Saturday brought a favorite day on the Durham cultural calendar and another exhibition that was totally new to me. The delightful, familiar event was the Beaver Queen Pageant now in its 11th year. It is genuine Durham bacchanal.
That means a couple of things to me and I am sure many more to you. One of the things it means to me is neighborhood and local, a Durham style fest is always shot through with an air of communal. People know other people, and inevitably as I worked my way around the Beaver Queen’s patchwork of bodies, blankets, and beach chairs, with an old friend thinking about an old friend, I saw acquaintances personal and professional, families, couples, and co-working co-workers.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz talks about what he calls the multiplex, the webbed interconnection between people in a village scale community. Instead of just having one relationship with other members of your place, in a multiplex you relate to them on multiple levels. Your friend in yoga class might also babysit your kid and work in your local grocery store and you know that person in all three ways.
As I wandered around Duke Park, there was much evidence of these relationships. It creates bonds that are deeper, pictures of individuals in your community that are more nuanced, less like to be caricatures or rooted in confrontation. The singular dispute is contextualized by the panoply of imagery.
The pictures of Durham individuals one gets at the Beaver Queen Pageant! There may be no single better people watching day in our fair city. The Runaway Clothes fashion mavens used to have a shirt that read, “Let your Freak Flag Fly.” It might be Durham’s motto. We are home to and support all kinds.
I could not help looking at the kids attending the Beaver Queen Pageant thinking. What was the message they were getting looking at the adults around them, the Durham Bacchanal? I hope and believe it was one of inclusion. Kids know you can wear whatever you want. It is only society’s demands for, “maturity and decorum,” code words for repression, that socializes us out of it. It’s why Adam and Eve have to lose their innocence before they decide clothes are necessary. Kids know this eternal truth. Dress how you feel comfortable. The conventions and contraventions of Society be damned.
Beaver Queen basks in all kinds of beauty. This year’s Bollywood theme was no different.
With big smiles, we slowly trundled out of Beaver Queen through Duke Park’s shady tree-lined streets, I’d had a slice of the Pie Pushers and a Cookies and Cream LocoPop, a walk was very necessary before heading over to the Carrack.
Saturday night, shortly after 8pm, Killian Manning’s modern dance company, No Forwarding Address, performed a dance called “7 Beautiful Parts” inspired by Oliver’s work.
When I walked in, the room was strewn with paper.
The curves and slopes of Oliver’s paintings could be close-ups of crumpled paper.
The dancers entered, sliding dramatically into pose and freezing frame. Eventually they rose and shuffled, then frolicked and scampered joyously about the scattered sheets, reams of 8.5” by 11” twenty weight, playing like kids might. The youngest attendee and the MC were both provoked to giggles by their movements.
Bemused but unsure, it felt more familiar to me when one of the dancers began to speak,
“Your paper litters the floor.”
“Your litter papers the floor.”
The verb is the noun and vice versa. Form and reversal.
The dancers slowly moved into and about the paper, like Beaver Queen challenging me to remember to think with the freedom a child might amidst a seemingly adult activity. They balanced precariously on each other’s bodies in poses that vibed at first like a light-hearted game of Twister, but gradually became more weighty, and more load-bearing, and even fearful, evoking images like a fireman’s carry or saving a drowning friend.
Was this Art imitating what we are told is the arc of Life, gradually getting more serious and weighty?
More words from the dancers, “I’m trying to write a poem. The poem is in the corner.”
Now this felt truly familiar. Balled up, crumpled sheets of paper, thrown in the corner is a meme the writer knows.
From there one of the dancers pranced about miming photographing the audience. Were we participants along with the dancers? It is always a question in a society where the fourth wall has been permanently breached. We’d all found a piece of copy paper on our chairs when we sat. In the introduction, the MC told us they might be crafted into a paper airplane and used in some participatory manner twenty minutes hence.
From photographing the audience and playfully tossing balled up pieces of paper at us, the dancers took up a chant.
“Write on the walls. On the inside of the tent, on every available space on the paper.”
Was it a nod to our culture of excess? A culture where we are so busy documenting (on Social Media) what we do, we can hardly find time to do.
Was it a general ode to the madness of creativity? The image is the scribe scribbling on every last sheet, like the painter painting over old canvasses, because the art won’t stop coming just because the resources have run out.
Who knew the sound of slowly ripping paper would be so evocative? Why were the dancers who were once so frivolously throwing themselves about these former tree fibers now tearing them carefully and delicately? The same single piece of paper ripped slowly and intricately enough could be made to last eons.
In the end, we threw our airplanes and they took a bow to great applause. We all folded up our chairs and the refuse was swept into a big, black garbage bag.
When I salvaged a few sheets of the detritus, it was clearly converted from the mundanity of the day-to-day to Art. Imbued with Life as the child knows anything might be with the right dose of imagination.
I came away with provoked. Stirred with more questions than answers, thinking about interconnectivity, information sharing, and love.
Message can transcend medium and form. And it is helpful to be able to imbibe messages from multifarious sources, the reinforcement becomes visceral.
I feel you, Durham.
Some of the paper I found on the dance floor