Ralph Lemon

“Parallels” goes out with an all-day marathon

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Ralph Lemon, Danspace Project, Parallels

Ralph Lemon, Danspace Project, Parallels Photograph: Ian Douglas


The final “Parallels” showdown could only have been conceived in the ever-imaginative, please-surprise-me mind of visual artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon. On Saturday 31, Danspace Project bids farewell to its current Platform series—programming that explores black dance and marks the 30th anniversary of the original “Parallels”—with “An All Day Event. The End.” For the production, Lemon has chosen 12 artists from multiple disciplines, including an 11-year-old Brooklyn dancer. Participants will interact with a sculptural object by visual artist Nari Ward, with video by Jim Findlay and lighting by Roderick Murray, and the performances, which will overlap, occur every hour beginning at 11am. (Doors, mind you, open at 11:30am—a typical Lemon twist.) Danspace Project isn’t his only priority; on Thursday 29, Lemon opens “1856 Cessna Road,” a solo art show at the Studio Museum in Harlem that draws on the artist’s eight-year relationship with Walter Carter, a Mississippi man who became a profound muse. The two projects, it turns out, aren’t so unrelated. Lemon, who was in the original “Parallels,” spoke about race and dance, what “the end” might entail and more.

How did you dream up this marathon?
The history of this is kind of interesting, right? [“Parallels”] is something we did 30 years ago, and I think about how I haven’t really changed that much in my proclivity for being oblivious. I was just in New York or Minneapolis doing my thing, and I got invited to be part of this through Cynthia Hedstrom, who was at Danspace at the time, and it was really fun. I wasn’t so much thinking, I’m involved in this curatorial platform about black choreography. It was just like, I have an opportunity to perform at Danspace, which felt like a really legitimate space at the time. And then I went in and did my work and that was cool. I didn’t feel like I was connected to this community. Although I got to know Ish [Ishmael Houston-Jones, the curator of both the original and current “Parallels”], and I knew Blondell [Cummings] through Meredith Monk already. It was kind of great because she was a real champion of my beginning forays into making dances, and I’m grateful for that. I got to meet Bebe Miller, and then she and I did some work later, a duet, which was commissioned by Liz Thompson at Jacob’s Pillow. But I felt like there were other people more aware of the racial cosmology of things, and it was more important or more interesting to them than maybe it was to me. The rest of us, I think, were all just kind of doing our thing. Except for Ish; maybe it was really on his radar way back then, which is really cool. So when this came up again after 30 years, I had a nice discussion with him. I wasn’t so sure how interested I was in its potential meaning—I’m not sure it meant anything to me. Race is always interesting, but not so much when it’s contextualized as that. [Laughs]

How do you make it interesting?
It’s like, How can I subvert it or be a little more transgressive about it? I feel like it is slippery; it is really, really slippery. Always. But I know it exists and, visually, it’s emphatic. That’s how I’ve been working with it, especially through the whole Geography Trilogy [Lemon’s ten-year project that explored art, race and identity]. It’s more about how an audience is going to perceive a certain kind of abstraction through something as emphatic as a stage full of black bodies. Or black and Asian bodies. Or African bodies, whatever that is. I felt like I was really using race as material even though, psychically, yes, I was being connected and manipulated in a way just by the reality of race as an energy in the world. So I had a lot of misgivings about being part of this or what I would do and then I decided, Well yeah I have to be involved; but if I do something, I don’t want to just work with all black performers. And I mentioned this to Ish, and he goes, “No, you have to do that because that’s part of the curatorial demands of the platform—unless you can give me a good reason why you have to work with not all black bodies.” So I said, “Okay,” and then I kind of couldn’t come up with one. [Laughs] Dean Moss, of course, did.

He curated “Black Dance,” an evening featuring no black choreographers.
He was spot on. So my idea came from a collaboration that Nari Ward and I had done five or six years ago at the University of Connecticut. He constructed this incredible vehicle—it was almost mythological—out of a wheelchair, and I found it very stunning. I thought, I’m going to put some kind of connective tissue to it, a rope or something. He was working with these young art students, and I said, “Let’s make them performers. Let’s create a 12-hour durational work where they tie themselves to this vehicle, and they negotiate their bodies with this thing in an enclosed space.” So they have no audience, which brings in the question: Are they actually performing?

That’s wild.
We videotaped them, so there was really no one watching them—although I found a little crack in the wall where I could peek in. I was very pleased with that experience and the collaboration. It was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of this [marathon], and I don’t know why other than that. I can work with a number of my friends of color and just ask them to conceptually disguise themselves. So there’s this idea of erasing the center of this platform, of its concept, in a way that can be visual and playful—which also internalizes [the performers’] relationship to the thing and that brings it closer to its original concept, right? Of not having an audience and an enclosed space. So that’s kind of where we’re at. I just visited Nari today and instead of one object, he’s building a whole kind of vehicle playground.

What will it look like?
There will be quite a few objects in the space with wheels on them, made from found material that are also—in the way Nari has treated them—very enlightened. They have this sort of detritus quality of light that I think is going to be really interesting in the space.

Will the installation be in the center of the space?

Yeah. We have the day before, so Nari will come in and install them. There will be 12 performers, and every hour there will be a different light format by Rick Murray. On the ceiling, there will be projected text from [Paul] Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance. In that essay he says: “To be is not to inhabit; human space becoming that of no one becomes a progression of nowhere. The presence of absence, the pursuit of form is only a technical pursuit of time.” So it’s a perfect play on my feelings and misgivings and delusions about whether race is important right now or not. Of course it is, but it isn’t.

How do you balance being a choreographer with being a curator-observer?

The curatorial thing—I feel like I kind of fell into that. Judy [Hussie-Taylor, the executive director of Danspace] has been a lovely instigator. Her interest, from day one, was bringing in artists to curate seasons. So I did “I Get Lost,” and that was a naïve experiment: How do I invite artists to dance around something that interests me? I think that’s still the point for me. This Danspace marathon feels less curatorial and more like I’m creating this kind of hybrid thing; because it’s really about Nari and my relationship to him, and what he’s bringing to the work. It’s also about my relationship to Jim Findlay and his video genius and our collaboration.

And his work will be projected on the ceiling, right?
Yeah. So it’s there, but it’s not there. It’s a text that’s about the aesthetics of invisibility and yet our disappearance. And do you watch it, when do you not watch it, do you ever see it?

It’s not only above your head; it’s literally over your head.

Exactly. With Rick and lights, it’s about what’s seen and what’s not seen and how something becomes more illuminated. Technically, it’s really fun to think about that. That part feels very fulfilling. Of course, how these friends come in and play and negotiate our concerns within this collective landscape that we’re setting up—how that gets played out physically, performatively, I don’t know.

Are you participating?
I might. [Laughs]

Shouldn’t you go last?
Well Ish is going to close it because he should finish this. But I like the structure of it. I like that it’s all day, and there’s no ticket price, and you can come and go. Conceptually, it is very satisfying for me to think about how it can exist without an audience. It’s going to begin at a certain time and end at a certain time. And that each performer is negotiating an hour—that’s a long time. There’s no way anyone’s going to come and sit and watch someone do something for an hour, so it’s really demanding a temporal observer relationship. [Laughs] This thing has its own life.

Are there rules on what they can do or cannot do?
After seeing Nari’s objects today, I kind of have to start from, not scratch, but I have to revise the original rules.

What were they?
That [the performers] have to be somehow connected to this object, and they have an hour to negotiate that relationship. And they have to design some kind of disguise for themselves that’s really interesting and not just, “Put on a costume.” Because an audience won’t know who’s going when, so you don’t know if you’re going to show up for Okwui [Okpokwasili] or David Thomson or April Matthis or niv Acosta. You’re not going to know when these people are performing. They will know, so they’ll invite their friends I think, which will be good. [Laughs] There are also a couple of actors, a writer and Kevin Beasley, a brilliant art student I met at Yale this year, who’s going to be deejaying an incredible sonic piece. There’s an 11-year-old girl named Willow Parchment, who has an hour. She and I worked together yesterday. I got her through BAX [Brooklyn Arts Exchange]. She has a whole score. I’ve asked all the performers to come with a score so there’s a framework.

Is this the first time you’ve worked with a child?
No. When I first moved to New York, I did a piece where I worked with a number of kids up in Harlem. It was a little group that we ended up calling the Harlem Storytellers. [Laughs] I’ve always wanted to go back to that, and I do feel like I want to make a work with all kids at some point. I just think that energy is so special.

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