For years Anjali Austin moved them from place to place, wherever her career took her, neatly folded, tucked in a closet, appreciated but rarely acknowledged.
To New York City, where she spent 13 years as a professional ballerina with Dance Theatre of Harlem. To Tallahassee, where she joined the dance faculty at Florida State University in 1995. Most recently, to Goddard College, where she returned as a mid-career professional to get her MFA and finally realized why she’d never gotten rid of the dozens of family quilts she’d carried around with her for decades.
“All of these things I’d had in my possession, in my closet,” says Anjali (AHN-jah-lee) Austin. “Something just kept telling me I can’t give these away. It could not be clearer to me now what I was supposed to be doing with them. I just had to wait.”
What she was waiting for was the creation of “Threads,” an “auto-ethnographic” one-woman show Austin will present this week at the New College of Florida Black Box Theater. A multi-disciplinary work incorporating dance, song and dialogue, it is at once a historical document of her African-American and Native American roots, an exploration of how familial influences shape lives and a tribute to her ancestors — in particular her maternal grandmother, Gussie Beatrice Arnold Hill, who made most of those quilts.
The performances are being sponsored by New College of Florida and Fuzión Dance Artists, whose founder, Leymis Bolaños-Wilmott, first came to Sarasota in order to take over a now-defunct FSU Dance Sarasota program begun by Austin.
“She’s the reason I was even introduced to this community,” says Bolaños-Wilmott, who has lived in the area ever since and founded her own contemporary company here in 2006. “I loved this idea of her drawing on her background and using all her strengths and I thought it was a natural thing to do, for us to provide her a platform because she’s also given to this community.”
When Austin, a fifth-generation Tallahassean, decided two years ago to pursue a master’s degree after nearly two decades in academia, it was to stimulate her creativity, explore the breadth of her talents and try performing in a way completely different from her stage experience as a professional ballerina. In the beginning, the 33 quilts she’d inherited from Hill were not a part of the plan.
But in December of 2013, she pulled out the quilts and remembered the woman who had raised her until she was five and with whom she remained close throughout her professional career until Hill’s death. A woman who valued family, who was spiritual but grounded, and respectful of others but comfortable enough with who she was to speak her mind. A woman who had shared her recipes and her art and her love and who had led Austin to believe that anything she wanted was possible.
Austin began asking family members to share their memories of Hill and the quilts, too. One recalled staring up at a favorite design that Hill had hung from the ceiling. Another remembered how her love of reading was born while she read the newspaper out loud to Hill as she quilted.
As the stories began accumulating, Austin stopped looking for a subject for her master’s project; it had been right in front of her all along.
“That’s when I felt like I’d opened a wonderful door,” she says. “How unique was my situation to have this many quilts from the same family and to still be able to talk with family members who can recognize pieces of the quilts? It began to be very rich. I began listening to the stories the quilts were telling me because now, at last, they had my attention.”
Eventually she collaborated with photographer Kaitlyn Christensen to create large-format photographs of each quilt and laid out two dozen of them in a black box space at FSU.
“That’s the moment things began to click for me,” Austin says. “There was a palpable energy in the room. It got me thinking about what their experience was like living in the South as African Americans, some of them slaves and also of my Seminole heritage as well. I began to invest in what that lineage was and how those influences have shaped who and how I am.”
Austin’s choices in movement, music and dialogue for “Threads,” incorporates Negro spirituals, original songs, pedestrian movement and dialogue derived from family stories. It also incorporates a jumpsuit, patterned like a quilt and altered by costume designer Currie Leggoe, which her grandmother had begun but never finished and which has become her costume for the piece.
So far, Austin has shown what she calls the “work in progress” to various audiences in different settings, from a black box theater, to a day-lit studio, to an office space and from the Goddard campus in Port Townsend, Washington, to most recently, FSU’s Department of Dance. Several of Hill’s quilts are on display as part of every presentation.
Austin has found that performing her first one-woman show at age 55 — a performance that stretches all of her talents and stirs deep emotional connections — is both exhausting and exhilarating.
“This is the continuation of my performance life in a different direction,” she says, “one that I’ve always been interested in, but from the perspective of time and vantage point of life, I couldn’t engage in, for a variety of reasons, until this period. I’m testing my boundaries in a very different way.”
Bolaños-Wilmott, who has seen only video of the work, describes it as a multi-layered piece that represents many important connections at once, from the familial to the historical to the female.
“It’s a story that’s not often told and she’s using all her strengths to tell it,” she says.
As for Austin, she says her greatest challenge now is the responsibility she feels to represent her family’s stories in a way that promotes open discussions about about family, race and history.
“What better way to start that discussion than with the idea of quilts, which represent comfort and nostalgia and experience,” she says. “To have them as an anchor to make reference to what was a harsh period for a lot of Americans is a good way to begin that discussion from an honest place.”
For the original article, visit TicketSarasota.com