Combining her research of African-American culture with the art of dance, Crystal Michelle Perkins, an assistant professor and contemporary faculty in the Department of Dance, will showcase a powerful routine this weekend at the Faculty Concert.
The concert consists of six faculty-created routines all performed by students. In her first semester as a faculty member, Perkins will present “The Difficulties of Flying,” a contemporary piece depicting the journey of slavery in American history, while focusing on the African-American folklore of sprouting wings and flying.
Perkins said the folklore tradition of sprouting and flying is a symbolic story used by African-Americans as a method of going back to Africa. In reality, however, she said they were either dying or killing themselves to alleviate the pains of slavery.
Perkins’ routine goes from fluid movements to African-style dancing featuring syncopated clapping music. One of the most significant challenges Perkins, an Ohio State alumna, faced while creating this routine was helping the student dancers understand the emotional context.
“There has always been a narrative thread to my makings, and that has always been a way for me to sort out my existence … as an African-American woman,” she said. “But for the first time, I am doing work … that is rooted in the African-American experience with an ensemble that is not a majority black cast.”
In the past, Perkins’ pieces focusing on the African-American experience have featured a predominantly black cast. But because she was choreographing “The Difficulties of Flying” with a mixed-race cast, Perkins said she would stop the dancers and tell them to envision chains on their ankles or being packed in a boat. She also used a modern example of sex slavery to help the students understand.
Dani Kfoury, a dancer in the piece and fourth-year in dance, views this routine as an opportunity to show respect, but said she finds it difficult to express that emotion.
“I have this strong sense of like guilt when it comes to people of color because I am a descendant from these people who did awful things, and I don’t know how to handle that,” she said. “I feel like this dance for me is almost a way of paying tribute or honoring the magic that was maybe taken away or honoring the lives that were lost.”
Kfoury said she is looking forward to performing with the 10 other dancers who have different cultural backgrounds, all while emulating that these challenges of freedom are still happening today.
“I’m looking forward to finding that community [with the other dancers] and finding that we’re all different,” she said. “But human beings are human beings, and these struggles are a wide array across the world.”
Erin Evans, the only African-American female dancer in the routine and a fourth-year in dance, said when Perkins helps the students relate to the struggles the slaves endured, she knows what Perkins seeks to portray. But it took a while to project those emotions.
In the beginning, Evans said she primarily focused on the physical requirements, but can now more easily convey the vision that Perkins described as going from somber to a sense of escape or hopefulness without joy.
“I think about my ancestors in this piece and how I have a connection with that and thinking about what they [had] to go through,” Evans said. “As it becomes closer and closer to showtime I think about that, what that means and what I mean in the [dance] space.”
Evans said every movement has a meaning, whether that’s showing physical pain, emotional loss or the sense of flying away, and this has allowed the dancers to connect even more on an emotional level.
“Behind everything we do there is a message [Perkins] is trying to get out of us,” Evans said. “It’s been cool to see because we get a glimpse into what she is actually looking for rather than the choreography.”
Perkins said by having students with different backgrounds and having a socially conscious conversation among the dancers, it has enhanced her teaching skills. She wants everyone to understand and relate to the routine.
“[In the past] it was easier to create when the cast all understood the cultural background,” she said. “This is a new challenge for me … Talking about these ideas of identity for today, in 2017 almost 18, we’re just surrounded by these concepts. It’s not a time to shrink. It’s a time to be vocal in your work.”
“The Difficulties of Flying” will be performed Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Barnett Theatre at 1813 N. High St. Tickets are $10 for students, faculty and staff and $15 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased at https://theatre.osu.edu/boxoffice/dance-tix/.