BACK IN HIGH school, the generic geography class seemed to bear little relation to the world outside my homeroom. Out-of-date maps, simplistic charts, and grainy filmstrips conveyed scant information about distant countries or their people (picture the always-bloated Greenland, seemingly posed for global conquest). High school was a small world, after all.
Choreographer Ralph Lemon, by contrast, was probably one of those pensive kids who drew faraway lands in the margins of his geography textbooks, imagining he'd visit them someday to get the true story. Now, at the age of 45, Lemon has indeed made many journeys, and he's created a career-defining dance-theater piece about bridging those cultures, aptly titled Geography. But this experiment in transcontinental understanding has mostly served to confound Lemon--so much so that he's defined the work as only the first part of a seven-year trilogy: a search for elusive common ground.
The multicultural jambalaya that is Geography, appearing Saturday at the State Theatre, combines Lemon's almost metaphysical modern-dance sensibility with a host of unexpected influences. Nuyorican poet Tracie Morris, Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky), Jamaican installation artist Nari Ward, and nine traditional African performers from the Groupe Ki-Yi M'bock (Guinea) and Ensemble Koteba (Cote d'Ivoire) all meet on the crossroads of the Geography stage. With the potential for aesthetic and cultural chaos present at every turn, it's no wonder that Lemon feels certain that whatever higher power (or superglue) is holding this convergence could dissolve at any moment.
"We want this to work," Lemon repeats like a mantra, in a phone call from New Haven, Connecticut, where Geography premiered. "But it really shouldn't work. In my history of making dances, there's always a certain amount of letting go, but there's a whole other life here, a continual energy. So we premiered? This still should not work!"
The premise of Geography seems simple enough, but where Lemon's choreography is concerned there's usually another, more opaque story: here, the physical space among the performers and the cultural distance between them. In this work, nine African men and two African Americans meet on the neutral territory of the stage. Morris's spoken words and Miller's sound score shape a story against Ward's stunning backdrop: over a thousand multicolored wine bottles hung as a shimmering screen.
Such a clean metaphor for diversity, though, would ignore the more complicated collisions of identity: the tensions and highs of human discourse that are refracted through the performance. "Because we're all black men there's a hint of sameness," says Lemon, whose own history begins in the Twin Cities, where he first studied dance with local pioneer Nancy Hauser. "But that's not the case. Carlos Funn is from Virginia; he's young, a hip-hop dancer. I'm almost twice his age, live in New York, and come from a completely Eurocentric dance tradition. The Africans speak another language altogether."
"What inspired me was the individual personalities of the dancers," says Morris, the Brooklyn-based writer, who spent much of Geography's evolution advising Lemon. "Ralph felt comfortable having me write for male voices. But these men are not performance poets. They're dancers, they articulate with the body, not the voice. A lot of time was spent adjusting to that reality."
Meanwhile, Miller, oft-characterized as originator of the illbient music scene, made adjustments of his own. While the cerebral and aurally dense DJ prefers to work alone, he was drawn to Lemon's sense of improvisation and musicality. And so he tapped his DAT and turntable-collage techniques to create a menu of sonic elements, including samples of "fractured Miles Davis" activated by dancers who trigger invisible sensors on stage. "I like the idea of people working at the edge of human perception," Miller says. "Their interactions will weave together a new song and it will be somewhat of a surprise because I have no idea how it will end up."
For Lemon, the work has already launched the artist into unimagined realms--taxing abilities he may not have known he had. While accustomed to being in charge--he ran a company for several years until disbanding in 1995--Lemon found he had to abandon his "control freak" tendencies in order to communicate with the cast. In other words, this practicing Buddhist discovered he had to be a little more Zen when it came to overcoming culture shock.
Now he's savoring the result, even if he's not sure he can totally trust it. "I had no idea what I was really inviting," Lemon admits. "I invited this other world in, and to try and have it fit the way I originally wanted it to was ridiculous."
Geography plays Saturday, November 15 at 8 p.m. at the State Theatre; call 375-7622 or 989-5151. For information on panels and workshops, call 375-7624.