As a dancer who has spent her life immersed in Black dance forms - from childhood training in jazz, through a professional career performing West African, African American and Caribbean concert dance, to my recent initiation into the dance-rich Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé – I have been deeply influenced by the aesthetic and philosophical traditions of the African diaspora. This is evident in the way that I think, move and create. Through the encouragement of my teachers and fellow dancers I have experienced belonging that I never found in the white Eurocentric dance forms more aligned with my cultural heritage. Although I am a white American woman, I have steeped myself in these traditions for decades. They have taught me new ways of being in my body and in the world that I honor in my choreography as well as my teaching. For this reason, I think of my work as transcultural, incorporating various movement idioms while emphasizing the importance of their cultural moorings.
My original works for stage, immersive environments and film interweave cultural traditions, seeing the human condition through personal narratives, mythology and ontological questions. My artistic vision is to compose accessible contemporary choreographies that forge connections among people while harnessing the power of the unfamiliar to transcend limitations and introduce new possibilities. My embodied research centers on exploring issues of power and appropriation at the crossroads of dance and society.
My research and teaching forces me to recognize how my positionality and privilege in Black dance spaces raises questions about what it means to cross over culturally and artistically. As a cultural outsider, I have never wanted to situate my work in one, sole Black dance style or traditional context. This hybridized approach to research and creativity springs as much from my professional training as it does from the entirety of my life experiences – my socialization, my “place” in certain social hierarchies, and my artistic collaborators all factor into my perspective and research questions. Since my somatic and cultural identities are not neatly aligned, I ask myself how I can make work that is truly different, and of difference? Work that does not perpetuate past harm or stereotypes; work that actualizes a more just and diverse dance field?
I address these questions through a process centered on embodied research, intercultural and interdisciplinary collaboration. In my roles as choreographer and performer working within the framework of contemporary dance, I critically digest and creatively engage with all I have gathered in the form of research, study and acknowledgment of sources and traditions of origin.
Black dance has taught me to inhabit my body and space more boldly, confidently and sensuously; delighting in a wider multiplicity of dancing bodies’ shapes, sizes, and movements. My training has taught me to ride rhythm, play with time and wordlessly communicate with live musicians, to surrender to states of transcendence, and connect to spirit, to improvise, to hold my own and to share space - to be in community. When I speak of embodied research as a creative strategy, I refer to the lessons years of training has wrought through embodying movement and engaging in the practice of other cultural forms. My choreography embodies ideas in the movement rather than merely replicating specific steps. This focus on ideas informs both choreography and attendant performance.
I begin with ideas that are broadly relatable across boundaries of national and/or generational identities. Entry points for my recent projects have included: Being lost (Terra Incognita), finding voice (Those with Wings), embracing destiny (Becoming Oxúm) and questions such as “What is private? (Forgone Territory) and “What is worth fighting for? (Time Certainties Peace). Once content is determined, I then assemble a diverse creative team to explore the work’s concept through an interdisciplinary, collaborative process - Movement, words, music, and images are forged into a compositional structure to meet the needs of each piece.
My collaborators include dancers of different styles and backgrounds, as well as artists of other disciplines, most frequently music and theater. I attribute the preference or prioritization of collaboration and in-community creativity to values instilled in me through experiences in Black dance (where notions of hierarchical authorship or sole creators imparting knowledge ‘from the top’ are quite uncommon). I see my role as that of a jazz band or combo leader, bringing the artists together, setting the stage, then stepping back and becoming part of the jam. Although I view my collaborators as equal partners, my leadership drives the work, keeps sight of the overall vision, and handles projects’ logistics. Depending on the size or scope of the production, I am either a Director (for larger productions), Choreographer (for smaller, dance-focused works) or Co-Director when the role is shared. From initial concept or entry point, to assembling the performers, to developing scores and choreographic prompts, the core of what I do is build frameworks for the collaboration. My research prioritizes collaboration, inviting artists with closer connections to the forms being investigated into the creative process, broadening performer and audience perspectives while building authentic relationships through the work.
I believe that diversity enhances creativity and produces work reflective of 21st century realities. I believe a willingness to embody other ways of being and knowing, to take on their wisdom and apply it toward our own efforts of building a more just dance world is how we can move from consumption to transformation. To me, this is the heart- and promise of what contemporary dance offers.