NEW ORLEANS -- Saturday night, a packed crowd inside Ashe Power House theater in Central City left the familiar comfort of the stage and seats, instead taking the show outside.
Two nights of performance culminated in a second-line, after a show about the journey and evolution of something many feel comes naturally to New Orleanians.
For Michelle Gibson, a classically trained dancer, the show wasn’t about showing off the buckjump and footwork. It was about exploring the roots of second-line and how it came to be in New Orleans.
“I feel like before we can even talk about or look at second-line, we have to talk about the roots of the people,” said Gibson. “Where does that footwork come from? What happens with the hips, when the hips start to gyrate and circle, that Congolese influence. What happens with the shoulders, that Haitian influence. This show is about understanding the roots of this idea of second-line aesthetics.”
Gibson said one of the goals she has with Takin’ it to the Roots: Part I, is to introduce the language of second-line into the world of academia.
But how can someone create set steps for something that, on a whole, is improvisational?
“As a dancer, what's been challenging me is workshopping, trying to create a language for this aesthetic,” Gibson said. “In classical ballet, they teach us positions, that's a language. So now, I am in the midst of trying to create a language from something that's never had a language because it's improvisational. So the challenge is trying to stay true to that.”
Gibson said that she’s had people ask how she plans on codifying something that comes naturally.
“First of all, my major is dance,” Gibson explained. “When you major in dance, you’re not just dancing in the studio. You're taking choreography classes. You’re taking kinesthetics classes. You’re taking classes to help you think about dance beyond what the movement is. So, as a professional, I’ve been trained not just to think about what I see, but how it happens.”
Gibson was working on her master's degree when Hurricane Katrina hit the city. The storm caused her to move with her two children, one who was only two-weeks-old, to Dallas.
“One of the the hues and cries that kind of evolved out of people being flung all over the country was one that said, 'Be a New Orleanian wherever you are,'” said Carol Bebelle, executive director and co-founder of Ashe' Cultural Arts Center. “Being displaced in such a vulnerable period in her life, with the possibility of home not ever being home for her again, she went to the culture and decided that she was going to go deeper into second-line, which is a very inspirational, spiritual thing for many of us in New Orleans.”
Bebelle explained Takin’ it to the Roots helped Gibson work through the trauma of Katrina.
“It became a thing that was also very nurturing and spiritual for her,” she said. “She was also able to share that she was a New Orleanian in her work, as she worked in Dallas, and now in other places.”
The work is being funded by a Creation Fund Award from the National Performance Network, along with Ashe' Cultural Arts Center.
“Michelle is a part of the Ashe' family,” said Bebelle. “She was a part of our beginning.”
Gibson danced at the center twenty years ago, so Takin’ it to the Roots is something of a homecoming.
“Somebody said to me, ‘You need to come back more and go to the second lines,” Gibson said. “And I said, ‘You know what, you’re sure right.’ But, when I’m there, I’m investigating. Look at his feet, look at her shoulders, look at his torso.”
Gibson, the daughter of a pastor, said she sees a mirror to many second-line traditions in the church.
“My second-line started in the church,” she explained, leaning forward, waving her hands and rocking her shoulders. “That same sanctified, Holy Ghost, spirit-filled (movement), that’s the same thing you see in the street. It’s just one is in the building, and one is in the streets.”
Gibson said one of her aims is to open and expand the conversation of second-line, but keep the spirit of the art flowing respectfully.
“That’s when we talk about spirit, that’s what we have here in New Orleans,” she said. “Regardless of how we got here from Africa, the transitions to how we got here. The wretched rigor, the painful, distorted way of how we got here to New Orleans, we came here with something, and one of those things we came with is our spirit.”
Spirit is one of the recurring themes of Gibson’s work.
“We think it’s an homage to our city and our culture,” said Bebelle. “And to the resiliency of people, who when tossed to the wind can find something strong enough to keep them going on. For many people it’s different things, it’s spirit that shows up in different ways. One of those ways spirit shows up for New Orleanians is second-line.”