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Powerful multimedia performances fuel 'black lives matter' conversation

The Urban Bush Women and Voices from the Bush used bold strides and defiant contortions to jumpstart a weeklong black lives matter conversation on Saturday (July 25). The performance at the Contemporary Arts Center marked the beginning of the annual Summer Leadership Institute, a conference led by the Urban Bush Women through Aug.1 that explores how art can be used for civic engagement.

The evening began with an introduction by civil rights lawyer and scholar Michelle Alexander on the theme of this year's institute: How do we institutionalize the notion that Black Lives Matter? Alexander's 2010 bestseller "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" is serving as the seminal text for the conference. She spoke to the audience via video, her face projected on a large screen above the stage.

"The work you're doing using your art, your dance, your music, your voice to tell the stories of those who have been locked up, locked out, left behind, this is the work that I believe holds the most potential for ensuring this movement causes true transformation," Alexander said.

Sunni Patterson, a spoken-word artist who has performed at HBO's Def Poetry Jam and BET's Lyric Cafe, entered the stage reverently. "Ancestor, breathe, bridge, carry us over a tumultuous time," she enunciated rhythmically.

Patterson swept up the audience members with her conviction. "Yes!" they responded as if she were preaching. "Mhmmm," they agreed. The Contemporary Arts Center was transformed from a traditional auditorium to a safe space.

The Urban Bush Women, a contemporary dance troupe inspired by the African diaspora, performed excerpts from their award-winning, provocative repertoire. Cellist Monica McIntyre repeated low, dissonant chords and chanted loudly filling the room with a hypnotic fire. Four female dancers seized the stage with strength. They leapt and fell and leapt again, together and alone. "The Many," as the piece was called, reclaiming space they're made to feel they cannot occupy.

Through monologue, Rhodessa Jones brought the stories of struggling women to life. "Name a woman who has been forgotten," Jones requested. She started with Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her Texas jail cell on July 13, three days after she was arrested in a traffic stop. The audience yelled out names, one after another.

The memorialization continued in a solo performance by dancer Chanon Judson. A solemn voice read the names of men and women who have become symbols of the fight for racial equality: Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant .... Judson swayed her torso and arms glacially and then whipped into a fast series of martial arts-like movements. Her pace coordinated with the steady call of the lives lost. She leaned her tall, thin torso forward, snapped upright and then swam through the humid air with her chest wide open.

Trombonist Craig Harris, who has played with jazz legends, such as Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, composed a piece with the repetition of Eric Garner's last words: "I Can't Breathe."

Harris walked onstage playing trombone as solo dancers violently twisted their bodies and said "Breathe, beloved, breathe." Each dancer that entered the stage dismantled the horn, one piece at a time, until Harris could barely play. The choreography seemed to symbolize the perseverance required to keep living when one has been stripped of their voice.

On Monday (July 27), audience members will get a chance to move through their ideas. Founder of the Urban Bush Women Jawole Willa Jo Zollar will lead a social dance class and party at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center.

On Tuesday (July 28), the conversation will be grounded with a free, panel discussion about how to move beyond protest at 7 p.m at McWilliams Hall at Tulane University. The conference will conclude on Saturday (August 1) with two free performances at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. also at McWilliams Hall.

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