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Arts & Culture

Shining a ‘Light’ on Dance

Three-Day Summit Grappling With Race, Gender, Sexuality and the Pandemic Starts Today

By Sala Levin ’10

Johnnie Cruise Mercer dances on stage

The Clarice’s 2022 BlackLight Summit, starting today, explores the intersection of dance, race, gender, sexuality, the pandemic and more. Johnnie Cruise Mercer, left, is one of the performers participating in the three-day hybrid event.

Photo by Torian Ugworji

What does it mean to be a dancer—especially a Black or queer dancer—in 2022, as the world continues to endure the COVID-19 pandemic, performing arts are still in a liminal state and burnout is driving many off the stage?

The Clarice’s second annual BlackLight Summit, which runs today through Saturday, will examine these questions and more in a series of hybrid in-person and virtual performances, workshops, and panel discussions on movement and dance by national up-and-coming artists.

It’s “focused on BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists while supporting work around thoughtful and meaningful conversation to activate the unimagined possibilities within our communities,” said Tariq O’Meally, artistic planning curator at The Clarice and lead curator of the summit.

Amadi Washington and Sam Pratt of the dance duo Baye & Asa will present “Suck It Up,” a filmed version of one of their dance pieces that focuses on the connection between commercial advertising and a male sense of entitlement that sometimes leads to aggressive behavior or violence, said Pratt.

“Heteronormative advertising campaigns often communicate to men that they’re weak, small, balding, flaccid, and promise solutions to these issues of inadequacy,” he said. Men sometimes “act out when they’re not rewarded in the same ways as depicted in commercial advertising.”

Washington and Pratt use dance to depict a relationship between two men and “respond to a lot of these (messages) without having to say them with text,” said Pratt. The two consulted neuroscientist Gregory Ball, UMD’s vice president for research, and Heidi Fisher, UMD assistant professor of biology, to learn how testosterone affects the body and mind, and why men are more prone to violence from a sociological perspective.

Other performers are presenting pieces that respond emotionally to the trauma of living through a pandemic. Johnnie Cruise Mercer’s “Process Memoir 7 Volume 4” incorporates “shouting, in the most traditional Baptist sense,” he said. He hopes audiences will experience “a feeling of letting go,” he said. “There’s a lot we can let go of in this time.”

The summit will culminate in a drag show on Saturday night, bringing to a close a kinetic meditation on the intersections of performance, gender, race, sexuality and movement.

“Dance is the gateway to have conversation about the timeless sincerity of being human,” said O’Meally.

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