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By : Jessica Hernandez

9 min read

Presented by Hibernian Hall and VLA Dance on October 29th and November 4th, 5th, and 6th, Alive is a rich multidisciplinary work that incorporates dance, live music, theater, and audience participation. It follows the character of Ayo as she “follows her heartbeat” and learns to combat the Malkas, manifestations of her darkest worries and challenges. By learning how to placate and subdue her fears, Ayo also brings about self-transformation represented by the “animated, lively” character of Vivien. Although “an underwater dream” provides the main setting for Ayo’s inner journey, elements of land and desert also appear, perhaps illustrating that Ayo’s transformation traverses multiple geographies and takes place on multiple fronts. Ultimately, at the heart of the piece is a narrative about perseverance in the face of hardship, the search for self and interiority, and the forces that guide us toward change – whether it be the sounds and philosophy of Ubuntu or the care of loved ones such as Ayo’s mother, Sima.

It’s fitting that such a multilayered performance emerges from a collaboration that is equally as complex. The Artistic Director of Hibernian Hall Haris Lefteri wrote the script while Victoria L. Awkward, founder of the contemporary dance company VLA Dance, choreographed and directed the show. Comprising the cast of the story are the dancers of VLA: Tabitha Hanay-Reaves as Ayo, Victoria L. Awkward as her mother Sima, and Sasha Peterson as Vivien. Dancers Olivia Moon, Ori Haris, Aliza Franz, Cassie Wang, and Theophile Victoria play the Malkas.

However, there are forces beyond these characters that drive the story as well. Indeed, songs and compositions by Music Director Desire Graham, Cornell Coley, and Aaron Brown contribute to the dynamism, energy, and mood of the production. During the question and answer portion that followed the show, Lefteri noted that while writing the script over the past 1.5 years, she could hear a heartbeat and pulse – hence the title Alive. The centrality of this pulsating sound soon led to collaborations with Graham, Coley, and Brown. As Ubuntu, Graham serves as the sonic manifestation of the proverb, performing songs by Colombian artist La Muchacha that describe land, water, and one’s relation to ecology. Graham’s masterful vocal intonations, controlled melodies, and heartfelt sincerity not only evoke the mood of Alive, but also clearly pay homage to La Muchacha’s work. Alongside Graham, percussionist and teacher Coley plays an array of drums hailing from various cultures, whether it be the Cajon from Peru, the Djembe of West Africa, or cymbals from Turkey. Here, Coley’s role cannot be understated as he keeps time with Ubuntu, the dancers, and even the egg shakers provided to members of the audience. In addition to maintaining a dreamy, ethereal, and rhythmic soundscape, the award-winning musician improvises over the pieces Brown composed for the show. Brown’s work consists of rumbling drum patterns and complex percussion-based arrangements. Depending on the scene, Brown’s compositions forge an atmosphere thick with tension and suspense, or create a steady, grounding and contemplative space. It is clear that the members of Hibernian Hall and VLA Dance have created an aesthetics of experimentation, revealing what is possible when various forms of expression combine. Indeed, their writing, choreography, and sound design have generated a poetics of storytelling, movement, and aurality that could only be described as breath-taking.

When I saw Alive on November 5th, I was awe-struck. It was an experience that encouraged, and even demanded, a particular kind of engagement. An experience in which your attention is called, captured, and lured everywhere at once – to the music, the dancing, the costumes, and the lighting. Yet anywhere you look, there is a richness to be found and taken in:

There is Ayo’s effortless dance with flowing orange-yellow fabric, a repetitive unfurling and unraveling that not only indexes Hanay-Reaves’s skilled handling of materiality and cloth, but also symbolizes the undoing that is central to Ayo’s arc of transformation. Moreover, signifying the protagonist’s reclamation of the self is Vivien, whose Roman Latin name means “alive, animated, and lively.” Here Peterson dons a bright, red velour suit and dances with Ayo in full use of the stage space. Their movements mirror and complement each other as they repeat certain segments of the choreography, perhaps demonstrating that finding – and preserving – our sense of self is a constant process and cycle in which we must look after, care for, and attend to our inner voice. Yet even as Ayo pursues this inner “odyssey,” the Malkas remain a threat. Throughout the work, their collective movements range from quick, hard, and limited gestures; to meticulously synchronized floorwork inspired by Brazilian Capoeira; concluding with an embrace of fluid, floating, long lines – the latter of which the dancers convey using wide, metallic skirts that represent the shapely silhouettes of jellyfish.

Yet another striking element includes the work of Victoria L. Awkward, director and choreographer of Alive. Dressed in a pleated earth-tone gown, Awkward’s solo performance illustrates Sima’s significance as a figure of care. Indeed, by crafting a series of movements and gestures that create a language of corporeal lyricism and bodily rhythm, Awkward communicates ideas of guidance that represent Lefteri’s idea that Sima is an anchor and grounding presence for Ayo. Here, Awkward’s roles as director of Alive and VLA Dance shine as a result of her contemporary dance practice, offering some of the show’s most emotive, heart-felt, and viscerally captivating moments.

Indeed, Alive’s music, story, and choreography capture one’s attention in a myriad of ways. Yet undergirding this immersive experience is the work of the Hibernian Hall staff as well as the creative vision of those involved in the stage management and design. This includes lighting designer Asad Hardwick, costume designer Lena Borovci, stage manager Ciera-Sade Wade, administrative assistants Hoang-Anh (Ashley) Eng and Claire Lane, as well as Matthew Charles Knight and Yuliana Santos in wardrobe.

More broadly, the production resonates with the missions of Hibernian Hall and VLA Dance. For example, that the names of characters originate from different cultures echoes the diversity and multiculturalism at the heart of VLA, its mission to “create Freedom for people of all identities through contemporary dance… bringing together racially diverse artists, respecting body images, [and] holding space for a fluidity of gender identities.” The performance also reflects Lefteri’s artistic direction and Hibernian Hall’s overall goal of providing “year-round programming reflecting Roxbury’s cultural heritage.” Indeed, in many ways Alive indexes and follows the mission of its writer, director, and contributors.

Ultimately, Alive is a rejuvenating, invigorating, and energizing work centered on interdisciplinary storytelling and aesthetic experimentation. It reveals the significance of personal narratives, the vibrancy of Boston’s arts and culture scene, and the limitless possibilities of bodily expression and the artform of dance.

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