Convenings and Gatherings: A Conversation with Marguerite Hemmings by Tara Aisha Willis
This conversation is part of a series of writings by artists involved with UBW during the Choreographic Center’s incubation and development period. These articles are intended to influence the structure and design of the Center as it moves forward by interrogating some of its driving desires and themes.
In an interview with Talvin Wilks for the Movement Research Performance Journal, Urban Bush Women (UBW) Founder/Visioning Partner Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her memories of places for dancers to come together and create informal networks for support and collaboration when she first arrived in New York City in 1980. Spaces like The Clark Center and Sounds in Motion provided dance training and served as safe spaces for developing new choreography, but were also literal gathering places for less tangible connections to be built. Choreographers like Eleo Pomare and Rod Rodgers also had their own studio spaces, in addition to Alvin Ailey’s growing dance school, all of which felt like hubs for artists of color to pass through, spending formal and informal time together.
Marguerite Hemmings met Zollar while a mentee with Nora Chipaumire during the E-Moves programming at Harlem Stage in 2010. For Hemmings, Zollar and Chipaumire were examples of black radicalism within the dance community who introduced her to the long legacy of black women making dance for concert audiences, beyond the worlds of commercial and underground hip hop and dance education Hemmings was familiar with. Since participating in Zollar and Chipaumire’s collaboration on visible in 2011, Hemmings has gotten more deeply involved in the ecosystem and beliefs of UBW, honing her own work’s relationship to building supportive systems between people and the often detached categories within the dance world, and to unapologetic radicalism and activism. Having found an artistic home in the network built by Zollar’s dedication to giving black women room to deepen their voices, Hemmings shares her thoughts on the current landscape of safe spaces for black women dance-makers, as well as on how such spaces might be facilitated and grown.
Tara Aisha Willis: Gatherings or convenings are not just bringing people together: we could think of them as bringing information and resources together, too. I imagine convenings as articulating or collecting around a shared center, maybe only temporarily. What are some different ways you imagine or desire to see gathering happen?
Marguerite Hemmings: I see them happening spontaneously. Somehow within this ecosystem we're creating through Urban Bush Women and the Choreographic Center, gatherings are able to happen spontaneously (and intentionally too, of course), but what we're lacking in our community is more access to the 'bump in' moments. I think when people from the same community—in this case I am talking about black women who are movement makers—start bumping into one another, when we start hanging around the same places, especially a community that is intensely siloed and actively put in direct competition with one another, then we're really talking about building an ecosystem whose foundation is in the gathering, instead of having to plan the gathering as a separate thing... Every. Time.
TAW: What is needed for these kinds of gatherings to happen? What do they look like? What would be required materially, politically, communally?
MH: For spontaneous gatherings to happen we need movement-making spaces that feel like home. Spaces where we can come and sit and eat our lunch...do work on our computers for hours without fear of being looked at crazy...use the bathroom and change clothes on our way to something else... For example I am sitting in Gibney Dance Center right now. I had space earlier and I stayed after to sit on the floor in the gallery and do work. Jill Sigman is an artist in residence and her installation has entirely transformed the gallery space. I feel safe and comfortable just sitting here. Her project is called Weed Heart and looks at things that are usually thrown away or actively maligned and uses them in new and very valuable ways. In ways that highlight their many innate uses and functions. This is a beautiful example of a space being transformed by radical intention. Jill has the explicit intention of bringing the invisible to the unapologetic forefront. That makes me feel so free in the space. This is new. I wasn't always this comfortable inside of this space. It has taken me literal years. And I feel like this now only after this specific year of presenting work and being a fellow.
TAW: The assumption is often that if a space or program seems open to everyone it will be open to everyone, without realizing that there’s already a history of distrust and exclusion that influences how artists of color encounter even well-intentioned spaces.
MH: Any organization interested in having an actual open-feeling space has to include, organizationally, strategies and clear efforts that show an anti-racist, anti-white supremacist model, actively recruiting and partnering with lots of people of color, specifically with and within the directorial/curatorial staff. Our community deserves something they feel welcome inside of from the jump. Something that was made for them. And the choreographic center has the potential and right to make spaces with the specific intention of making black women feel welcomed. What does a space that makes black women feel welcomed look like? I have no specifics on this. Because the specifics vary, we vary so, so, so much. The only thing I can boil it down to is intention. If I know a space was made with the intention of making me feel welcomed, the intention of providing open, free, unstructured space and time, and that space is getting constant input and feedback from as many people as possible on what makes them feel free—then the people coming to the space will fill in the specifics. Once the intention of a space is actively affirmative of my existence, since this is one hundred percent something that can be felt, the specifics of what these spaces look like will be discovered and curated by the people going to the space. There is no recipe for making everyone (or a specific demographic) feel comfortable except for simply having that intention in every curatorial step taken. Then the participants in the space build on that and fill in what makes that space feel open to gatherings. Maybe at first literal homes can be opened up? Just a thought that came to me: rotating home spaces that are open for taking breaks or having discussions...
TAW: It seems like you’re getting at something about spaces that are already lived in, about spaces shaped explicitly around welcoming or hospitality, or as personal and private space...
MH: In trying to figure out what would make a more institutionalized space feel open to gatherings, my mind kept going to how I feel when I am in people's homes...or in personal spaces shaped around hospitality. Are we trying to fit a triangle block into a square hole? Why not study, utilize, and at least start with the spaces that already create this welcoming feeling?
Anyway I think of Dancing While Black (DWB). The showing they hosted for the fellows in March at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) felt different (as a performer inside of it) from any performance I’ve done before at what appears to be—not necessarily operates as—a white institution. The act of performing in front of an audience felt different. Because of the simple intention and the refreshing entitlement on the part of DWB. When I say “entitlement” I mean that I could see and feel a claiming of the right to claim space. I think a bit more entitlement among people of color, specifically regarding bodies and physical spaces is kind of cool. The literal title, Dancing While Black, created that new and very different feeling of performing without the feelings of exploitation and having to prove something, or having to be legitimized, or the internal conflict of selling out; all of the mess that comes along with having to perform identities within a structure that was not made for you, that could arguably be said was made for anti-you. It's funny, at first I thought DWB would feel limiting, but it was one of the most free series of moments, with others, dancing, that I've ever experienced (outside of dancing socially). It's like when you blatantly, unapologetically carve out a space, then people can feel free. Space that was built for us is absolutely critical. The more we connect and carve out our space, the safer we as individuals will feel to do the work—the more we can write our own narratives. I’m craving and actively building those connections where we can support each other.
TW: Is there a particular politics that a space or institution might need to have to be able to hold a gathering like the Choreographic Center or other convenings that especially support black female choreographers and performers?
MH: No. I think as long as the politics of the Choreographic Center are clear and powerful enough we are good literally anywhere. And along with that, I think a huge part of the Choreographic Center's politic should be investing energy and time creating links with other black, femme, music, dance, cultural spaces already existing. From lounges to dance studios to restaurants...and in parts of New York that we haven't made connection with yet.
TAW: What kinds of movements, moments, or spaces do you see as examples or predecessors of what you’re envisioning?
MH: Oh! Well, Dancing While Black for sure. UBW’s Summer Leadership Institute for sure. Black Women's Blueprint. Harriet's Apothecary. Bluestockings. House of Duende. Black Girl Magic, and Black Girls Rock create those gathering spaces online. Parties like EyeSpy.
TAW: What does a word like “open” mean when we’re talking about creating open gathering spaces or open space and time with other people? Other words that come to mind are “fluid,” or “circulating.” Maybe it’s not just about forming centers to gather around, but also some other kind of network or flow of movement together?
MH: Right. It's hard because so much of everything we're talking about creating is attached to the still very present struggle for liberation, in general. The extreme difficulty of having abundant space to simply gather is still at the center of the issue. Which is why I stand firm in the belief of priority being put on physical, constant spaces being locked down, fundraised for, invested in, partnered with, whatever it takes. Because it's that physical space, made for us, that we are lacking. I feel I have access to many open and circulating networks that the Choreographic Center could be a part of. And I have no doubt that the people involved with the Center will naturally create these flowing networks, because that's what we do! It's physical permanence I'm adamant about! Residency!
Marguerite Hemmings is Jamaican born, raised in New Jersey, and has been living in NYC for the past 10 years. She graduated from Columbia University in Education and Urban Studies. As a dancer, Marguerite specializes in street styles, social dances, hip hop, and dancehall, and has been training in modern and West African. She currently teaches Experimental Dancehall, a term she has coined to capture her love of dancehall/reggae culture, music, and dance as well as her love for movement exploration, improvisation, and challenging norms and expectations of how we express ourselves.
Marguerite’s work also centers around liberation. She has received grants from the Jerome Foundation, Brooklyn Arts Council, and University Settlement to further her work as an artist/organizer. She is most recently a recipient of the 2015-16 Dancing While Black Fellowship. In her day-to-day work she subverts and creates with youth and fellow teaching artists. She co-founded a youth empowerment dance intensive, the New York Youth Movement Collaborative. She is a teaching artist/artist in residence with University Settlement and co-directs a collective of teaching artists, Collective Movements. As for her current artistic work, she has been working on a self-directed project called Blacker the Berry, part of an overarching multimedia endeavor called ‘we free’ that explores the millennial generation’s take on liberation. The first installment of 'we free' was recently shown at Gibney Dance's Double Plus Series, curated by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Since, iterations of 'we free' have been shown at Brooklyn Museum, BRIC Arts Media, and MoCada.
Tara Aisha Willis is a dance artist and PhD candidate in Performance Studies at NYU, where she researches black experimentation in contemporary dance. A member of theWomen & Performance’s Editorial Board, she has served as Co-Managing Editor of TDR, and co-edited a special issue of The Black Scholar with Thomas F. DeFrantz entitled “Black Moves: New Research in Black Dance Studies.” In addition to her contributions to those journals, Tara’s writing and interviews also appear in Movement Research Performance Journal, The Brooklyn Rail, and Magazin im August. As Movement Research’s Program Advisor, she coordinates their diversity initiatives, including the Artist of Color Council, and programs the Studies Project series, a platform for artist-initiated discursive events. She has recently danced in projects by Kim Brandt, Megan Byrne, Yanira Castro, and Anna Sperber. Her own choreography has been shown at Movement Research at Judson Church, BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Roulette, THROW at The Chocolate Factory, Dixon Place, The Painting Center, AUNTS (Abrons Art Center, The Ace Hotel, Jam Handy), and the CURRENT SESSIONS at Wild Project. She was a 2009 Dance Theater Workshop Van Lier Fellow, a 2015 Mellon Dance Studies Summer Seminar participant, and a 2016 Chez Bushwick Artist in Residence.