A poetic piece honoring the life and work of Laurie Carlos, Oliver's long time mentor, devoted friend. Published in 2017 in magazine Girls Like Us, an edition devoted to dance and many who have significantly influenced current dance artists.
Laurie Carlos' Breath Dance
Flipping the Script: Renegotiating Notions of Haitian Women in the Global Imagination.” In Kehinde Wiley’s World Stage: Haiti exhibition book. Los Angeles, CA (2015)
An essay discussing Wiley’s reputation as an artists whose project has been to recast the image of the black male in the public imagination. He has turned his attention to Haitian women and has utilized a queen show as a part of tat equation. I discuss the island’s history with pageantry and bring it forward with a look at Haiti’s women that upends the poverty and violence we are barraged with in the media.
Dancing the Black Avant Garde (2014)
Black dance artists who have lived in the world of the avant garde, “downtown dance” scene in New York, and the national and international experimental arenas, experience tenuous associations with the larger (albeit imagined) black community of dance particularly in the United States. Often considered “outsider art” or even “white,” postmodern dance aesthetics that have been embraced by black makers and performers has set those creators in a realm of the in-between. In this paper, I consider how we categorize our work, how that work is received by differing constituencies, and where it is ultimately located both in terms of venue and geographic access.
A Movement in Lockstep (on duets) (2013)
An essay inspired by my duet BOOM!, “A Movement in Lockstep (on duets)”, is a mediation on the performance of this duet where the characters are both inside and outside of the performance. They/she sees the movement between the two performers and comments upon the states of mind in the work while it is proceeding while simultaneously navigating and narrating the design of the choreography. Published by the Painted Bride Art Center of Philadelphia for Two Too, a publication on the duets of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane.
Rigidigidim is a chronicling of the process of creating the dance theatre work Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso from Oliver’s earliest considerations of transnationalism in her personal recollection of a conversation with her father in St. Croix and his recognition of calypso wafting over the radio in the 1950s Caribbean to her recent travels to Toronto and London to excavate the role of the music in the lives of contemporary Caribbeans. This journey then takes her to New York City where she discovers her cast and the circularity of the research and performance structure of the ultimate work. This essay weaves the research with the creative process inherent in the making of the dance work and demonstrates the interrelatedness of the processes.
(In Caribbean Dance vol. 2. Susanna Sloat, Ed. University Press of Florida. 2009)
Rigidigidim De Bamba De: A Calypso Journey from Start to… (2010)
Queen of the Virgins uses the “queen show” or beauty pageant as a platform to discuss the psychic shift black women experienced as they moved from slave to freewoman, indentured servant to political activist, civic organizer to territorial representative in her journey from debasement to one of celebration. This work is a comprehensive examination via performance, of women’s roles in the production of culture, in the history of race and class relations, and of modernization and globalization in the U.S. Virgin Islands. By examining the black female performing on local stages as they relate to global pageants, Queen of the Virgins discusses the intricacies of Afro-Caribbean politics, gender relations, and aesthetic sensibilities as they affect communities in the region and our appearances to the broader world community. (University of Mississippi Press, 2009)
Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean (2009)
In the Anglophone Caribbean, calypso music is the accompaniment to the dance that defines Caribbean authenticity. Calypso is the Creole child of Caribbean displacement. It is the result of numerous cultures clashing on the shores of Trinidad and Tobago, the home of the form. It is the music of Carnival. A product of the Kalenda and Cariso, its early forms were work songs and commentary of the enslaved. The song lyrics expressed the conditions of their lives, in work, in love, in social or political matters. Calypso has been known to incite rebellion, provoke response to social commentary and sexual innuendo, or simply rouse a party. Calypso has spread through the region (and the world) over a century, and has maintained its grip on the region by an ability to adapt and mutate to contemporary styles and tastes. By its very Creole nature and its history in a syncretized culture, (of African, European, South East Asian, and other groups), the music moves as the body does, in a rhythmic, cyclical manner, adopting the new as it persistently refers to its roots. It has kept in step and chord with contemporary music, producing sounds now called reggae-lypso, soca-lypso, and the like. It is the signature music and dance of the Caribbean region. And wherever Caribbean people locate, its performance remains a sign to be read and understood by other Caribbeans of their regional and social identifications across the globe.
This research explores the ways in which West Indian identities are formulated across territories and nations; How Caribbeans maintain identity via a variety of means – food preparation, spiritual practices, language, and social customs which include dancing. These practices all become a patchwork collage of Caribbean-ness and individual island identity appears to become less important than collectivity used to harness political and social presence. I examine how once outside the region, individual nationhood is perhaps eclipsed by a larger notion of Caribbean-ness and the narratives therein. I use these notions to ask questions: Can there be a homogeneous Caribbean Identity? When and where do those exist? If so what are its components? (How is this community made?) And when does this community dissolve and collapse into the more traditional notions of nationhood? How is calypso a part of this equation? Who does this dance? When do they do it? Where? How? I look at Calypso dance practice and discuss the way it moves through Caribbean territories in the region as well as those places where Caribbeans have migrated and created communities in other locations as far reaching as New York, Toronto, London, Atlanta, and Florida. I am interested in detailing what is the “work” that Calypso does? And how does it do it?
Calypso’s Moving Geographies
During the 1980s Randall “Doc” James MD presided over “VI Views,” a weekly television show that addressed all matters of local island social and political concerns. With Doc’s characteristically intuitive sense, he broke up the monotony of a dry political show with the antics of a special and celebrated tall tale teller, Alvin “Fungi” James. Fungi’s appearance would dramatically alter the tone of the show and cause James to erupt into peals of laughter as he jokingly accused Fungi of lying and Fungi insisted on his truths. Both of these men participated in classically African storytelling performances more familiarly noted in the Anansi style of slight versus might, the cleverness of one character outsmarting the large bumbling and seemingly stronger of the other. However, with a particularly Caribbean flavor, Fungi and Doc produced a “rough and ready” humor typically performed by men of the territory which offered explanations for the impossible, invisible, and unexplainable phenomena. On these weekly programs Fungi became the highlight and the validating force of black male humor, which is most commonly performed on the streets and in the exclusive congregations of men. The value that is placed on the “broadness” of Fungi’s language, the coolness of his style, and the undaunting capacity for straight faced lying proclaimed him king of local black male identity and pride.
In this paper, currently under publication consideration by a peer review journal, I examine the style and context of Fungi’s spectacular storytelling and delivery through the work of theorists Robert Farris Thompson, Isidore Okpewho, Brenda Dixon Gottschild and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Having grown up in the Virgin Islands and witnessed the conditions under which black men in the territory tell tales, boast of their prowess, and challenge one another, Fungi’s work is representative of a unique and at the same time similar expression of masculinity in the region and the performance of black masculinity in the Americas. I interviewed Fungi extensively during the 1990s and secured a number of videotapes from our local television station that contained his work over the years. His remarkable sense of timing, use of metaphor, critical cultural symbols, and cadence of speech struck at the root of working class VI identity. The “rawness” in his use of language becomes a symbol of resistance to the encroaching North American culture with which we are bombarded. It betrays the degree to which one has or has not succumbed to the dictates of white American or European values and dominance. It is an expression of cultural pride and a demonstration of one’s quick-wittedness, that which alludes to the craftiness and outsmarting nature of the seemingly oppressed over the might of an imposing colonizer.
Fungi’s Lies: Masculinity and Aesthetics of the Raw in the U.S. Virgin Islands During the 1980s
In the US Virgin Islands beauty pageants proliferate. They are the place where we see women performing most. They are appendages of our most popular performance event, carnival. Established women of the middle and upper classes use pageants to dictate approved and tabooed behaviors among participants while simultaneously creating codes which opponents actively resist. Delivered at the conference for the Popular Culture Association/ American Culture Association in New Orleans Louisiana, this paper discusses the dictates of pageantry and it’s limits which work to determine what a “respectable” Virgin Island womanhood might mean, that which in some cases bars young women from local dances and other popular events that are at once embraced at large as signifiers of an overarching Virgin Island identity.
Respectable Women Don’t Dance: Beauty pageants of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dictates of Proper Black Womanhood (2003)
As described in her Introduction, Editor Susanna Sloat of “Caribbean Dance: From Abakua to Zouk, How Movement Shapes Identity,” says this work “focuses] on a smaller island [where] we can see all the components of a dance culture, down to the theachers whose students like Cynthia Oliver, author of “Winin Yo’ Wais” sometimes become professional dancers and choreographers. Opening with the exuberant “wining” and even more sexually explicit “wukkin up” of St. Croix’s Carnival, Oliver moves on to the diverse history of the multiply-colonized U.S. Virgin Islands, their continuing pinch between North American and Caribbean Identities, the revival of the historical bamboula as a “nation dance” by folkloric groups despite persistent debate on what it looked like historically, and another “nation dance,” the quadrille, still danced to the local quelbe music in public dances and private Heritage Dance Balls.”
Elizabeth Zimmer of the Village Voice (NY) says “Cynthia Oliver…offers “Winin Yo’ Wais,’ a study of dance on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix. Her essay, graced with her own poetry, reflects a sophisticated understanding of the political dynamics at play in the region. The Virgin Island dances, she observes, manifest African polyrhythmic and bent knee movement below the waist, the “winding” or rotation of the hips, topped with a more vertical European-style carriage in the torso and arms.
Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Danish and other settlers brought their own dance styles to the region; after decimating the native populations and taking control of the real estate, they imported labor from Africa, taking some of the slaves into their own homes. There, the new arrivals observed European dance behavior at close range (and to be sure, vice versa). North American culture has been thoroughly permeated by the hyphenated-African dance and music of the Caribbean, to the point where American popular culture is this African-derived melange, a process that began with the popularization of swing and continued through the rages for mambo and cha-cha in the 50s, up to the present crazes for salsa and breaking….”(Village Voice, January 8-14, 2003 * Vol XLVIII No. 2)
Winin Yo’ Wais: The Changing Tastes of Dance on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix (2002)
In 1995, the U.S. Virgin Island community was embroiled in a heated debate over the definition of what “native” meant to the territory. Brought on by the potential for gross profits promised by the Casino Gaming Commission determined to establish the Virgin Islands as a new and lucrative home for casino gambling, local communities engaged in a fierce dialogue about the nature and criteria of native-ness in the territory. Encouraged by the promise of fortune and employment for the general public, the Virgin Island Legislature, in a move to “protect” the interests of local people, sought to establish guidelines for the ownership and building of gambling houses on St. Croix and St. Thomas. The interests of a number of key legislators were to insure that native Virgin Islanders were entitled to a portion of the Gaming Commission’s profits and facilities. In order to do this, a definition of “native” was critical. And by creating a working definition of “native,” what the Legislature achieved was a simultaneous construction of what Stuart Hall and Judith Butler have called “the constituent outside”. Meaning that by the determination of what “was” or “is” native, we are at once required to designate what it is not as well. Teams of longtime and mostly white, island residents with financial and social stakes in the island’s present and future were excluded from the picture. Amid accusations of divisiveness, and reverse racism, pro-native figures were required to take sides in what ultimately became a racial and economic divide, and choose where they stood on the issue. This choice, by the nature of the Virgin Island economic scene, became a picture of the “have’s” and the “have not’s”, with cultural legitimacy, race, and economics a major and critical part of the political landscape.
This paper, delivered at the University of the West Indies for the “(Re)Thinking Caribbean Culture Conference,” tells the complicated and entangled story of the construction of the native in the U.S. Virgin islands amidst its historic place of contestation as both a Caribbean nation and United States territory. Forced by a desire to protect black interests, Virgin Island legislators returned to history, to issues of sovereignty and citizenship, to slavery and empire to tease out the rights of a people to partake in their own profit making potential and assert their subjectivity. From the early works of Earl Leaf, who determined the islands “a happy melting pot of racial harmony,” to Gordon K. Lewis’s rigorous commentary on the creole mixture that has become the Virgin Island populace, to the more contemporary scholarship on migration and cultural and linguistic contributions discussed by Olivia Cadaval and Gilbert Sprauve, this paper offers an overview of the U.S. Virgin Islands patterns of migration, labor, and cultural development as we move toward a definition of ourselves and a simultaneous address of belonging, and longing for a true Caribbean identity.
Performing the Native: Caribbean-ness in the U.S.
Virgin Islands (2001)
In “Dancing for the People” (developed from the work “Dancing Black Popular Culture,”which was presented at UC Riverside in 2000), I draw on the works of two contemporary black dance companies; Urban Bush Women and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, to describe the political and formal possibilities and limitations to staging vernacular idioms to draw in black audiences. Both directors, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Brown, at various points in their careers, have invested in a specific and particular use of popular black forms and language to express their identities and viewpoints, attract black audiences, and carve out a space for themselves in the modern and post-modern dance spheres. This paper works to examine the ways in which those choices have served the companies and simultaneously limited them.
Both Urban Bush Women and Ronald K. Brown have stretched ideas around what has been determined as black dance. Their paths from marginality to a broader black public sphere, their initial placement as “downtown” New York artists, to that of a full embrace in both “uptown” and “downtown” New York cultures, is also of concern here. Did the inclusion of black popular idioms assist in that transition? Did that inclusion make it easier for the respective publics to identify these two creators as “black” choreographers? Was their path to black public acceptance one which the companies aimed to in the first place? Or was it a matter of white acceptance and press which precluded their success as now noteworthy black choreographers? In this work, presented at the Chicago Seminar on Dance and Performance, I examine the modes of black expressive culture used in specific works by both groups, how it’s use may differ with the gender of the artistic directors, the issues they choose to address, and the ways in which their choices ultimately affect the reputations and circulation of representative images of the respective groups.
Dancing for the People: Ronald K. Brown/Evidence and Urban Bush Women and the Performance of Blackness (2000/2003)
My Master’s Thesis aimed to record the path of dance on the US Virgin Island of St. Croix. I pursue answers to the questions “What was/is seen on the island, where, and by whom? And “What climate welcomed the introduction or participation in new and traditional movement forms?” This investigation, the culmination of her extensive work in the Gallatin School at New York University, included an involved look at historical developments on the island from political and social perspectives as they made an impact upon the physical body and artistic expression. Where events changed a group’s perceptions about their circumstances or beliefs, it also changed the ways in which they moved their bodies. What was appropriate or inappropriate; how costume or style of dress were selected; where the dances were performed, and in whose company, is examined here. Dance trends on St. Croix tend to parallel the development and growth typical of “creole” society in the Caribbean and its particularities. Resident Europeans and transported Africans created a new reality of social conditions in the New World, as this produced a “creole” society, it also produced “creole” dance forms. This paper looks at the movement of the body historically with relation to policy in the making. Additionally, this thesis presents and examines current movements in dance (that is up until 1995), within the last fifty years, including the people who have been responsible for changes in movement styles and expression, and their respective backgrounds.