Dance Meets Journalism: Brick by Brick Dance’s New Work Addresses the Immigrant Experience

Rohan Bhargava and Alexandra Montalbano in Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sardello, Courtesy Bates.

Rohan Bhargava and Alexandra Montalbano in Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sarvello, Courtesy Bates.

New York, N.Y. It takes a certain skill to make a piece of art addressing current events or a sociopolitical issue—say, refugees and immigration—without losing the art in the process. It takes another to be an effective enough collaborator to combine two mediums—say, dance and film—without either losing their vibrancy or ceding interest to the other. With Somehow We End Up Here, Again, presented August 24–26 at Manhattan’s HERE performance space, Georgina Bates demonstrated that not only does she have these skills in spades, but also that she possesses a nuanced grasp of composition that allows her dancers to appear as individuals and storytellers in their own right. With choreography and direction by Bates and film by Diana Diroy and Jihii Jolly, the work probes the American immigrant/refugee experience, humanizing what has become a particularly contentious topic.

It begins with a program note: As part of the pre-show announcement, we’re told that all of the stories we would see and hear in the course of the evening are true. In the dark, the first dancer enters the stage space, illuminated by a flashlight, crouching and stumbling to the sound of whistling. One after another the seven performers  enter from downstage right, slowly forming a circle as the room lightens. The music begins and they break into pairs; Rohan Bhargava and Hala Shah slow dancing awkwardly, violently, before breaking apart, Bhargava to Nimisha Mahiyaria, Shah to Alexandra Montalbano. Seemingly out of nowhere, they fall. On the back wall, the first of many film segments plays. A number of New Yorkers introduce themselves, perhaps mentioning the country where they were born—I jotted down Jamaica, Peru—before coming here, perhaps illegally. Toward the end, the dancers, seen only in silhouette, begin to shift, crawling toward center. As the film disappears, a voiceover remains as the dancers’ soundtrack.

Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sardello, Courtesy Bates.

Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sarvello, Courtesy Bates.

This sequence—dance, fall, video, repeat—is a pattern that permeates much of the work. Though I expected it would quickly grow stale and predictable, the shift of focus from the dancers to the film always occurred in unexpected moments. Frequently, these were the very moments when, as an audience member, I felt I needed a pause from the action onstage to be able to draw breath. Diroy and Jolly’s work could stand on its own merits, but being spaced out as it is lends another dimension to the narrative build. We hear immigrants speak of missing their families, of not truly knowing their country of birth. We see clips from the news, specifically the protests at NYC airports following the Trump administration’s travel ban. (Had these performances not occurred prior to the recent developments surrounding DACA, it undoubtedly would have found a place here.) We hear about sanctuaries, about groups who assist and support those facing deportation. Mostly, we see human beings.

Kristi Cole, Nimisha Mahiyaria, and Rohan Bhargava in Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sardello, Courtesy Bates.

Kristi Cole, Nimisha Mahiyaria, and Rohan Bhargava in Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sarvello, Courtesy Bates.

The same is true of the dancers. Solos stand out. Mahiyaria sings in another language, taking stilted, syncopated steps half on her toes one moment and sharply, sensuously leading with her hips the next. She throws her arms into the air and it’s as if you can see her anger ripple up her spine. Shah bursts from a group of shaking women screaming, flying through turns that shiver up the back of her neck, offering her hands before hitting the floor. Earlier she embodied an elegant weariness as she flowed through soft movements that would re-emerge, glistening, like repeated prayers throughout the piece, but here even Shah’s preternatural calm is shaken. When the dancers speak, they are as likely to do so in their mother tongue as they are in English—expressive as they are, the tone translates to the monolinguals in the audience (myself included), if not the details.

Rohan Bhargava in Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sardello, Courtesy Bates.

Rohan Bhargava in Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sarvello, Courtesy Bates.

Perhaps most affecting is Bhargava’s solo turn. At first he is alternately entangled in a duet with Kristi Cole and a trio that adds Mahiyaria, the latter twisting her hands into Cole and Bhargava’s clasped arms, the women catching Bhargava with unlikely handholds when a sudden hinge brings his head inches from the floor. They handle each other with care (something that holds true almost universally throughout the piece), cradling heads and placing hands reverentially. When Cole overbalances, Bhargava catches her; a shift, and she is the one lifting and supporting him. But something seems to break when she flies into him a bare moment later, Bhargava throwing her down and snapping at her in (what I believe to have been) Hindi. Alone, he grows frantic, spinning through jumps and dropping to his knees, his agitated tone angry, yet beseeching. A repetitive cutting motion takes him to the floor; he pauses for a long, painful moment balanced on one knee, two hands, and his head, his face obscured. He repeats his movements, then stands and tries to walk normally, shaken. Finally, in English, he tells us, “There’s no word for ‘gay’ in Hindi. And if there was, I never heard it.”

Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sardello, Courtesy Bates.

Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sarvello, Courtesy Bates.

Though the solos are largely what stick with you, the sections for the group, beautifully danced and intelligently composed through the entirety of the work, are what create the world that allows the individual stories to land with such weight. The ensemble fractures into duos and trios that create visual and rhythmic counterpoint; two dancers tearing through something athletic and fast-paced might thread themselves between another pair flowing through material with meditative slowness.

Rohan Bhargava and Kristi Cole in Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sardello, Courtesy Bates.

Rohan Bhargava and Kristi Cole in Somehow We End Up Here, Again. Photo by Thomas Sarvello, Courtesy Bates.

But the final moment of the piece finds the performers standing still in a single file line. One by one, they begin to sing in their native languages. And one by one, the person behind them reaches around and covers their mouth, muffling their songs as they continue until they all fall to their knees and raise their own hands to their mouths. It’s an eerily familiar image, having been shown early in the work on screen, and it’s heartbreakingly effective. My one complaint about the evening as a whole was that this image did not occur sooner, as I felt we had only just reached the most interesting moment as the work came to an abrupt end.

At the end of the performance, I had nothing but praise for the dancers. (Bonnie Bushnell and Kendra Isobel Samson, though I did not mention them above, were equally vital members of the cast.) Kudos to Bates and her collaborators for creating such a wonderfully realized evening of work. One can only hope that its message is seen and heard by more of the people who need it.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Courtney Escoyne is an assistant editor and contributor at Dance Magazine. A recent graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, her writing can also be read in Pointe and on her blog, Thoughts From a Ballet Nerd.