To a Western audience, mask wearing generally means concealing one's identity. This weekend, a riveting three-piece contemporary dance performance at Middlebury College's Mahaney Center for the Arts presents an alternative interpretation. In the words of the show's artistic director, dance professor Christal Brown, it suggests that donning a mask is a process of becoming, not disguising — and that "if one is proficient at the task of it, they can become anything."
Meticulously choreographed, visually stunning and performed at full throttle by the company's seven student dancers, The Meaning of the Masks uses dance techniques from around the globe to explore and interpret masking rituals across cultures. These include Japanese butoh dance, American fashion and the J'ouvert, aka Jouvay, carnival in the Caribbean.
"In the context of what [Americans] are used to, the mask is something that you're not; you're wearing some sort of alternate identity or you're trying to represent something that you don't normally present in everyday life," says dancer Cameron McKinney. "In the context [we explore], the mask you're wearing comes from within. It comes from some part of yourself."
In January, Brown took her students on a 10-day research trip to New Waves! Dance and Performance Institute in Trinidad and Tobago. They also spent months studying under guest choreographers at Middlebury: Shizu Homma, a specialist in butoh; and Ayo Janeen Jackson, a New York City-based contemporary dancer, fashion artist and current guest artist with Kyle Abraham.
The Meaning of the Masks is made up of three originally stand-alone works, premiering at Middlebury as one show.
The first piece, "Fly Catching," is choreographed by Homma and employs butoh, a dance style in which white-masked performers exaggerate absurd or grotesque movements in slow motion to explore taboo topics.
In "Paper Doll," choreographed by Jackson, three female performers systematically create and then deconstruct costumes made of pink tissue paper, huffing Sharpies and mimicking scrawls over their breasts and genitals, moving to a mix of frenzied, runway-worthy pop beats. At the climax of the piece, they turn their aggression inward, tearing at themselves with remarkable defiance, and then wither.
"Counting Carnival," choreographed by Brown, is a breathtaking 30-minute sprint with all seven members of the company. Each one embarks on an exhaustingly precise journey of repetitive movements onstage, carving out paths and points of connection amid an escalating flurry of activity. Collectively, the dancers make a beautifully disjointed swarm. But the piece is not all exhaustion and deterioration; the dancers occasionally convey genuine pleasure — even intoxication — with their masks, which give them new realms to explore.
"'Counting Carnival' was the underbelly of this whole process," says Brown. When she took her students to the Caribbean five months into the multi- semester artistic process, they understood that the piece they'd been rehearsing was liable to shift by the end of the trip. It might even be thrown out completely. Interacting with the place, people and culture behind the dance could profoundly alter their understanding of it.
"What I wanted to do was give the students an entry point into vernaculars and movement techniques of African diaspora, without it being a physical assumption of movement," Brown explains. "I wanted them to have a cultural understanding that was rooted in the place they were studying, [and to understand] that just moving in a typical or stereotypical way would not suffice."
Under Brown's tutelage, the students were asked to submit to a creative process that was conceptually and artistically rooted in authentic, fully embodied performance.
For the Jouvay, "there's this idea that you 'play' a mask; you don't 'wear' a mask, becoming a character," Brown says. "And as you see in really wonderful actors and really wonderful thespians, the more you play a character, the more it becomes part of you."
Getting her students to embrace an emotional, rather than merely technical, approach to contemporary dance involved manifold lines of inquiry. These included an anthropological examination of the yearlong preparation that Jouvay participants put into "becoming" their carnival masks; and of the daily "masking" rituals of hair and makeup styling in American culture. The student performers spent a fair amount of time in group discussions and writing personal essays.
The company seems to have approached the process with no holds barred — and it shows in the performance.
"For me, [the meaning of masks] has become to find a place, a mental place, where I can dance full out," says dancer Hai Do. "The process for me has been 'What do I need to do to prepare to get into the mask, and what do I try to tell, as I'm standing there in it?'"