Jalila Bell wrote a beautifully emotional essay where a special performance brings the history of her people and the spirits of her ancestors to the present day.
We Fin Gwine up de Jacobs Ladder
By Jalila A. Bell, Esq.
On June 21, 2006, I had the privilege, honor and distinction of participating and performing in the Opening Day Concert and ceremonies for the 74th Annual Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival with my wonderful colleagues of the Vissi Dance Theater. As a dancer, an artist, a woman of color, an attorney, and a descendant of slaves, I was truly honored to walk the hallowed ground of the Pillow and to Dance on freedoms land.
Jacobs Pillow has been a leader in dance presentation and education since its founding in 1933 by dance pioneer Ted Shawn. But Jacobs Pillow is more than a sacred place for modern dance, an ode to modern dance pioneers; it is also a historical landmark, a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is therefore fitting that Vissi Dance Theater would perform the three excerpts chosen; Run Thunder Run, an except from The Hoarde (2005), The Runaways, an excerpt from Amazing Grace (2004), and lastly Juneteenth, also an excerpt from Amazing Grace (2005). All three of these pieces deal dramatically with the themes of slavery, fear, oppression, transcendence and freedom. Each of the three in their own right is a technical masterpiece worthy of merit.
Performing these pieces in this venue was overwhelming for me, both physically and emotionally. For most of the bumpy- curvy three- hour ride home, I huddled in my seat of the caravan, sobbing uncontrollably. As a dancer, I felt wholly unsatisfied by my failure to achieve the unobtainable perfection, the precision of technique, the liminality to overcome my numerous costume malfunctions. As a woman of color and a descendant of slaves, I was humbled and overcome by a profound bone- deep sadness.
For many of the bun-headed, suburbia- originated students of Jacobs Pillow, the graying baby-boomer audiences of the Festival, and the dance- press aficionado who attend to critique the international works presented, the Pillow is a haven, a utopia in the midst of increasing urban chaos. For me, it was a quiet, pastoral place, serene and unreal, charged with the frenzied, harrowed, and desperate energy of my ancestors. I was discomfited by the knowledge that my ancestors had tracked up those same bumpy curvy hills on whence we road. They were mostly on foot, often times barefoot, and tracked by vicious killers and bounty hunters, even hunted by dogs, with visions of horror and thoughts of lost family to accompany them. I wondered what the Pillows bun- headed ballet protégé understood of this, and whether they too could feel the sorrow and the anger surrounding the site. Far too many times over the years I have watched the children of the privileged exist untouched by the bowling realities of history, silently buttressed by the blood spilt from others. I could not help but to wonder how many descendants of slaves are able to experience the Pillow and all of the culture and history it has to offer. I can only hope that the Pillow will continue to invite companies like Vissi Dance Theater so that we too may share in the rich legacy of its founders and the blood history of the land.
I have been invigorated by this experience, a religious rebirth of sorts it seems. I have a newfound sense of place and purpose both within the history of dance, as well as within the history of our country. Dancing is my passion. I have been dancing professional for over ten years, however, I am also a practicing attorney. Dance is my freedom, my true self, my calling, but I have always known that I have a responsibility to use my voice in its most- largest meaningful sense, to be more than a simple entertainer. After having taken to heart the maxim that the personal is the political, I chose to practice these honored professions simultaneously for maximum personal effect. Moreover, it is rare that dance becomes a viable means of self support where the descendants of slaves are concerned. It is mostly the children of the privileged who have the means and the network of support to pursue an economically viable career in dance. Conservatories like the Pillow do not come cheap, and choosing to honor your calling as dancer many times results in a life of relentless poverty. With that in mind, I am also an attorney because it pays the bills. That is, once I am done paying off the student loans, that modern day version of buying my freedom or sharecropping then being an attorney will pay the bills!
Vissi Dance Theater is my artistic home because Vissi understands the need for we dance artists to have vision, to be educated, to cross realms, and to take our craft as seriously as death and taxes. Like Harriet Tubman taking the runaways pon de Jacobs Ladder to freedom, we at Vissi strive to transport ourselves and our audiences to a realm of higher consciousness and productivity. I am sure that all of my colleagues at Vissi will agree in feeling honored to have been part of the 74th season at the Pillow. We only hope that when we come a-knocking with that secret password, deys lets us bak in.
Jalila A. Bell, Esq. is a professional dancer and practicing attorney living in Brooklyn, New York. Jalila runs her own law practice and dance- works for the Vissi Dance Theater in New York City. The Vissi Dance Theater is committed to art and artists that use the gift of dance and drama to explore moral and social issues. Through art, the Vissi Dance Theater seeks to speak to the human condition, lift the spirit, ask questions, celebrate the joy of life, and reflect the truths of human nature. Jalila can be reached at email@example.com . Vissi Dance Theater at www.vissidancetheater.com
Vissi Dance Company: Erin Pride, Jalila A. Bell, Chanel Mobley and Tonika Custalow in Amazing Grace. (Photo Brian Diaz)
Outside Stage at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival