On Vashon, it is rare to witness a dance performance on the topic of racial equity and justice, but two artists hope to change that when their collaborative project comes to the island this week.
The dance performance, “Improvising While Black on Vashon Island,” is part of an ongoing series, “Improvising While Black.” The series was created by mayfield brooks, a Brooklyn-based African American dance artist, teacher and performer, who prefers the pronoun “they” and spells their name with lower-case letters.
On Vashon, brooks will collaborate with local Vashon/Seattle-based dance artist Karen Nelson, who is white. The show will have one performance at 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, at Open Space for Arts & Community, followed by an audience discussion.
Tickets are by donation at the door, with no one turned away for lack of funds. Donations will support Nelson’s and brooks’ work on Feb. 11 with small groups of students at Chautauqua Elementary School and Vashon High School.
At the performance at Open Space, audiences can expect to see a work of dance improvisation — an art form that was created in the 1960s by dancers who were influenced by choreographer Merce Cunningham, musician John Cage, visual artist Robert Rauschenberg and others.
The performance, Nelson said, will be served up in a style that audiences may not be familiar with as compared to improvisation within the context of music, theater and comedy. It will include dance, movement, storytelling, singing and visual imagery.
“Beyond verbal, it is a poetic-like narrative, a space where interpretation is in the eye and heart of the beholder,” she said.
The performance is a reflection of brooks’ larger aim to convey their perspective of blackness in the most experiential way possible, directly addressing issues of identity, diversity and community accountability.
“In a way, blackness is like a trickster because people think they know what it is, but we really don’t. It is a question. It lives in a question,” said brooks in an interview with Contact Quarterly.
According to Nelson, the performance is also intended as a means to “create a culture of support and beloved community for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and white allies.”
The project was originally created by brooks in 2012, and named “Improvising While Black” as a references to brooks’ personal experience of “driving while black” in San Francisco. The vernacular “driving while black” refers to a common experience of Black drivers when they are pulled over by authorities for minor or fabricated traffic infractions.
“In ‘Improvising While Black,’ my substitution of the word ‘driving’ with ‘improvising’ serves as a reminder of my personal experience with racial profiling and the fact that performance is a type of racial profiling,” mayfield explained in the interview.
Nelson and brooks first met in 2014, and since that time the pair has collaborated in creating videos, articles and workshops. This will be the duo’s first public performance.
Nelson suggested adding “on Vashon Island” to the title of the performance on Vashon, not only to name the locale but also for what she said would be “the shocking thrill of seeing the word ‘Black’ next to the name of this very white-skin majority island.”
In program notes for the dance piece, Nelson and brooks have explained their collaborative purpose: “Since we are coming together in solidarity in recognition of anti-blackness as a palpable form of violence in the world, we notice each other in the dance. … We acknowledge the breakages.”
“Improvising While Black” has received support from The Movement Research Artist-in-Residence Program and several prestigious foundations, including the Jerome Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as well as the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The production on Vashon received funding from 4Culture and is co-sponsored by Vashon-Maury Showing Up for Racial Justice.