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COOKIES & PRIVACY POLICY

Project O Goes Large: SWAGGA and Benz Punany

Charlotte Richardson Andrews went down to Rich Mix in London to experience dance like never before

Charlotte Richardson Andrews

Thu, 12 Jun 2014 13:22:09 GMT | Updated 2 years today

Most of what I know about dance comes from watching pop videos. I do this in a professional capacity, when I have my music journalist hat on, but dance as a stand-alone art form, a practice, is not something I have any specific, professional language for. So when Project O creator's Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small launch their Benz Punany act with a recreation of an iconic 80s pop video, I feel a frisson of delight, and connection. Wearing matching boiler suits and long, plastic wigs, their bodies are half turned towards the audience, facing a laptop that's showing them the same thing the audience is viewing on the large screen stage right: Janet Jackson's 1987 video for The Pleasure Principle. As the music fills the room, they mimic Jackson's moves, imperfectly, never completely in sync with each other nor totally faithful to the video's stylized choreography, but bobbing and popping bedroom-dancing style, like young girls inexpertly copying their favourtie pop star's moves. It feels punk to me, this inexactness: more about do-it-yrself than perfection. I find myself shimmying my hips and shoulders to the beat; next to me, my girlfriend is nodding her head. 

 

Imperfectness and DIYness are also part of the opening act, SWAGGA, described as "a new dance of dissent and gentle, raging empowerment starring Kay [Hyatt] and [Dr] Charlotte [Cooper] - all round extraordinaires and girlfriends of seventeen years." Cooper has blogged about her experience of "becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled" and that sense of risk, excitement and purpose fills the room when her and Hyatt perform. There are obvious differences between the dancers: Cooper and Hyatt are white, older, fat, queer, amateur; Hemsley and Johnson-Small - who have choreographed and directed SWAGGA with Hyatt and Cooper - are younger, women of colour, professionals in this craft. And yet Benz Punany and SWAGGA overlap in many ways. There is skill, strength and realness in both acts - othered women showing off, getting busy, working their bodies in un/expected ways; faces, limbs, hips and torsos twisting, flexing, grinding, sliding, jacking and bouncing. 

 

SWAGGA is a radical, electrifying thing: teeth are gnashed, grins are bared and fists are raised. Cooper wields a bullwhip, lashing the floor from the back of the stage where she turns The Fugee's Ready Or Not into a menacing seduction song while Hyatt gets up close with the audience, cruising the front rows. Later, the pair circle each other to a track by The Knife, entwined, always touching, winding two separate, evolving dances into an duet of bodies and expressions: sexy, scary, monstrous and, in places, joyously crude. A pre-recorded backing track plays a spoken word piece, Cooper's voice calmly listing all the people in her extended family who are "appalled" by her.  The pair perform a wild, pumped up hip hop-style dance set to Coolio's 'Gangster's Paradise. What a sight! For their last act, a series of declarations are shouted at the audience against a growling, noisy backing track, as Hyatt leaps across the stage with a microphone stand in hand, cock rock style: "I LIKE PUPPIES! I HATE GENTRIFICATION! I HATE PEOPLE THINKING I'M THE NICE ONE!" 

 

After a short interlude, Benz Punany begins. Throughout the performance, random audience members are intermittently invited down onto the stage to read pre-written texts - designed to give the act added context - while the dancers do their thing.  They are agile, fast, strong - a fierce pleasure to watch. Everything they do feels daring, subversive and defiant - particularly when they turn their backs on the audience for a lazy, low-impact twerk to Konshens & J Capri's Pull Up To Mi Bumper. Their soundtrack brims with the colourful voices of unfuckwithable women: Sade, Ciara, M.I.A. They dart into the audience throughout the performance [to invite people to read], crossing this invisible dividing line until it no longer exists. I think about safety and permission and how their dance fucks with these things. Later, more audience members are invited onto the stage to daub black polish onto the dancers' poised, statue-still, semi-nude bodies - an act so loaded I feel my whole body tense up. Like SWAGGA, Benz Punany is a series of small acts, and in between each one, while they gather props or strip off yet more layers of clothing, the duo pant and sweat and stretch freely, the exertion and fatigue as blatant and central to the dance as their stamina. At the end, the duo abandon the stage entirely to sit with us in the audience, and share extracts from their respective diaries - intimate realtalk about identify, race, burn-out, suicide and healing. It's an unexpected end song, this sudden switch from physical movement and muteness to stillness and voice. 

 

When the lights come up, I'm not entirely sure what I have witnessed, but I know that I am blown away by the power of these performers, the potency of these othered bodies, faces and voices in action. I am exhilarated, buzzing and greedy for more. I wonder at how I have interpreted these dances, and what my readings might reveal about my own queer, white, working-class, [mostly] able-bodied gaze. My girlfriend and I bubble into conversation about what we have just witnessed and how it made us feel: tense, turned on, righteous, guilty, challenged, joyous, inspired. Later, I read that Hemsley and Johnson-Small define Benz Punany as "a performance lecture" - a description that feels entirely appropriate, while Project O itself is "a refusal, a necessity, a revealing, a call to arms, a fetish, a contemplation, a delight, a conversation, a throw, an acceptance, an outrage, a dance." 

 

I've never seen anything like this in a pop video.  

  

www.acontemporarystruggle.com

 

 

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