Rosy Simas considers herself an artist, full stop. She’s not just a choreographer. This mind-set became apparent in her premiere performance of “Skin(s),” presented at Intermedia Arts over the weekend. This was a performance made of movement and dance, video imagery and projected poetry, lighting and sound design. And yet no element claimed hierarchical standing over the others. Instead, all the disciplines interacted for an intense experience.
Simas invited the audience into her world in several ways. First, rather than starting the performance in the theater, the performance began in the gallery at Intermedia Arts, where an exhibition of work by Native American artists, curated by Heid E. Erdrich, was on display. From there, the performers emerged donned in brightly colored Pendleton and Hudson Bay blankets, walking ritualistically while additional performers held projectors that cast video images onto the blankets.
Much of Simas’ choreography stayed low to the ground. The performers were often crouched, knees bent, almost as if weights drew them closer to the floor. Their movements were often slow as they used their bare arms to reach outward and around them, searching for something. There were also more agitated sections, as François Richomme’s palpitating soundscape reached a level of cacophony and the dancers jerked and grasped in tormented frenzy. Performers closed their eyes or held an internal gaze for much of the show, but one performer — Jessica Akpaka — stared straight into the audience, as if demanding to be seen. She did it twice, the second time slowly walking backward with her mysterious stare.
The dancers’ bodies weren’t merely set against a backdrop of design elements — they were integrated parts of the whole aesthetic. Richomme’s sound design propelled the choreography. The dancers moved about the scenic design’s distressed paper and fabric backdrops, a metaphorical skin that enveloped the stage. Valerie Oliveiro’s stark lighting design cast shadows about the dancers. And projected video by Simas (with contributions by Elizabeth Day) created a moody, textured landscape, while Heid E. Erdrich’s compact poetry framed the work conceptually.
The ritualistic elements employed by Simas produced the sense of an arch, though it was non-narrative. A member of the Seneca nation, Simas drew on her own experience and research to create the work, but even in that specificity there was something universal about the message. With a diverse cast representing a number of racial and ethnic identities, “Skin(s)” speaks to the journeys and struggles of living within one’s own skin, with all its joys and pitfalls for the individual, but especially for people of color.
Sheila Regan is a Twin Cities arts journalist.