Editors' pick

Holly Bass and Jaamil Olawale Kosoko: Double Consciousness

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Editorial Review

A ‘consciousness’ shared onstage
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Aug. 3, 2012

Holly Bass, performance artist, poet, writer, dancer, met Jaamil Kosoko, performance artist, poet, dancer, in the only place both agree they could meet: on the dance floor of a Columbia Heights house party.

“He was a really good dancer,” Bass recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m going to dance with that guy. He knows what he’s doing.’ That’s when I found out, not surprisingly, that he was a professional dancer.”

“The moment I met Holly, I was like, ‘This is the D.C. female version of myself,’ ” says Kosoko, a New York-based performer who had been in town briefly on a fellowship when he landed at that house party. “We speak the same language, and we refuse to limit ourselves, and that’s really what attracts us to one another.”

But, before we go off course: Theirs is not a love story. At least, not in the conventional sense.

The dance-off in Columbia Heights was the beginning of an artistic intertwining. Together, Bass and Kosoko have hosted poetry nights and posed for the artist Victoria Gaitan while covered in gold and honey, and then, this winter, Bass invited Kosoko to return to Washington to be part of her much-lauded endurance piece, “Moneymaker,” which she performed over seven thrilling hours at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

This weekend, the two will work together again at Dance Place for a program they’re calling “Double Consciousness.” They will share the stage just once, but each will surely be felt in the other’s work.

Both say they use a vernacular that’s pop. “I’m a trained performer. I have the ability to do highly technical work,” Kosoko explains. In using movements that feel more of the street than of the studio, he says, “I’m combating that.” It’s there that his work intersects most with that of Bass, a dancer trained in everything from ballet to modern dance. Refusing to be labeled as either “dancer” or “poet,” each will blend language and visual art references with dance in a single piece. Both, too, are committed to exploring identity. “I think I will always come back to blackness,” Bass says. “It seems endlessly rich.”

For her works at Dance Place, Bass has chosen to leave behind her frequent prop, her “bootyballs” -- a prosthetic Kardashian-esque bottom -- which she used in works that made wry references to video vixens and strippers. After several years of working with the prop, she has come to feel that she has fully realized that body of work, though audiences don’t always get her intent. “I stopped trying to make the audience feel what I was feeling,” Bass says.

Born in California but having spent many summers in her family home of Georgia, Bass is tapping that Southern influence for one of two pieces at Dance Place: “Hard Work” is Bass’s exploration of the act of backbreaking labor and Bass’s own remove from it. “I talk about my grandmother being a field hand, a domestic, and here I am, an artist with these soft hands,” she says.

Her other work, “Girls in White Dresses,” is a funhouse-mirror look at the old “Sound of Music” tune, in which “little brown packages” are a not-so-thinly veiled reference to heroin, and “snowflakes” are cocaine. Is it personal? Only tenuously: Bass had been thinking of the hush around suicide in the black community and the futility that acquaintances have felt in their lives. This was the work that resulted.

Ask Kosoko how his work differs, and he’ll tell you that it’s a kind of activism, more rooted in the headlines than Bass’s. “There’s always an underlying political voice at the pulse of it,” he says. “There’s always a conversation with what's happening in the world in any given moment.”

So for his show at Dance Place, Kosoko will don a white hooded sweat shirt, an implicit reference to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black Florida teen slain in February by a member of the neighborhood watch. “Angelic-slash-hoodlum dualism,” Kosoko calls the look, which he will wear through his two pieces: “other.explicit.body,” about the sense among black men of feeling like an outsider, and “Songs to Make Your White Girl Cry.”

The latter is an unexpected tweak on the enduring topic of race relations. Kosoko guesses that his life could be split in two: a childhood in Detroit surrounded mostly by African Americans and his life as a performer, which began at age 16. Bennington, Wesleyan, the Kennedy Center -- as his talents drew him further from his urban upbringing into a “vanilla-white educational system,” he says white women left a major imprint on his career. “My audience is primarily white women. This is a community full of white dancers. I studied poetry with white women, and my teachers were white women, and my dance teachers were white women,” he says, laughing gently. “Songs” is his tribute.

He also makes clear his admiration for the artist with whom he’ll share the bill this weekend. “Moneymaker” was “the best thing I’ve seen Holly do,” says Kosoko, who performed as an announcer in the work. “I lost my voice by the end of the piece, screaming through the Corcoran.”

But Bass’s body held strong, for all 420 minutes. “I was like, ‘Wow, you are a beast,’ ” Kosoko recalls fondly.