Christiana Barnett-Murphy started dancing the second her legs could work. Growing up in the nearby Creedmore, NC, dancing in the living room with her mother was the highlight of her daily routine.
“It’s really ingrained in me,” said Barnett-Murphy. “Dancing is part of who I’ve been from the beginning.”
Fast-forward to another beginning: "Burning," Barnett-Murphy’s first independent performance as dancer and choreographer, premieres this Saturday at the Durham Arts Council. I sat down with Barnett-Murphy to find out more about the performance.
The word ‘burning’ made a spontaneous appearance in Barnett-Murphy’s life—kind of like psychic ticker tape, she said—two years ago. Something about it stuck with her, and although the ideas hadn’t coalesced as a comprehensive project, she started paying attention to its creative capacity. Barnett-Murphy drew on autobiographical references that applied to burning: Moses’s burning bush via her experience as a theology student, her family’s home burning down in 2002 and finally, her own last name. Through her and her mother’s interest in their family’s genealogy, Barnett-Murphy discovered that Barnett’s Old English translation means “to set light to” or “to clear an area by burning.”
Barnett-Murphy hadn’t initially planned on developing "Burning" as an autobiographical project, but it seemed inescapable at this point. Crowd-sourcing came next. Barnett-Murphy drew on her far-reaching network of artists, dancers and friends to further cultivate the idea. For two years, she then explored movement in the studio, a process that culminated in a three-part video prelude to her now-seasoned concept.
While she had come up with a foundation of visuals and movement concepts, it was not until Barnett-Murphy received the Durham Arts Council’s Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artists Grant that she officially began "Burning." The grant awards artists who have mastered their techniques and are attempting to establish professional careers or take their current ones in a new direction.
“Applying for the grant was like going to an audition knowing you weren’t going to get the part,” said Barnett-Murphy. “I viewed the application as a way to train for the many others I’d have to fill out in the future and never thought I’d actually get it.” But she did, and the grant became the catalyst that ushered "Burning" into a full-time production.
"Burning" is a 45-minute performance with no intermission. The work features three autonomous sequences that simultaneously interlock to produce a single and cohesive dance narrative. Movement styles will shift with each sequence, beginning with very linear, safe and predictable moves before progressing to more weighted and floor-heavy ones. The third and final part of the performance will blend these two styles while incorporating spinning to retrace the series of movements in the preceding two sections.
Audience members are invited to check out the interactive pre-performance installation that will be set up in the lobby an hour before the performance. Based on one Barnett-Murphy produced as part of the American Dance Festival (ADF), this installation encourages audience members to get to know one another better. The gist is for audience members to pair up with strangers and move through each of the installation’s three stations. Even though the installation is not directly related to "Burning," it sets the tone for the kind of participation Barnett-Murphy wants the audience to feel.
“I believe in dance work that’s able to break the proscenium by letting the audience feel like they’re part of what’s happening onstage,” said Barnett-Murphy. “When the audience is allowed to interact, they care about the work that much more.”
Barnett-Murphy’s work thrives not only off of audience interaction, but also the community’s involvement as a whole. Having grown up near Durham, she takes its role in her dancing development seriously.
“In order to make art happen, there has to be a community behind it, and I have that community here in Durham,” she said. “In that sense, my work is about me in part, but it’s also beyond me.”
“Burning” will premiere at the Durham Arts Council on Sat., October 12 at 7 p.m. The pre-performance installation will be open at 6 p.m.