Black Urban Choreography: NIC Kay’s “Pushit!” at the TBA, Portland, Oregon
by Lucy Cotter
A cluster of pearly white balloons is pulling on a ribbon, lulled by the soft September breeze. Accentuated by a single disco-ball balloon, it’s the kind of object that might herald the arrival of a new beauty salon. But this ribbon is tied, noose-like, around the neck of a human being, the black performer NIC Kay. Standing on a street corner in residential Portland, Oregon, their body is poised and tense, eyes downcast. After several minutes of stillness their feet start to move, turning inward and outward as if direction is impossible. The infinitesimally small movements seem to slow down, down, down. Then arms rise, palms pointing forward like a directional prompt for an aircraft. With a sudden upward swoop of arms, like a bird taking flight, Kay strides forward so quickly that the gathered crowd is left behind. Jolted into action by this sudden speed, this moment of the Time Based Art Festival (TBA) transforms into something urgent. As if the country’s divided politics and racial tensions have seeped through the cracks in the concrete, gathered by the magnetic force of this moving body in space.
Clad in a bodysuit printed with star constellations, as if fallen to Earth with the sole purpose of prompting this street into action, Kay is “obsessed with the act and process of moving the change of place, production of space, position, and the clarity/meaning gleaned from shifting of perspective.” Growing up in the Bronx, they became attuned to the movement of black people in urban choreographies devised by the powers that be. Kay asked themselves how to be in relation to those realities as a dancer. Pushit! [Exercise 1 in Getting Well Soon] (2018) is one of a set of exercises designed as “a meditation on emotional labor and the impossibility of the stage as a place of freedom for the Black performer.” It follows works like the web series Bronx Cunt Tour (2016), which engaged their experience of living in “a black feminine queer body.” Kay’s influences and inspirations include black improvised dance as a tradition and practice, and particularly footwork in the house scene in Chicago and Detroit, as well as in South African and Brazilian dance with similar rhythms. They find a source of solace in the philosophies and breath work of Butoh, while Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic show (2014), with its various states of anxiety, and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016) have been important artistic and theoretical touchstones.1
With Pushit! there is a sense of watching something on the brink of articulation, a feeling mirrored in the trembling, muttering movements of Kay’s lips as they pause at various urban sites—a sun-bleached, grassy expanse in front of Emanuel Hospital, a playground in Dawson Park, a sleek office building on North Williams. Ranging from softened street-dance popping movements through an abstracted repertoire of contemporary dance gestures, Kay’s performance strategies demand disciplinary and locational freedom. The one-and-a-half-hour length of the performance feels endless, broken up into various dreamlike sequences, including displays of slow movement, shrieks that barely sound human, and unexpected sprints that activate the crowd to use up their own bodily resources if they want to bear witness, to be a part of this.
The collective intensity is such that the observer-participants stop caring if they are on the sidewalk or the street. Cars slow down; bicycles do U-turns to avoid collisions. There is a trancelike sense of following a contemporary Pied Piper as we walk (and run) through neighborhoods that could be plotted on a spectrum from neglect to gentrification, forming a visible, if crosshatched, color line. The route selected by the artist runs through three neighborhoods that form part of the Albina area of north Portland, which for most of the twentieth century was home to the majority of the city’s African American population. Previously home to new European immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s, restrictive covenants meant that lower Albina became one of the few places African American families could live and work as the black population increased by tens of thousands in the early 1940s in response to the construction of shipbuilding yards along the Columbia River. Kay’s chosen sites resonate with the displacements of black populations as part of the urban renewal programs of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with developments like Emanuel Hospital causing the neighborhood of Eliot (and others like it) to shed more than half of its black population. This percentage displacement is mirrored in contemporary gentrification strategies throughout the Albina area, with its juxtapositions of hip cafés and run-down shops, weathered homes and gleaming new apartments.
I am left haunted by the moment when Kay aligned their body with the pole of a dead-end sign, their face gleaming with sweat, their mouth muttering as if in prayer, as if in pain, as if the noose around their neck was tied to a gallows. Words like “affliction” come to mind; the suffering of peoples over time evoked by the tense, agitated, contorted presence of Kay’s body. Appearing neither or both male and female, young and old, of now and of other times, their body seems an alchemical container. Kay’s alternation between frozen stillness and a speed that evokes fleeing echoed and materialized what C. Riley Snorton chillingly referred to as “the ongoing question of being and non-being,” subject and object, “the ontological slipperiness of blackness,” past and present.2
The rhythm of Kay’s body movements was so intensely suggestive of a beat that it was almost audible. And suddenly, following the abrupt shift from a desolate industrial landscape to a designated artistic site, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, there was music—the trap beat of rapper O. T. Genasis’s “Push It! (Go Get the Money)” (2016). Perhaps it was the score that Kay had silently heard in their own body as they moved through the streets, playfully recalled in the disco-ball balloon, which paid homage to black queer performance. A beat with lyrics that echo the Crips and the Bloods selling crack cocaine in Albina in the 1980s, before gentrification took hold in the 1990s. As observer-participants we were nevertheless initiated in the unexpected hope of finding release in the body through music. There was a visible lightening of the psycho-physical burden carried by Kay on the streets of Portland as they melted into the joyous and celebratory tune of what they had chosen “as an anthem of black excellence,” before disappearing out of the shuttered warehouse doors.
In their subsequent talk with black studies scholar d.a. carter at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Kay remarked that the participation of the passersby in Portland was unique relative to other US cities. They overheard snippets like, “Is that a freedom march?” and “That’s popping and locking,” whose intonations suggested the voices of people of color. I remembered someone shouting, “What are you walking for?” and one of the crowd impulsively replying, “For art,” which hardly covered the spectrum of motivations for being there, but met with approval. The celebratory dance of Kay’s closing performance echoed the freestyle street-dance battle that took place on PICA’s floors on the festival’s opening night, with five hundred or more people of every age, ethnicity, and background spilling into the space to watch.3 That fragile sense of community doesn’t detract from the gravity of the current situation in Portland or the United States as a whole. Kay’s exercises promise no answers to the burning questions of social justice or racism, but through their infectious inner tensions, determination, joy, and hopelessness, they invoke their full complexity.
1. I cite C. Riley Snorton here and below due to his current research at the intersection of black, Africana, trans, queer, and performance studies, presented in a lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), Portland, September 7, 2018, as part of the TBA Festival.
2. Kay discussed these influences in a public conversation with d.a. carter at the PNCA on September 10, 2018 as part of the TBA festival.
3. Organized by The Beautiful Street, a local platform for street-dance artists, and curated by Katie Janovic, Jesus Rodales, and Brandon Harrison, the event featured displays of various forms of street dance by Decimus, JuJu Nikz Lockstatic, Yen Boogie, Daniel Girón, Deadshot, and Alia Lux, as well as a battle between Button, Bradass, Chris Moua, DonnaMation, Tomb, Liz, and Protoman (Robin Rojas), with that last emerging as the ultimate winner.
The US West Coast premiere of Pushit! [Exercise 1 in Getting Well Soon] (2018) took place on September 9 and 11 as part of the Time Based Art Festival 2018, organized by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and curated by its artistic directors, Roya Amirsoleymani, Erin Boberg Doughton, and Kristan Kennedy.
Lucy Cotter is an independent writer and curator. She was curator of the Dutch pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2017, presenting Cinema Olanda with artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh. She is currently completing a book entitled Art Knowledge: Between the Known and the Unknown, among other new projects.