On Making My Way to the Middle... by Paloma McGregor
2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate, Founder of Dancing While Black and Co-Founder of Angela's Pulse, Paloma McGregor offers insight into her iterative performance project "Building a Better Fishtrap". This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today.
Artist’s Note: Since 2011, I’ve been working on Building a Better Fishtrap, an iterative performance project that explores questions that emerged for me more than two decades after leaving St. Croix, my ancestral home: What do you take with you? Leave behind? Return to reclaim? The project is rooted in my reclamation of my 93-year-old father’s vanishing fishing tradition. For the past seven years, through collaborative process and performance-making, I have been working to figure out the connections between my father’s practice of building fish traps - so rooted in culture and function - and my art, my organizing, my being.
This essay is a reflection of some discoveries so far. It is an iteration of my thinking for the right now. It is a window, a door, a keyhole...to a sea of possibility.
Start in the middle. It's the best advice my father has ever given me.
It was really more of a warning, delivered while teaching me and several of my collaborators how to build a fish trap in the living room of my Harlem home. Dad, then in his late 80s, had already criticized the thin chicken wire I'd gathered for the lesson - a fish could chew right through it - and wanted to make sure we at least didn't build a crooked trap.
In. The. Middle.
in process, from somewhere, central/relevant/necessary
the core / the crossroads / the nexus
These associations have transformed Dad’s simple instruction, intended to prevent us from messing up his design, into a guidepost for how I think about and make my work.
I am the middle. I start here. Anything else will end up crooked.
It is one example of how Building a Better Fishtrap - the project and the act of shepherding it - has transformed my practice, unearthing a newfound agency as a maker, performer, first generation American, girl child who has spent much of my mainland life trying to fit myself into molds that were not created with me, or my vision, in mind.
I wasn’t always funny. Most folks who know me now don’t believe that. My mind works fast; I spout clever synthesis with great ease. If I’m comin’ with it, which I enjoy doing, you are bound to chuckle.
If you look at my work over the years, though, I think it would become painfully clear that I was a serious child and have remained contemplative at my core. As a 22-year-old journalist, I became the youngest reporter at one of the largest newspapers in the country; I opted to cover crime because I wanted to ensure the old white guys in the business never questioned my capacity to do hard news, especially because I aspired to be their boss. I left my journalism career five years later to get my MFA in dance; I had spent most of my adolescence and 20s missing my first love and decided I didn’t want to live a life of regret. My thesis concert focused on works about race and matriarchy. My first major work in New York was about Hurricane Katrina, a collaboration with my director sister Patricia McGregor, based on an award-winning poetry collection by Patricia Smith.
Everything I have pursued has carried great weight and purpose. I have largely seen myself as a vessel for something that wants to become. But what did I want to become?
I started working on Fishtrap after telling some friends about the time, when I was 7 or so, that I built my own small trap, which Dad took out to Salt Pond. It caught dozens of shrimp and I fancied I’d provided the night’s dinner.
I do not know how much of that memory is fact. Just as I do not know precisely how or when I learned to build a trap.
But that’s not the point of this part. The point is that the origins of Fishtrap is childhood. And when I think of childhood I think of adventure, play, authenticity and a profound connection to nature - the sea, fruit trees, seasons.
Nature has a sense of humor, I imagine. And I wondered early in my process how I could allow my humor, from 6-year-old delight to 40-something sarcasm, to surface in the work.
It started with telling stories, and inviting my collaborators to do the same: What is your first or most significant memory of water? I tell a story of the time, before I can really remember, that I nearly drown in a pool; five minutes after I was pulled to safety I dove in again.
Not so funny.
But the invitation - both my overarching one for humor to surface and my specific one to tell whatever story came to mind - touched the funny bone of others. One woman, a beautiful actor with a wickedly sweet Southern tongue, told us about the time she was hosed down in an outhouse by her cousins - while pooping. Another dancer from New Orleans told a story I can’t remember, but its embodiment included these quirky, idiosyncratic back-scratching gestures.
We were getting there. But was I?
I wouldn’t fully know until my 2-year artist residency at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. There, at the strong urging of a couple cherished advisers, I challenged myself to do solo work.
By myself. ...Ugh. I am a collaborator by nature and practice. I do not like to play alone.
The first year of the residency, I had a baby. Among other things, parenthood has taught me that I will never be alone again - not in the bathroom, while on the phone, or in my own bed. After having a child, solo work didn’t seem so daunting.
In year two of the residency, I realized that making solo work doesn’t mean being alone at all. I invited folks I trust into the space in new ways: a fellow dancer helped me by moving through scores I’d been working with; a colleague who had performed in the work came in as a dramaturg; a visual artist whose work also tangles in themes of family and migration began visioning a huge paper ocean.
Still, the freedom to joke didn’t come until the week of my culminating performance. And it came because of fear, largely. I’d carefully crafted three worlds on three separate floors of BAX, including the roof. But while sections two and three seemed well attended to choreographically, the opening section - a world full of mason jar time capsules filled with thread and pop rocks, rice and barrettes - was brand new.
I was afraid I wouldn’t really know what I was doing. Rather than scrap the idea and just go with the two floors that felt more finished, I trusted that I could discover something by crossing this uncertain threshold. Or at least I hoped so.
On opening night, I was put to the test. Early on in the section, I accidentally tried to plug in the wrong side of a power chord...then shot the object side eye as though it intended to baffle me. Later, I discovered a jar of red pop rocks, poured some in my mouth, opened it wide so folks could hear the sound then offered bits of it to the audience. At some point, an audience member laughed a little extra loud at something I did and I dashed to a deck of cards I’d shuffled earlier and swiftly delivered them a “Joker.” None of these actions were scripted, but the framework of letting these significant objects drive me unlocked my spontaneous brand of humor.
And it taught me about trusting my own process, in the way that collaborators have trusted me. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but that was an important threshold crossed, one that brings me closer to fashioning a better fishtrap.
How to build a Fishtrap in Harlem.
How to take a Fishtrap home.
I am standing in the shallow, transparent waters of Gallows Bay, pouring a libation with a group of two dozen folks who have followed me here from my family’s abandoned land in town. My young daughter, not yet 2, is helping me tilt the fat mason jar at the shoreline.
Just an hour before, I was sweeping the stone staircase of my great-godparent’s home - the only part of the two story abode that is structurally sound after it burned down in 2005. I had spent the morning raking trash from a shady section of the yard, preparing it for guests. A choreographed reclamation. A meditation. A memory.
I lived here when I was 5 or so - Oshun’s number. Some of clearest memories of this place are from that time:
Germinating a lizard egg in a cup in my bedroom window
Watching my grey tomcat Smokey walk across the street, never to return
Feeling scared of Flying Monkeys after seeing The Wizard of Oz on TV for the first time
The home that held these memories is gone now. But they have a home in my body.
So what to do with a longing for what my body doesn’t hold?
I will never know what it would be like to go fishing with my father. I will never sit with him at the calm waters of Gallows Bay, slowly crafting each trap. Nor do I have any of the last set of traps he built before his hands, now feeling this dry earth for 92 years, got too shaky.
But I do have this kaleidoscope of memories - some experienced, some passed down, some imagined.
From this, I will have to build my own Fishtraps…
I doubt they will be better than his, but they will be mine.