Ever heard of Gee's Bend, Ala.? If the name rings a bell, chances are it's thanks to the community's extraordinary quilts. The African-American women's handiwork has become an art world sensation with numerous national exhibitions from the Whitney Museum to the Speed Museum in Louisville.
New York City-based Wideman/Davis Dance created a dance theater piece at the start of it all, and now Contemporary Dance Theater brings the company's evening-length quilt-inspired production to Cincinnati.
The Bends of Life isn't your average contemporary dance performance. Two dancers and two actors make up the cast, and all speak and interact with each other. Dance, movement and theater fill the stage in equal measure, all adding up to Thaddeus Davis' and Tanya Wideman-Davis' company mission.
"Part of our mission is to kind of blur the line between dance, theater and reality," Davis says. "The exclusive purpose of that is so that as an audience member you can take a look at this and you can go, 'Hmm. I have something to say about that.'
Because for me, I'm really interested in conversation."
That's good, because the co-founders will be involved in post-performance discussions after shows both Friday and Saturday.
Both Davis and Wideman-Davis are veteran dancers with extensive experience in both classical and contemporary forms, having performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Donald Byrd/The Group and other esteemed companies. They stress that they want to be more than dancers — they want to be real people.
"As dancers, we are multi-layered people," Wideman-Davis says. "We want to show all of those layers."
"All the technical things and all that stuff is in there, but the most important thing is that we be human and not try and be dancers," Davis adds. "We're not interested in being dancers that don't speak because we only dance. No, we have dialogue."
Dialogue proved fruitful to the work in other ways. Wideman-Davis and Davis had the opportunity to speak with some of the quilt-making women of Gee's Bend prior to creating the work. About four years ago, Davis — himself a native of Montgomery, Ala. — was approached by Auburn University to create a piece to celebrate the Gee's Bend quilt exhibition at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Art in Auburn, Ala.
Wideman-Davis says she heard a student there ask one of the women, "Have you ever sold a quilt that you wished you could have gotten back?"
"She said, 'Yeah, I sold a quilt that I raised my son on,' " Wideman-Davis says. "The student said, 'Well, why didn't you just buy it back?' She says, 'I couldn't afford to buy that quilt back.' "
Thus a segment called "Mr. Capitalism" was born.
The Bends of Life delves into other issues, too. Davis describes how the performance travels through factual history with fictional characters.
"We take this couple through slavery to sharecropping to gaining the right to vote, the Civil Rights movement, through Roosevelt's New Deal," he says. "All of these things are important things that happened historically in America. And so it's not just exclusively an African-American story. It's American history and an American story."
Through time, cloth and textiles have spawned communal metaphors: "cut from the same cloth," "a tight-knit group," "the fabric of society." Clearly, the Wideman/Davis organization wants to bring people together using universal themes.
Davis explains that the story of The Bends of Life is about the beauty of the quilts and how they held a family together in times of sorrow, passion and life changes. The women would convene at a quilting bee, each would take a corner and they would sew and fellowship.
It's interesting to note that Davis' great-great grandmother (who's from Alabama) made some of the heirloom quilts used in the show, while others were replicated by Wideman-Davis' mother.
Speaking about seeing the Gee's Bend quilt exhibition for the first time, Davis says, "I was expecting to see something I'd never seen before. And when I got to the museum and saw them I said, 'Oh, I have that one and I have that one and that one...' I don't want to belittle the exhibit, but it was, like, I understand it."
But what about the dancing? Davis says, "It is a human way of moving. It's a way of moving that is the everyday way that you see people working. It's very physical because I like physicality (for) one thing, but also because especially during the time in which it was, people worked. If you worked in the fields for eight hours, you didn't need a gym.
"The movement has a certain kind of speed to it. It has a certain kind of infusion of the usage of ballet lines — because that's where we come from — but it has an infusion of contemporary modern aesthetic. It has an infusion of just everyday pedestrian walking. It has all those things to create an environment that a person can identify with as being human, not being dancers on the stage, but these are real people. ... Because of the subject matter, it's for real."
WIDEMAN/DAVIS DANCE is presented by Contemporary Dance Theater at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater. Buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.