Nico Lawson makes space for mourning in ‘Grieving Landscapes’

The performance art dance piece will take place Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 25-27, at Urban Arts Space.
"Grieving Landscapes"
"Grieving Landscapes"Dorian Ham

At the onset of the dance performance staged as part of “Grieving Landscapes,” Nico Lawson and Siera Dance will ask one another a series of four questions: 1) When did you realize you could think about your life in the future? 2) When did you realize that you should start making plans? 3) When did you realize you’d live to be 30? 4) When did you realize you’d grow to be an elder?

“Because none of these things is guaranteed – especially when you look at people of marginalized identities: queer people, people of color, disabled people,” said Lawson, a trans, nonbinary artist who relocated to Columbus from North Carolina to attend graduate school at Ohio State in August 2021. “And so, for myself, personally, there does become a point in the emotional tenor of the work where – today is my 30th birthday – where I’m literally embodying the overwhelm that I lived to an age I didn’t think I would make it to. And there’s a bittersweetness to celebrating that I made it here when I didn’t think I would. But then I’m also grieving the cost of getting here, and grieving all of the people I’ve been close to over the course of my life that didn’t survive to get here.”

Lawson said their interrogation of grief started with a series of personal revelations in their late 20s and then gradually expanding outward. This eventually led the artist to question various oppressive systems – white supremacy, the hetero-patriarchy, capitalism – that have not only an external presence, but can also exist within the individual. 

“And I had a lot of questions around the process of extricating these systems from your physical body,” said Lawson, who grew up in the evangelical Christian church and continues to grapple with the reality that, in those years, they sometimes engaged in rhetoric that was damaging to marginalized communities. “So, part of it was personal experience, asking, … how do you climb out from under this shit? And then it's also realizing you can’t do this healing on your own, which isn’t my idea, but came from looking at bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Malkia Devich-Cyril, ACT UP, Black Lives Matter.”

In the midst of this research, Lawson encountered an essay by Devich-Cyril about the importance of grief in social justice movements – text that proved instrumental in the development of “Grieving Landscapes,” an installation and corresponding performance art dance piece, which is set to take place Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 25-27, at Urban Arts Space.

“Grief is supposed to be a communal experience, but under our capitalist system, it’s turned into a highly individualized process, where we’re frequently asked to go through this painful process alone,” Lawson said. “Enacting marginalized grief in the open, in community, is resistance to a system that asks us to shut up and be quiet to keep the peace.”

Visitors to the gallery will first encounter a space Lawson has dubbed “The Gathering,” in which audience members will be presented with meditations on grief and given an opportunity to write messages of their own. From there, visitors will progress to the reflection pool, where Lawson and their accompanying dancers – Siera Dance, Mercedes Hicks and Brittni Van Dine – will perform a “regenerative” piece accompanied by music from Dorian Ham.

Growing up in Stokes County, North Carolina, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Lawson gravitated toward dance from a young age. The artist said they first fell in love with the form while attending a production of “The Nutcracker,” struck by the way a story could be told through movement. “And it was exciting, because as a young, undiagnosed autistic person, I often had a lot of trouble explaining to people what my experiences were,” Lawson said. “And I begged and begged and begged and begged, and once I finally got signed up for dance classes, it opened up the world to me, and allowed me to express myself in ways that before weren’t accessible.”

With “Grieving Landscapes,” as in childhood, Lawson, along with their collaborators, will again lean into dance as a means of advancing conversation around a subject for which their words might be lacking.

Lawson said the performance developed in collaboration with the dancers and musicians, with each individual helping to give it shape and definition.

“In rehearsals, I really watched what each dancer was interested in and then moved in those directions rather than trying to force it,” they said. “I really wanted to see what the dancers’ affinities were, because, at the end of the day, this is a container for us to have an experience. … A lot of my dancers really love improvisation, so we really leaned into that, because I wanted them to have that generative space for spontaneity. It’s been exciting to build this thing together, as a world for all of us.”

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