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"homespun (please remove your shoes)" by Indah Walsh Dance Company
Indah Walsh Dance Company
December 14–16, 2017
I think back to my childhood when my parents insisted I participate in the local ballet. I must’ve been five years old, and I distinctively remember cooperating - attending rehearsals and performing in front of darkened crowds only for the presents and flowers I received after opening night.
But this isn’t about the selfish inclinations of a child. It is about her earliest memories of dance, which formed a narrow understanding or perhaps misunderstanding of performance.
I remember the formalities: my made-up child face, ballet shoes, complete costume, the audience far away in some dark sea in front of me, blinding lights above me. I remember the applause at the end of a show, a yearning to see my mother and father in the crowd, the rituals of a performance as I would come to know after some years of practice.
The dance performances I’ve attended to date share a resemblance to my young experience of ballet. I am not a connoisseur of dance of any kind; my days of ballet remain in childhood but since then I have grown into a fine audience member; one who behaves appropriately and conducts herself accordingly as if I’d been given some set of rules before entering the doors. That, I suppose, is what made homespun such a breathtaking performance for me.
For those of you who couldn’t attend, let me set the stage for you. Indah Walsh and her fellow dancers greeted you at the doors of the striking St. Mark’s Church on 10th Street in New York City’s East Village. Indah welcomed you as any good host would. She asked to take your jacket and if you would remove your shoes. She may have shown you around the room to get you acquainted with the space. As she does, you look across the floor to the stunning church altar with grand archways and pillars alongside. The church is two levels; darkened stained glass windows run across the walls with steps leading up to the base of their figure, and a large open space sits in the center of it all.
Indah shows you to a corner of games. There is a couch with a side table, a reading lamp atop and some open journals too. Indah says goodbye to greet other guests. You are left with strangers playing a dice game. At this point it may feel intimidating, perhaps strange, to be interacting, engaging in this particular way prior to a performance. Irrespective of your initial judgments, the strangers smile at you, introduce themselves and ask if you’d like to join their simple game.
This game corner is one of many areas in the church space. There is a place on the ground toward the back of the room to color on butcher paper. Drawings of flowers and unrecognizable things have already been etched across the white surface. In between your game corner and the coloring is ring toss and a few other comfortable seating areas, all of which are facing the central area where there is nothing but space between the ceiling and floor. The folding chairs that would otherwise occupy the floor for audience members were stacked, unused, tucked in the back of the room.
Another corner has costumes, and another with cups and a water dispenser. Guests are playing ping pong at the altar. Kids are running across the wooden center space. Everywhere you look is a delicate but bustling scene. Even the individuals sitting, quietly talking away from the action of games and play are apart of the scene, all surrounding a select space of the center floor.
Every “station” in the space was an invitation, an urging by Indah’s design, to relax, get comfortable and have fun. Almost imperceptibly, the performance started if it hadn’t already the moment I walked in. The music rose with the dancers as guests’ attention drew seamlessly from their game or conversation to the dancers moving throughout the center space.
The five dancers moved with ease, flowing with the sweet sounds of Smokey Robinson’s Crusin’. After a few minutes of their fluid fun, one of the dancers grabbed a microphone and began speaking Chinese. The room giggled and glanced around hoping to better understand what was going on. The Chinese was spoken confidently, without pause and with enthusiasm, just as an MC’s voice would sound when welcoming a crowd.
I might’ve heard the word “homespun” at some point throughout his speech but beyond that I was just guessing what his Chinese might’ve meant. Moments later, after walking around the center floor, smiling and chatting up the crowd, Xiao, our Chinese-speaking host, appeared to be asking a question that no one understood when a young man raised his hand. Is this part of the performance? I wondered…
The microphone was delivered to the young man. He said that he knew some Chinese and would be willing to translate for the rest of the room, so Xiao carried on with his speech giving only brief pause for the English to be spoken. “Welcome to homespun… I’d like to ask you a few questions. Who would like to answer a question?”
A woman raised her hand as did a few other individuals sitting around the room. A question card was drawn from a small box of cards, it was read in Chinese and translated. The woman responded to a question that seemed a bit more personal than she had anticipated. Her bravery was commended with subtle, supportive cheers and clapping that encompassed the room.
The game went on a few more times until someone asked Xiao a question - I believe was, What is your favorite reality television show? He replied in perfect English.
Surprise and uncertain laughter passed through the room. In fluent, free-flowing English, Xiao asked if anyone could speak any languages other than English or Chinese. One man happened to, so Xiao continued in his stutter-less English, “Would you like to translate for Indah?” The man said he would.
Indah stepped forward and formally welcomed everyone. The new translator took her words and moved them into deep, smooth Spanish. The tone of his voice was like that of a broadcaster. It was fantastic and fittingly funny, and again I was wondering, Was this planned? Is this part of the performance? Does anyone else here speak Spanish? The moment went on.
With strong energy but without insistence, Indah asked if everyone would stand up and come to the center. She said we’d be engaging in a light group exercise. The Spanish followed. Indah thanked the Spanish-speaking man for his delightful translation, cheers passed throughout the room, and the man said a final “Gracias”.
Following Indah’s ease and instruction, everyone walked to the center forming horizontal lines that faced Indah who was standing near the altar. Two of the dancers were standing beside her, and they led the group in some basic stretches.
From head movements, looking left to right, to a few line steps across the room, I could feel energy and warmth rush through my body and mind. It was only when I threw my arms into the air as part of the group choreography that I realized the genius of all of this.
The expression on my face changed a broad smile. I looked around mid-motion. Around me I saw a room full of strangers moving as one. There was laughter and fumbling, luckily no falling but rather, pure joy in our freeing movements across the floor.
Indah exuberantly guided us through this brief performance, and though it was a conscious move on her part, it seemed that everyone in the room unwittingly let go of their thoughts and assumed roles as performers and audience members.
After the last unified movement, a conga line formed. I ran up to the growing line and placed my hands on a stranger’s back as someone placed their hands on mine. The line wrapped around the room to music as vibrant as the many beaming faces as we bumbled around. We went up a couple stairs and back down, through the center of room and around the edges, until we reached the center again where, as a group we posed together while a photographer scrambled to capture a picture.
Applause broke out and everyone returned to seats on lounge chairs, couches, wicker furniture, and pillows on the floor. Indah explained that this next moment would include music performed by her younger brother Isaac. She invited everyone to get comfortable and do as they pleased throughout the segment, the only specific request she had was once the music was over, you found a new seat next to someone you didn’t know.
Isaac began his piece that was part meditation, part love song and prayer. Putting words to it now I feel that I’m infringing on sacred territory where written words don’t suffice. My eyes softly closed throughout the course of sound. I rested into my chair feeling its comfort against my back. Again my mind drifted away.
In brief moments when I opened my eyes I saw individuals carrying out gentle movements while lying on the floor. I saw a young girl leaning into her sister’s arms. Someone had a notebook in her hands - she was writing, maybe drawing. I saw slow swaying and a singular motion of breathing. The song lasted and finished. I stood, walked across the room, and with a glance and a small smile at someone I hadn’t known, I sat down. The lights dimmed and Xiao walked smoothly through the open space with a violin in his hand.
With a bowed head, playing painfully beautiful notes, Xiao crossed the floor; Indah stepped to the center with the three dancers we met earlier: Lauren, Jessica and Erica. Tears immediately filled my eyes. I breathed deep and continued consciously directing my breath as Indah and the others captivated the room with an unparalleled precision and grace. As a whole, their movements flowed in mesmerizing patterns, from duets to solos to quartet.
After a few moments in time, their movement stopped, the violin quieted, Indah, Xiao and the other dancers walked to edges of the room, sat down, and the lights steadily brightened.
Thinking back to that opening night, I can’t recall a time when I had so much fun in my recent adult life. There was a looseness and freedom in shaking and moving, in making choices as the performance proceeded around me, with me.
With homespun Indah shared her profound and distinctive beliefs about dance as a public performance by dancing and playing through ingrained norms, and by not taking The Performance too seriously. Her daring and innovative design united a room of strangers through movement, play and laughter, and gifted all who were present with freedom and joy.
I find it remarkable that, over the course of a single show, Indah is able to illuminate and dissolve taken-for-granted roles and behaviors of performance without enlisting contrived tactics. Instead, she is able to create this change through steadfast intention, innovation and a brave spirit.
Author: Elsa Marie
Photo Credit: Reeca Soriano