As I approach the appointed meeting place, it’s easy to see where NIC Kay's PUSHIT! is set to depart. Dozens of onlookers gather around a single figure, clad in a space-print bodysuit, contorted into a pose indicating a heavy burden and internal struggle. From a tightly braided set of ribbons around their neck, a horde of balloons float in the breeze. This must be NIC Kay.
From the press notes, I knew that this was a section of an ongoing work the artist described as “exercises in getting-well-soon.” It's presented as “a meditation on emotional labor and the impossibility of the stage as a place of freedom for the Black performer.” There were notes that the experience could involve walking about three miles, over the course of two hours, so I prepared for a leisurely afternoon stroll. I came to witness interesting movement and gain new perspective on what it means to be a Black performer.
I have to say, none of it was what I expected.
It was not a leisurely stroll. I’m a long-legged athletic person so I tend to walk pretty fast. But, not only did I struggle to match the pace, there times when the mobile audience needed to break into a full run after the artist.
A costumed person tied to a large clump of balloons getting chased by a hundred people down N Williams may not be the strangest thing to see in Portland, but it was enough to prompt several calls of “What is this? What’s going on?” “It’s an art performance,” came the replies. “You’re welcome to join us.”
I found my thoughts constantly echoing the questions of passersby: What is this? What’s going on?
Performance art can be a tricky thing. Abstraction seems to be the way to seek a higher level of artistry. This makes a certain degree of sense. If the artist wants the audience to have to think about what they are witnessing, spoon-feeding the material isn’t going to stimulate any brainwaves. Personally, I question the capacity of art to have any real impact when the message is so abstracted that it becomes something closer to a whisper.
There was a lot of walking, but I felt like there wasn’t anything really happening. NIC Kay never strayed from character in spite of traffic, road blocks, fallen children’s bikes, unruly shrubbery, and low hanging tree branches (that claimed the lives of a few balloons). It was obvious that NIC Kay is clearly a skilled and talented movement artist. Whenever the crowd stopped, flashes of cultural and contemporary dance styles peaked through, but each glimpse was brief and only enough for a trained eye to recognize. I wanted the glimpses to be longer and more frequent.
My favorite movement came at the very beginning of the walk, when NIC Kay first walked forward with their hips and legs pulled slightly back by balloons. The movement focused on taking very stressed, silent steps, interspersed with grunts and exhales to accompany tense, slow shape-shifting.
And I loved the balloons. Not even just because one was a mirrored disco ball glittering in the sun. The way the balloons pulled against NIC’s neck forced the artist to labor forward in opposition to their very lightness. How do you labor against something that floats? NIC Kay will show you how, complete with a genuinely sweaty brow.
I found myself constantly considering the symbolism of the costuming. Was this supposed to establish the performer as an outsider because Black artists and people are still treated like "the other” or like aliens in our Western, white culture? Was the color choice of predominantly white balloons an intentional comment on the impact of living in white-dominant culture? Also, where did they get this bodysuit? It was pretty awesome.
In the end, I feel like I walked away with nothing but questions. The movement, staging, and back-story revealed very little about the artist’s intentions. I couldn't find the direction they wished the audience to go.
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