Associate Professor of Dance Christal Brown and her dance company, INSPIRIT debuted its breathtaking and unique dance piece titled “What We Ask of Flesh” at the Mahaney Arts Center last weekend. The show took place Nov. 9–11 and was wonderfully abstract, eerie and thought-provoking. Brown’s own experience as a caregiver for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as the work of poet Remica Bingham-Risher, served as central inspirations for the performance.
“What We Ask of Flesh” featured Brown as director, choreographer and performer; Arielle Brown as dramaturge; Alex Diaz, Orlando Hunter, Malcom McMichael, Claudia-Lynn Rightmire, Ricarrdo Valentine and Robin Wilson as the performers; live harmonizing and music by Farai Malianga and Deborah Felmeth; media design by Scotty Hardwig; costumes by Trebien Pollard and lighting by Jennifer Fok. It is an inspiring and entirely original piece that Middlebury was fortunate to have debut on its own stage.
The performance began with an excerpt from Bingham-Risher’s poetry that performers enacted with an explosion of energy and celebration. From that moment on, the show covered a wide breadth of themes, ranging from compassion, intimacy, spectatorship, violence, aging, disability, humility and imitation.
These themes spoke powerfully to spectators of the production.
“I resonated with the power of touch shared by the dancers. They expressed a range of emotions between them, something I rarely see in dance, and in what looked like the midst of pain, touch was a powerful source of comfort,” Associate Professor of Theatre Olga Sanchez Saltveit, who attended the show, wrote in an email to The Campus.
Throughout the performance, the dancers, designers and crew did a fantastic job unpacking the complexity of emotion through dance and bending the boundaries of typical dance performances. Featuring a mixture of vocal harmonizing, performers’ breath and the sound of feet stomping and running on the floor, this heartbreakingly beautiful installation redefined dynamics of kinship, family, love and violence.
Brown offered some remarks in the Artist Talkback following Friday night’s performance.
“When violence and flesh come together, we call that birth,” she said. “I don’t make dances because I like dances… I make dances because I want to understand parts of me.”
One of the most striking and beautiful elements of the performance was the costumes. Each costume was simultaneously coordinated and completely unique, all featuring the same color palette, baggy, draping look and slashes throughout resembling sagging skin. Each piece was also distinct, reflecting the personality and characters that the dancers were embodying.
During the artist talkback, Pollard reflected on his experience designing costumes for the show.
“It was very hard for me because I primarily work with myself. I was thinking about my own body, my own flesh, how it’s changing,” Pollard said.
Director of the Performing Arts Series Allison Coyne Carroll described her experience working with Professor Brown and INSPIRIT in an email to The Campus.
“The [Performing Arts] Series had previously been lucky enough to collaborate with Professor Brown on two previous residencies with her company INSPIRIT in 2009 and 2013, so we have always kept a dialogue open about works in progress,” she wrote. “[Her dance company] only offers riveting performances, but also a robust itinerary of education residency activities for both our campus and community. They did movement master classes, an elementary school matinee, visited a music theory class, and more.”
Everyone involved with the project spoke very highly of working with Brown. Some of her INSPIRIT students from the audience even voiced their opinions on her teaching style.
“[Brown] offers a lot of space for us to be ourselves,” Hunter said.
When asked about her favorite part of the piece, Coyne Carroll summarized what seemed to be a resounding theme of the performance.
“For me personally, it was witnessing the array of artists from various backgrounds and Professor’s Brown’s career coming together to create such a vibrant narrative through a richly integrated tapestry of movement, text, imagery, music, costumes, lighting, and more.”