Fabric of Community: Virginia Hampton Talking Choreopoem & Belize

Virginia Hampton by Shrayas(Beautiful Morning Pic of Virginia Hampton taken from ABQ by Shrayas)

Talking from Belize … Returning to the Choreopoem … Gathering Fragments

By Virginia Hampton

In the past 6 months, I have been editing a study on social violence, particularly that related to gun violence in Belize City which is about 60 miles from my house in Esperanza, Belize.  As I attempt to transform a study into a readable book for the masses, I cannot help but hope to do something creative with all the information I have read and listened to from the youth and caregivers in urban Belize.  And since I am a confirmed theatre artist, I want to bring together the disparate stories of embattled young people in Belize into a performance of some kind. It occurs to me that the old can be made new by using a form that worked well in OmniRootZ’s first performance piece, entitled, Root Dances.  The piece, done originally at the Vortex Theatre in 1994 in Albuquerque, NM, included the stories of seven women who have experienced various levels of violence and healing, mixed together with music, dance and poetry in what I also refer to as a poetry collage.

Apparently, in hoping to revive and reuse this form, I came to understand that I am certainly not the only one with this idea of using the collage or, “choreopoem” as a unifying performance technique.

Nearly 40 years after ntoazake shange coined the phrase, “choreopoem,” as a way to express her cutting edge performance piece, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, the choreopoetic form is going strong.  Several recent pieces offer examples of why this form is so vital to the theatre marriage of spoken word, music and dance:

True to its polycultural roots, the contemporary choreopoem explores the personal as well as the political in the present and the past.  The form lends itself well to a confluence of story and experience which is best expressed in word and physicality and sound together as “each form complements the other in a highly dramatic way.”  The choreopoem form especially seems suited to stories about identity as in the piece Always Remember Me which follows 19 teens as they “explore themselves, their pasts, their futures and each other through events such as breakups, graduations, and job hunting”.

Confessions in Living Color[ed] uses visual arts, as well as slam poetry and dance to create a story of 8 individuals fused into one character who is able to articulate a wide range of people’s perspectives.  Similarly, Last Thoughts is “multi-multied, multi-media, multi genre, and multi-textual in a synergy that celebrates cutting edge creativity.  Video, audio, contemporary dance, breakdance, graffiti, visual art, hip hop and other multiple layers combine in one work.”  PIECES fuses hip-hop, slam poetry and spoken word with movement, vignette and dance to fuse together “14 poetic numbers and verses, each expressing its own experience and story line on subjects of family life, racial profiling, miscarriage, friendship, sex, police brutality, community, desire, abuse, spirituality, broken homes, church tradition, drugs, the 3 strikes law and unity.  The cast consists of 7 ethnic women sharing one woman’s journey to find healing, hope and her voice in the midst of [urban] life struggles” and was originally a master’s thesis project.

Plot elements and traditional storytelling are not linear in choreopoems where the focus is on creating an emotional response from audience. (Wikipedia) Show ShowdownGoliath, A Choreopoem is a collection of scenes and monologues, choral testimony and hard-hitting visuals.   Performers speak, move set pieces, dance and create the environment in the dynamic When Winter Come: A Choreopoem, the story of York, an enslaved African American who accompanied and guided Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition which also included the legendary Sacajawea.  Performers themselves become the story they tell, merging story with images from the poetry and from the moments of silence that visually connect the piece together. Finally, XX:  The Chromosome Project uses the uniquely dynamic elements of choreopoetry to “illuminate the commonalities and differences between women of various cultures.”

Choreopoems work so well at telling the fractured stories of marginalized people’s because of the emotional connections that can be made through the energy and gesture of performers as well as the words that linger and resonate in our ears.

With so much poetry in the public sphere, the choreopoem represents another dynamic possibility for writers, directors, actors, poets to collaborate and this form can be pushed further with video, live musicians and vocalists.  For those with a complex story to tell, choreopoems offer another way to push the boundaries of theatre and poetry into the future.  As someone who wants to be part of the Belizean performance landscape, I believe this form will also have great possibilities for the present.–Virginia Hampton




BLOG EDITOR’S NOTE FROM LISA: I want to thank Virginia for sharing thoughts here on the blog with this article, and for her earlier entry with tips for people who may be feeling nervous about performing, and to let you know we’ll be hearing from her this way again.  I also want to point you back to the blog post with full details on the whole workshop this coming Sunday in Albuquerque at this link so you can attend….

And I want to also mention one thing I just learned or got clear about Virginia during recent talks. I knew Virginia was and is a badass scholar and intellectual, even that she’d really done the actual PhD thing, and that she’s an insanely talented teacher… And I  know literally the impact of all her hard-core profound grassrootz community building she had done with OmniRootz and OutCh’Yonda (one of Albuquerque’s most beloved and impact-effective off-grid community and non-funded arts establishments EVER) …And I knew that a true vision of the world and possibilities for community informed every single decision behind all the intricate workings of that amazing effort…

But I did NOT know that the subject of her PhD dissertation actually WAS about the creation of community spaces and arts revolution, including what was to become OutCh’Yonda. (I don’t know her official title/theme yet so forgive my phrasing.)

What I know NOW is that her dissertation is archived UNM, and that her work for her PhD, which includes work on radical subjectivity, is on file in their system and library. And I know that in that dissertation are some of the philosophical concepts and views that inform the true commitment and day-to-day practice which allowed OutCh’Yonda to have such an impact on Albuquerque, … theories which continue to sustain and inform all her movements and commitments in the world and arts…

That’s a big deal. I read slow, and actually have no idea how to get a dissertation from the UNM library, but I AM GOING TO FIND Virginia’s AND READ IT. I suspect I will not be the only one who would like to take a more formal and theoretical look at the working of the thought behind the practical impact we have all benefited from.  I wanted to make sure that any who might also want that option, know it’s available and on hand (somehow) in the academic towers.

Meanwhile, I hope to see you at the workshop July 21, Sunday 1-4 with pre and post milling.