David Thomson never stops asking questions, of himself, of others, of this society and world. In a dialogue with him about his new work, “he his own mythical beast,” he described the five- year process as one of “finding my voice, figuring it out.” It was both a measure of his humility and the depth of his artistic conscience that allowed this experienced, respected performer to make that claim. A particularly beautiful mover, seen in many other choreographers’ works, Thomson’s physical voice is also unusually deep and resonant. It's a voice that needs to be heard.
In “Beast” (Thomson’s apt nickname for the new work,) he investigates themes of race, gender, and identity. Constructed from several dance explorations over the last five years, his chilling images and tales are particularly powerful in this political and cultural moment in America. Texts (including those credited to the production’s visual designer, Peter Born) are peppered throughout, reinforcing Thomson’s belief that words – and stories – are keys to insight. A harrowing lobby installation includes disturbing video and written material from thinkers from Malcolm X to Hannah Arendt, and is preparation for the audience to absorb the complex weave of imagery and the challenges of “Beast.”
In his early investigations, Thomson was inspired by the Hottentot Venus, a slave woman, Sarah Baartman, who was exhibited in Europe in the 19C. Thomson was inspired by this transgressive image of beauty to create the “Venus” solo in 2012. As Venus, Thomson hides his own dark brown skin with an even darker black latex mask covering his skull and face. In a flowing white dress and spiked heels, he is bizarrely beautiful. In mesmerizing solos, he lurches from sweeping, long twirls in one scene, to wickedly sexual taunting in another. His black many-gendered Venus forces an encounter of what it is to be an artist -- or an exploited performer? Venus is one facet of his own mythical beast.
Cast member Paul Hamilton helped Thomson imagine a second facet, his doppelgänger. The two dancers, both tall men with very dark skin and closely shaved heads, have often been mistaken for each other. Fascinated by this racially-driven confusion, Thomson described their “twinning” scenes as a search for the chimaera, an elusive inner self (also the name of a uniquely multi-faceted mythical Greek beast.) Opening the work, as if reflections in a mirror, Hamilton circled Thomson with in illuminated cut out window, shining the light into Thomson’s face in the darkness; then Hamilton turned the same light on himself – in so many ways the same kind of face, but infinitely different as unique faces are. Throughout the piece, Thomson and Hamilton encountered each other – mirror images dancing toward and around each other, sitting across from each other. Occasionally they intertwined, one head sliding around the other’s neck; they are not one being, but they were deeply connected.
Jodi Bender is the first member of this cast, working with Thomson since 2012. One of the earliest movement constructions, called “the session” by the cast, is a potent scene of violence and domination, where blonde Bender overpowers Hamilton, dragging him along the floor, catching his throat in a choke-hold, lightly running her fingers across his skin only to pinch and slap it, kick and abuse him. The buckling of stereotypes and reversals of stereotypical expectation leave the audience breathless.
In a different pairing, Jodi Bender and Katrina Reed traded places under a ghostly white cloth that hid their heads as each spoke; their muttered text also implied dominance and submission, perhaps about race or age or an uncertain relationship (“I have to catch you or I don’t get paid; I have to chase you.”) Their partnership shifted, including their own mirroring (though in our race-conscious world, they have surely never been mistaken for the other.)
Saluting the sky with upstretched arms, or lying together on the floor like girls telling secrets at a slumber party, their identities-- and their relationship-- were as mysterious as the men’s. Near the close, Bender and Reid encountered Hamilton as he rolled across the length of the floor. The women scrambled around him, frantically drawing his body outline with white chalk on the floor. The result was a beautiful kinetic visual – and a strange crime scene whose victim couldn’t rest for his outline to be recorded.
Each pairing and intersection told a story. But what was most compelling was still the hero of this myth, Thomson struggling from one self (the Black Venus) to a second (half of a mirrored self) to a third (his father’s son) to numerous others. Even his pedestrian moves seemed heroic, like the way his thin, muscled arms reached into space, or his elegant calves and legs vamped in those spiked heels. Though much of the movement is muscular, he didn’t let go of the gentle and delicate, floating in the white shroud of a dress, or twirling his elegant fingers as if parting cotton, or clouds.
In Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the beast in every fable is also a shadow of the hero, whose quest is always for self-knowledge and identity. David Thomson’s mythical beast is no exception; the shadows in his dance and the light and mirror he reflects in a dark world all nourish a heroic quest.
Photos from "he his own mythical beast" ©Maria Baranova:
Top: David Thomson
Second: David Thomson and Paul Hamilton
Third: Jodi Bender and Katrina Reid
Fourth: David Thomson
"he his own mythical beast"
COIL Festival 2018
Performance Space New York
January 31, 2018