Tracy Lang, who goes by the more succinct T. Lang, is a self-proclaimed Chicago-born New Yorker turned Atlantan. She moved here in 2008 to accept a job in the Department of Drama and Dance at Spelman College, bringing with her a unique style of dance movement she calls “urban contemporary” as well as her then two-year-old company, T. Lang Dance.
Like Lang herself, urban contemporary is a hybrid of influences and styles: the sharp lines of classical ballet and the intricate detail of Merce Cunningham’s style mixed with old and new-school club dance of all kinds. (Disclosure: Lang and I are colleagues at Spelman College.)
Despite the steady supply of new trends in club dance, Lang looked to the work of avant-garde choreographers, in particular New York’s Tere O’Connor, and decided to create something entirely new, something from her own past that inspired her to choreograph a dance that demonstrates how historical perspective gives one very profane compound word a completely different context. The result is “Mother/Mutha,” Lang’s most ambitious and controversial work to date, to be performed June 7-9 at Goodson Yard at the Goat Farm Arts Center.
The work explores the historical context and social implications of the highly charged (and wildly popular) word “motherfucker.” Lang came upon the subject at a family reunion last summer, when her uncle jokingly asked some of the younger family members to identify their favorite swear words. Because of its versatility, power and intonation, Lang told him that hers is “motherfucker.”
Her uncle’s mood immediately turned serious. “I knew a lecture was coming,” she recalls.
He explained the word’s origins, how certain slave plantations were dedicated to breeding slaves and selling them. Plantation owners, he said, would identify a certain type of African — usually based on physical attributes that enabled them to work faster and better — and force them to breed, often with their own cousins, sisters and even mothers. “That story never left me,” Lang says. “I didn’t want to ask if our family …”
That moment with her uncle, and the powerful emotions and haunting questions it evoked, became the basis for “Mother/Mutha.”
“I wanted to look at the endurance, examine the tolerance, if this [was] the life you had, the cards you were dealt,” Lang explains. “How does it affect generations? Is it a generational curse?” She wonders whether it has played a role in our society’s warped view of African-American female sexuality or has helped perpetuate the objectification, especially in hip-hop culture where the word is commonplace, of women. She doesn’t pretend to know the answers, but examining the questions through the lens of contemporary dance offers a new perspective. “I’m not trying to make a definitive statement,” Lang says. “I’m just trying to spark conversation.”
And that’s only the jumping-off point. She goes from there to the questions that surround what she calls the “isms”: racism, sexism and capitalism. The movement shifts from the exaggerated facial expressions and stylized cakewalks of 19th-century minstrel shows to the booty shaking of hip-hop videos. The music throws just as many surprises. In fact, Lang had to persuade her collaborator, opera singer Ann Marie McPhail, to sing a rendition of the national anthem with the words replaced by the lyrics to rapper Khia’s raunchy 2002 hit “My Neck, My Back (Lick It).”
Lang says she explained the meaning of the work to McPhail and the dancers and also shared her research, which included a critical reading of Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” “I think [they] trusted me wholeheartedly and allowed themselves to showcase [the work] without apology,” she says.
But McPhail, Lang says with an appreciative laugh, “had to pray on it.”
Despite the volatility of the some of the musical choices, “Mother/Mutha’s” movement — at times aggressive and calling to mind an uneasy sense of voyeurism — remains accessible. At a recent rehearsal, six women stand in the studio quivering, their hips and buttocks vibrating at seemingly impossible speeds. A dancer says “go!” and they all spring into action, slapping their bodies and whipping their legs through the air like ballerinas hell-bent on breaking every rule in the book. With pelvises thrust out, they grab at their thighs and wag their fingers as if to say, “Don’t even think about it.”
“Any time you see a tremor or a shake or a pop or a drop, it’s not what you see at the club,” Lang says. “It’s missing that other part: men putting their hands on [women] and forcing them into those positions.” By choreographing her all-female, mostly black cast into somewhat compromising positions but taking out the element of oppression, Lang hopes to empower them and to call stereotypes and assumptions into question.
The conversation begins on stage, with the dancers’ arms darting toward one another in an exaggerated, gestural discussion, and continues, Lang hopes, long after the audience has departed. “We’ll have this conversation until the end of time.”