Okwui Okpokwasili Wants You to Slow Down and Walk With Her


We are walking together, so slowly that it might take 45 minutes to cross the small room. Our bodies are close, but as in a packed subway car, we don’t make eye contact. We listen. We hear breath, moans, laughter. These all come from us, as do more mysteriously layers of words and song that rise up and sink, perhaps to resurface later. For long stretches, we walk in silence.

This is all highly unusual for me. I’m visiting a rehearsal as a journalist, and in such situations, I normally behave like an audience member, not a participant. But what is being rehearsed, “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” isn’t really for an audience.

Guests, however, are invited. And if you attend Danspace Project in St. Mark’s Church on a Friday night during the four weeks of “Platform 2020: Utterances From the Chorus” (Feb. 22-March 21), you have the option of remaining outside the enclosed space where “Sitting on a Man’s Head” continues for four hours. You could just listen without seeing.

Or you can ponder the question “What do you carry that carries you?” And if you write your answer — “the pain in my knee,” “my daughter” — in a book provided, an “artist-activator” will talk with you about it. And if you wish, you and that artist can enter the inner sanctum and join others who are walking very slowly. You can walk with them for as long as you like, and you may hear words from your conversation become part of an improvised collective song. You might even sing yourself.

A factor in favor of joining: You’ll almost certainly be walking with the choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili. For most people, this will also be highly unusual. Tall, striking and charismatic (that’s her in the video for Jay-Z’s “4:44”), Ms. Okpokwasili is the opposite of ordinary, an expectation-confounding blend of authority and vulnerability.

Her hard-to-classify works, like “Bronx Gothic,” have earned her piles of awards, including a MacArthur grant. They are intense and enigmatic, and often loaded with tests of endurance. And while she says that “Sitting on a Man’s Head” isn’t a performance, and though it is closer to mindfulness practice than to conventional choreography, participating in it feels something like being inside one of those works, with her.

Like most of her projects, she is creating “Sitting on a Man’s Head” with her husband, the designer and director Peter Born. “Peter and I already have a very dense collaborative process,” Ms. Okpokwasili said before a recent rehearsal. But her creative process usually involves other performers, too: “I’m always posing questions and asking the performers to respond to text. The work is an active collaboration, something that happens between us.”

It’s a way of making art that, for Ms. Okpokwasili, has an application outside of art making: “What is it to make a space where people understand that they’re being heard and know that what they give is essential?”

Now, she’s inviting the public into this process — “where we are compelled to listen to each other and be linked together, with the potential for anything to happen.”

The concept also emerges from the creation of a recent piece, during which she and the other performers improvised together in song, listening and riffing. “The voice is so deeply personal and singular,” she explained, “but also incredibly porous in the way it seems to break the boundaries of other people’s skin. So this is a practice of being inside of yourself and projecting to the deep inside of someone else.”

Like her 2017 work “Poor People’s TV Room,” this project draws on research that she, the child of Nigerian immigrants, has done into protest movements of Nigerian women.

“There was a practice called Sitting on a Man,” she said. “When women are feeling aggrieved by a man who has power, they go to his residence and they do a durational performance demanding change, and they don’t leave until they get it.”

“That’s fascinating to me,” she continued, “but I’m not a social justice worker. So I started to think: What if you make a space that isn’t directed to somebody outside of the circle who is hurting you? What if you make a space to hear each other, free from judgment, a space for restoration? That sounds to me like the process I use when making work.”

Yes, but why the slow walking? “We’re surrounded by people regularly enacting acts of virtuosity,” she said. “Slowing down helps us be together. It’s a rupture from what you normally do, a resensitizing to micro-perceptions.”

Why four hours? “I’m interested in what happens when you stay in one thing for a long time. Sometimes it can be really hard and painful. But when you get past something, I think it’s bliss.”

But, really, why four hours? “Because we couldn’t do it any longer. St. Mark’s wants its church back.”

St. Mark’s, the home of Danspace Project, which is now in its 45th year, is still an active site of worship. And the space must also be shared with the many other parts of the Platform series, organized by Ms. Okpokwasili with Danspace’s executive director, Judy Hussie-Taylor.

Saturdays will be devoted to conversations and other activities among writers and performers engaged with the Platform’s themes: voice and body, kin and care, slowness. Ms. Okpokwasili will share an evening with the like-minded composer-performer Samita Sinha. The choreographers Meryem Jazouli and Nacera Belaza, both of whom draw from North African dance and song, share an evening. And larger groups of artists, sharing their own evenings, will present artistic responses to questions the organizers have posed.

All of this, Ms. Hussie-Taylor said, is representative of how the artist-curated Platforms have evolved since she introduced the idea 10 years ago: “It’s a way of turning questions that might never be answered into a different kind of performance event, where artistic practice can be shared.”

In the Platforms, monthlong packages of themed performances and discussions, Ms. Hussie-Taylor and artist-curators like Reggie Wilson and Ishmael Huston-Jones have gathered together artists who seem to be investigating similar things. “We’re using our collective minds to be generative,” she said. “Out of that, people eventually make amazing pieces, but it doesn’t always happen within the context of the Platform. It might be the seed. It opens up possibilities.”

Ms. Okpokwasili likened that process to “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” which is “not about showing people what we do. It’s about opening a channel to be in a relationship with others. We’re not all singing the same song, but if the song can hold all those layers of contention and contradiction, the things you need and the things that are necessary to sustain the group, then it goes into one space we’re all sharing.”

Through earlier iterations of “Sitting” at the 2018 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art and last year in Houston (it heads to the Tate Modern in London at the end of March), Ms. Okpokwasili and Mr. Born have been refining it. A barrage of questions posed to guests has boiled down to one. An array of gestures developed with guests has narrowed to just the walking and whatever movement is needed to find ease in that walking.

“We’ve been working on keeping it a liberated space,” Ms. Okpokwasili said. “How to make the guests understand that they’re always free to go? You stay as long as you want to stay, and maybe a little longer because something unexpected could happen.”

What could that be? Giggle fits, screaming, weeping, boredom, cramps, communion. “It’s whatever needs to happen, and sometimes you know when it’s landed,” she said. “But then I have to critique that, because it’s about falling in and out of it, it’s about making and unmaking. If it happened the same way all the time, I would be concerned.”

The key is to help guests grasp the potential of bringing something into the space. “What does it do to somebody to hear a lyric from their conversation get picked up by the others?” she asked. “What does it feel like for that to come back to you?”

“I know what it does to me to pay that kind of attention, and to have that attention be paid,” she said. “I don’t know what it will do to other people, but I want to make the space to see.”



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