The arts at Wesleyan have long been known as one of the pillars of the University, characterized by student works that dare to cross boundaries drawn by genre, time, and narrative. Actors collaborate with filmmakers to create layered multimedia performance pieces, and dancers grace stages accompanied by musical scores composed by their peers. In creative efforts that take place nearly every weekend on campus, artists of all mediums come together to create something that is distinctly their own, producing shared stories tied together by a love of self-expression.

But projects of this variety are not limited to works produced by Wesleyan students, who often look to members of the arts faculty for creative mentorship. In fact, faculty members face challenges similar to those of University students, balancing academic responsibilities with creative pursuits, all while using the talents of those around them to further learn, grow, and create as artists.  

Such is the premise that gave rise to “Storied Places,” a collaborative multimedia dance project headed by Chair and Associate Professor of Dance Nicole Stanton, Adjunct Professor of Music and African American Studies Jay Hoggard, Director of the Center for African American Studies Lois Brown, and visual artist L’Merchie Frazier.

The piece is an exploration of African American histories of migration, arrival, and subsequent displacement, conveyed by moving bodies that function as vessels of memory and archival narratives. Using Stanton’s choreography, dancers Rick Hong Manayan ’17, Kellie Ann Lynch, Annie Wang, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance Dante Brown ’09 adapted the movement to suit their own bodies and unique styles. Throughout the process, dancers derived material from improvisational exercises in rehearsal, watching one another move. Consciousness was transformed into movement, and movement modified by each mover.

“I think the point of this performance is to break the idea that there is this sort of one singular narrative with regard to migration,” Manayan said. “The fact that there are five dancers who can all move together, but in a way that’s still unlike each other, addresses the multiplicity of stories that are formed as a result of migration.”

Though the nuanced origins of its choreography and movement are just one element of the project that set it apart from many contemporary dance pieces, perhaps what is most notable is how much ground it covers in terms of artistic discipline.

While the dancers move and interact with one another on the stage, Hoggard’s musical composition adds another layer to the work. This sound will in turn be enhanced by spoken word excerpts written and performed by Brown, all under the light of holographic projections designed by Frazier. In Storied Places, therefore, the concept of migration will be addressed from a variety of viewpoints and artistic mediums, all joining together to express a layered investigation of a phenomenon upon which the U.S. has been, and continues to be, explicitly built.

We often hear the phrase “immigrant narrative” to describe the experiences foreigners have when entering and acclimating to life in the U.S. Images that come to mind might include trans-oceanic voyages that end at Ellis Island or the Japanese American Internment camps that were created under President Roosevelt’s administration with the intention of denying individuals of Japanese descent their basic citizenship and human rights.

Migration, however, can have a more nuanced definition. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “migration” denotes “the movement of people to a new area or country in order to find work or better living conditions.” “Immigration,” conversely, lacks the positive undertones that “migration” has, simply referring to the “action of coming to live permanently in a foreign country.”  

However, migration narratives are certainly not always heartwarming stories of finding home. Take, for example, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, in which he chronicles the mass exodus of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north in a series of small tempera paintings. Although the images offer snapshots of optimism, these hopes are juxtaposed against the grimmer realities of lives uprooted and futures uncertain.

Stories of migration have the potential to compel audiences, due in part to the nebulous quality of this type of narrative as an umbrella category. Migration can be permanent or transitory—it describes a movement or unfinished process. Narratives that derive from migratory experiences overlay memories of home, aspirations for the future, and perhaps most distinctly, reflections on times characterized by movement. It’s no wonder, then, that the individuals behind Storied Places chose to explore the concept of migration through dance.

By way of a sort of “renaissance process,” Stanton, Hoggard, Brown, Frazier and their ensemble of performers are challenging the very notion of the migration narrative. Both in the choreographic process and the execution of the show, the artists are seeking to present African American migration in all of its complexity. By blurring the lines between artistic genres via the acceptance of individual expression, Storied Places continues to advance the collaborative energy present in Wesleyan’s arts community, one that not only includes a plethora of bright and innovative students but many inspiring faculty members as well.

Spring Faculty Dance: Storied Places will take place on April 15 and 16 at 8:00 p.m. at the Center For Arts (CFA) theater. Tickets are being sold at the box office for $5 to Wesleyan students and $10 to the general public.

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