My Time In Wassaic
My time at Wassaic was a much needed break from the city as well as my daily routine. While at Wassaic I really able to delve into my practice. Wassaic offers space and time for artists to truly create their vision or invest in their process. I spent most of my time on the outdoor stage really taking advantage of the beautiful scenery.
with Joe Brommel, July 2018
I wanted to start by talking about this idea that you mentioned in your pre-interview questionnaire: Farah Jasmine Griffin's idea of being “not willing to forget or wholly forgive America’s historical transgressions,” but being devoted to “helping this nation 'achieve' itself.” Can you say more about how the idea of America “achieving itself” plays into your practice, whether as a dancer, poet, or choreographer?
This idea plays into all of my work. As a person, I'm observant of where I live and conscious of the fact that I am constantly navigating through white spaces. Because I've experienced prejudice and discrimination from a young age. This idea isn’t something that is new to me. I think that helping this nation achieve itself refers to letting Americans accepting our history and understanding that this is country is founded on and still run by racist systems.
This is an issue that I think of when creating — the fact that we don't accept our history. That people like to think of it as something that was so long ago, and nobody wants to talk about it. So when I make work, I'm making work to talk about things that people don't want to talk about. Maybe if we put it in a different light, if we put it in art, through dance, through poetry — in places where people don't expect to have the world in their face — then maybe that’ll open up someone's sense of thinking. America achieving itself means America achieving the American Dream. That can't happen the way that America’s set up right now, because the American Dream has to be for everyone. And it's not.
You work as a dancer, choreographer, and a poet. Do you feel like those are all mediums that allow you to work towards that same project? Or do you feel like each of those is doing something slightly different?
I feel like choreographing and writing definitely do that. Because I'm creating. I'm choosing the topics, I’m choosing the content, I'm consciously writing the work, consciously making the pieces, consciously picking the sound scores, I always think of the Nina Simone quote, that “An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” That’s what I’m doing — I'm constantly expressing my reality and my experiences through choreographed movement and poetry — the medium doesn’t prohibit the work.
Dance-wise: I dance for other people as well as myself. I currently dance for Putty Dance Project and FlyGround. Dancing for Putty Dance Project and FlyGround is great, I'm learning a lot from other black women — Lauren Putty White and Lela Aisha Jones — who are making work that is social political, that's on some of the same issues that I'm trying to make work about. It’s really inspiring.
I also freelance for other independent choreographers, small showcases, and things like that. But not all of those works are about race, social change, or politics.
And what has it been like collaborating with primarily visual artists while here, rather than with dancers and poets?
It's been really great. I've been collaborating with Nyugen Smith, as well as Christian Berman and Marisa Adesman. Nyugen is a great director. He has a very clear vision, and it's easy for him to direct me — I have free range to do and move as I want, but within the context of what he's asking me to do. With Christian and Marissa, I choreographed a piece for their video project, as well as improvised based on what the scene entailed. I don't think that there's a huge difference between collaborating with visual artists and collaborating with performing artists. I think the difference would be in collaborating within someone's idea as opposed to collaborating and creating an idea.
And do you feel equally comfortable with both processes?
Yeah, for sure. I have only collaborated in terms of creating a piece with one other person — Rashidi Lewis — at a residency in Miami. We spent about a week at Dr. Michael Krop Senior High School, creating and setting work together. That was a really great experience.
Part of the residency program is doing group critiques and feedback as well. So, beyond collaboration, what has it been like getting feedback on your dance and poetry work from people who are sort of mostly outside of those spheres?
It's been amazing. People get trapped in their own art form a lot of times. And I think that it's really important to be influenced by other people's art forms, by the way that other people view things because at the end of the day you're not just making work for yourself, you're making it for others. I've definitely gotten some wonderful feedback from them about the writing, about digging deeper, and about how to add to my work. It's been really helpful.
And this is your second time in Wassaic, right?
Third, actually. My first time here was in 2015 — I showed a collaborative, piece with Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Heidi Wiren Bartlett. I was also here last summer performing my own work with two of my dancers — Mynesha Whyte and Brionna Williams — in a piece entitled “Faith.”
Can you talk a little bit about how those prior experiences here informed what you wanted to do in this residency specifically? Have you been trying to feed off of them, or have you been trying to do something entirely different?
Those were both really positive experiences that drew me to Wassaic. The main thing that made me want to come here was that I’d have time and space away to really focus on my work. To wholeheartedly be in it, to not be on anyone else’s schedule, to not have to worry about having to go to work the next day. Not to mention the scenery, too. It's nice to have a chance to be out of the city.
You also mentioned that you've really enjoyed and fed off of the outdoor stage as an unconventional dance studio space. Can you talk a little bit about how that specifically has influenced your time here? And influenced your practice?
I'm just inspired out there. I've always loved being outside and in nature. I created all the movement phrases that I have been working on while here on that stage, and I've definitely got a lot more done choreographically than I intended to do. I think it just had to do with a change of scenery.
And what specifically have you been working on while here? You mentioned your collaborations with Christian, Marissa, and Nyugen, but what else have you been working on personally?
I came here with the idea of working on the duality of the black body living and navigating through white spaces. Looking at how people can experience the exact same thing and have felt like they experienced it completely differently. The way that black people and white people live in two different realities.
I've been working a lot with texts by James Baldwin. I've really been referencing his 1965 Cambridge debate on whether the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro, or the American Negro is at the expense of the American dream. And the way he answers the question is by saying that it basically depends on what your sense of reality is. So I’ve been looking at the timeline of race and racist structures, why those structures and institutions and systems are still around, and the Western European sense of reality that we live in here in America — a sense of reality that has yet to evolve to create any place for the subjugated, or the oppressed. For me.
That seems to tie back to what you were talking about earlier, this idea of helping the nation “achieve itself.” That, right now, we're not even operating on the same plane of what this “American Dream” actually is. Does that seem right?
Yes. I actually created a timeline on the board in my studio, thinking about why these structures are in place. Thinking about slavery, sharecropping, and convict leasing all as free labor, but then we get to the Jim Crow era and it's really not about free labor. It's more about protecting this irrational fear of the other, about protecting that sense of reality, making sure that whatever you have is not taken away, making sure that we keep black people as second-class citizens. And then you move forward past Jim Crow into where we are now, mass incarceration, and see that it’s still all about free labor and keeping this Western sense of reality safe.
And have both of those ideas specifically manifested themselves in pieces you've choreographed? Or just in your mode of dancing more generally?
So I actually created the texts first for “Duality.” When I got here I was doing all research: re-reading books that I’ve read, articles, documentaries, listening to speeches. I put all of my notes and my ideas on my board, then started writing and creating poems. Then I started editing the poems, trimming them down, and really figuring out what I was really trying to say. And then I made the movement phrases based off of that.
Is that the direction you usually work in? Starting with a piece of poetry and then creating a dance piece to accompany it? Or does it sometimes go the other direction?
I usually have the poem first and then develop the movement as a response. Sometimes I’ll record improvisations that I've done to learn and turn into phrases. I can either go back to phrases that I think would work with the poem or create completely new ones. I’m always dancing more than I'm writing, even if the poem comes first.
Photos by Walker Esner