Choreographer Deja Stowers and visual artist Bill Cottman prove to be a fruitful team with “Blaq Presence,” their new offering at the Southern Theater. Danced by five black women from Blaq, where Stowers serves as artistic director, the show features some remarkable visual moments.
The piece draws inspiration from Toni Morrison’s children’s book “The Big Box,” written by the famed novelist with her illustrator son, Slade Morrison. The picture book tells the story of three children who are confined by their parents to a large box, because they “can’t handle their freedom.”
Like the children’s story, “Black Presence” centers around a white box, large enough that the dancers can enter as the audience sees their silhouettes. Video projected onto the box appears to show the women inside, in addition to more abstract visualizations.
A large screen at the back of the stage is also used for creating shadows and for projecting images. The piece’s opening moment is especially captivating, as the dancers’ silhouetted bodies morph into abstract shapes.
Heidi Eckwall’s lighting design adds to the stunning look. A key part of Eckwall’s design includes squares of light that pop up throughout the hourlong performance. They’re also used to punctuate poignant moments and highlight solo sections.
One such solo, performed by Lindsey Hunter, is backed by gorgeous footage of moving water. Hunter’s graceful movements have the lovely effect of making her appear as if she’s swimming.
Stowers’ choreography often draws on West African dance vocabulary, with additional sections that focus on gestural movement and the playfulness of children. Stowers isn’t afraid to use stillness in the work — a refreshing choice in an era of constant movement and short attention spans.
Beneath the narrative and rich visuals lies a statement about violence against black bodies, which is subtly unveiled without feeling overly politicized.
The piece’s main struggle lies in the transitions, which sometimes lag. It has an episodic structure, with one section often looking very different from the last. That lack of through-line and arc seems to be intentional, but it also makes it a challenge to journey with the piece from beginning to end.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.