Christiana Barnett-Murphy’s Burning
Durham Arts Council
Oct. 12

I arrived at Christiana Barnett-Murphy’s Burning to find myself in an “installation”: a scatter of seating areas each adorned with a cluster of balloons bearing questions I was to discuss with a stranger, another dance-goer. I was late; my newfound partner had “to pee”; so we rushed through the questions. “What keeps you hopeful?” one balloon asked. “That assumes something,” my partner said. I judged I didn’t have time to tell her my life story, so we skipped it.

Take that starry-eyed question as an index to the sort of viewer Barnett-Murphy had in mind for her one-night solo show. Barnett-Murphy greeted us with arms outstretched. She took a few hugs from audience members, and then she settled into a dance phrase of balletic steps, smooth and clear but circumscribed, as if she were charting a course on a map. Sure as she looked, her course kept breaking up on rocks, and she ran the phrase over and over, faster and faster, letting her elastic shoulders loosen and her confident expression slip. The emotional message was clear, but not quite felt: Barnett-Murphy sticks unerring balances even when she means to teeter.

Tumbling to a stop, Barnett-Murphy told us how her mother told her of a traumatic family event: “Honey, the house burned down.” She wrapped herself in a flame-colored fabric, tossed and turned, fell, rolled. I had the sense I was there to witness: not to have an experience myself, but to bear witness to hers. From here the breakdown broke down: she stood, her hands fluttering as if on the verge of flying away from her. Then she stopped altogether, her hands on her hips, stuttering, head tilted down, as if she might cry. Dark night of the soul—and it was impossible not to feel for her, but it was also difficult to know what she felt. What does it mean to lose your house at a young age? What nightmare, what sliver does that drive into the emergent self?

Whatever the nature of the damage, Barnett-Murphy emerged from it in a lovely swirling dance, like a latter-day Isadora. She’s a stunningly beautiful dancer, with true clean lines and a smooth flow; and she’s also a stunningly beautiful woman, a Raphael Madonna come to life. Her choreography shows a sense of form; she still has work to do in exploring risk, space and dynamics of timing.

Barnett-Murphy is a recipient of the Durham Arts Council’s Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artists Grant, and she keeps up her end of the bargain as an emerging artist, showing charisma and promise. I had to wonder about the Arts Council’s end, though. Why did they let this emerging artist pitch several years’ work into a one-night performance that went on without significant publicity from the Arts Council itself? If the Arts Council wants their grantees to go far, why not invest a little more to give them a real push?