SAGE Awards, Bharatanatyam and Voices of Strength: the week in dance

Our dance columnist has been busy: Lightsey Darst was at the SAGE Awards and on hand for a night of virtuosic bharatanatyam (both at Cowles), and she's still wrestling with an unsettling, powerful performance in the Walker's 'Voices of Strength' series.


I’M STILL THINKING ABOUT NADIA BEUGRÉ’S PERFORMANCE in her Quartiers Libres in Voices of Strength at the Walker Art Center two weekends ago. Voices of Strength is a showcase of African female choreographers touring the country and making waves; Beugré comes from Côte d’Ivoire.

She started off showed us just about the saddest thing I know, a woman in heels crying, and then she took us deeper. I like dance because I like to be caught up, I like to feel happy in my body, and Beugré wouldn’t let me: she teetered on her silver stilettos, she wound herself up in cables, she choked. I could feel my shoulders climbing up towards my ears while I waited for her to assume the expertise her powerhouse form suggested, but she kept refusing. When she finally did dance—a succession of poses against a spotlit wall, part bodybuilder, part model, all rapid involution and held fire—I’ll admit I felt pleasure in it despite the overtones of trapped-animal, exposure, prostitution, exploitation. But then she stopped. And then she ate the garbage bag.

Watching a woman stuff an entire garbage bag into her mouth and down her throat is not something I would like to do again. I’m sitting there, wondering what it means that I condone this self-torture with my gaze, hoping nothing will happen, getting the point that we do let people eat garbage bags all the time off stage, but still concerned about this woman in front of me. This is how I know I’m not a fan of performance art, I guess: I really don’t want to see the actual. I feel weak for saying it.

Beugré climbs into a ball of trash—actually, a sort of shift covered in plastic bottles—and crashes around. Somehow she begins to work towards freedom: the bottles start coming off. Her crashing about turns triumphant. She races up into the audience, fingers raised in the V for victory, and you know it does feel like some kind of conquering. People in the audience pluck plastic bottles from her sides and cheer and I wonder in what sense symbolic action is action. If Beugré crisscrosses America repeating this victory, what happens? Besides, I can’t be easy, can’t applaud with enthusiasm, because I’m fixated on that plastic bag distending her jaw.

I’m afraid she’ll go offstage with it still muting and choking her; she doesn’t. Instead, she returns to the stage, tilts her head back, and starts to extrude it. Shiny with saliva, the nasty thing blossoms from her mouth as the lights go down. It looks like nothing so much as the ectoplasm mediums used to exhale for spirit photographs. It’s a shred of a terrifying other world—this one of our own making.

Another strong woman in a spotlight recently was Minnesota Dance Theatre’s Katie Johnson, nabbing a SAGE Award for Outstanding Performer. Gymnastic and compact, Johnson’s long been able to turn lightning fast, spring into the air seemingly without preparation, and grind out a balance with pure muscle—but in the last couple of years she’s gained the confidence to do more than that: to dance. Like everyone, Johnson struggles with ballet technique (turn-out is particularly tough), but she admits that “a lot of things come very easy to me.” Earlier in her dance life, she focused on execution—getting there, getting it done—but since then she’s realized that, as she tells her students, “Nobody cares if you can do it, because Susie Jo can do it, too. It’s how you do it.” For Johnson, that means opening up her steps. Dance “doesn’t have to be a physical thing”—“the simplest movements” can be invested with emotion and experience. Paradoxically, Johnson says she’s gained the confidence to be vulnerable. “I’m getting older now,” she says (she’s twenty-nine). “Why not just do it?”

Another woman picking up a SAGE—well, not picking up, in this case; this year’s awards were bricks (art bricks), and the Special Citation for outstanding service to the community being an especially large brick, she wisely left it in the hands of presenter Nic Lincoln—was Lirena Branitski, balletmistress extraordinaire. After the standing ovation, she said a few words about how, years after coming here “straight from Ukraine,” Minnesota has become “my really really home.” The next morning, she was in ballet class, the same as ever. Well, perhaps she was a little smilier than usual, but then Lirena is one of the smiliest people I know. Sometimes her smile simply means she’s happy; sometimes it means mischief, as when she approached accompanist Michael Koerner the other day after he’d finished a particularly sad but lilting piece. “Do you know where from this music?” she asked him. “Russia!” he answered. “I know,” she said.

Most often, I see her smile after she’s given a bit of instruction, and then the smile means Go on now, do something with that.


A very different performer than Beugré wove a spell at the Cowles this past weekend: Alarmel Valli. A bharatanatyam diva based in India and one of the world’s great dancers, Valli is especially connected with Minnesota because Ragamala Dance principals Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy are her students and share her quick, clear style. I was looking forward to seeing Valli, but with a little anxiety, too, because I’ve had mixed experiences with bharatanatyam. Sometimes it feels vivid, current; sometimes it radiates a sensual clarity that speaks to me; but sometimes I seem to be looking in on a coy femininity I don’t understand or like.

I needn’t have worried. Valli moves like an apsara, but she’s a woman in full, showing all her facets on stage. She can be ecstatic or shy, vengeful or wounded; the same force comes through, the same desire and energy. When she mimed sadly braiding her hair, thinking of the lover who is not coming back, her sadness was not picturesque but wounding, and when she celebrated her true lover, her happiness was not pretty but brilliant—even defiant.


Noted performance details:

Nadia Beugré performed Quartiers Libres as part of Voices of Strength at the Walker Art Center on October 10.

The 2012 SAGE Dance Awards ceremony was at Cowles Center for Performing Arts October 17.

A Weekend of Alarmél Valli at Cowles Center for Performing Arts was on stage October 19 and 20.


About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She writes a weekly column on dance for