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Barbara Bickart

'When'

by Carmel Morgan

April 20, 2007 -- 531 South Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee

Memphians had the chance to observe a unique collaborative effort when a pair of musicians, a handful of dancers, and video artist Barbara Bickart, who has worked with choreographers such as Risa Jaraslow in New York, presented “When” in the South Main Arts District of Memphis on Friday, April 20, 2007. This video installation performance piece took place in a distinctive urban venue with brick walls and large glass doors but no ceiling. The work was based upon visitors’ reactions to the physical space where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated nearly forty years ago, the old Lorraine Motel where the National Museum of Civil Rights is now housed.   

The museum, just a few blocks from the performance site, is designed to help visitors better understand the history and lessons of the American Civil Rights Movement. The piece “When” likewise seemed aimed at understanding, albeit from a different angle. 

“When” consisted of video images, movement, and music recurring simultaneously during thirty minute intervals. The dancers and musicians were on the fringes. The stage was occupied primarily by a large screen, which showed visitors to the museum as they strolled past, paused, or sat in front of the balcony where Dr. King died. The performance attracted many passersby, who paused to look and listen as the work unfolded. 

Local choreographers Ondine Geary and Sarah Ledbetter captured gestures from the visitors in the video and merged them into a structured improvisation. On the screen, some visitors sat with their heads resting heavily in their hands, while others appeared unnervingly lighthearted. Some cried, some laughed, some paced, and some stared for long minutes. The dancers embodied all of these reactions, occasionally embracing or joining in a cohesive lament. 

Rhodes College Assistant Professor Brandon Goff composed the music, which was largely digitized, although Cameron Ross played the saxophone live. The music was sumptuous and full of feeling. The bluesy elements made it especially appropriate for the Memphis theme. As the dancers weaved among one another, the music weaved around them, and the images of the museum’s visitors moved across the screen.

From the awful historic legacy of the Lorraine Motel emerged a series of healing moments as the work united those of different racial backgrounds. The performers were both Caucasian and African-American, as were the visitors on the video and those in the standing-room-only audience. As the piece came to a close, more dancers were added to the work. A young child, around 6, and an older dancer, around 60, among others, came to the stage. The music would suddenly stop, and the dancers would collapse to the floor and then rise anew. In the repeated resumption of the piece there seemed to be a forward-looking message – there is much to get us down but we all must continue to persevere toward Dr. King’s dream.  

Memphis was lucky to have Lantana Projects, an international artist residency program whose goal is to make Memphis a global leader in contemporary art, support Ms. Bickart’s project. It was a thought-provoking interdisciplinary work in an unexpected setting. The result was an evocative investigation of our relationship to the site of Dr. King’s tragic death.                          

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