An ode to motherhood - and community
They emerge in single file, clothed all in white, singing softly and walking slowly down the stairs behind the Institute of Contemporary Art theater toward the HarborWalk. They take their places along the steps while the assembled audience watches from below. There are 46 of them, all female ranging from young girls to senior citizens, and they move and sing with grace and promise, gentle songs recalling lullabies and prayers, their score accompanied by ships’ horns in the harbor. “Close your little eyes’’ they sing, as their arms open and reach, circle in and enfold, bodies softly bending. A fluid kind of sign language evolves, arms stroking in comfort, pulling inward in welcome.
Choreographer Germaul Barnes and filmmaker/choreographer Gabri Christa’s “Mama etcetera,’’ a site-specific work given its world premiere Saturday afternoon as part of Summer Stages Dance, was conceived as an ode to family and motherhood. But what emerges more strongly is the lovely spirit of simple community. As the women sing and move, Barnes, clothed head to toe in white, dances behind them, a kind of moving counterpoint to their layered, stationary phrases. He skitters and scoots, head dipping, torso undulating, legs kicking.
Gradually, he begins to unfurl a long train of white cloth, attached to his head as a hood. He moves around and between the women like a beneficent shaman wrapping the group together before leading them down the stairs and back up the other side, pulling the crowd along as he stretches and struts, urging the audience to clap with their singing.
The piece seamlessly moves into the theater, where the dancers form a circle as Gabri Christa’s film “Savoneta’’ plays. The film features a dark-skinned man (Niles Ford) and a light-skinned woman (Christa) exploring a decaying plantation on the island of Curacao, where Christa grew up. It’s an evocative dance of real time, slow-motion, and stop-action movement juxtaposed with sepia-toned photos of grim-faced slaves from long ago. As the pair connects and disconnects, their dance suggests a summoning of the spirits and a kind of remembering and imagining, a confrontation with the plantation’s past (and the shameful delineation between shades of skin color). At one point, Christa pours a trail of chalk, which she and Ford blow and throw into the air. As she paints his face with it, lightening his skin, it could represent the sustenance of flour or the ashes of the dead.
At the end of the film, the live dancers slowly pair up and peel away, leaving Barnes alone, sprawled on the floor. As if stepping out of the film, it is Christa herself who emerges from the wings to take Barnes’s hand and lead him away.