"Growing Our Own Gardens" Modern Dance by Dance Exchange
Performance: Growing Our Own Gardens by Dance Exchange
Creation and Direction: Matthew Cumbie
As I opened the program for Dance Exchange’s Growing Our Own Gardens, directed by Matthew Cumbie, a slip of paper that read “This is an Invitation to Dance” fell out into my lap, asking me to be an active participant in an exploration of queer history and community building. The February 24th modern dance performance at the Dance Place thoroughly lived up to the mission of Dance Exchange, founded by Liz Lerman, to create intergenerational connection and critical reflection through dance.
The strength of Growing Our Own Gardens lies in its storytelling, both verbal and physical. An older gentleman, Broadway dancer Andy Torres, walks behind a drag queen, Jazzmin St. James D’Monaco. Their movements are surprisingly in sync as the staccato walk dictated by his cane accents her pauses to strike a pose while strutting onward. They uproariously catch each other up on the latest gossip, pausing to move into a typical man-spreading pose- knees wide open, elbows and hands on knees- as some straight men walk by.
As a multi-year project, parts of this performance were created the day after the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay club in Florida. Social dance scenes have long been a space where queer people are able to come together, and the shooting during Pulse’s Latin Night greatly affected the LGBT and Latinx communities. While company members danced together as if out at a club, a surprisingly long list of LGBT spaces that had closed in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area was read out loud. They noted that there are no open lesbian bars and that the only African-American gay bar in DC is now the Wonderland Ballroom, a bar catering to straight hipster white people. The importance and myth of safe LGBT spaces was felt deeply by the audience.
Near the beginning of the show, we see the entire company moving across the stage in a Fosse-esque amoeba clump, making different shapes and patterns with their hands as they weave in and out of each other, maneuvering their bodies through different levels of space and existence. Towards the end of the show, the audience is asked to learn some simple hand-based choreography using Lerman’s Build-a-Phrase technique, a typical experience for any Dance Exchange show. A group discussion of what we learned and how the community can move forward results in further choreography. Last, we cupped our hands together like we’d caught a firefly and didn’t want to snuff it out. We repeated this gesture again, representing the light of each lost LGBT space, then brought it up to our mouths and swallowed that light, finally breathing the energy back out into the universe.
After learning this choreography, we saw the amoeba from the beginning of the show move back across the stage, this time from a different direction, both physically and mentally. Our collaborative work had given us a new understanding of the hand shapes and patterns the dancers were constructing, lending a previously simplistic dance a deeper sense of meaning and allowing the audience to enjoy it even more than the first time. The central theme of the show was learning one’s history, and this sequence demonstrated how doing so can allow one to move forward with a greater sense of purpose and understanding.
Repetition in choreography was used less effectively when a pair of male dancers later did the same duet a pair of female dancers had done earlier in the show. It felt a bit lazy. As a local production, there was a range of dance expertise and style, and it would have been more interesting to see something new that worked to the strengths of each group and highlighted their unique talents.
This is one of the few performances I have been to the last few years where not a single person was dashing for the door during the curtain call, attempting to beat the crowd to the parking garage post-football game style. Instead, the audience danced together on stage and the post-performance reception was packed with people discussing what they had seen, felt, and learned. The program promises future iterations and evolutions of this performance. If you are lucky enough to catch it, you’re sure to leave with a sense of warmth and hope.
This review was written as part of the Dance Metro DC’s Dance Journalism Project. You can find out more about Dance Exchange here: http://danceexchange.org/.