My Time In Wassaic
Please write a paragraph (or a few!) about your time here in Wassaic. You should say a bit about yourself, where you came from, how you got here, what media you like to work in typically, and what you chose to work on while you were here in Wassaic. Then talk about what Wassaic means to you, how it influenced your work, and what you might want others to know about Wassaic. Write from the heart and write in natural language. We want people to get to know you through this work. Be sure to embed hyperlinked words within these body paragraphs, so that we can link out to your portfolio site, exhibitions, movements, etc. Have fun with this!
By 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?
I feel like it plays into all of my work. Because as a person, I'm very observant of where I live, very conscious of navigating through white spaces. And I've definitely experienced prejudice and discrimination from a young age.
The issue that I think of in my work is 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 right now 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. Those are great. It’s like the Nina Simone quote, that “it's an artist's duty to reflect the times.” That’s what I’m doing — I'm constantly expressing my reality and my experiences through choreographed movement and poetry.
Dance-wise: I also dance for other people. The two companies that I dance for, Putty Dance Project and FlyGround, are companies that are based around social political work. So I'm also learning a lot from other black women 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, or 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 and Marissa. Nyugen’s work focuses on the effects of colonization and the spirit, so he's been 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. Whereas with Christian and Marissa, I choreographed a piece for their video project for one of their scenes. They just told me what the scene was about, gave me the props that they wanted me to use, and after that it was pretty much all me. So 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 only collaborated in terms of creating a piece with one other person at a residency in Miami.
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 ideas, about digging deeper, 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 did a collaborative, a collaborative piece with Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Heidi Wiren Bartlett, who actually are coming up and doing a collaborative piece in this coming festival. And then I was here last summer performing my own work with three of my dancers, called “Faith.”
Can you say more 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 the place. And the main thing that made me want to come here was that I’d be able to have time and space away from a daily schedule to really focus on my work. To wholeheartedly be in it, to not be on anyone else’s schedule, to not be worrying about having to go to a nine-to-five, to not be in rehearsals for anyone else (or even for myself). To have time to be creating and not resetting work or worrying about a deadline. And then the scenery, too, because it's beautiful up here. Just 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, so the fact that the stage is out there, and there’s this beautiful view, and I don't just have to be in the grass is really inspiring. I created all my movement phrases that I have been working on while here out there, and I've definitely got a lot more done choreographically 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 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 whether 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 hasn’t evolved any place for the subjugated, and the oppressed.
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?
Yeah, there are a lot of things in place to protect the majority, to protect people's sense of reality. I put in terms of thinking about people that have never faced a threat in their lives who are super passionate about their guns. It's the fear of something being taken away from you. There are people who firmly believe that other people are just here to take things from them. So we have to think about why that is, and how that came about.
The day that I got here, I received an email and was asked to write a piece on racism in America. That clearly is a heavy topic, but it ties in with my project, “Duality.” So I created a timeline on my board, 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 and other people of color as second-class citizens. And then you move forward past Jim Crow into where we are now, mass incarceration, and a lot of the rules still have not changed. It’s still about free labor and keeping this this Western sense of reality safe.
I’ve also been looking into epigenetic trauma, which is the study of how generational trauma can be passed down through your body — the literal scarring of your cells when you undergo serious traumatic events. I've been looking at that the way that affects, people who have been subjugated. People whose ancestors were slaves, or whose ancestors were in the Holocaust, or things like that.
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.” And I created the draft for racism in America, because I had to send that to company I'll be working with ahead of time. They sent it back, I made a couple of revisions, then sent it back to them. So when I got here I was doing all research: re-reading books that I’ve read, articles, documentaries, listening to speeches. I put all my notes of my ideas on my board and then started writing and creating poems. Then I started editing the poems, then trimming them down, then 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 and try to learn those and turn them into phrases. I have them all locked away and archived on my computer, and I can either go back to phrases that I think would work with the poem or create completely new ones. So I’m always dancing more than I'm writing, even if the poem always comes first.
Photos by Walker Esner