“Initiation— In Love Solidarity,” the newest work from Harvard Dance Center’s Fall 2021 Artist-in-Residence Nailah Randall-Bellinger, concluded its series of live performances and film screenings on Nov. 13 in front of a packed audience at the Harvard Dance Center. Both the short dance film and its live performance component explored the topics of the Middle Passage and the African diaspora, with a specific focus on African women. Throughout the live performance, which took place on a stage featuring nothing but three black benches, several female dancers moved as though they were in extreme pain, with some even choosing to scream. This dancing was occasionally accompanied by spoken-word journal entries composed by the dancers themselves over the six-month course of the show’s creation.
However, despite the depiction of pain, this work’s main focus was not grief. Instead, it chose to emphasize a much more hopeful dimension of the African diaspora in a modern context: reclamation.
When asked to provide her own description of the work’s purpose, Randall Bellinger said in an interview with the Crimson: it was “reidentifying who we are on our own terms.”
Indeed, this theme of the African diaspora taking back their power infused every part of the work, from the setting to the props. The film, for instance, was shot at various locations throughout New England with historical connections to the transatlantic slave trade and emancipation, such as Ogunquit Beach in Maine, where slave ships docked in the eighteenth century. By placing dancers in settings that once perpetuated the systematic oppression and enslavement of African people, Randall-Bellinger emphasized her liberating message of reclamation.
The most prominent recurring symbol in both the live performance and film were the small white cowrie shells that the dancers took from a basin and spread about their arms, as if washing themselves with water. In the discussion portion following the dance, Randall-Bellinger — wearing cowrie shell earrings herself — explained that these shells were used as a type of currency to purchase enslaved people.
“The cowrie shell became a focal point to ‘this is how we were sold into slavery,’ but at the same time, reclaiming it.”
Cinematographer Christina Belinsky was also present at the post-dance discussion[ was the cinematographer for the film portion of the work. Belinsky responded to several questions about the practical difficulties related to shooting the film in natural locations such as the Maine beach, as well as more technical questions about the use of the film’s many unique editing tactics.
“The wonderful honor of being the cinematographer was bringing Nailah’s vision to life in a way that feels visceral and immersive,” Belinsky said. “In a way that feels like you are not just a spectator of the piece but you are actually a part of the piece.”
When asked about the most impactful part of the piece, Tarikh Campbell, an attendee and hip-hop instructor at the Harvard Dance Center, said, “For me, it was just the realization of how much of the piece, both visually in terms of cinematography, choices down to details, and accessories and such just all connected.”
While this was the last scheduled showing of “Initiation— In Love Solidarity,” the piece and its message of reclamation clearly had a wide-reaching impact on both its creators and audiences alike.
As audience member Gail Grove said, “When they spoke about the sea spirits and they danced in the water and on the beach, that was very emotional for me.”