7 Names: Everett Saunders + Marjani Forté-Saunders
As I watch Kayla Farrish and Roobi Starla Gaskins warm up and rehearse (if it existed, the line between them floated beyond my perception), Marjani walks up to me and invites me to think about God. Roobi swings deep and shuffles light from left hip to right, she considers something in that middle space with eyes down, focus clear and soft.
Kayla swings her arms to herself, stomps, and steps to a deep crouch before swirling against where gravity would’ve taken her. As I watch these dancers watch something, shape a swath of air between their eyes and their arms, I wonder about the space they fling away from and find again, again.
Before the door to the studio is fully open, the music is louder than anything. The steady bass drum in The Chosen Gospel’s Singers’ “Prayer For The Doomed” treads on for most of my visit. Marjani Forté-Saunders’ and Everett Saunders’ son Everett Nkosi Zaire Saunders tours the studio, stopping to consider the dancers before continuing on, giving me a thumbs up as he passes.
Before offering me this prompt, Marjani speaks to Kayla and Roobi individually, who return to notebooks, records or mirrors of something they’re building towards. From a recent history of primarily choreographing works for one performer, Marjani expresses excitement about composing a work with these first-time collaborators. With Kayla and Roobi, Marjani offers guidance not just through words, but through her own dancing as well. As she watches them take these questions into their own bodies, she keeps dancing, keeps speaking. “Yes!” she exclaims.
For something worked on and studied to translate, even if just for this one witness this one day, is an easily satisfying feeling. As an artist, I get to trust process again. They get it, they see something. As a viewer, I can follow the thread. The artists are leading me places and we can go there, even with me in the seat of a plastic chair.
A week later, Everett asks the audience at the BAC Space Studio Showing, “How do you recognize an Emcee?” In a monologue that cites artists from Raekwon to Pharoahe Monch, Everett jabs at the air with pointed fingers to show the different textures emblematic of these figures’ rhythms. Embodiment, he tells us, is everything.
Beside him, Marjani wears on her head a sculpture from Memoirs of a... Unicorn (2017). The wooden horn sprawls more than the length of Marjani’s body as she makes the same gestures. When she stands, the horn waves from the crown of her head towards the ceiling, its weight changing how she could direct our sight through the studio, how her hands had scrawled on the studio just before.
This articulation finds still new dimension at the border of Roobi’s hands when she takes center stage. Marjani and Kayla take turns circling in short solos, idiosyncratic but not isolated. Everett raps, his voice fading and amplifying as he loops with them. Having pushed in one direction, Marjani whips her torso around to face another. Kayla floats, evoking vapor elusive but dense.
Marjani, Kayla, and Roobi prop up three plastic tables to reflect back Meena Murugesan’s projections, images of people spliced across imperfect surfaces. The floor’s spike marks had to be moved each time, Meena tells me after the show, each rehearsal a revision of catching photons in space at the angle they want us to see it. I won’t call it the right angle.
We’re asked to consider one’s natural response when approached with opposition or aggression. Even when dancing in unison, Marjani, Kayla, and Roobi don’t arrive at a singular right answer. A jump that propels the leg around the hips to turn the body unfurls together but creates three flashes of limb through space. Marjani tumbled through this move when they were marking through the material with audiences still entering. Laughing, she said, “I can’t do it.”
Of course she could. She did the move. “When teaching one to heal, you must also teach them how to fight,” Everett tells us.
To be able to see the work at this stage, after just a couple weeks of working all together, makes me wonder how this connection between them, the fluency in speaking and moving together, might evolve as the work grows.
For now, Everett picks up another monologue, germinated from last week’s rehearsal. Everett had worked to recapture the spirit of the original story he had once told Marjani. The details, the motifs, the gradual revelation of a spine, an unknown history of a place holding the heart of a community of Emcees/Lyricists, is revealed to us with smooth suspense. “We found God on that cold winter block” in North Philadelphia, Everett tells us.
What is a natural response? What is authentic storytelling told for a stage, rehearsed again and again? How can a private conversation keep its unceremoniousness in the ceremony of a performance scheduled for public engagement? What does it mean when white people are witnessing this work, when I, a Vietnamese-American writer, am writing about this work?
I don’t task the artists with answering these questions but they cross my mind as a viewer and as a writer.
Last week, in Roobi’s entrance following Everett’s section, Marjani asked Roobi to keep experimenting with the dynamics of her procession down the diagonal of the studio. To the opening notes of "Prayer for the Doomed," Roobi’s head could appear to be shaking, wondering or wandering somewhere we can’t know, each gaze switched nearly before being sent. Marjani had said to keep the motion in the body nice and small. Focus on the thing that keeps eluding you rather than any distraction, growing not on a linear progression but through another path.
And in the showing, this movement grows in the space outside Roobi’s skin as she turns around the place on her forehead where a unicorn horn would be. To have whipped the horn at Roobi’s velocity would have whipped it off.
But the way she was moving differently, echoing back to the horn on Marjani’s head, illuminated spaces between what I could see and what I could imagine, what I know and what I don’t. But beyond these vague invocations of the unknown, there is specificity. There’s texture to the movement of Emcees/Lyricists, history to the stories of Emcees/Lyricists, sounds richer than this text alone can convey.
Benedict Nguyen is a dancer, writer, and curator based in the South Bronx, NY. Benedict has recently performed in the works of José Rivera Jr., Sally Silvers, and Monstah Black. Their writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Culturebot, Dance Magazine, and Shondaland, among others. As the 2019 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow at ISSUE Project Room, they developed a multidisciplinary platform soft bodies in hard places. They're sometimes online @xbennyboo and compile essay-memes for their newsletter, first quarter moon slush.
Photos by Maria Baranova