What does it mean to be black?
For local choreographer Staycee Pearl, that question hit home when her dance works were questioned by others in the African-American community for not being "black enough."
In her latest work, "...on being ..." to be premiered by her Staycee Pearl Dance Project at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater Feb. 22-23, Pearl looks at what it means to be black today and explores the notion of "post-blackness." The term was coined in the 1990s by curator Thelma Golden and conceptual artist Glenn Ligon. It means tossing off of one's racial identifiers and with them the burden of having everything you do speak for your entire race.
"I come from the tradition of black dance," says Pearl. "I studied at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey, and worked in a couple African dance companies. My work is a mix of those and all my dance experiences plus my experiences outside of dance. In some ways, my work may come out not looking like traditional African-American dance, but that doesn't mean it's not black dance. I am a black artist."
Pearl's works include 2011's critically lauded Octavia, about African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. She feels artists can still honor tradition and heritage in what they do, but that there is also honor in moving forward.
The 60-minute "...on being ..." was developed through a series of public salon discussions at her PearlArts Studios, in Point Breeze. Though it explores post-blackness, it's really about identity in general, says Pearl. It also examines such self-identifiers as gender and sexuality.
"The work is pretty abstract," says Pearl. "What audiences will see on stage is our response in movement to those salon discussions."
The multimedia work for five dancers is set to an audio soundscape by Pearl's husband, DJ Herman "Soy Sos" Pearl, that uses music samples along with original content. Mr. Pearl will also add content to the soundscape live during the work's performances.
Pearl says that even after her self-reflective journey in creating "...on being...," she is left with more questions than answers. But as with other unanswerable questions ("What is the meaning of life?"), the value may lie in not knowing — which continues to spark our conversations and drive us forward as human beings.