop her own work as an independent artist. “I wanted to set up my space in a historic neighborhood that was already providing a richness that would inspire me,” she says. After a multi-year search, she moved into her West End studio earlier this year. “It was a perfect location, perfect energy.”
The Movement Lab is also open to the community as a multidisciplinary space to support the endeavors of black entrepreneurial women and their allies. When Lang and her company aren’t rehearsing, the former storefront located near the Beltline is being used for everything from meditation classes and musical performances to tech talks and Afrofuturism book club meetings.
The new work’s title, “A Graveyard Duet,” has its origins in a visit Lang took with Spelman English professor Michelle Hite to Atlanta’s South View Cemetery, Georgia’s oldest African-American cemetery where many prominent black Atlantans are buried. Lang choreographed a short solo there, and the location and its historical resonance changed the way she thinks about her work. “It almost felt ritualistic, a departure from how I usually choreograph and perform,” she says. “It was like having a beautiful intimate dance with your ancestor that you evoked and called forth to help you heal and carry on.”
“Graveyard Duet,” like Lang’s other works, is slated to have many iterations. Her recent “Post Up” series of dances consisted of many different performances around Atlanta, including one at the High Museum, between 2014 and 2017. “I like that pace of determining when the work is complete, determining when it’s fresh and new, having that ownership and authority.” she says. “I know this is going to have many lives. I know there are plenty of ancestors and calls to action inside this work.”
Lang hopes “Graveyard Duet” prompts viewers to ask difficult questions about American history without the pressure of seeking immediate answers. “I want the audience to be provoked and agitated,” she says. “For this work, my aim is for all of us to walk away interrogating our emotional response to what we saw, questioning why we felt what we felt.”
‘A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now.’ Presented by T. Lang Dance. 8:45 p.m. May 22-24. (Free sneak preview for museum members, 8:45 p.m. May 21.) $14.50. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.
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