Passion, Grief, and Goddesses in ‘sanctuaries and fortresses’

As rain poured down on the metallic roof of The Bakery, a warehouse-turned-art space in southwest Atlanta, Anicka Austin’s dancers mirrored the sound and moved with a strong sense of purpose. In sanctuaries and fortresses, each placement of a limb, every footstep on the cardboard flooring and achingly slow backbend, was deliberate in its timing and motion. The audience sat in chairs on four sides of the dance floor, their faces illuminated for the entire performance. The centered light, although muted by a plastic covering, captured every reaction and shift of audience members in their seats. The evening reflected a year-long project entitled Sunday Mornings at 7, which included this performance, and the development of an experimental film and a digital educational tool.

Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon

Subtitled as “an evening-length disco ballet,” sanctuaries and fortresses hurtled the audience into another world, complete with glitter and sequins and occasional nudity. In silence, the work opened with Bella Dorado entered wearing a nude bra and a long, fitted red skirt. While Dorado walked slowly to the center of the dance floor with a slow, rhythmic pacing that emphasized each stride. Her skirt twisted and resisted her movement, obviously restricting her, and displaying the curves of her body. With her shaved head, visible tattoos, and glitter shimmering on her neck, eyelids, and lips, Dorado was stunning. The music began with a pulsing bass while she rearranged her skirt, alternating between slow, precise movement, and broken and distressed shifts of weight and angled limbs

Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon

The most striking moment of her solo was a virtuosic backbend, her body arching extremely slow to a high-pitched note. Her chest embraced the pink and yellow-hued light while her face stayed calm and turned upward as if sunbathing. Dorado then bourreed around the edges of the floor, hiking up her skirt and displaying red sequined underwear. She ended in the center and stripped off her skirt, gaining even more confidence and assurance. After many expanding releases with audible breathing and repeated backbends, Dorado returned to her slow walk; her footsteps no longer restricted by the tight fabric. She was calm and accepting of the music and the space, her movements spiritual and sensual.

With a loud, pounding walk, a second dancer dressed in a blue jumpsuit entered the space, breaking up the peaceful vibes with expansive, thrashing movements. While other dancers entered, also dressed in blue jumpsuits, Dorado sunk to the ground, bowing to the first dancer in blue. With fast turns and spastic jumps, the dancers sometimes felt alien and animalistic. Other times, such as when the live cellist began a haunting tune and the dancers’ movements became exhaustive, their sweat shining and visibly dripping, they were glaringly human.

Sharon C. Carelock, one of the dancers in blue, embraced both human and animalistic aspects of her character. During one painfully uncomfortable moment, she smacked her chest hard enough to emit a loud sound. She gathered energy from the ground, her top exposing her stomach and bottom of her breasts while she pounded her chest, before releasing the tension back into the ground. She stopped suddenly with her forearms and knees carrying her weight, shaking violently. The pulsating was sexual and violent, and her head pulled inward toward her chest evoked a feeling of mourning.

In the background, the dancers in blue broke out from their choreography to lift Dorado in a fetal position. Forcing her to stand, they placed her in the center facing the audience and began stripping her slowly, eventually leaving her nude. Before this interaction, the dancers in blue didn’t feel at all connected to the soloist. Their movement was so different from hers, and she mainly sat and watched the dancers in blue rather than integrating her character into their scene. After dropping her bra and underwear on the ground, the dancers wrapped the red skirt that originally bound Dorado’s legs around her head and face. I felt as if I were suffocating while they wrapped her tightly, forcing her into anonymity, her final image ending as only a nude body. After Dorado’s face and neck were fully covered, the dancers led her offstage. The underwear and bra sat defeated in the center, reminding the audience of the intimate scene we had witnessed.

Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon

With a startling contrast to this image, Hez Stalcup entered wearing a metallic suit. Glitter in his hair caught the light while he walked slowly, stopping to strike disco-esque poses, acting too cool for school. After throwing Dorado’s underwear off stage, he jammed out to live music: drums, guitar, and a singer. The other dancers, except for Dorado, re-entered wearing neutral colors or sparkling red, and joined Hez in the disco. Complete with break-out solos, dance circles, and flashing neon light installations, the scene had a total disco feel. While it was certainly fun and entertaining, at some points the dancers seemed to force their smiles and disco pointing. Some of the motifs from the opening were repeated, including the gestures with the hands close to the face, and circular arm motions; this time the exhaustion came from joyful dancing rather than violent movement. The repetition effectively showed the contrast and hinted at the opening, but I still did not quite feel the connection between the sections, and felt that the dance party went on a bit too long. The live music helped keep the audience present, and the musicians and singer effectively fed off the energy of the dancers, and vice versa. I wondered if the scene would have felt more energetic if the musicians had been more integrated into the movement?

Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon

The dance party eventually died down, leaving dancer Indya Childs alone, staggering out of her jam session. When the dancers, excluding Stalcup or Dorado, returned, a few of them had cage-like contraptions circling their waists and chests. In this closing section, the dancers utilized weight sharing to move across the floor while a new soloist, Jennifer Cara Clark, initiated movement from her limps and long, flailing motions. Clark was dressed in a red sequined jumpsuit mimicking the underwear in Dorado’s opening solo. The stomach of Clark’s jumpsuit was cut out, which made me think that the underwear was physically created from her outfit. Clark repeated the slow, arching back-bends from the beginning, but they were hesitant, and she seemed scared of the light, rather embracing it like Dorado.

Childs, dressed in nude colors, and Rebecca Pleasant-Patterson, dressed in all black, faced off as if battling each other. While Childs and Pleasant-Patterson shared an intimidating duet, the others stripped Carelock violently of her cage and her shirt while she laughed maniacally. When they finished, she remained in only a nude thong. This stripping was harsh and forced, in comparison to the stripping of Dorado that was slow and deliberate. I wondered if they were preparing Carelock for death, perhaps represented by Pleasant-Patterson. This ending section had a lot happening at once and on it’s own, could be slowed down and crafted into a totally different evening-length piece.

Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon

The final image, the dancers holding their hands up in the air, waiting to be kissed, was strong and demonstrated the other-worldly queens the dancers came to embody. Their journey seemed to take them from violence and hesitancy to confidence and assurance, but I never quite understood how they got from point A to point B. Each section felt isolated from the next. I kept waiting for Dorado to reappear, wondering if she had a relationship to Stalcup and the disco dancers, and eventually realizing that scene was completely separate. Although it was clear that the dancers had definitely discovered something, perhaps their own self-love, I didn’t feel as though I had followed them all the way through. However, the standing ovation from the audience seemed to say that others had, and found the journey meaningful and cathartic. After over an hour of witnessing these dancers bear their souls, bodies, and desires on the dance floor of an abandoned warehouse, the audience was eager to bow down to them.

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