The Low Mountaintop Collective’s Ronald K. Lewis
This month, AS220 LIVE ARTS presents its second annual MODERN MOVEMENTS Dance Festival, featuring 7 dance artists/companies which celebrate creativity and experimentation through the art of Dance. The festival began Saturday April 1st and continues through the month with performances, classes/workshops and discussions. I sat down with choreographer, playwright, and poet Ronald K. Lewis to discuss the development of his latest work, “The Light Show,” premiering at the festival April 6-8. Our conversation took a poignant turn towards the essential and functional role of the performing arts in our community, particularly in education. It’s a cloudy, rainy Monday and Ron and I are twinning in bright yellow sweaters, calling upon the inherent energies of the light spectrum to propel us through the days that lie ahead.
Ronald K. Lewis: “The Light Show” is a devised theatre piece that started with the question of what happens when light touches wounds. It started with creating text with the three other dancers [Kei Cobb, John Fraunfelter, Hanna Wegener] and 2 poets [Vatic Kuumba, Esteban Cornado]. We used different techniques to create the text. The text that came was quite cosmic, lots of things about sunsets and nebulas. One of the things we are using to give the work a frame is the light spectrum. We move through the spectrum, starting with the darker end of it, radio waves etc, moving into the visible light spectrum and into the invisible light spectrum, so there is all this metaphor and metaphysics to the work.
One thing we were really aware of was the [potential] “cheese” factor … like, you can’t call it “The Light Show” and then have all this “Pow! Pow! Pow!” [Ron is using his hands and face to set off imaginary fireworks]. It’s been a good exercise in not going with the thing that is the easiest — working in a larger circle, maybe coming back to the thing that was the easiest, but now seeing it very differently. This intersection of poetry and text and movement and dance is where I’ve been resting. A part of that, going back to this idea of not always going the easy route … it’s been really easy for me to land in this place of narrative and to tell a story. In our rehearsals some folks were asking, “OK, but what’s the STORY??” and I was like, “let’s stick with the frame of the light spectrum [and not worry about the story at first]”.
Nikki Carrera (Motif): So, how much is light a part of what you are doing? Are you working with actual lights in rehearsal?
RKL: We are moving through the visible light spectrum, red, orange, yellow … Vatic composed a piece [of poetry] for orange. There is a line, “oranges are the sweetest after the first freeze” so we are figuring out ways to incorporate oranges in the work. There is also a lot of dirt in this piece. And some very tiny LED lights.
NC: What do you suggest your audience come in with to experience this work, and do you have any hopes of what they will leave with?
RKL: Every poem has a question in it, so maybe giving those questions to the audience, and figuring out some way that information can be transmitted back to us and we can incorporate it in the work. So in some way we are all experiencing a ritual about healing or about the return of light.
NC: So how are you gonna do that?
RKL: I don’t know!! I’m still figuring it out!! [Ron’s big warm laugh fills the cafe and dances over the murmur of voices] I want people to leave with the desire to reflect on their own wounding, and the universality of that. Also, it’s 2017. The last quarter was a tumultuous one. What do you do after the bomb explodes and you’re injured and you’re limping and you’re trying to go forward but it’s hard because it’s murky, you know? I remember the day after Donald Trump was elected and moving through the city like it is today. Everyone was very solemn, internal, not present. It felt like a disaster just happened and everyone felt it. That’s a wound, right?
NC: Are there direct references to Donald Trump in the work?
RKL: Not directly. We as a collective decided that we did not want to make direct references to anything that was happening specifically right now. But I’m moving in that direction and that’s where I’m coming from. That, in itself, is a part of a larger colonial history, right? What’s really interesting is that it boils up in the work, it comes through a little bit. Esteban was saying a few weeks ago, “this work is about colonialism.” None of us really intended for that to be the case, but it’s a response to where we are right now in the world. So there’s a narrative, right?
NC: Yes, it’s living in the bodies of the performers.
RKL: In our consciences, right? I guess I use colonialism as an umbrella for these other things. I’m really working hard to be conscious of the performers that I ask to do the work. Sometimes that works out well and sometimes it doesn’t. I wish there were more women involved in the project. Hanna is the only female performing in the work. Her poem is about womanhood to some extent; for me the piece sort of ends in this place of divine womanhood; the actualization of being the antithesis of everything that our societal constructs espouse as dominant. I’m in conversation right now with Lo Smith and another female collaborator of hers, who will create visual projections of the text we have written. That was in response to the question of how we balance all of these energies.
Also, including artists of color is super important. Making sure there is space and access, right? Especially moving from my job teaching middle schoolers in city schools and moving into the rehearsal room and seeing who am I surrounded by and who am I asking to be a part of things … that felt very significant in creating this.
NC: What is the gap there?
RKL: From what I’ve observed at the school where I work, there is a large percentage of students who, for whatever reason, have some sort of language acquisition challenge. I see a lot of those students fall through the cracks and it’s really troubling. I’m teaching in this drama program and I remember last semester, we had 28 students in the class, 7 or 8 had a language issue, neither of us [teachers] speak any language but English. I would try to help and be there, but at the end of the day there’s all these students moving around and only two of us. I think how this ties into talking about performance work, specifically theatre, poetry, is that we are super English-centric here in the US. So if you don’t speak that or work with that language well, there’s almost no room for to express yourself. Because there’s no room, there is often then no interest. Once we teach these 11-14 year olds the magic … we start without the verbal, with pantomime, simple gestural work. That gives them this insight into what the magic is, and then introducing how language can operate. I see the joy in their faces when you’re like “ahhh this is how you turn on the sink and get the water!” [Ron performs the appropriate pantomime gestures] And the interest sparks and that’s where roads are being made. But I know that there aren’t many programs like this throughout Rhode Island. I can also speak to the fact that our theatre is falling apart, it’s a disaster, but then the middle school on the East side, their theatre is pristine and perfect and it’s like, “what’s happening here?” Facilities are a super important part of the issues of access.
NC: Can you talk a little more about how we get from access for middle school students to language acquisition to access to performers in our creative community?
RKL: Going back to this thing about who is in the room as far as race, gender, ability goes … What I’ve been finding very difficult is finding a community of performers of color, like an abundance, like a New York City of them … because we are present. But what I’m finding is that because we are in the minority, we are all stretched. Everyone is always busy, always has a project, or is like, “No, I’m sorry, I’m burned out and I need to take a break.”
Also to talk about this journey from middle school to the rehearsal room … even in college, I went to RIC and I remember the theatre program was like 90% white. That speaks to this issue of economics and who am I responsible for? Am I responsible for my community? Am I responsible for my self? I think a lot of people of color are responsible for their communities.
NC: So folks don’t make it into the college theatre program because they are working to contribute to their family …
RKL: Yes they are contributing to their family or they are pursuing something that is going to put food on the table. I see that and I get it. But I think that gatekeepers of the performing arts should agree that we should all try and create work that is sustainable — from the financial aspect to talking about the body, transportation, space. How are people getting there? Are people eating when they get there? What about if they have kids? Are we acting as a community? And by community, that has to translate to addressing the needs of the whole person. And this is the problem with every institution, every sector in society. At the college, there are very few people of color there, and then that filters out into the real world and I feel like in general, people who are performers feel a need to go elsewhere to make it sustainable. But there is a lot of work right here to be done. Locally there is so much potential to build and to create. Access. Get more people of color not just involved, but out there and noticed and seen. What stories do other people have to tell and what ways can they tell those stories? That could be completely different from how I thought a story could be told or how the academy thinks the story should be told. So making that space available.
The narrative of colonialism, access, the politics of people’s bodies in art, ever present and too often ignored, is playing out right now, in rehearsal studios, public schools and college arts programs — indeed all around us.
Grateful to Ron for his commitment to healing his own wounds and for his invitation to all of us to reveal our woulds to the balm of light, I look forward to experiencing the world premiere of “The Light Show” here in Providence.
AS220 presents Modern Movements Dance Festival
April 1st-April 23rd
AS220 Black Box Theatre and Dance Studio
95 Empire Street, PVD
$15-$20 / free for Brown and RISD students with ID