Collective Individuals: A Review of Sand

Because you celebrate Black culture does not mean that you don’t like white culture; or that you putting it down.
It’s just taking pride

– Solange Knowles, “Interlude: Tina Taught Me”
Victoria Lynn Awkward, “Sand (Group),” 2019. Photo courtesy of Victoria Lynn Awkward.

What does it mean to be inclusive and diverse? We have committees, departments, policies, and other implementations to help us fine-tune our understanding and practice. While these things may serve a purpose, a potent metaphor is often better equipped to inspire action. That is what we have with Sand, a performance conceived and choreographed by Victoria Lynn Awkward. Sand is presented as the guiding image to consider each grain’s individuality woven through the togetherness.

Set in the Abigail Ogilvy Gallery in Boston on January 11 and 12, 2019, this performance was an interdisciplinary experiment. It involved dance, poetry, music, and visual art. We need more collaboration of this kind to help the arts thrive. We have become such a splintered society of specialists, but we should gather artists of all kinds, but also bring in scientists, philosophers, and others to collaborate. Performances like Sand help point the way toward a more complete approach to thinking and making. Inclusivity should not be discussed only with an eye to the ‘bigger’ issues. Larger changes can often occur because of a commitment to pertinent changes in smaller contexts.

Holly Harrison, “Rise Up,” Mixed media and found papers on wood panel. 2018. Photo courtesy of Abigail Ogilvy Gallery.

The dance was the most prominent feature of the performance, which also featured music, poetry, and visual art on the walls as a backdrop. [1] The group of dancers moved in sequence at certain times, opposition at other times, and each grabbed the spotlight for a solo. The dances were accompanied by pre-recorded music, including a piece that was commissioned for Sand by ELSZ, called “Holy.” Interspersed throughout the dances, original poetry was read by Tatiana Isabel.

Going to watch a dance, one might usually expect to see only the grace and elegance of the movements from a distance. But carrying the theme of inclusion, the intimacy of the space allowed even more. The audience members seated across from each other became part of the backdrop, rather than all facing in the same direction toward a stage. The dancers and viewers became part of the mixed texture of the performance as they had to be more acutely aware of each others’ bodies. If I move my foot out a little, will I trip one of the dancers? How close is the audience, am I about to kick someone? The humanity of the dancers burst through their movements as their real time struggles for breath and strength added to the orchestration of sounds in the gallery.

After the performance, the dancers along with Victoria Awkward, sat for a brief discussion with the audience. Too often audiences do not get to talk about the work with the artists, so this was a welcome surprise. Awkward said she was thinking about sand as a metaphor; there are different textures to sand and each grain is an individual, yet they are all different together. And this simple metaphor grew into this intimate performance of being-together as a mixture of performers and beholders.

Victoria Lynn Awkward, “Sand (Group),” 2019. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Hennessey.

Some people stand out, and others remain in the background. LeRoi Jones, in his book, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, explains how in the 1940s some younger white guys would wear a zoot suit or talk bop talk, and this would prevent these white men from entering mainstream society. Perhaps, that is unfair, but it was their choice to take themselves out of mainstream society. However, the choice was predetermined for black people.  As Jones writes, “But the young Negro musician of the forties began to realize that merely by being a Negro in America, one was a nonconformist.” [1] While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being a nonconformist, one should have a choice.

What’s unique about sand as the chosen metaphor is that it is just there. You go to a beach, and the grains blend together to form a vast and beautiful landscape. In some ways, this makes the metaphor more powerful. But when we think of people we think of groups or individuals and place them into different categories of value. While there is obviously a qualitative difference between people and sand, there’s something profound about this analogy. Maybe we should be more concerned with the beauty of the whole, and try to contribute our part, no matter how small.

Sand showcases five dancers; Joniece “JoJo” Boykins, a graduate of SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance; Tabitha Hanay-Reaves, who trained with the Boston Dance Theater and is a freelance dancer; Michayla Kelly, a graduate of Goucher College in Mathematics and Dance; Kate Dube, a former member of the Boston Dance Theater and freelance dancer; and Jessy Zizzo, an interdisciplinary artist focused in dance and comedy. Together they brought their unique movements and styles to form a unified whole.

In the film, The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin—as the barber disguise as the dictator—proclaimed, “You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.” While he tried to back out of speaking, his friend nudged him saying that it was their only hope. Hope, he repeated, and then he stood up to deliver a riveting speech, that has become the Tramp’s famous last words. Sand reminds us that it is our responsibility to allow each other the freedom to be part of this human collective.

Even though the performance at Abigail Ogilvy Gallery has passed, there is an upcoming performance at Fountain Street Gallery on April 26 and 27, 2019. (Here is the link:

[1] The show hanging at the Abigail Ogilvy Gallery was “Collected Stories” by Holly Harrison and Kristina McComb, which hung from 12/20/18 – 2/17/19.

[2] LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper Perennial, 1963), 188

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