A black man offers directions to a black woman in a white gallery that includes a pink mattress. There is art, a set and a classic erotic text by a noted science fiction writer. We must be at Walker Art Center, right?
And the man must be choreographer/artist Ralph Lemon.
The provocative choreographer-turned-installation-artist is best known for large-scale works, including the decadelong Geography trilogy that dealt with collision between cultures in Africa, Asia and America. But now Lemon is premiering “Scaffold Room,” a piece at the intersection of performance and art, in the relative intimacy of a gallery at the Walker.
No matter where he stages his works, they are still defined by his high-minded artistic queries.
“Scaffold Room,” which is up this weekend, is about “acting out” and pushing against strictures and limitations, he said. The show orbits perceptions and archetypes around the bodies of black women.
“Scaffold Room” draws on erotic, sometimes pornographic, texts from the likes of Kathy Acker and Samuel Delany. The transgressive production, which incorporates space-age futurism, also juxtaposes music and movement from such figures as Moms Mabley and Beyoncé, Amy Winehouse and Adele. Lemon mashes up unusual texts, hoping that such combinations will create new sparks and insights.
“The bodies of black women are either considered public space or are invisible in the larger culture,” Lemon said last week before a rehearsal. “I wanted to explore, in a very personal way, why that is. Of course, I am very aware of the irony that I, as a black man, have gleaned inputs from many sources and am collaborating with black women who are interpreting my ideas through their bodies and talents.”
Lemon has held a series of open rehearsals of “Scaffold Room,” which will tour to New York and elsewhere after it closes at the Walker.
Last Friday, patrons wandered in and out of the Burnet gallery as Okwui Okpokwasili, one of the two live performers in the show, read excerpts from Delany’s “The Tides of Lust,” a 40-year-old erotic text by a writer best known for his science fiction.
She stood in a two-story set that resembles a storefront display. On the second level, there is a pink mattress. Below that, there’s a microphone. Okpokwasili, dressed in a silver bodysuit that made her look like someone who’d be at home on a spaceship, was watched by some patrons and ignored by others as music played and Lemon and his creative team buzzed around, adjusting things and giving her notes.
The open-rehearsal format, which can last four hours, is loosely structured. It is different from Lemon’s scripted, relatively tight show. The rehearsal allowed for patrons to see one of Lemon’s “refractions” in the gallery — interludes that explode moments in the show. The reading of the Delany text, for example, went on for about 20 minutes. In the show, it lasts for a minute or so.
“We take things and stretch them, going deeper, riffing on some ideas,” he said.
If the work comes across as messy and unruly, that is on purpose, according to Lemon.
“It’s a piece about complexities and contradictions,” he said.
A fruitful history
Lemon and the Walker go back 17 years. The center commissioned his Geography trilogy, a large-scale work that tackled questions of identity and home.
“Ralph is really pushing the envelope,” said Walker senior curator Philip Bither. “This is a departure and a deepening of his work and vision.”
Okpokwasili, an artist, writer and choreographer, has worked with Lemon on his past few pieces. She is used to interpreting his ideas.
In “How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?,” from a few years ago, she sobbed for more than 10 minutes onstage, an uncontrolled crying that channeled Lemon’s grief at the loss of a parent.
“All of this work is a personal quest,” Lemon said. “I’d like to say it’s universal, in the sense that we’re human, but. … ”
His dramaturge, Katherine Profeta, may disagree with that limitation. Profeta, a drama professor at Queens College in New York, has worked with Lemon since 1997, when he was an artist in residence at Yale and she was a graduate student.
“Ralph has a real impulse to break down barriers and to create innovative new works that push the field forward,” she said. “This piece embodies continuity from his other works but also something new. He’s exploring the black female body and desire using varied, unexpected texts.”
“Scaffold Room,” which includes live performance by April Matthis as well as video images and interviews, asks a lot of questions, said Lemon, but does not answer them. The piece seeks to reveal truths about the culture.
Profeta pointed to the example of adult texts that “Scaffold Room” highlights. Obscene words that are sung, Beyoncé-style, are at a remove from those that are simply spoken, she said. The singing takes the words into another realm — from pornography to art.
That, at least, is part of the hope that Lemon has for “Scaffold Room.”
“I’m an artist and my work, my ideas, are not limited by forms,” he said. “This piece is an exploration, and if it gets messy at times, that’s part of it. I want it to go wherever the ideas take me.”