This is a game-changer, the African American woman said, standing at the audience mic in the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Theatre on Friday evening. She and her family have enjoyed the High Museum of Art for 10 years, she said, but here tonight, “There are more Black people than I’ve ever seen at a museum talkback.” Her comment was the last in the evening’s Q&A session and inspired almost as much applause as the presentation itself, the world premiere of the dance film Permanent: EW SN.
The dance film was inspired by Radcliffe Bailey’s mixed-media canvas EW SN (2011), which is part of the museum’s permanent collection. It was a collaboration between Komansé Dance Theater, founded and directed by Raianna Brown, and Orchestra Noir. It launched “Permanent Project,” an initiative dedicated to new artistic interpretations of works by Black artists in the High’s collection. The African Diaspora Art Museum of Atlanta, led by director Fahamu Pecou, developed the concept with the High.
Friday’s standing ovations and cheers were well-deserved. Permanent: EW SN is a powerful piece anchored by Brown’s robust choreography, assured and emotionally dynamic performances from 25 dancers and an evocative score by Jason Ikeem Rodgers, founder of Orchestra Noir. Brown and Kamryn Harris directed.
Bailey’s painting evokes the Great Migration. It’s dominated by images of railroad tracks and city buildings, representing the Underground Railroad and the Northern cities to which millions of African Americans fled. The film focuses on what might be imagined as the beginning of the journey — for instance, a line of dancers in a dark field, swaying slightly from side to side as if on a slow and arduous walk. Fear and hope are palpable.
The performance section of Permanent: EW SN is only 10 minutes long. The second part features behind-the-scenes footage of its creation. Throughout, Brown’s choreographic voice was clear, focused and uncompromising, and Rodgers’ original music — dominated by strings — was at times driving, at other times quiet.
The film opened with a split screen. On the left, a woman’s face is silhouetted against a blue background, mirroring an image from the painting. Cut to a female dancer (Tiki Hopson) and a violinist (Stephen Lawrence) standing in front of the painting. She reaches one leg into a high extension as he plays a mournful solo, the beginning of a compelling cinematic journey. Split screens gave the film depth and complexity; a dance phrase at the end of one shot was often picked up at the beginning of the next. Some sections were filmed in the High’s spacious lobby and on the multilevel walkway in the Richard Meier building. Others were set in what looked like a studio space.
Most of the movement is performed in groups — signaling perhaps the need for, and strength in, community. The dancers executed dense phrases of Lester Horton-inspired modern vocabulary, deep lunges and ballet-based turns, jazz and street dance with power and urgency. Themes included vigorous arm gestures like pulsing wings ready for flight, strong leg extensions, Krumping vocabulary such as open palms and fighting fists, and the charged gesture of right hand on heart.
Brown has a history with that gesture. While studying industrial engineering at Georgia Tech, she was the only member of the Gold Rush dance team to take a knee at a 2017 Yellow Jackets’ game. No hand on heart. Now, instead of a bended knee she is taking a stand against racial injustice with this film. The good news is that it will last much longer than one national anthem.
As Brown, Rodgers and Pecou explained during the panel discussion, the concept for the Permanent Project and Permanent: EW SN was born last year after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. Brown described her work as standing in the present, supported by the ancestors, supporting the generations to come. It brought to mind one of her dance ancestors, Alvin Ailey. He founded his New York dance company in 1958, when the civil rights movement was gathering momentum. He drew from African American spirituals, the enduring rituals of faith, the sensuality of jazz music.
Ailey and Brown are heirs of Lester Horton’s technique, but today Brown, Rodgers and their collaborators are not afraid to create images that are starker, more raw; music that is discordant, uncertain at times; movement that is more concerned with making you pay attention than entertaining, although it does both. The film confronts, mourns and pulses with emotion.
Permanent: EW SN was screened twice on Friday. When the audience for the 7 p.m. show exited, there was a long line waiting for the 8 p.m. showing. There will be at least one more screening, but not at the High. It will be for the residents of the English Avenue neighborhood, to whom the film is dedicated.