“What Remains” Stages Black Lives under Surveillance

Dance inspired by Claudia Rankine’s inquisitive, award-winning poetry comes to the Walker Art Center

Photo by Julieta Cervantes/Courtesy Live Arts Bard

Claudia Rankine is one of the country’s sure-to-endure-the-passing-centuries poets.

Since the meteoric arrival of her essay-lyrical-cultural-pastiche poetry in 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, she has helped define the craft for the 21st century—embracing multidisciplinary tactics but never pre-fossilizing her work in that rarefied strata of post-grad academics. She writes clearly, sometimes scientifically. She collates outside materials, like TV commercials, prescription labels, suburban signage. Her pop-culture references are just a YouTube click away.

And in 2017, the award-winning Graywolf Press star and Yale University professor further multiplied her disciplines, adding dance.

She worked with New York choreographer Will Rawls on What Remains, now showing at the Walker Art Center March 7-9. The starkly contemporary piece draws from two of her collections: the unsentimental, death-facing Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and her book-length poem about the “post-racial” United States, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014)—both published by Minneapolis’ Graywolf.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes/Courtesy Live Arts Bard

Rankine saw her works’ racial themes—navigating others’ perceptions; digesting persistent, violent news coverage of black people—within We’re Watching, a 2017 New York exhibit that wanted to collaborate. Its theme was surveillance.

Surveillance, Rankine thought, of the sort that black Americans must turn on themselves while precariously existing in the white noise of their surroundings. As in, not security cameras. Not Google, or Alexa. More like walking home at night, holding a cell phone, wearing a hooded sweatshirt while black. White society’s control over black lives that exploits the low-cost, 24/7 means of self-surveillance.

Rankine and Rawls’ resulting What Remains project is shadowy, merciless performance art. It enlists a handful of dancers’ bodies in self-conscious, Sisyphean exertion.

Rawls’ past work has pointed out the racial privilege assumed in the love-yourself directive to “dance like nobody’s watching.” Dancing “really is the body insisting on its own presence, over and over and over, from second to second, minute to minute,” he told the New York Times in 2017.

In that, Rawls added, there is a kind of hope. Oppression, aiming for erasure, relegates black bodies to what Rankine calls “the already dead space.” That muffled realm nonetheless crackles with potential. What Remains uses Rankine’s writing amid existence-affirming and -reaffirming movements, where her words, digitized beyond the ordinary, make new forms out of their traditional meanings.

Catch any of three performances in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

What Remains
March 7-9
Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Pl., Minneapolis