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When nationally-renowned choreographer T. Lang moved her dance practice into Atlanta's historically-Black West End neighborhood in 2018, she concocted a novel plan to meet her neighbors. Rather than leave a polite note to notify them of her new studio-performance space The Movement Lab, T. Lang opted to knock on doors and introduce herself—then asked to borrow their porches. As long-time residents educated Lang about the intricacies of family and neighborhood histories in this historic district, her dancers performed outside on the porch, illustrating these stories in movement for anyone walking by.
The Movement Lab— which moved into the former home of Mutana, a wellness boutique that sells oils, African imports, and organic coffee from Cameroon—started out as a dance studio. One year into Lang's work, it has also become a cultural space where community members carry on the traditions that have always been a part of the historic pulse of the West End: healing circles, yogic meditation, and Afro-spirituality.
This Friday and Saturday, The Movement Lab is celebrating one year in the West End with an inaugural showcase, the Proof Performance Series. The series is designed to celebrate underrepresented musicians and movement and wellness practitioners in Atlanta, as well as highlight the West End community.
"That is the best thing that I could think of to celebrate the operation of the space and the expansion of a dream—to celebrate and serve others," Lang said with a thoughtful smile. "I wanted to open it up for Black and brown creatives and their allies to also have space and generate work. We could have easily just had a big party and a fundraiser, but [a performance] was just really important, because the success of the space is because the community continues to rent the space and experiment. So we wanted to celebrate our community, and we also wanted to put some artists on people's radar."
Mohammad Zaidi is one of the artists featured in Saturday's line up. Zaidi straddles the worlds of art and science as both a choreographer and a surgical resident. Often conceived of as incongruent practices, Zaidi is excited to bring medicine and dance into deeper and dynamic conversation through the piece he's developing for Proof. "My work is looking at trust and specifically the trust that someone has with their own body and what happens when that trust breaks… how do we recoil from that betrayal and how do we recover." Collaborating with visual artist Christian Limon who will paint live at Saturday's show, Zaidi will use contemporary movements to perform "an extended ritual" on the wet painting.
"It's interesting because you know we think of science as an antithesis to faith and spirituality, but the medicine we practice is entirely faith-based," Zaidi said on a Skype call from Indiana, where he is spending his medical residency. "We put our faith within models and medicines and experiments and techniques that they may work. And even with the arts, it's faith that these gestures may mean something to someone else and may connect and heal someone else. It is entirely faith-based. It's entirely based on ritual."
Singer and wellness practitioner Shanti Om, who will perform a musical healing ritual on Friday night, agrees. "A lot of times I may use candles in my performance, but these are candles that have been dressed and prayed over, you know. When I do these ritual performances, because they are usually done on the new moon, I'm talking to my ancestors before I do this performance, and I'm praying for the intention that I'm wanting to manifest. I'm praying for the healing of the people who will witness what I am about to share… All of it is ritual."
For these artists, practice and rigor are important facilitators in creating dynamic energy that can be utilized for healing and change. "Every performer knows—no matter what your medium is—when you've done all the practicing you need to do so you can be open to spirit and allow spirit to take over," Om said.
On Friday and Saturday, after hours of practice, diverse artistic traditions will give way to ritual performances that serve as conduits for deep ancestral soul.
It is this sensitivity towards ancestral legacy that separates The Movement Lab from many arts organizations that use the arts as a means of curating neighborhoods for the aesthetics of incoming residents. Lang reminded us of the space's history, that in several other iterations the building served as a community service space and a Black-owned vegan health establishment—a cultural staple in the West End decades before UpBeet and Kale Me Crazy moved into the city. Rather than rewrite history with the imposition of a nuovo arts scene, Lang sees The Movement Lab as a space that continues these local Black traditions.
"I feel like this is the best place for T. Lang Dance to be because it holds all of that healing energy, and that love, and that welcoming of all saints to come into this space where it feels almost like a temple, a temple for community folks who may feel that the neighborhood is changing or becoming gentrified..and a space for anyone who understands the importance of imprinting their voice, " Lang said.
Innovative community-driven approaches to the arts are certainly alive in the West End of Atlanta, and Proof is the living proof. Friday night's line up will feature musical performances by Atlanta-based artists Shanti Om, Phoenix Sohl, and sonic-healer Riko Morrissette. Saturday night will exclusively feature choreographers from Muslim backgrounds, with twin choreographers Al Taw'am performing along with Mohammad Zaidi. So whether you are looking for a new performance experience, a way to support emerging artists of color, or want to focus the planetary energy or just check out one of Atlanta's most authentic neighborhoods, come out to Proof Performance Series this Friday and Saturday, February 7 and 8, at 8 p.m. at The Movement Lab.