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Barney Yates


Mimi Garrard Dance Company presented "Mimi Garrard and Marcus Jarell Willis," a program of live dance and video, November 11, 2018 at New York Live Arts, where I had previously covered Ms. Garrard in a collaboration with dancer Austin Selden. Contrasting with that performance, which sent me musing on its abstractionism, this one sent me wondering about the nature of a piece's concept and its fulfillment. I will try and explain.

Willis has been an eight-year member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and dancer and choreographer for Ailey II. He is currently choreographing a work for the Juilliard dancers. The program featured the U.S. premiere of "Travelling Man," choreographed and performed by Willis, which had its world premiere recently at the Cardiff, Wales festival. Willis also performed "I Celebrate Myself" (world premiere) by Garrard, a piece inspired by "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman. There were also "Beyond Reach," composed and performed by Willis, and "Gaslight" parts 1 and 3, with Willis dancing in videos that were a reaction to the 2016 presidential election, holding a mirror up to our shared grief. These (philosophically speaking) caught my attention the most.  The evening's direction, sound and video were by Garrard.

Marcus Jarrell Willis and projections by Mimi Garrard. Photo by Andrew Williams.

Throughout the evening, there was an impressive mesh of live dance with computer-generated imagery. "Beyond Reach" (music by Richard Goode) and the "Gaslight" segments (music by Jonathan Melville Pratt) communicated a great sense of trauma. The evening, collectively-speaking, was an introspective social commentary by an Everyman. Willis' first entrance, with its gestures of agony, set the theme: a man aims to proceed in some direction but is repeatedly stymied. Is it external forces or internal ones that are setting him back? He goes forward, then retreats, watching himself. We see daring, then fear. That's the human condition, I think to myself: this Everyman seems to be watching his own mind. There is an expressive inner state and (pardon the expression) powerful acting here.

In the world premiere, "I Celebrate Myself" (direction, camera, editing and music by Garrard), Willis sings the titular message in a projection on the screen while dancing before it live. In come the fractal images we have learned to expect in Ms. Garrard's work. We get an image of a ball with multiple images of Willis. They are animated and rotating. He rolls on the stage and rises. Before multiple projections of himself he declares, "I am satisfied to sing, dance, laugh." I watch the digital art spin dizzyingly by and I am distracted from the Willis' simple message, because I am wondering, "How the hell did they do that?" Kaleidescopic images are a familiar visual idea, but multiple pixels of Willis arranged into a cone shape are certainly not.

The evening turns light-hearted with "Travelling Man" (2017, a US premiere). It opens with projections of a train (Jersey Transit) and ends in a pinspot circle that evokes (with a flashlight) the focus of a single headlight on the engine of a speeding train. Willis' striped pants evoke an engineer's classic striped hat. The dance is, well, fun and could have gone even higher in its joy and momentum. Direction, camera, editing and music are by Garrard.

The evening provides a real sense of trauma and of the issues weighing on all of us. I was drawn to meditate on how careful some people in our society have to be in dealing with the state of things since the 2016 election, and the horror of that. But playing grief alone in a work of performance seldom works. It doesn't work with Holocaust plays either: you have to get to the spirit of resistance to capture the tragedy. Where was, for example, in the context of 2016, the exhilaration of a possible first woman president, or the anger at the theft of an election? "Gaslight" has multiple parts. Maybe it could become an expanding series that could travel down tracks like these.

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