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Intermediality and Queer African American Improvisation: Dianne McIntyre, Sounds in Motion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2021

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This article explores the work of choreographer Dianne McIntyre as an improvisational artist entangled in questions of intermedial relations among sounds and motions. It discusses the terms of performance in relation to emergent paradigms of Afro-pessimism, and argues for a black regard as a method of engaging with experimental performances by artists of African descent. The article explores theoretical terms of witness and encounter with black performance in relation to queer alterities, and non-normative modes of physical expression. The article suggests further need for research into the work of an outstanding black American female artist of theatre and dance.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2021

The extensive output of choreographer Dianne McIntyre offers a rich archive of dance improvisation and intermedial creativity as they might arrive embedded in imperatives of African American performance. This essay explores how McIntyre's creative craft proposes an intermedial entanglement of sound and motion, improvisation and the experienced practices of dancing, and the terms of African American expression within the social circumstances that surround black life in the United States of America. I begin with a performative description of dance improvisation in an African American grain inspired by McIntyre's performances:

The sound is already there, within the body and its remembering. Moving, we begin to enliven the thoughts bubbling within; the impulses covered over by social encounters and by following the rules of engagement. Improvising, we listen differently, to an other way of being in this moment. The sounds of an unexpected utterance, made fleshly through dance activity, encouraging the actions of discovery and cross-referencing; the intermedial presences of re-alignments through time.

In order to consider the achievement of McIntyre as a mature and extremely well-regarded choreographer in the context of the United States, I will call on the theoretical premises of Afro-pessimism to wonder at the fugitive nature of her artistry in the spaces of improvisational intermediality. I will also consider the queer potentialities that her work as a dance improviser might encourage us towards as witnesses to her art. This rendering of the intermedial, then, encompasses a consideration of the queer capacities of black creativity as it might point us towards an ‘otherwise way of being’,Footnote 1 referencing an expansive repertory of moves and countermoves that allow black performance in the context of the United States to render relationships that might care for black lives and black loves. In short, McIntyre's work as an intermedial artist offers an urgent example of the terms of a black regard.

The black regard allows us a way to consider intermedial affiliations of sound and motion in relation to grounding awareness of social concerns that entangle black creativity: in systems of global capital, the emergence and continuation of a violent police state (especially in the United States), difficulties of migration and immigration for black Africans moving towards Europe to escape the vestiges of failed colonialism, or the constant disavowal that circumscribes black women's lives in international forums of artmaking and excellence. The black regard proposed here is one that recognizes the intermedial as an entanglement of social capacity and aesthetic invention that casts creativity towards its representational ends among the politics that inevitably surround performance. McIntyre's dancing, considered from this particular point of view, can demonstrate the intermedial as a site of world-making that allows a black public to recognize itself in sound and motion towards an accounting of the complexities of contemporary black life. Intermedial relations are realized in exquisite detail of improvisational moving and music making, designed to allow us to experience unexpected possibilities born of the moment, invented to allow us to feel our presence among each other as we witness, listen, remember, and imagine in relation to black life.

Thinking through the achievement of dancer and choreographer Dianne McIntyre helps me fashion a theoretical rendering of dance improvisation that is rooted in African American arts and letters: arts, because she works as a dance performer; and letters, in order to consider her work as exemplary of theoretical concepts of black life related in critical literature. McIntyre, born in 1946, has been at the vanguard of black American creativity as an artist but possibly underexposed in international circumstances. Born in the mid-western United States city of Cleveland, Ohio, McIntyre formed her school and company, both titled Sounds in Motion, in 1972. For sixteen years she directed the enterprises from a location in Harlem, New York, crafting the intermedial relationships of music and dance for a primarily black public through workshops, classes and provocative performances in improvised modern dance.

Beyond directing her company, McIntyre has enjoyed a vibrant career as an independent artist. She has choreographed scores of concert dances and original full-length dance dramas. Her work has been practised by numerous university dance companies, and her teaching has been featured in countless dance festivals. Notable commissions have come from the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, GroundWorks Dance Theater, and the Dancing Wheels ensemble. In the year 2000, dance historian Veta Goler completed a partial chronology of McIntyre's work up until that time. In the twenty years since that account, McIntyre has staged several Broadway shows, a London West End musical, two feature films and three television productions, and provided stage movement for recording artists.Footnote 2

Fig. 1 Dianne McIntyre. Photograph by Ian Douglas.

Intermedial affiliations of sounds in (and as) motion form the bedrock of McIntyre's creative oeuvre. Her company and school were named for the tensions and affinities of sound and motion alongside each other; her creative craft considers these two forms of expression as interdependent operations, entirely reliant one on the other for their fullest realizations. This essay's consideration of her improvisatory work assumes a willingness to consider dance gesture and its many routes of invention as media, as a mode of communication and expression that might be recognized in its complexities as cultivation of ideology.

While McIntyre has crafted movement for herself and others, she has been steadfastly disinterested in crafting moving-image archives of her performances. Few films exist of her improvisatory method and achievement. This poses a special challenge for researchers interested in her process, as the few extant films, critical accounts and memories of audience members comprise a fragmentary archive, one rent with fissures and gaps that resist comprehensive analysis. I have had the pleasure to witness McIntyre's performances and creative works on a dozen occasions over the past two decades. And yet my own notes and reflections offer only a fugitive, partial accounting of events that have come and gone without nearly enough stabilizing critical analyses. I offer another descriptive rendition of the ways she moves, based on my notes from prior performances and the limited video evidence of her craft:

Dianne McIntyre dances with passionate disregard. Moving as she needs to, she allows the moment to stretch and bend to her ever-changing will. This sort of dancing arrives full of risk, with no clear or inevitable return from any particular gesture. Instead, her dancing demonstrates shifting re-workings of impulses and vibrational pulls. She runs, jumps, spins, shimmies, leaps, stutter-steps, flits and floats, carving time as a worthy rival for our shared attention. Shaping time through her dancing, she encourages us to linger in breath as an audience gathered through her imagination.Footnote 3

Improvising, McIntyre knows what she does and what will likely come of it. Like any experienced dancer, she understands her capacities as an artist and searches for ways to extend her expressive abilities towards the public who attend her performances. Improvising, she wonders alongside the audience at this movement or that, sometimes working through a familiar sequence of gesture as it unfolds in relation to the sounds of the moment. But the fact that she does not attempt to replicate a moment from before, in the now of now, bestows her presence with the remarkable accuracy of finding and manipulating time. Improvising, McIntyre shapes our ability to become consonant with her listening. She draws us into the intermedial space, the space between knowings and wonderings, the space between gestures and their implications and possibilities.

Intermedial, in this formation, refers to the spaces between and overlap among media, or, in terms of performance, disciplinary apparatus. How do gesture and memory, physical technique and its disavowal, align in the practices of dance improvisation? How do sounds and motion affirm difference that might constitute intermedial assembly? I'm working on a study of improvisation within modalities of black dance, especially as they relate to practices of alterity and queer possibilities for movers. Searching through theoretical models of Afro-pessimism and writings in queer theory allows me to frame choice-making by black artists in terms of an expansive container of embodied resistance through performance, with black dance practices offering a mechanism that values the willingness and urgency of exceeding form. If dance might be considered a technology of presence, it is also a technology of transformation, one that allows for the expression of unexpected orientations and emergent structures of feeling.Footnote 4

McIntyre's craft

Talking about making dances, McIntyre discusses what might be sustained as a collective activity of experience in theatrical encounter.Footnote 5 She asserts that theatrical dance brings a community together; she believes in the shamanistic power of dance to make something palpable that had not been before. These concepts resonate with the group dynamic of African American artistry that has been discussed often by scholars, as well as the place of ritual as a binding notion that brings African diaspora people together for communion through performance. In citing holistic properties of dance as community healing, led by an anointed devotee, McIntyre aligns her artistic practice with concepts of spirit and otherwise time. She crafts her dances into a space of multivalent resonance, at some distance from the simple, apparent activities of what a body can do on a stage.

Dance scholar Veta Goler describes McIntyre's creative craft in relation to the blues, and the ‘cross-disciplinary cultural expressions’ contained by blues aesthetics.Footnote 6 Here, the particular function of performance becomes an aspect of its conception, in relation to an expansive consideration of nearby artistic genres and political circumstances. Goler notes that McIntyre's work ‘recognizes the troubles and affirms the humanity of black people’, revealing ‘the texture born of despair, hope, and perseverance in different aspects of African American life’.Footnote 7 In ascribing this complex possibility to McIntyre's dance making, Goler encourages us to consider theatrical dance as a mode of civic participation in transformative experience, as a process of intermedial arrangement of moving through a commons of blues as shared social address.

Dance researcher Danielle Goldman considers Dianne McIntyre's creative craft within a study of improvised dance as a practice of freedom. Following Foucault, Goldman describes improvised dance as a moving through and against power that, in some ways, allows the performer to give shape to oneself and decide ‘how to move in relation to an unsteady landscape’.Footnote 8 Goldman places McIntyre among other improvising artists who manoeuvre through ‘tight places’, a concept she borrows from African American literary critic Houston Baker that considers presence as an assemblage of constraints which might be exceeded or broken through. Linking improvisation and survival through creative craft, Goldman offers us methods to account for how McIntyre's dancing might exceed categories of race for those able to understand foundations of black performance as they are aligned with currents of global capital.

This tension between foundations of racialized politics and the recognizable creative gesture onstage arrives at the heart of my own current project to articulate ontological biases of black improvisation, and its relationships to queer being. Africanist performance considers the intermedial affiliation of music and dance in every construction; moving differently might be an effect of any engagement with African diaspora dance/music. Considered along this sort of line of flight, there may be nothing limiting or reductive about blackness or black dancing per se. Rather, there are systems of structural racism and white supremacy that attempt to place black being into the margins of its own innovations. My research project intends to centre black creative craft in relation to itself as an aspect of black life, considered as a structuring remain of global capital but committed to exceeding that category at all costs.

To consider black life as a remain of global capital is to consider the impact of chattel slavery upon structural logics of colonialism that produced the category of blackness. These are the logics that partitioned the Americas and the continent of Africa according to European interests of the state of capital, even as they produced the category of the modern. This line of reasoning has been effectively argued by dozens of cultural theorists. More recently, dance researchers have considered the terms of neo-liberal capitalism in the construction of black dance and its recognition.Footnote 9

Black systems of dance improvisation arrive as foundational approaches to moving through social encounter. In a black North American context, dance and music are generally considered to arrive in tight relation, one inspiring and providing possibility for the other. Dance and music are also everyday barometers of healthy social exchange, arriving in capacious abundance in contexts of faith, political debate, work, family celebration, and theatrical experimentation. A creative ethic of improvisation undergirds these forms and their deployments, providing the structural formation for large genres of performance, including jazz, hip hop, spoken word, blues, tap dance, etc.Footnote 10

Because dance and music hold crucial normative value as aspects of being for black Americans, they propagate with a ferocity of invention. The emergence of variegation within form, as well as the constant creation of new form (always created in relation to earlier modes), signal an expansive capacity for black music and dance to press beyond already known benchmarks of creative craft. These terms of creativity also enmesh physical improvisation in dance within burgeoning black life, revealing the process of enlivenment through gesture as a normative social activity. We dance to demonstrate and explore how we are.Footnote 11

Practices of improvisation are inevitably related to rhetorical stances of the body that confirm presence. As non-literal expression, physical improvisation in dance moves through complex arrays of citational assembly, continually referencing other sorts of activities, memories, shared assumptions or presumptions, and physical possibilities in order to register for the mover and their witnessing. Obviously, given the broad disavowal of black life in global contexts, creative practice that allows people to confirm presence arrives as an invaluable strategic and emotional human resource. Improvisation, burnished through systems of black thought, repeatedly prepares participants – a group that includes the witnesses to the dancing – to imagine other possibilities by enacting potentials with the body.

‘Aunt Hester's Scream’: a certain offence runs through us

Dianne McIntyre explores the potentials of the blues in her creative works. It will be useful to consider the structural foundations of the blues as an aspect of black life and black creative integrity. To understand the blues as a valence for creative expression, we might turn to the formations of Afro-pessimism and black thought rooted in an ambivalent relationship to ‘the human’ as a disciplinary category of experience. In the Break (2003), Fred Moten's magisterial rendering of black performance, begins with his intention to mobilize the resistance of the object as a cipher for a performative (phonic) stance of dissidence.Footnote 12 In his introduction, Moten is most concerned, perhaps, with the terms of commodity and subject formation as they might surround black being and creativity. How can black performance break through its seeming matter, to confirm a sort of antimatter of radical possibility? ‘Aunt Hester's Scream’, an episode in Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative, which forms the opening gesture of Saidiyah Hartman's celebrated analytic Scenes of Subjection (1997), is mobilized by these three theorists of black performance (and many others indeed) to suggest an intermedial array of circumstances surrounding choice-making for artists.Footnote 13

The Aunt Hester episode recounts how Douglass, as a child, witnessed the ‘horrible exhibition’ of a jealous slavemaster whipping Aunt Hester. Douglass remarks becoming ‘doomed to be a witness and a participant’ of a long series of such outrages as this, a ‘terrible spectacle’ at the ‘entrance to the hell of slavery’.Footnote 14 Douglass notes that ‘the louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest’.Footnote 15 Hartman and Moten mobilize this narrativization of the horrors of slavery as a sounded transgression, as a rending of pain through sound towards an ontological formation of creative drive through violence.

To follow Moten, Hartman, and Douglass towards the blues and foundational assumptions undergirding black North American creative practice is to acknowledge a certain collective responsiveness to terror as the ground for performance. Following Afro-pessimist thought, the ‘certain offense’ that runs through black ontology encodes an awareness of multiplicity, or disintegration, into life-making: multiplicity, in that this life and experience are always lived in relation to a certain strain of white supremacy that generally places black being outside the terms of ‘life’. Performance affirms presence, even as it operates in opposition to everyday strictures of an impossible citizenry and a disavowed self; disintegration, in that life and its remains are devalued in mainstream considerations of creative craft, such that black creativity is undermined by cultural outsiders despite its urgent social and intellectual resource. Black performance recognizes itself as an impossible temporality, one tied to an impermanence of black life as a valued site of social engagement and beauty.

In other words, in this formation black performance proceeds from the sounding of unspeakable degradations, witnessed by family members. The family becomes an encompassing circle of creative response, a container for collective fashioning that references violent actions by outsiders, but is certainly not bound by those outsiders’ actions. The circle of the family – whether chosen, biological, or coerced – creates contexts for expression and the intermedial relations of sound, gesture, political possibility, social encounter, and imaginative rerendering of events, at least. The black intermedial – which I also want to term the black regard – aligns affective memory and disciplines of performance to political response and social possibility, crafting an unanticipated fullness of expression, burnished from the margins of the human.

Figuring what belongs

To improvise is to make choices from a storehouse of information. The larger the storehouse, the more vital and interesting the improvisation might be as it materializes. In dance, artists like McIntyre draw on the array of information gathered from years of experience: as a black woman, as a mid-westerner, as a member of a politically progressive family, as an able-bodied and generally positive-attitude person.

Intermediality. The sounding of the body in response, in anticipation, and in terms of a Black regard, in arrears. The Black intermedial owes to a debt of mixed signals, mixed media, mixed origins in the screams of chattel slavery. Perhaps always sounding a bit behind, because sound travels more slowly than light; the performer feeling her body behind the sound, following, keeping up. Or leading by telegraphing its movements, so that the drummer might be able to catch the vibe and match the beat. Arcing the space so that the singer and horn player could bend the sound back toward the dancer, toward the remembering of a future-present Black possibility. McIntyre improvises among the ruins of Black memories, stretching their possibilities in time so that Arriving in the unexpected mis-alignment, bringing an unusual juxtaposition of sources to bear on the realization of the moment.

I want to consider the ‘unexpected misalignments’ of improvised performance in relation to a particular mode of queer world-making. This queer world-making arrives as inherently black. In this formation, we explore the afterlives of slavery and the blues as foundational extensions, or distensions, of Aunt Hester's scream. Improvisation emerges from this capacity to remake presence as a fugitive, out-of-time manipulation of sound and gesture. If the blues capture a contradictory co-presence of anticipation and regret, then their improvised realizations may surely contain a queer possibility of non-normative materialities.

In this, black performance tends towards queer possibilities in a claiming of presence against the disavowals of non-life predicted by slavery, apartheid and colonialism. In this formation, queer becomes constituted by a fleshly refusal to appear as an object, but to render sound and motion as a creative action of fugitive presence. Here, queer arrives as a vibrant refusal and an intentional misrendering, the ability to recast the moment against its presuppositions towards a black regard of an enlivened now brimming with choice-making and intentional gesture.

To consider the queer proclivities of improvisation, we can refer to African American aesthetic structures that orient towards a multiplicity of possibility. To be engaged in a multiple possibility might be to turn towards expansiveness, towards a queer allowance that exceeds the expected terms of social encounter. Improvising, dancers push against the prescribed boundaries of social presentation to offer unexpected singularities of gesture in performance. The best improvisers mix genres and approaches to moving, tying unexpected flourishes to the expert execution of basic materials. The queer fillip, the queer embellishment, distinguish the essential character of the dance performance.

Queer, in this formation, heightens the non-normative aspects of black life, cast as an essential alterity to Western modernity and as the object of white supremacy and the labouring authors of global capitalisms. Queer refers to the formation that cultural theorist Hortense Spillers offers in her classic formation ‘Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book’.Footnote 16 Spillers asserts that black female flesh escapes a simple designation of gender, as black women who might be ‘people’ become rendered as shape-shifting, non-human or inhuman tangles of pathological social activity, in need of constant policing. When Spillers calls for us to claim the ‘monstrosity’ imposed in blindness by culture, she calls performing black women to write a ‘radically different text for a female empowerment’.Footnote 17 I follow Spillers to extend the radical text towards its queer iterations, available to dance improvisers, including McIntyre.

The theoretical state of Afro-pessimism, which philosopher Frank Wilderson designates a ‘meta theory’, suggests existence that thrives in survival as a constant dissemblance.Footnote 18 The ‘double Veil’ of Black arrival, theorized by W. E. B. Du Bois, operates as a sort of constant moving from and towards, a current of transformation always chased and becoming.Footnote 19 According to Afro-pessimist formations, black life cannot exist except as a decaying remainder of human life, always configured to be a normative white. To follow this line of flight, black creativity operates in the shadow spaces of alignment and distortion that might make it recognizable, however briefly, before it becomes oddly blurred and discomfiting. The ability of black performance to operate at the edges of recognizable address, and still be somehow coherent, predicts an alchemical othering – hybridity and fabulation as foundational modes of performance making. Being articulated as a moving target means being able to shape-shift with an inventive audacity.

The audacities, or ‘radically different’ aspects of black performance deployed in dance improvisation, express a gestural resistance to being fixed, stable entities. Dance improvisation in these modes asks, ‘what can a body do?’ and moves in an unexpected manner to affirm that many things might be possible. The speculative nature of McIntyre's improvised performances aligns with the refusal to be determined singular, less-than, or easily taken in. McIntyre's dancing shifts between modes of expression and relationship to sound in ways that confirm a vibrant, multi-valent approximation of an intermediality.

Responding to the weather

Theorist Christina Sharpe casts one aspect of black being into the space of weathering, or surviving the colossal structures of entanglement that create global economies.Footnote 20 Disavowed, black people move without control of our bodies, as if we are objects cast asea. Black being emerges as an outcome of unimaginable global structures, as a side-remain of global capital and ‘the modern’. Black dancing is not shielded from the violent weather that rends death from life. Moving towards embodied practices as they might be recognized in Western systems of thought, the inevitable alterity that stabilizes ‘dance’ is provided by the non-human gestures of the blacks. Following this line of intellectual inquiry, our everyday grotesque movements create the less desirable, ‘non-art’ that allows for a privileging of grand operatic dance theatre based in exclusionary forms of practice that require thousands of hours of specialized training to approach an elusive mastery. These high-value forms arrive in constant collaboration with expert witnessing and critical judgements rendered in academic environments. Black dance, when it might be acknowledged, does not typically flourish in complex critical scrutiny and theoretical debate. And black dance is not typically offered only in specialized real-estate settings created only for it. Rather, black dance, being so available to all who would partake of its structuring, becomes an under-resourced trifle of the popular, a sub-genre of little artistic consequence. But weather prediction is often inadequate. The scale that produces currents and crosscurrents escapes human comprehension. Similarly, following Sharpe, we do not always know what surrounds the reception of our movements. And aspects of black dance, devalued by a political art mainstream, arrive in generous abundance in many forms of creative practice, revising possibilities for ‘dance theatre’ and ‘contemporary ballet’.Footnote 21

A decade ago, I witnessed McIntyre perform the work If You Don't (2009) within the exquisite programme of FLY First Ladies of Dance. The concert, nearly unprecedented in its formation, included works by five outstanding mature black women choreographer–performers and it toured the United States for several months. The concert comprised performances by American artists Bebe Miller, Dianne McIntyre, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Carmen de Lavallade, alongside Germaine Acogny of Senegal. McIntyre's invention for the event begins as a sort of prayer, with the pianist George Caldwell and her meeting centre stage to consecrate the space. They hold their hands out and away from their bodies, as if to divine the time and fashion its indeterminacy. They move to opposite corners of the stage, having enclosed its volume, and bow briefly to each other. This ritual of beginning has set time in motion for their performance.

McIntyre gestures slowly and carefully. ‘Keep Your Hand on the Plow’, an old-time gospel work song, sung by Gwendoly Nelson-Fleming here, cuts the air. McIntyre moves with authority, crafting the air through her gestures that follow and predict the breath and playing of the recording as well as the live playing by Caldwell. She moves with delicacy and urgency, shifting rapidly from one sort of gesture to the next. At times she seems to elaborate a relationship or a narrative, as if performing characters of the Bible tale of Mary and Martha. Shifting from one perspective of moving to another, she caresses and calms one moment, then cajoles and carouses the next. But she releases mimetic gestures almost as soon as she performs them, allowing a series of slower posing, balancing, and loving motions nuzzling the air to form small pools of elemental potential. She moves quickly from one set of ideas into another, striding fast to begin physical explorations even as we hear filmmaker St. Clair Bourne talk about challenges faced by too many Black artists. Music by Olu Dara, one of McIntyre's long-time collaborators, weaves among brass band recordings and Caldwell's singing of the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes ‘If You Don't Know Me By Now’ to form an extravagant and complex soundscape that shapes and pierces McIntyre's movements. She explores an intricate process of discovery in the sixteen-minute work, moving with wondrous determination and provocative self-awareness.

A black regard

This brief consideration of intermediality as an organizing concept of Black dance improvisations created by Dianne McIntyre demonstrates how our looking at and rendering of performance moves from the places of our own desires as critical theorists and researchers. McIntyre might never narrate her masterful artistry in terms of fugitivity, or queer elaboration, or as a remain of the afterlives of slavery. And yet, bearing witness to her work from a place of black thought, concerned with black lives and the always-already political surround of blackness, allows an elaboration towards the open wound of black relations with systems of global capital and white supremacy. This might be the space of a black regard, a rendering of performance towards a complex account of irreducible entanglements, the space that performance theorist Mlondolozi Zondi proposes where ‘aesthetics does not cover up the irreparable chasm launched by anti-Black violence that ruptures relation’.Footnote 22 Other researchers can craft alternative formations that help us consider McIntyre's achievement in a strikingly potent manner. As example, researcher Veta Goler continues to explore McIntyre's oeuvre, more recently with an attention to contemplative practices, eastern spiritualities, and African American heritage that enable the artist to ‘present transcendent possibilities to her audience members’.Footnote 23 The current wondering at intermedial affiliations of a politicized sound and motion grants us a way to care for a particular regard of McIntyre's creativity while remaining aware that other modes of creative theoretical response are possible in relation to black invention.

Following Africanist aesthetic concerns of relationship and collective identity, how we come to know McIntyre helps us understand how we commune with her artistry. Early in 2020, before the pandemic lockdown, McIntyre offered a keynote address at the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance conference, titled ‘Fluid Black::Dance Back’.Footnote 24 In her presentation to three hundred registrants, all researchers concerned with the discourses of black dance, McIntyre narrated stories of her perseverance towards a life of dance artistry through the extra difficulties of identities marginalized by mainstream structures. In her conclusion, she noted the twenty-first-century movement towards defining black creativity through structures of black affect and observation. She told us that we are indeed ‘making change’ in how others understand the ranges of black creative address and its complexities. She ended her presentation with ‘I hear it. I feel it. You are making the world aware that we do not have to define ourselves in relation to white. We are, and our magic is powerful. The ancestors are supporting our every step’. Histories become affordances of creative invention, and technologies of remembering and rerendering become grounding measures for the making of dance.

If intermediality refers to the interconnectedness of modern media of communication, with a special concern for the reliances and dependencies of one form on another, then black creative thought as dance offers exemplary evidence of its own intermedial centrality in global performance. In the case of McIntyre's work, sounds reveal gestures, and gestures inspire sounds. Her work might be best witnessed through the lens of a black regard, willing to connect divergent renderings of historical trauma and political possibility even within the performance of a song and a dance, made among each other, here and now. Black improvisation brushes through expansive proclivities of several modes of discourse simultaneously and enjoys its emergence at the edges of disciplinary formations as an assemblage of disparate sensibilities. As a product, in some ways, of systems of global capital that have designated our interrelations through COVID transmissions and unstoppable formations of popular culture, black modes of making through improvisation reveal the currents of contemporary performance, whether they are to be found in a YouTube or TikTok clip or on an opera house stage. Without seeming ends, intermediality might be messy, messy in the awkward variety that is life, aware of its entanglements and their unknowable capacities, and in particular, black life.


1 Musicologist Ashon T. Crawley elaborates this concept in Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).

2 Goler, Veta, ‘“Moves on Top of Blues”: Dianne McIntyre's Blues Aesthetic’, in DeFrantz, Thomas F., ed., Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (Madison, WI: Wisconsin University Press, 2002), pp. 205–29Google Scholar.

3 I construct this re-membering of McIntyre's dance by viewing several moving-image objects to remind me of her performances witnessed over the years. See ‘Jacob's Pillow’,, accessed 8 January 2021.

4 Sara Ahmed and Roderick Ferguson's work in queer aesthetics influence this thinking-through. See Ahmed, Sara, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Ferguson, Roderick A., Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

5 McIntyre narrates her process in a clip created to celebrate her 2006 award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance from the Cleveland Arts Prize. See ‘Dianne McIntyre’, at, accessed 7 January 2021.

6 See Goler, ‘Moves on Top of Blues’.

7 Ibid.

8 Danielle Goldman, I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), p. 146.

9 See Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); Thomas F. DeFrantz, ‘Unchecked Popularity: Neoliberal Circulations of Black Social Dance’, in Lara Nielson and Patricia Ybarra, eds., Neoliberalism and Global Theatres: Performance Permutations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 128–40.

10 See Thomas F. DeFrantz, ‘Improvising Social Exchange: African American Social Dance’, in George Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 330–8.

11 See Thomas F. DeFrantz, ‘Hip Hop Habitus v.2.0’, in Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez, eds., Black Performance Theory: An Anthology of Critical Readings (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), pp. 223–42.

12 Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

13 Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Frederick Douglass and W. L. Garrison, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1849).

14 Douglass and Garrison, Narrative, p. 5.

15 Ibid., p. 6.

16 Hortense J. Spillers, ‘Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, Diacritics, 17, 2 (Summer 1987), pp. 64–81.

17 Ibid., p. 80.

18 Frank Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020).

19 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp, 1968; first published Chicago, A. G. McClurg, 1903).

20 Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

21 Any number of artists working in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries refer to black dance structures even as they create works unconcerned with the terms of everyday black life in opera-house settings. For an exploration of how the category continues to operate, and how artists move through its contents, see DeFrantz, Thomas F., ‘What Is Black Dance? What Can It Do?’, in Bleeker, Maaike, Kear, Adrian, Kelleher, Joe and Roms, Heike, eds., Thinking through Theatre and Performance (London, Methuen Drama, 2019), pp. 8799Google Scholar.

22 Zondi, Mlondolozi, ‘Haunting Gathering: Black Dance and Afro-Pessimism’, ASAP/Journal, 5, 5 (May 2020), pp. 256–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here p. 266.

23 Goler, Veta, ‘Love Poems to God: The Contemplative Artistry of Dianne McIntyre’, Dance, Movement & Spiritualities, 1, 1 (2014), pp. 7386CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here p. 85.

24 Collegium for African Diaspora Dance, at, accessed 7 January 2021.

Figure 0

Fig. 1 Dianne McIntyre. Photograph by Ian Douglas.

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