Los Angeles

Blondell Cummings, Chicken Soup, 1981. Performance view, Bessie Schönberg Theatre, New York, 1983. Blondell Cummings. Video: Jefferson Bogursky. From the six-part suite Food for Thought, 1983.

Blondell Cummings, Chicken Soup, 1981. Performance view, Bessie Schönberg Theatre, New York, 1983. Blondell Cummings. Video: Jefferson Bogursky. From the six-part suite Food for Thought, 1983.

Blondell Cummings

“It’s the beauty in things that we sometimes lose track of,” wrote choreographer, dancer, and video artist Blondell Cummings (1944–2015) almost thirty years ago. “When I’m at my worst, I don’t see it. When I’m at my best I see it all around me.” Enchanted with the rituals, spaces, and stuff of everyday life, Cummings took an empathic and (auto)ethnographic approach to her craft that suffused every part of this welcome retrospective of her work, jointly produced by Art + Practice and the Getty Research Institute—the first of what, one hopes, will be many exhibitions to come out of the latter institution’s African American Art History Initiative. (Although the Getty’s participation is laudable here, Art + Practice has been highlighting Black artistic innovation for years—and often without the benefit of J. Paul’s bucks and personnel.)

As anyone who has watched a poorly filmed performance can attest, dancing for the camera is a challenge; a dancer must be as attuned to their body as to the device framing it. (And the camera operator, likewise, must invest in their own movements, responding to the subject’s physical fluctuations and dynamism.) In early works such as 1st Tape, ca. 1975, Cummings can be seen massaging this relationship, testing the limits and possibilities of the body and its videographic representation across nine takes. The piece was one of the few in the exhibition that ran in its entirety, and thus gave viewers extended insight into Cummings’s process. Because of her early experiences with photography, she understood dance primarily as “moving pictures,” a kinetic aesthetic event that has the capacity to shift both the performer’s and the spectator’s interior and social worlds.

Sustenance (Food for Thought, 1983), menstruation (Cycle, 1978), and aging (Just a Coupla Boomers Sittin Around Chillin, 2001) are all topics that Cummings approached with gusto, developing mutating phrases of quotidian actions. She consistently understood and exploited the emotional stakes of a life well lived—many times throughout the exhibition one could see Cummings’s face melt, mid-dance, into an expression of all-consuming grief, for instance, or infectious joy. Nowhere was this more apparent than in The Ladies and Me, 1980, a performance that responds to the sonic testimony of Black female vocalists with sensitivity and ferocity. Here and elsewhere in the exhibition, one could witness what dancer and historian Brenda Dixon-Stowell terms “stop-watch gestures”—jagged passages of broken motions that render “the way normal movement appears when it is fragmented by strobe lights.”

Although much of the exhibition focuses on Cummings’s solo pieces, she was a consistent participant in overlapping avant-garde dance circles—working with Meredith Monk’s The House, Bill T. Jones’s EverybodyWorks, Nimbus Dance, and Jacob’s Pillow, to name a few. Collaborations with other dancers, such as her 1995 duet with Junko Kikuchi for a feminist translation of the Kobo Abe novel The Woman in the Dunes (1962), reveal the manner in which Blondell drew from and expanded upon the energies of those she shared the stage with. Notably, Cummings and Kikuchi revise Abe’s title to reflect the very fact of their togethering, reacasting it as Women in the Dunes. Most spectacular, in this reviewer’s opinion, was Commitment: Two Portraits, 1988 (directed by Montrealer Bernar Hébert), in which Cummings moves through a 1950s-style kitchen, scrubbing the floor and eventually picking up a heavy cast-iron pan that she guides through the air as though it were made of candy floss. Expanding on Chicken Soup (part of the Food for Thought suite, 1983), arguably Cummings’s best-known work, Commitment: Two Portraits is a standout example of the dancer/choreographer’s narrative sophistication, wherein the activities of everyday life are occasions for accessing memory, grief, and joy.