Feels Like Home

Reach out, touch me: Journey/Sanctuary

The gymnasium-size studio at the Nancy Hauser Dance School is bustling with activity. A group of singers are attempting dance steps, gamely trying to emulate the serpentine hip movements of their director, Djola Branner. "Work it, work it!" calls out a member of the peanut gallery, inspiring peals of laughter. Nearby, a pack of dancers are practicing text, seeking the ideal pitch and emphasis, training their voices with an intensity usually reserved for tuning their bodies. Three young girls are shimmying, their demeanor a preadolescent mixture of shaky confidence and self-conscious preoccupation. People are coming and going, eating their dinners, giving instructions, talking on cell phones. It's a loose, happy group of artists and onlookers making an altogether joyful noise on a Friday night.

Rehearsals for Journey/Sanctuary (The Gospel Project), commissioned by Walker Art Center and premiering this weekend at the Southern Theater, are anything but routine. Whenever some 40 performers of all ages, talents, and backgrounds come together in the same room, the atmosphere is bound to crackle with creativity and chaos. It's up to jazz/modern choreographer Cathy Young, multidisciplinary artist Mary Moore Easter, gospel singer Robert Robinson, and interdisciplinary artist Branner to shape this pageant of humanity into a coherent performance that explores the big issues--race, faith, perseverance, hope--without settling for easy answers. "People in this show are going to reexamine their assumptions about each other. This is about something bigger than themselves." says Young, whose dance troupe alone has doubled in size for the project.

Branner's commanding voice summons the masses into the center of the room. It's time for "crowd control," he cracks, and as he explains the evening's work schedule, the dancers and singers (members of Robinson's Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir) settle into their positions. "Hold out, don't give up, help is on the way," the vocalists pronounce while a multicultural mélange of dancers attack the swirling jazz and African-influenced movement.

Robinson strolls through the middle, a calm figure maneuvering through the maelstrom. From the front of the stage he begins to sing, the words pouring forth sweet and full. Robinson's sister Sandy, who later sings a cappella to the dance accompaniment of Toni Pierce-Sands, showcases the same spiritual quality. It's a talent the entire Robinson clan doubtless gleaned from a childhood spent listening to their father, a pastor at He Is Risen Church in north Minneapolis.

Transcending adversity is the central theme of Journey/Sanctuary, and in this mode, the piece initially focuses on Young's and Robinson's personal histories. "The thing that got me into dancing was African and jazz dance," explains Young, who began her career in Boston. "I was always the white dancer in a room full of black people." According to Robinson, "Cathy was a woman trying to pursue dance that white people didn't do. A lot of people would say she should go to the classical side."

Though these artists worked in significantly different milieus, Young's awkward experiences remind Robinson of his own history organizing his choir. At the auditions, Robinson says, he "expected the room to be full of black people. But there were more white people than I ever thought there would be. I feel God was opening my eyes to the fact that we all have something that someone else wants to tap into."

Easter, a professor of dance and African-American studies at Carleton College, is the work's storyteller and unifying force. For inspiration, she used Young and Robinson's shared experiences of transforming intimidation into triumph. "They were facing the same things," she explains. "Cultural attitudes in this country prevented them from going places that felt like home, yet they went anyway."

Easter credits Branner for sparking the "vocal imaginations" of the dancers, engaging them to use "their voices with the same kind of nuance [with which] they use their bodies." Adds Branner of his task, "Some [of the dancers] were terrified of speaking and moving, but I insisted on it. This is an ensemble, and I need to hear every voice, even if it's just a word. I made them sing, though I'm sure they went home and cussed me out!"

Young agrees that everyone in the cast has to do something uncomfortable, citing as an example the performance of virtuosic Afro-Caribbean dancer Morris Johnson, whose solo exclusively uses hand gestures. But her bigger concern is the overall interpretation of the work, particularly the issues surrounding race. "My biggest nightmare is the 'appropriation' word," she explains. "That's one of the reasons I wanted these collaborators. I can't tell someone else's story; I can only tell the stories I know. However, we all understand grief, joy, hope, desire."

Easter expands upon the idea, describing conversations early on in the rehearsal process: "We talked about race and cultural appropriation. I don't mean that we settled it, but we talked about who has the right to do certain work. There is a big history of taking and using the artifacts of black culture without acknowledgment. Cathy doubled her company with black people, which is a big achievement in the Upper Midwest! She's acknowledging the authenticity and source of the material."

Another concern for the collaborators is the use of gospel music in the work, a form traditionally performed within a church setting. "We're taking risks here," observes Young, acknowledging that some people could be offended by the secular integration of the music. "We are interpreting faith in a broader sense, so it's not a specifically Christian work." Branner says that the artists have been "conscious of how we present images and language so it does not alienate the audience. I know Robert has questions about some of our choices, how we've aligned a contemporary song with a spiritual, but he's going along with it."

As for Robinson himself, he is certain that the message of the music is only enhanced by the dance and storytelling elements. "I'm an individual who does everything from the heart, and I've been watching these dancers for six weeks expressing their hearts and souls," he explains. "I have confidence as an artist that people who aren't accustomed to this will feel a level of comfort. Anybody who walks in with any stereotypes will leave without them."

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