Language As Step, or Language Stepping to the Step: The Body as Storymaker in the Work of Cynthia Oliver
By Jess Barbagallo
“Words set to rhythm are like gravy on meat: The sum is greater than the parts.”
-Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance
Cynthia Oliver is a self-described storyteller, her need to “new narrativize” energizing and tangible. Born in the Bronx, raised in St. Croix, and currently a professor of dance at the University of Illinois, Oliver holds multiple subject positions with a grace and clarity that has sustained her career as a performer, choreographer, educator and scholar for over twenty years.
A trademark theatricality oozes from her body, and those she makes works upon. Scrolling through still images of her work, I am struck by her smile, her eyes, that charismatic-indefinable-unteachable that every great performer possesses; there is as much dance happening above her shoulders as below them. And you know it from your comfortable seat when you feel this face in motion: the seductive force of a dynamic presence calling you to come hither.
The warmth of a genuine invitation is notable sometimes for its rarity, and its energy has the potential to unseat you. In because she was, a manic 2003 solo, Oliver channels a village of conspiratorial island women in alternating gestures of “sizing up” and spastic glee. Gossip and chatter are no idle matters here. Motions of fast talking, giggling and pacing seem to come from a place of deep engagement with her core, a physio-spiritual merger that almost makes my own spine tingle and undulate in fan-induced mimicry.
Closer Than Skin, a trio work made in 2006 with Leslie Cuyjet and Maria Earle, features another breathtaking solo by Oliver, but this is no repeat exercise in levity. A haunting soundtrack of manipulated voices drives her body as mysterious violence threatens to consume her, dramatic and urgent. Her unwavering focus remains on the audience as her feet patter paranoia quick across the floor – what does she see out there? Is the violence just beyond the room? Or inside the room, inside her…suddenly Oliver takes her face by the thumb and guides it to her shoulder, proceeds to shake the upset from her head and this gesture sets her reeling, as she becomes an avatar for recoil and release. And what of this torrent of language, echo-ey, metallic, haunting, the one element her quaking body cannot seem to shake?
Oliver has long been an advocate for the importance of the spoken word and its place in her oeuvre. Describing her work, in a 2009 interview with Gia Kourlas, Oliver, loquacious, laughs and says: “I can’t keep my mouth shut…I’ve always been interested in the way language can dance.” A key oil in her choreographer’s palette, the sounds of words seem to carry as much weight as their content. They start a fire, they kick something off, they grease the machine.
Consider 2009’s Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso. Six women give voice to breath and begin a movement phrase, imploring percussion with a simple dialogic exchange, illustrated across their bodies as though one arm was speaking to another. The call is “Eh!” and the response “Wha wha?” These kernels compose the first loop of a sound cycle that will amplify and evolve throughout the course of the dance. With the snap of their unison fingers and an invigorated slap of thighs, the rite has begun. Dressed in orange, yellow, pink, blue, and gold, against a backdrop of cerulean sky and clouds, they move in synchronized pattern across the bare floor. Expression begins in the hips and moves into the shoulders in contained gestures of throwing and lifting, opening the chest until each body becomes a fully expressive vessel. It’s so joyful, you want to know the steps, the uninhibited rocking of your own pelvis. And when they do finish their sequence, the dancers—residue of movement still present in hips that can’t quite let go of the beat—proclaim: “Rigidigidim de bamba de! Rigidigidim de bamba de! Rigidigidim!” It’s uplifting, exultant, and wonderfully infectious.