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Detail of Kara Walker’s The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin (Courtesy of the museum)

Kara Walker, T. Lang Dance converse in High Museum work that reimagines history

T. Lang Dance this week will inhabit the High Museum of Art with an interactive performance titled A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now. The work — an Afrofuturist montage of dance and projection mapping technology with a live audio score — aims to confront, heal and reimagine history.

The High commissioned Lang, asking her to respond to Kara Walker’s The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin. The nearly 60-foot-wide cut-paper silhouette installation, based on the Confederate memorial carving on Stone Mountain, became part of the High’s collection in 2017. The dance is designed as a conversation with Walker’s art, the guiding spirit of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the time-traveling ethos of Afrofuturist pioneer Sun Ra (1914–93).

Kara Walker (Photo by Michele Crosera)

The celebrated and sometimes controversial Walker lives and works in New York. The installation artist, a former MacArthur “Genius” Grant fellow, is best known for her candid investigation of race, gender, sexuality and violence through silhouetted figures that have appeared in exhibitions worldwide. She has a B.F.A. from the Atlanta College of Art and an M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design.

A Graveyard Duet, conceived as a solo work, includes four women in this iteration.

Lang’s work has long been involved in pushing her art and movement practice, embedded in the personal histories of black people and the experience of the African diaspora, into the future with virtual and augmented reality. Her West End studio space, the Movement Lab ATL, is an incubator for breaking beyond boundaries of genre and engaging the community with programs such as Black Endurance, which include public talks on the intersection of art, technology and wellness.

A Graveyard Duet will be performed at 8:45 p.m. May 22–24. Seating is limited. Admission includes access to a post-performance Q&A session. Tickets ($14.50; free for High members) are available through Eventbrite or at 404.733.5000.

ARTS ATL spoke with Lang about the development of the work and how she’s pushing the boundaries of dance and visual art through interactive technology.

ARTS ATL: Can you describe how you began exploring the ritual movements that underpin A Graveyard Duet of the Past Now?

T. Lang: As I was developing the work through a residency at Hambidge, I was responding to the quiet, the forest, communing with nature. I just felt like it didn’t call for dance language like pirouettes, but it called for a language of mending and tending and dripping and pouring and slipping and mixing. Simultaneously, I was having these conversations with my dramaturg, Marlies Yearby, and director Michelle Hite — as well as Torey Best, the composer — about what we aimed to do with the work. It felt like we were creating a ceremonial ritual, with all of these ingredients. We were asking, “How do you care for a soul?” inspired by Dr. King’s legacy. Michelle took me on a site visit to [South-View] Cemetery, the initial resting place of Dr. King. Understanding all of the rich history, that sacred history that’s there, provoked me to move differently, in a way I’ve never felt like I’ve moved before. It wasn’t me alone having this solo dance — it was a duet, which was fascinating too.

T. Lang

ARTS ATL: But there is also a trio of women onstage with you?

Lang: Yes, the trio is an extension of the solo I developed. I wanted there to be branches that explored different traits of the solo. So, they are in conversation with me, and I am in conversation with Kara Walker, and we are all in conversation with history.

ARTS ATL: When did you first encounter Walker’s art?

Lang: I first saw her work in 2000. I don’t remember the title, but it was a source of inspiration to create. It gave me permission to spill my guts and speak honestly in my own work. We will be performing inside of a cube that is our sanctuary, our place to recharge and heal. It also looks like a grave, can be a prism or a border wall. The cube also is a bit of a signature, one I have utilized in past works. This piece is in conversation with my previous works too, with Post in particular.

ARTS ATL: So the projection mapping will happen on the cube? Will the audience interact with it?

Lang: My collaborators and I have worked since last spring gathering historical images from the Jim Crow era, the feminist era, photos that speak about immigration and gay rights. And we will put the data we have retrieved — from American history and injustices against humanity — on the screens that form the cube. We will get to indict history on those screens and rearrange it in order to find a new balance. We’ll have some seating around the cube. But we are also going to encourage the audience to change their seating throughout the show. The images will be mapped on the screen and will be manipulated in real time by the dancers.

ARTS ATL: You mentioned you weren’t sure if this performance would be perceived as dance and that, perhaps, this ritual movement is a departure for you. Can you address that?

Lang: I guess I am maturing as an artist, right? I haven’t performed a solo since graduate school. But I am now settling in and owning who I am, understanding new subtleties of the body that have power, awakening things that were previously numb. I don’t really think of it as a departure but more — this potent extension of my work.