What is the Commons Crit?

“And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Like the second verse of Genesis, so begins Anthony “Ay-Jay” Nelson’s gripping choreography, titled Pain, Trauma, Triumph.

The performance begins with a stage in black, where nothing is seen, and with the sounds of creation—a mechanical grinding of gears like the sound of a transhuman science fiction character being built. The sound assaults the eardrums of the viewer, offering an understanding that freedom—as well as flight—are tempered in the forge of struggle.

Pain, Trauma, Triumph renders movement as philosophy and story, borne by the life experience of its creator. Emerging from the darkness and cacophony of sound, Nelson attempts to rise as the lights slowly come up on his kneeling Black body. The choreography is broken down into three distinct segments, each linking to the one before. This sequencing gives a sense of progression in the journey upon which the audience embarks.

The first segment can best be described as a lyrical, fluid gathering of movement and release. The audience watches as Nelson struggles to stand, to lengthen, and to fly. Yet there is an unseen weight pulling him back to the ground. Here, Nelson consoles himself with tender touches and self-healing, giving himself the support and comfort he needs to attempt to rise again—only to again surrender to the weight that pulls him back down.

After an initial bombardment of distorted mechanical sound, the work surrenders to silence. The use of silence throughout the work can be understood as a metaphor for the battles we all face as human beings—the internal battle with ourselves. This ongoing fight to reach the pinnacle of our best selves—to maximize our potential—plays out on Nelson’s body through flowing arms, purposeful steps, turns, and twists. But again, the unseen weight brings about a crumbling, and he returns to kneeling.

What is this unseen weight? This is the cup that Nelson’s choreography asks us to fill. What keeps us from reaching our potential, our higher selves? In this piece, the abstract becomes personal. For some, maybe the weight is the trauma we’ve experienced in our lives. For others, it could be self-doubt, sown by the words and perspectives of people who don’t hold our best interests at heart, pulling us down, holding us back, and keeping us from our rising.

In the second segment, the battle continues. Again, the mechanical distortion of sound is present, but the voice of a woman is added—barely discernible through the wall of sound. Although subtle, this unexpected voice pushes the piece. Mr. Nelson continues fighting, battling to rise and lengthen. Again, the audience witnesses an unseen weight grounding him, continuing to pull him back. One of the most memorable moments of this segment occurs near the end, where sounds which can be interpreted as gun shots ring out in succession.

Nelson contorts his body in such a way that the audience imagines each wound left by the invisible force that jerks him back and forth. For me, in this moment, each convulsion Nelson performs with his body represents a Black life lost as a result of gun violence—state-sanctioned violence—and the randomness at which Black life can be taken. The artist allows room for me as an audience member to bring my own experience to the work: to make the abstract concrete and the intangible tangible.

It goes without saying that the ability to create this kind of work requires an artist on top of their craft. Nelson’s background in modern dance and ballet are evident throughout the choreography. From subtle, closed movements to flowing, open flourishes, all aspects of the choreography are delivered with a deliberate precision—an intentionality that brings urgency to the story. Will the dancer rise? When he’s able to stand, will he find the power to remain standing, or will he continue to fall back and crumble into himself?

The lighting, staging, and costuming of the performance (and the filming by videographer Wo Agbaza) are used to maximum effect. The close-ups on Nelson’s face during his movement reveal sorrow, pain, and trauma. But even more so, they reveal determination—and in the third segment, joy and victory.

Darkness, sound distortion, and lighting that evokes a solemn, even grim, mood, gives way to birdsong and brightness in the third segment. The dancer has won the battle. Nelson moves, glides, and spins in bright light, in the new day. And what has brought about the victory? Nelson tells us: “shedding.” When we hear his words, the message is clear. Acknowledging our hurt, working through it, and then letting it go allows us to rise and fly.

One of the things Nelson shared with me in an earlier interview was that he wants to share his own experience with the audience, in order to take them on a journey where they explore their own truths and feelings. He has definitely achieved that goal with this work. It’s powerful, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Pain, Trauma, Triumph is a performance that should be viewed multiple times, as each viewing offers a bit more insight. It is a representation through movement of what the hip-hop artist Talib Kweli refers to as “the beautiful struggle.” It reminds me of those words from Psalm 30, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

“Pain, Trauma, Triumph” is part of the 20/21 Commons Festival at Carolina Performing Arts, presented in digital format. The performance will be streamed online on Friday, January 29, 2021 at 7 p.m. Free with registration at carolinaperformingarts.org.

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