DISCOTROPIC and white critical response

by Megan Wright

niv Acosta bills his work DISCOTROPIC as an exploration into science fiction, disco, astrophysics, and the black American experience. Acosta, a Brooklyn-based trans and queer director of black and Dominican descent, has set up a world that derails the structurally racist consumption of black bodies. It’s a pop-cultural critical intervention that rearranges the roles of critics, artists, and audiences in discourse on performance. Neon-lit in the cavernous basement of the Westbeth Artists Community in Lower Manhattan, DISCOTROPIC’s warmth and artificial forestry were a planet away from the January night outside. 

Acosta was inspired in part by Diahann Carroll's role in the 1978 Star Wars holiday special. It's a bizarre cameo: Carroll, the only character of color in the special, appears as a holographic projection named Mermeia, generated to satisfy the erotic fantasies of Chewbacca's (equally hirsute) father. During DISCOTROPIC, Ashley Brockington recites Mermeia's monologue in a haughty purr, crawling above the audience with a silver cape trailing behind her: "we are excited, aren't we? I'll tell you a secret: I find you — adorable."

Justin Allen in DISCOTROPIC. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Despite heavy use of projections in DISCOTROPIC, particularly during Justin Allen's exploratory opening solo, it's flesh-and-blood bodies that Acosta pushes us to encounter and confront. The performers execute a durational twerking score in a series of cells along one wall of the room. A sharp switch from neon to blacklight reveals large white eyes painted on the performers' backsides that float and shake in the dark, suddenly pinning observer as observed. Acosta is imposing a switch in audience/performer structure that recalls Gayatri Spivak’s words in The Post-Colonial Critic: “the holders of hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other.”

The twerking continues for twenty minutes, moving steadily through and above the audience, just out of sync with a thumping beat. I'm reminded of Adrian Piper's notes on her own 1970s disco works, Aretha Franklin Catalysis and Some Reflective Surfaces I:

To succeed in dancing to disco music, and to perform the full spectrum of figures and gestures that are part of that, is to express one's sexuality, one's separateness, one's inner unity with one's own body; and in a sexually repressive, WASP-dominated culture, this is to express defiance. I think this explains why certain kinds of people become so uncomfortable around blacks and gays on the dance floor who can really strut their stuff... At the same time as you express defiance and self-containedness through disco dancing, you also open yourself to a wide range of responses from others, most of which are misinterpretations: for example, you're being seductive. you want to be picked up, and so on. As though your own pride and pleasure in your physical experiences weren't enough. 

For Acosta, pride and pleasure in physical experience, particularly that shared with his three cast members, is enough. He, Brockington, Allen, and Monstah Black pace through a series of unison motions on a platform stage, organized in a neat box, and cue each other to shift between motions with a soft hiss. (Piper talks about "the political unity that can be achieved through self-consciously unifying one's self-presentation as a dance object with other such objects that are equally self-conscious.") They sing a mesmeric and melismatic version of "We Travel the Spaceways" off the Afrofuturist musician Sun Ra's 1962 album When Sun Comes Out from atop a spiral staircase. Each pulls in and out of the group for solo verses, backed always by the others and by Dion Tygapaw on electric bass. They end the work with an improvised copying score in which leadership transfers seamlessly from performer to performer.


L to R: Acosta, Allen and Brockington in DISCOTROPIC. Photo by Maria Baranova.

DISCOTROPIC is a ritualistic piece that offers precious few handholds to the audience throughout the evening. Is this a show or a meditative practice? What non-hierarchical and verdant planet are we on? Acosta deliberately presents his work as being on the edge between performance and visual art. Like Ralph Lemon, he wants to be critically situated beyond the dance field.

Acosta is rarely reviewed by white-centric mainstream publications. This failure of attention does not bode well for the evolution or continued relevance of these publications. In an interview with Vice Magazine's Creators Project, Acosta states: “I wanted to think about people who don’t get the amount of visibility that they deserve... DISCOTROPIC thinks about how that applies to the current climate of racial representation now.” This nowness is the work's most compelling element.

Kate Mattingly's recent trenchant article on BAYWATCH addresses the widespread failure of predominantly white mainstream outlets to give consideration to work like Acosta's — work whose lineage and inheritance is derived from a nonwhite canon. This work develops in alternative spaces and is often created and performed by queer and trans people of color. It prioritizes process and ritual over "the pretty, the linear, and the familiar." Mattingly notes:

Studying dance criticism in the 20th and 21st centuries in the United States I notice a tendency to sublimate experiences that are variable and esoteric to words that are accessible and clear. What happens when our experiences are not legible, when a performance highlights the obscurity, vulnerability, and uncertainty that pervade life? What happens when an artist emphasizes the systemic exclusions of people of color from comforts and opportunities?

What happens with white critical response to work that emphasizes the lived experience of people of color, I think, is what Mattingly sees in Allan Ulrich's scoffing review in the San Francisco Chronicle of Filipino-American choreographer Gerald Casel's Splinters in our Ankles: "an unwillingness to engage an artist’s work on its own terms." The terms Acosta sets forth in DISCOTROPIC are Afrofuturist, fantastic, and celebratory. Casel’s terms are anti-colonial, deeply personal, and wry. Both deserve more of what Rebecca Solnit (as quoted by Mattingly) calls counter-criticism that “seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities." I freely acknowledge that, as a white person who performs and writes about mostly “linear and familiar” dances, I'm not the best person to craft cogent counter-criticism for DISCOTROPIC. But I can encourage you to see the work for yourself. 

Adrian Piper's 1982 writing Notes on Funk II describes what she'd learned in performing her disco works:

I had always assumed that any meaningful political work I did had to involve utilizing the advantages of my middle-class education and aesthetic acculturation as resources 'for the benefit of' the disadvantaged community from which I came... this view now seems to me to be laden with patronizing, elitist assumptions about who has what of value to offer to whom. The funk idiom of black working-class culture is an unbelievably rich and enriching art form… that has invaluable gifts to offer that audience, and not just the other way around.

During DISCOTROPIC, the performers gather up a wide, runway-length strip of black paper. Working together, they bundle it delicately into a huge nest and lift it above their heads. Then they slowly process through the audience. 2015 was a year of photograph after photograph after news clip after body-cam video of black and trans bodies being invaded, violated, and killed. After such a year, Acosta's engineering of an alternative and multi-faceted site of possibility where an audience stood back in deference to this procession was, as Piper says, an invaluable gift. 

The cast of DISCOTROPIC and projection of 1974 Afrofuturist science-fiction film Space Is The Place featuring Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Photo by Maria Baranova.



Diahann Carroll as Mermeia in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special (start video at 2:20)

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (Routledge, 1990)

bell hooks, “Representation of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End Press, 1992)

Mayfield Brooks, "IWB = Improvising While Black", Contact Quarterly, Winter/Spring 2016.

Shelton Lindsay, "Dance Artist niv Acosta Creates a Space of His Own", Vice Magazine, February 27, 2015. 

Kate Mattingly, “fresh festival: critical focus,” BAYWATCH, January 22, 2016. 

Adrian Piper, “Notes on Funk II,” Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992 (MIT Press, 1996)