Stefanie Batten Bland’s Look Who’s Coming to Dinner
October 3 – October 6, 2019
As an admitted Francophile, I’m always drawn to the FIAF’s annual Crossing the Line festival. But as this year’s programming continues to prove this is not la francophilie de votre grand-mere. (If you want Bordeaux and brie in berets by the Seine… who can blame you, but this is not that kind of party). Over the past couple of years, the programming has illuminated for me the fraught facts of French identity in the post-colonial world, as well as French-American cross-pollination in the performing arts. These themes reach into this year’s dance offerings, the first by FIAF’s artistic director and this year’s Crossing the Line curator Courtney Geraghty: Germaine Acogny’s Somewhere at the Beginning weaves the trauma and memory of personal biography with that of African history, and Jérôme Bel’s Isadora Duncan explores the shared legacy of the American in Paris pioneering modern dance. In the case of Stefanie Batten Bland’s dance production Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, however, its French credentials yield to a subject-matter rooted in an American story. Born and raised in Soho, Batten Bland founded Company SBB over a decade ago in France during her time as head choreographer of the Paris Opéra Comique, before returning to her native neighborhood some years ago. The company now spans the two continents, sourcing inspiration from both.
Batten Bland’s piece draws from the 1967 Stanley Kramer film of almost the same name (“Look” replaces “Guess” foreshadowing the work’s move toward the confrontational) in which a white woman (Katharine Hepburn) brings her Black fiancée (Sidney Poitier) home to meet her parents. The racial tensions that were then stark—positioning the film as radical and progressive in challenging them—have since become layered, but no less tense. Much like Jordan Peele’s acclaimed horror film Get Out, released in 2017 on the 50th anniversary of Kramer’s film, Batten Bland’s Look Who’s Coming to Dinner puts the fissures from which these tensions erupt on center stage (leaving little room to look away).
While Peele harnesses the shock of horror to blast through today’s artifice of acceptance and expose lurking racial prejudice and violence, Batten Bland deploys the “physical honesty” of dance to further flesh out the subtext of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and its underlying emotions. Sound bites from the movie are backdropped by an eerie, original composition, performed live by Paul Damien Hogan. The dialogue, with its Old Hollywood voices, evokes the civil rights era from which they date. However, the embodied character studies, animated by Batten Bland’s choreography and the simple but evocative stage design, read very much in the present tense.
The dancers congregate around the organizing stage prop: a communal table. An apt metaphor, the table is also reminiscent of Kurt Jooss’s 1932 ballet, The Green Table, over which futile peace negotiations unfold. Like Jooss’s iconic work, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner employs moments of unison choreography to depict perfunctory social ritual. The dancers exaggerate this decorum, straining smiles and waving maniacally to one another. “So pleased to meet you,” plays on repeat. Eventually, they break.
In one moment, Latra Wilson takes on the role of a maid—some incarnation of the film’s character, Tillie—cleaning up after dinner. She belts “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” mumbling the rest of the lyrics while boogying to Aretha’s tune. What begins as a comedic “off-duty” solo, quickly darkens. Wilson’s voice and movements gain urgency and her body convulses with a building desire to perhaps escape it. In the context of the film’s dramatic realism, there’s a limit to how much one can move their body without raising an eyebrow. Through dance, however, Tillie’s anguish is released.
These physical manifestations of social anxiety bubble up throughout the piece. They are notably more wrenching than Batten Bland’s more literal, mimetic storytelling devices, like knocking on a closed door or dinner party schmoozing. These feel almost like breaks, moments of relief for an audience gripped in their seats. Some time after the performers deconstruct the dining table, they lay scattered on the stage, backs on the floor. Poitier’s voice bellows: “You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it's got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the deadweight of you be off our backs!” The dancers arch and contract their chests, held to the floor by gravity. The weight of bodies on the ground coupled with the condemnation of a generation when, generations later, we’re experiencing and enacting the same hatreds, takes a depressing tone, to say the least. But it prompts a zoom-out from today to the historic view, one that asks us: how can we not become the next generation’s dead-weight?
The talkback after the performance with La MaMa curator Nicky Paraiso offered another perspective on the piece—that these questions of generational burden, race, difference, and acceptance are not quintessentially American. Batton Bland’s dancers detailed their personal entry points to the film, the feelings, the movement. Raphaël Kaney Duverger described his mother, a white French woman meeting his father, a Black, African man in a small town in France. While the story is imbued with the specifics of race in America over the last half century, Batten Bland understands deeply that its themes also translate beyond our own national context. Who can come to the table, who do we invite, who do we let in, these questions undergird French society as much as they do our own. Without watering down history to universals, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner is a powerful work that does not ask, but forces us to take a seat at the table, and see.