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T. Lang in performance, A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now photo: Grace Kisa, 2019

A Meditation on Them Black Bodies: The Movement Language of T. Lang


 by Opal Moore

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T. Lang photo: Erica Abelard, 2018

          The dance is strong magic… The dance is life.  Pearl Primus

“My work was never for the entertainment,” T. Lang tells me. “It was to overwhelm the senses.” We spoke first in her capacious studio. I do not interview Tracy Lang. We turn on the phone recorder, and she free-styles about her new space, her choreographic directions, her challenges as an artist-collaborator-entrepreneur, and the post-COVID teaching environment. (T. Lang is Associate Professor of Dance at Spelman College.) Her thoughts unspool.

I ask T. Lang, Tracy, to revisit an earlier work, Mother/Mutha, which was my introduction to her pursuit of a movement language or vocabulary for the kinds of narratives she wanted to engage—stories of the complexities of living in one’s own body. This pursuit took on specific meaning when she joined the Spelman College dance faculty in 2008. Her work on Mother/Mutha began with a question posed at her family reunion: What is your favorite swear word? Followers of her work know the story. Tracy responded that her favorite profanity was “motherfucker.” After the laughter, Tracy was challenged by her scholar/uncle: Do you know the Black history of your favorite profanity? She did not. What does one do with a “favorite” vulgarity when the target is yourself? Your lineages? An “embodied” word history of the economies of your people’s multiple erasures? That family reunion encounter with Black history inspired research into the implications of a word, and the verbal underpinning of persistent attitudes that shape the lives of Black women—color, the soundtrack of Black life, and love.

T. Lang Mother/Mutha 2012

Mother/Mutha, in its language and initial ventures into technological play, flowed into a series of works immersed in histories of power, love, loss, beauty, horror, affirmation. Following M/M is the Post-Up series, inspired by the work of Heather Andrea Williams and other historians who have documented stories of the ways African Americans searched for lost family at the end of legal enslavement—posting notices in mainly Black owned news media. Out From the Deep: A Meditation For Them Turners places both love and atrocity at its center—the lynching of mother, wife, and 8 months pregnant Mary Turner in 1918, a story that Tracy encountered on her visit to the National Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Meditation forms what feels like an historical trilogy with the other two works. Singly and together, they can “overwhelm the senses,” each work scraping at history like a fingernail upon the dreaming mind.

           

T. Lang’s body of work is extensive, including A Graveyard Duet Of the Past Now, commissioned by The High Museum in Atlanta, to put dance “in conversation” with Kara Walker’s The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin (2015), a High Museum acquisition. Walker’s silhouettes make a fierce parody of racial histories of sex, violence and hypocrisy. The stark gestures of her cut-out figures blend the comedic and the violent. T. Lang notes her admiration for Walker since the early 2000s, and remarks that Walker’s controversial productions have been “muses to some of my works for my company.” Lang’s fascination with Walker’s embrace of “unease,” the slippery space between “laughter and disgust,” reveals something of her own pursuit and development of identifiable choreographic patterns of movement and emotional confrontation.

Dance is strong magic… Dance is life. The past cannot, evidently, teach us; it can, perhaps, give us a vocabulary with which to speak our bodies.

           

What follows is a non-linear interview/conversation built from two conversations and informal exchanges. With permission of the artist, I have excerpted her thoughts on her methods and dance vocabulary.  

T. Lang A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now at The High Museum of Art, 2019

Opal Moore: T. Lang, thank you for sitting with me. I want to begin with Mother/Mutha, the first major work that you initiated when you arrived in Atlanta from New York, with T. Lang Dance. In Mother/Mutha, you were working with a narrative energy—with history and memory—which carries through several subsequent dance works. Recall what you were thinking about and how the work emerged for you and how the work may be transitioning at this moment.

T. Lang: Yes. The work that you have observed over the years has been driven by narrative. For the last 10-plus years I've been in a healing process, mourning and grieving the death of my father. So, works like Mother/Mutha, the Post-Up series, A Graveyard Duet Of the Past Now have [a quality of] beginning, middle [followed by] this journey of discovery, yearning, longing, reconnecting, reconciling, healing. And even the movement, even the movement vocabulary had this not aggressive, but hard edge. You could see the armor being worn, [my] having to navigate and heal and deal to mend that broken heart. It's almost as if I had to go into battle inside my works to figure out this grief, this loss, this despair. To repair myself. And that, that armor got really heavy.

And one of the armors I used was technology. I started playing with technology with Mother/Mutha, using this fascinating projection mapping. And then later into the Post-Up series where we're really playing inside of our cube, playing with augmented reality [and] blending these two worlds from above and below and trying to put them in a 3D space. And then it really blasted off with A Graveyard Duet Of the Past Now [where I was working with] AR (artificial reality) and back inside of our cube [a virtual cube that framed the dance choreography]. Turner (Out From the Deep: Meditation For Them Turners) is also a narrative that used technology as a last armor, to be in virtual reality and VR world. And I found, I've been finding, that technology used in this way—mixed reality used in this way—allows me to feel completely safe and real and human and [lets me go] even deeper. [I] really get to see the divine. And it's unfortunate that I never felt I could feel that way in a proscenium stage, in real life and physical space, but society hasn't allowed that. So, I knew eventually, or even seeing how technology can [create a] safe space (if you have the right programmer, coder designing). But, yeah, I saw that VR could allow me—virtual reality, mixed reality—could allow me to tap in, be safer, be more real, be more divine.

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T. Lang with Kebbi Williams, Tongues So Hot it Turned Brass into Wind, 2021 photo: Julie Yarbrough

OM: You regularly explore in your choreographies what might be called a kind of universal American unconscious. Mother/Mutha, Post-Up, A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now and Meditation are four definitive works that establish a dance vocabulary of grief, loss and longing.

Mother/Mutha, is inspired by a word—a vulgarity. Many American speakers deploy this term without thinking of its specific evocation of the Black American experience with “slave breeding,” a consequence of the end of the legal importation of captive Africans in 1808. Can you tell us about the complexity, for you, of placing this material on Black women’s bodies?

 

TL: Opal, I love these questions. Thank you. First of all, just thank you for these delicious questions that really get me to think deeper into my process. So, number one—the complexity of working with material like Mother/Mutha, or the intent behind Mother/Mutha on black bodies. I recall wanting to address the elephant in the room, one of the elephants is what white folk love to claim, that they don't see color. Well, you are going to see my color, my body, my curves, my heart. You're going to see it all and we're going to sit together and address these complexities that make up our American fabric. I knew that the word, [the] MF word was going to strike attention, curiosity, disgust and disdain in the southern community. And how can I be a true American and capitalize on that and allow the audience, once they were seated, to buckle up and immediately understand that I trapped them into the hot seat.

And we had some complex issues to address. I… placed the dancers in flesh-tone, tight form costumes with their hair fully free and unrestricted with bare makeup, but intentional red lips that were glittered and pronounced—[it] might [make audience members] feel uncomfortable seeing these black women’s bodies free, or at least… embodying this reckless abandon… freedom in audacity, where the viewer, male or female, had to grapple with, perhaps, a disgust [with] this “undignified” appearance—reveal a vulnerability and complexity in the movement… beyond what they [the audience] thought they were coming to see.

I was thinking of how the work would unfold, unravel. So, at the end, the audience would hold onto their first notion—curiosity to disgust, to even hearing, and hearing the breath of the dancers… expression of exhaustion, pain, celebration, love.…

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T. Lang with Kebbi Williams, Tongues So Hot it Turned Brass into Wind, 2021 photo: Julie Yarbrough

OM: You mention the evocation of vulnerability, the historical vulnerability of women. I wondered about the real-time vulnerability of the dancers—semi-nude, provocative—and audience response.

TL: For Mother/Mutha I shared with the dancers prior to hiring them [my intentions] with costuming along with content, sound score and visual images. I had a responsibility to reveal to them why showing the flesh in this [work] held significance. The work called for genuine vulnerability… there was an understanding that although they were portrayed as naked… they were not… I even gave them metals [in the costuming] for courage and strength—i.e., the metals, gold chains that were later worn on the costumes. The dancers’ belief in the work, along with their expertise, allowed the venue to be transformed… allowing the viewer to no longer be entertained but pulled into a new time and place… a new world… as if it were more the viewers’ responsibility to be vulnerable, letting go of preconceptions.

OM: You didn’t instruct the audiences before performances? Or in the programs?

TL: No.

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T. Lang with Kebbi Williams, Tongues So Hot it Turned Brass into Wind, 2021 photo: Julie Yarbrough

OM: A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now is inspired by Kara Walker’s The Jubilant Martyrs Of Obsolescence and Ruin [in the collection at Atlanta’s High Museum]. Walker’s cut-paper installations venture well beyond the slavery-era sensitivities found in Mother/Mutha. Walker depicts every violent bodily and sexual abomination imaginable in the seemingly comic and dispassionate “language” of the flat black-on-white silhouette. Walker decimates all things held sacred in America’s racial romance, especially the idea of innocence or nobility. She seems to suggest that everyone is responsible for the abominations of our history—even her infants seem lascivious! This lack of sympathy has brought her intense criticism as well as high praise and recognition. So, my question—how is "Beauty" presented, permitted, in your work? Or, is "Beauty" beside the point of the art?

TL: I was never told I was beautiful, not to my face. Beauty wasn’t a description that was given to me by my peers or adults. I never heard how beautiful my movement or my expression was. Wow. While I was dancing in studios as a child, as an adolescent, as a young adult. Beauty was never given as validation or feedback. So, I never really thought about being beautiful inside my work. I always wanted to be truthful, authentic, pure, honest, organic. I wanted to make sure my movement generated the way I truly felt inside, which was awkward, radiant during the learning, and in tune with knowing, and believing what I felt internally [would] just ooze beauty.  But it was unconventional.

When I teach my work or when I’m creating work, I have dancers who are trained in various techniques where line and form are presented in different ways. And… in Western thought… to have this long, lean sense of “elegance” is [a construction] of beauty that I was not—not ever, looking for…. the beauty I’m seeking has uncovered ugly truths that we don’t share or tell publicly. And I’m always pushing and guiding students, and my dancers, to be honest. And that honesty breaks lines, and breaks your standard, your understanding of what you think is supposed to be beautiful and presentable and dignified.

I equate beauty in the opposite. What you’re trying to hide in the shadows or conceal or mask, seeing that type of truth—for me, that vulnerability is beauty.

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Kara Walker, The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin, 2015,  courtesy the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia

OM: And Art? How does dance manage “the ugly truths,”? feeling over “reason?" (laughter)

TL: I've been thinking about that question. In this pandemic, everyone has to pivot and shape-shift. What is the significance of dance? What's the significance of a dance company, and how it serves, and [its] impact? I knew, you know, the arts are for, in some viewers' eyes, for entertainment. My work was never for the entertainment; it was only to overwhelm the senses. And it's been confirmed during the pandemic watching how everyone went directly to the arts to save their mental well-being. How they used movement and how they used [artists].

The point of a dance company has been weighing on my mind as far as its purpose, its significance, and I understand that the work heals. People come to understand deeper, or feel deeper, tap in deeper. They use the work to be healed, and now I'm, now I'm turning the table. I'm using it. I'm going to be using my movement in this next season, thinking about it as meditation movement, [movement] as meditation. Looking at my movement vocabulary that comes out of me, as my ‘black soul codes.’ And looking at how the work that I do through the vehicle of dance—ancestral soul movement—really unlocks questions. That I get the courage and the time to think about the questions and experiment with those questions, and hypothesize, and tinker around with it. Not only in my movement vocabulary, but in my, my new secured sovereign space, and V[irtual] R[reality], and thinking about, as I'm using the movement in my [Black Soul] Codes, to heal even further, because the healing never stops the movement, the vocabulary becomes something that is unidentified or uncategorized or you can't put a label on it. But it's for those who deeply see and hear and feel and smell and can even touch the untouchable. So, I'm in that space. I'm also thinking, in this new era, it's now that I've come to terms that my father is still here with me and has always been, now I can put away that armor and soften, oh my god—it's gonna make me cry—soften and surrender and create works that are still dignified for my family's sake.

But perhaps this armor is soft[er], and almost like a negligee that I can maneuver in and become, and begin giving more reverence and exploration into the feminine side, the maternal side of my family line, and address and question some things that I'm seeing through a more soft— yes that's the word, that soft lens. I'm fascinated with that, like how that's going to blend in with the technology, as well as the codes that slip out. Okay. Yeah….

OM: I didn’t get to ask about the “Black Soul Codes,” but this is a lot already! Thank you.

Black Soul Codes™ is an abolitionist act from T. Lang Dance’s project series archiving Black soul movement as “freedom codes” through motion capture devices.

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T. Lang designs and leads interdisciplinary collaborations to demonstrate inventive new choreographic works. She considers the execution of 21st-century embodiment as an intellectual, artistic, and civic practice. The Movement Lab ATL is the home of T. Lang Dance based in Atlanta, Georgia

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Opal Moore, a native Chicagoan, is a veteran teacher of creative writing and African American women’s literature.  She is the author of Lot’s Daughters, a poetry collection that one reviewer described as “passionate slices of African American womanhood.” Her fiction and poetry have appeared in anthologies and journals, including the Boston Review; Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, Notre Dame Review, Connecticut Review, Honey, Hush! An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor, and Homeplaces: Stories of the South by Women Writers.