Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Black Femininity Honored in Dara Meredith's Dance Premiere, "The Bridge of Our Roots"

Dara J. Meredith is a noted Choreographer, Director, and Educator. She is a Dance Instructor at Eleone Dance Unlimited in Philadaelphia and a longtime member of the Dance Faculty at Christina Cultural Arts Center in Wilmington, Delaware. 

We were honored to catch up with choreographer Dara Meredith and talk about the inception of her newest contemporary dance piece, the inspiration behind it, and what it symbolizes for her and many other Black women. 

The Bridge of Our Roots. Photo by Shannon Woodloe.
Commissioned by the Delaware Art Museum with support from Art Bridges, the soul-searching full-length dance work, The Bridge of Our Roots" is inspired by Southern Souvenir No. II (1948) — a riveting painting by Eldzier Cortor, depicting disembodied figures of Black women. The performance of "The Bridge of Our Roots" premieres at Delaware Theatre Company Friday, September 17, at 8:00pm with a post-performance discussion with the artists. Tickets are available HERE

What does "the Bridge of Our Roots" mean to you, and why did you choose it as the title of this work? 
Eldzier Cortor stated, "...the Black woman represents the black race and the continuum of life". It is my belief that Black women represent the bridge between Black culture and the European culture, and therefore serve as the foundation for continuity in American culture. Since slavery, the Black woman has been the nurturer, giver, and provider for her master and his family as well as her own family; it was evident through the recipes that fed their bellies, her breast milk that nourished their bodies, or the actual giving of her own body to create her own children and the bastard children that were created through the abuse of her master or anyone else who saw fit to have her.
 
Why did you feel compelled to create this piece?
This work encompasses the stories of so many little girls, and women who feel alone, misunderstood, or silenced by societal norms and the lack of empathy and understanding of what Black women have endured and continue to endure. When we get a chance to share a piece of our story, it is important to tell it in the most authentic and genuine way, to represent every ancestral and living woman whose screams and cries fall on deaf ears. I felt a need to represent what is not represented — me, us!

What was the most challenging thing about creating this performance? What did you love most about it?
The most challenging part was narrowing down what themes and stories I wanted to tell and making sure I did it in a way that not only told my story and emotional attachment to the work, but to represent all facets of black women in its multiplicities and abundance. It was unbelievable pressure to get it right, as well as live up to the magnitude and importance of the actual painting, Southern Souvenir No.  II.

What I loved most about creating this work is the journey of re-learning and shedding my own layers in a therapeutic process with beautiful Black women who were willing to do the same. The amount of support that we have received from each other made the process rich and layered with a sense of genuine humanity, and an offering for us each to recognize our own resiliency — because of and in spite of  our journey as Black women.
 
Is there imagery of [the painting] Southern Souvenir No. II incorporated into this piece? Where can audiences learn more about this critical work?
I incorporated the imagery of the dismantled parts of the Black female body on the painting. The nipples of the breast that Eldzier Cortor created in a more 3-D fashion emphasizes the way in which her breast was how she nourished the babies to create continuity. This repetitive movement that was created based on this imagery finds its way in every section of the work, creating its own continuity in the work. The painting itself is on display at the Delaware Art Museum and can be viewed until October 2021.

What do you feel are the hallmarks of Black femininity? How are they depicted in this performance?
One hallmark of Black femininity that is depicted in my work is the passion that Black women have to always prevail and overcome, despite any circumstance. We will make sure everything and everyone is taken care of, despite the hardships or adversity we may encounter. She is resilient, and if asked to be anyone else in the world, she stands proudly in her skin and would have it no other way in spite of her tumultuous ancestral past and the plight ahead.

How did you choose the music for this piece? How does it complement/play against the dancers' movements?
I chose music that evoked the emotion of what I wanted to say in each section. Some of the music led my decision to talk about a certain theme, such as "Everything Must Change", sung by Nina Simone. In other sections, I wanted to enrich what I already created. The music drives the point home and complements the movement.

I see that you included elements of singer Nina Simone and poet Ursula Rucker into this performance; who else is represented?
I included music by the Gulluah Choir — Songs of Hope and Freedom  which was the group of people (Gullah and Geechee People) Cortor researched and studied when creating this painting. The work also features a local poet from Philadelphia, Kai Davis, as well as the words of Iyanla Vanzant, Michelle Obama, and Stacey Abrams, with a gut-wrenching score from singer Moses Sumney.

There is so much about the Black experience  and specifically experiences of Black women— that are not often understood, realized, and/or acknowledged. How do you feel this piece speaks to those issues?
I think the work gives an inner look into not only the pain that is present, or why we feel ostracized, but also it represents the resiliency of the Black woman in spite of all she endures. This work explores themes of Sistahs Catching Sistahs, the 'angry Black woman' stereotype, the exploitation and commodification of Black bodies, childless mothers at the hands of police brutality, overwhelmed immunity, how to find healing, and the resiliency that comes from these struggles.

You note that this work speaks to experiences of Black women in the South; do you feel Black women in other areas of our country have similar, related, or different experiences?  
I think women in other parts of the country have a related experience through their histories, but experience it in the present slightly different. In the South, there is a sense of wanting to keep things as they were, so the blatant racism that exist is used in an effort to keep you in your place, whereas being in the North or West sometimes camouflages these same feelings in a way that seems more passive-aggressive, digestible, or sneaky. In other countries these are some of the same experiences and issues they face — being ostracized, abused, and separated at the hands of a patriarchal system and the male gaze.

What message(s) or feeling(s) do you want audiences to take away from this performance?
Every take away is different. I would want people of other cultures to walk away with a level of empathy and care that they move forward with while examining how they situate themselves in creating the change in the world that is necessary on the most micro level. 

I want Black men to walk away with an appreciation and understanding of how to foster more care for their mothers and grandmothers; just because they do everything does not mean it is healthy for them or that they should be taking care of everyone. I want them to examine their role in the family and how they take care of the Black woman in a way that creates balance and encouragement.  

For the Black girl and woman, I want her to walk away knowing that she is not alone in all that she embodies and experiences on every level. She is worthy and beautiful just the way she is, and others are here to support her journey in navigating life.

Was it challenging for you to create (or not create) during the pandemic? How did you handle that?
It was actually good for me to create during the pandemic, because I had time to sit and think about how I wanted to approach this work. It was almost as if the world stood still for a moment, and there was this perfect time and space to focus on something so timely and necessary given the climate in America at the time.

What are you working on next and where can audiences experience it?
I am working on the expansion of this project on a tour as well as the dialogue between this work and my other full-length show, "Beneath the Surface," which is about mental illness.   

What advice would you give to young and/or emerging artists of color? 
I would say, as artists of color, we have to speak our truths in its most authentic, raw, and genuine fashion, because if we don't tell our stories, we invite others to tell it for us. Historically we have to hold on to our cultural tradition of story telling and artist are the ones who get to uphold this tradition.  The revolution starts with us and we can't be afraid of our power and the power of our voice, as it liberates others to do the same!

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