Sometimes, a foreign context lets you be more yourself than you would be at home. Sometimes, it gives you no other choice.
Nicola Bullock, a formerly Durham-based choreographer and dancer, challenged the local status quo of dance and race in her breakthrough 2014 work, Undone. Instead of simply co-opting African and African-American dance forms, as was common at the time, Bullock reached across racial lines to incorporate not only African-American and Latina dancers but also their narratives about living and working in the region.
Bullock's new show, Imago, represents something of a homecoming after she moved to Berlin in 2016. She has been living there long enough now to perceive the sexism, white supremacy, and rapacious capitalism of American culture even more sharply.
"It's like the fish that never sees the water it swims in," she says. "I'd never felt more American than since I left the United States." Then came the night, just after the last presidential inauguration, when she was the only American at a party in a village an hour north of Berlin.
"No one else was feeling utterly devastated and hopeless and scared," Bullock remembers. That schism forced her to look at a persona that she'd embraced since childhood as someone who was perpetually upbeat, relatable, fun, and lovable. Bullock recalls that she never actually felt she was any of those things.
"I felt instead I had to hold onto the idea that I was," she says. That night and over the following days, she found that she couldn't evince those traits, an experience that raised the question of just how intrinsic any of them were to her identity.
"All those adjectives describe the behavior often expected or projected onto young white women in the South," Bullock says. "You learn these things to survive. But what would it mean to detach my idea of what I am and need to be from these characteristics?"
Out of that question, Imago, her new multimedia dance performance, was born. After a year of development in Germany, Israel, and California, Bullock debuts the work this week at The Fruit, the site of her 2014 triumph.
In entomology, the title of her work refers to the final, fully developed adult stage of an insect. In psychology, it describes the idealized mental image we carry of someone who influences us, like a hero or a parent. Bullock's performance, however, probes the subconscious, idealized notions of the self that women try to adopt in response to social and familial cues.
"We get lots of information about what to pay attention to, in ourselves, in public and private spaces, and then it's supposed to churn through us and somehow come out in this really nice package that is friendly or not threatening," Bullock says. "But you can't have a real experience of being alive if you're constantly curating your responses to everything."
In the new work, we witness the transformations that a masked central figure, bathed in red, undergoes at the end of a metamorphosis, as it first realizes its own body and tries to orient its self in the world where it appears. The lepidopteran transition contrasts with social rites of passage experienced by a 1950s housewife and a girl at a debutante ball. We encounter other rites as well, but, Bullock warns, they're decidedly untidy.
"Every time I failed to match the idea of who I 'should' be, I've been left with the painful reality of being a messy human being," she says. "But why is there no room to be messy—in my mind, in the States, as a dancer, as a woman?" Possible answers to these questions confront us in Imago.