It would have been an easy (and admittedly tempting) call to send a staff writer to the Guggenheim for last night’s installment of Red Bull Music Academy‘s month-long program. But there’s nothing easy about what Solange is shooting for in her run of museums; melding interpretive dance, music, and light into a piece deserving of its venue. So instead of throwing an unpracticed spectator into the stunning spirals of an acclaimed NYC institution, we summoned a pro. The keen eye of choreographer Jeffrey Page breaks down the show as only a student of movement could. His thoughts on Solange’s performance can be found below.
An all-white affair that included an audience of locs and Afros and braids and bodies of diverse shapes and colors gathered at New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on May 18, 2017. Amongst the artwork of Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, “Ode To” was the title of Solange’s presentation, billed as an interdisciplinary performance piece and meditation examining themes from her album, A Seat at the Table. Phones were checked at the door upon entry, allowing us, the viewers, to be fully engaged and attentive to Solange’s immersive concert endeavor.
The sun was still shining brightly through the dome-like ceiling as a hush fell upon the audience. No dimming of house lights as a warning, our gaze is shifted upward, grabbed by an army of women walking in a single-file, dressed in white and barefoot — descending six stories from the top of Frank Lloyd Wright’s cylindrical architecture. The air was thick with reverence as the band joined in a dirge-like pulse; a stunning display that brought to life the alchemy of the physical space.
Solange was toward the rear of the 11 women, dressed in rust-colored pants and single-shouldered tank. Devoid of tweet and text accessibility, the viewer has no choice but to be captivated. No chairs to clutter the aesthetics of ritual, the audience sat on the floor, with an impenetrable gaze, surrounded on all sides by art. This simple yet bold opening gesture relinquished normalized conventions of spectatorship. It invited viewers to dive into the art with an unlimited pass to access imagination.
As the choreographer, musical director, and composer, Solange has spectacular sensibilities for spatial arrangement and design. The rounded, yet strikingly angular, minimalistic set design handsomely complemented the arrangement of the six-piece band, two background vocalists, and Solo. While it’s clear that Ms. Knowles is a gifted and imaginative artist, several things milled in my imagination. The eight dancers almost seemed to be an after-thought, at times clumsy and fragmented with regard to the larger scope of the presentation. The work was artful and had a great sense of intentionality. “F.U.B.U.” gave me goosebumps, replete with Solange twerking and an endearing serenade to a few surprised audience members — including an older gentleman who seemed to be museum staff.
Then, it hit the mark.
14 horn players appear in the space, bandstand fashion, acting as Solange’s cascading backdrop – four lining the 4th, five lining the 3rd, and five lining the 2nd story’s architectural structure. Sure, the eight dancers could have been more activated within the greater architecture of the piece, the band’s, at times, awkward incorporation into some of the choreographed staging could have been tighter, and the “concert dance” elements fell short of the imaginatively rich opening number. Simply impressive, even with occasional moments of the performance hitting brief lulls that felt under-rehearsed — like the Wiz-esque “Brand New Day” pseudo-African dance choreography.
56 additional performers snaked their way down the 6 storied architectural structure to join Solange in the main performance space, concluding this earnest offering was a robust gift to the senses. Solange is definitely no “park and bark” entertainer (you know…the kind of a person who sits and sings for 2 hours without moving). She has taken a page from the book of full-bodied entertainers/band leaders like Cab Calloway, James Brown and Prince. “Hood magic” transpired at the Guggenheim.
I applaud Solange for taking on such a massive endeavor. Physicalizing these themes, fostering successful collaborations, and creating brilliant art is not at all a walk in the park. This kind of art is missing from our society. Solange’s fearlessness is extraordinarily timely, an artistic attribute that will continue to push her to push boundaries, to unearth new territories that we so desperately need.
Jeffrey Page is a director, producer, actor, dancer and Emmy-nominated choreographer with a resume boasting credits for Beyonce, Jazmine Sullivan and a grip of highly-acclaimed musicals. Follow him on Twitter for more insight.
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