Choreography and Context: An Interview with Marjani Forté-Saunders 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 in 2016. 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.


Marjani Fortè-Saunders is a Pasadena, CA native. She traveled as a performer with UBW Inc. for five years, and is now an independent artist and co-founder with Nia Love, of LOVE|FORTÉ A COLLECTIVE. Fortè-Saunders is a recent awardee of the LMCC Extended Life Residency and Commission, and a 2014 Princess Grace Choreography Fellowship Awardee.  Her recent trilogy of works titled being Here… examined the intersections of Mental Illness Addiction, and Systemic Oppression.  Spurring from this project and with generous support from the SURDNA Foundation Forte-Saunders curated a 3-month multimedia exhibit and series of events engaging the local Brooklyn community with encore performances of her works being Here.../this time (Part 3) and LOVE|FORTÈ's Memory Withholdings at the Museum Of Contemporary African Diaspora Art. Marjani is a 2017 awardee of the MAP Fund for her new solo work Memoirs of a… Unicorn co-commissioned by LMCC and New York Live Arts, for the River to River Festival June 2017 and the NYLA’s Live Feed platform presenting at Collapsable Hole November 2017.  She is an active member of Urban Bush Women’s BOLD Teaching Network, offering UBW’s unique approach to dance training and community engagement.   Fortè-Saunders has served as Adjunct Lecturer, teaching Modern Contemporary Technique at Hunter College City University of New York, Guest Lecturer/Choreographer at Princeton University, Bard College, and recently joined the team of faculty at the Yale School of Acting. With deep gratitude, she mobilizes her work honoring that it stems from being born in and having engaged with culturally rich, vibrant, historic, and politically charged communities.


Tara Aisha Willis: In your recent choreographic project, Being Here, you encountered a lot of questions about providing context—providing information about the performance—and since then you’ve done this multi-pronged installation performance at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). I’m curious what ways of providing or withholding context have come up for you. How do they effect the way the works were experienced


Marjani Forté-Saunders: There are a couple of ways to think about that, in terms of who is engaging the work. One is reviewers: people who have these platforms to name and claim what your work is, nationally or internationally, online. Sometimes they don’t realize that’s what they have the power to do, or they do realize it and aren’t willing to do the gritty work of what it takes to understand the piece. They’re so busy trying to judge it. It can be antithetical to art-making.

I think context is a powerful thing, but I don’t know that it’s essential. There were several audience members who came to MoCADA, who experienced being Here.../this time—not with a blank slate—but with a completely different perspective, solely from their own experiences as educators or as spoken word artists. They could latch onto so many of the ideas, so many of the layers—things I hadn’t thought about in years that made their way into the work. Audiences don’t have or need context prior to viewing a work. No one came and said you’re experiencing this thing that was built over three years that includes these interviews and this text. When I brought up “context,” I was thinking of context that’s given to presenters for how to position the work in their seasons.


TAW: The word “context” isn’t only for the audience, but for presenters, venues, funders. But I also wonder what context is given to the collaborators and performers. All those flows of context are part of the same network of information around the work. Even though we may change our language for funders versus for programs, I’m interested in that overlap: how that language for a presenter comes out of the conversations we have with our sound designers, the dancers in rehearsal, etc. And the distance between those two kinds of conversations.


MFS: When I was working with Liz Lerman, I felt like she had lots of people in the room all the time, or much of the time. And folks at the venues where the work was premiering were seeing the development a lot. You could tell that there was a long, ongoing conversation with the presenters around the work and the way it fit into their larger season. I attribute a lot of it to seniority in the field, too. Why do we have to be awarded and heralded to create dialogue around our work?


TAW: How does information or context flow differently depending on how the project is structured? In relation to different venues you’ve worked with—the specific curatorial frameworks you’re given in a museum context versus theater context versus a studio showing context; with the structure of installation versus evening-length performance?


MFS: For my work specifically—I don’t know if this applies to somebody working with a repertory company—in working with a gallery or museum, because there are so many arms of the institution, with different disciplines and events, you’re forced to have ongoing dialogues with the institution about what you’re exploring. You have this nuclear vision and everything spouts tangentially from there. So for the two performance works, being Here.../this time and Memory Withholdings, we said we were looking at resilience, memory, trauma, and spirituality. So everything had to do with those ideas. Even the last workshop with teenagers was about the budding story: because in my research I realized some of our first experiences with trauma happen in adolescence—our first experiences with constructs, these dehumanizing ideas, happen when we are pre-teens and teenagers. Those are the first things that make us feel unstable. So working with young people in the galleries was incredibly symbolic for me.

And it taught me about how I wanted to engage with presenting institutions as a choreographer. Which means I need to do a little bit more than choreography, more than building the work. I have to involve the organization in more of my research process. And the funding, too—I got a Princess Grace Award a year or two ago, which means you can apply for other funding, for special projects. I applied to do some research with my dad, on the new work I’m building. That funding is supporting that process so when I go to talk to New York Live Arts about this new work, I can say “This is the process, this is what we’re doing and how we’re moving it along. I want to connect with Creative Time about the space, etc.” I still think of myself as a newbie in the game, but part of it is advocating for yourself and part of it is helping institutions to present my work in a way that gives audiences access to the questions I’m really asking.


TAW: Like what you said about the ways you are able to give context or information to presenters being tied to having a certain amount of power and stability in the dance field. A lot of artists are at the phase of doing a lot of fifteen- or twenty-minute shared shows, where there’s not much engagement in advance. The curators read what you’re thinking about and may be showing up to talk to you about it. But it’s not usually about the best way to put this performance into the space, how it connects to other work in the show, why they are presenting it in this context. At that level, there’s not as much capacity for attention to be paid to the research that goes into the work.

I want to go back to the difference between providing facts in reviews, in context notes, or in descriptions for a presenter. I wonder what the difference is between contextual writing that’s descriptive versus analytical versus judgmental. The post-show talkback comes to mind, too: processing the piece five minutes after it’s happened with a group of strangers who know varying amounts of information about the work. To sit there while the audience demands a lot of information of an artist who just walked off stage.


MFS: I loved talking to audiences about being Here.../this time, because I didn’t feel like I had a lot of spaces to share all of what went into it. So I loved being like, “Hey, ask me, because I was looking at this and I want to know what you think. What did you see? What are your stories?” I never wanted to hide that.


TAW: When is it useful feedback, when is it serving the artist and the work, or serving the audience? Is there a moment when the request for information is demanding something? Is it sometimes better to withhold? Are there cases where providing more information feels like it’s diminishing the work as a thing that can stand on its own?


MFS: I think it’s so conditional. I’m one of those artists who will talk myself out of the power of the work to just be there.


TAW: Are there parts of the projects that you kept to yourself, that you kept out of those conversations?


MFS: Yes, some of our rehearsal processes,  were just for us. We had to get around some of our own shit to have such a deeply emotional—emotional is not the word—such a deeply kinetic and energetic engagement. To really let our imaginations take us to another place where we were no longer ourselves alone, but ourselves within this condition demanded by the work. We were bringing all of our memories forward and then condensing them to an hour-long performance, essentially. That’s a lot. The process of doing that, of training to do that as a collective...


TAW: One thing the UBW Choreographic Center will do is provide some context for artists to understand their work within the lineage and history of black feminist dance-making practices.


MFS: Identifying place... One’s place in history.


TAW: And through practice, through actually making... And then there’s outside eyes in relation to that. You’ve said in the past that doing the labor of giving information for an audience or institution that’s primarily white is often charged. Why are we moved to do or not do that? It seems like the concert dance stage is getting more and more diverse—curation and casting is starting to open up. But the audiences don’t always feel like they’re shifting. So you end up with work that’s often more racially complex than the audience. What are the stakes of that? What does one expect to get back from that?


MFS: You don’t have to understand my work, you just have to respect it. I try to let you in to how it is that we’re building the work; into the research I’m doing, the folks I’m interested in having conversations with, the organizations I want to partner with. As a presenter I think I want you to be about the business of supporting that. By doing all of that, I’m taking deep care with my work. It’s up to you to determine what you’re drawn to, what reaches you, what reflects you and your community.

One of the things I love about Janera Solomon, Executive Director of the Kelly Strahorn Theater is she’s in East Liberty, Pittsburg: a working class, black community. And I love the way she goes about it. When I was there, I went to the bank nearby and said, I’m an artist presenting at the Alloy, and the bank teller said, “Oh, tell Janera I said Hi!” That’s solid work! The artists on those stages are varied, coming from different aesthetics, different ideas. In terms of the respect idea: presenters will give artists an opportunity to present, they’ll take a leap, but the artists they take leaps on have all the boxes checked. But I’m not sure that that liberal attitude is extended to artists that look like and identify like me. I look at my field, my dance community, and think, “We’re so racist.” When we talk about “global” performance, we are often still talking about Europe. I don’t know how much we’re allowing artists of color to take risks. We still have expectations about what artists of color—specifically black artists—are doing or talking about. And we only have a certain percentage of space in the presenting season to talk about race, so that one artist gets to have that one conversation about race.


TAW: And then that one artist carries the burden of that labor.


MFS: And everybody else gets to present this ahistorical, noncritical, “open” ideas, modernist aesthetics solely committed to form. To me it’s all political, it’s all extracting emotions. So take a risk on artists like me! Just say, “Come here and let’s play and see what happens!”


TAW: How does having to do that labor of explanation or holding the conversation affect the practice, the work?


MFS: Let’s say you give me the opportunity. You’re also benefiting from my presence, my contribution, my offering. It’s always an exchange. You take a risk on me, but if the whole time I’m there I’m convincing you why I should be there, I’m not doing the work.


TAW: Whether or not they’re explicitly being asked to convince you, even. The artist might feel they need to convince you.


MF: Exactly. If I’m working at convincing you, I’m not busy taking chances. That’s why I say you don’t have to understand the work. There’s so much out there that we don’t understand. And perhaps that’s how arts organizations can elevate the consciousness of our communities, by recognizing that you don’t have to understand. You have to feel, you have to see, you have to show up, you have to look and experience the liveness and the ephemerality of performance. You don’t have to understand, you don’t have to name, claim, identify, and frame it.


TAW: Do you think there’s more that presenters could be doing to take some of that labor of representation, of explaining yourself and holding the conversation around race, off of artists? Can we transfer some of that work to the institution or curator?


MFS: Presenters, just like artists, have to give themselves the opportunity to expand their consciousness and their thinking around race. They need to go through anti-racism trainings. Then curators will feel liberated to put resources and energy behind the work they don’t necessarily understand, but that is overtly and culturally rooted. Then other organizations, with their audiences, will buy in. When you have an institution rallying around a person, everyone kind of falls in line. Now, that may be easier sometimes, if the people they pushing are easier to swallow for their constituency.


TAW: I’m also thinking about two words: “discomfort” and “access.” Contextual information as either easing discomfort around a person’s distance from the work or how it challenges them. Context as providing access to the work.


MFS: What I’m wanting right now as an artist is to be able to walk into spaces and be able to take risk, to speak honestly, and for that to be received. I’m still developing as a choreographer and I want to continue to develop, to tighten my chops. And I think I’ve got some chops now, so I want to take some risk with those chops. I want to see how my work is faring internationally. What are the ways that folks are looking at form and performance coming from different places? Right now all my decisions, whether I want to admit it or not are in this lens of being a black woman in such a white supremacist culture. I want to be exposed to another mode of operation. How might someone from Botswana or Ghana or Tanzania or Congo think about Being Here? How would that land on them? What would they see? I feel like the avenues to do that are hard to enter. I have to get international touring money, I have to get a national tour first, I’ve got to keep having this conversation with presenters about what they’re interested in presenting—how can I give them information about my work. Let them know that it’s tourable, I shrunk it down to three people, I’m building a solo. So now I’m doing that whole dance to do a national tour, just so I can leave the country!


EDITOR'S NOTE:  Since participating in this 2016 interview being Here... In Memory was installed at the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art for three months featuring the work of four multi-media visual and installation artists, and encore performances of being Here.../this time and LOVE|FORTÈ's Memory Withholdings, and partnered with three Brooklyn based organizations working in and with community around healing, youth empowerment, and creative writing- the New York Writers Coalition, Baileys Cafe, and Harriet's Apothecary. This work was supported by a generous grant from the SURDNA Foundation Thriving Cultures Grant and the Jerome Foundation. This summer Marjani will share her first solo evening work Memoirs of a... Unicorn June 21-23 at Melville Gallery in the South Street Seaport Museum co-commissioned by the LMCC Extended Life Residency and New York Live Arts. Spurring from the life of her Arkansas born Father and largely influenced by her time in MoCADA's gallery Marjani has teamed with media designer Meena Murugesan, set designer Mimi Lien, sound artist Everett Saunders, lighting designer Tuce Yasak and the building expertise of her own Father Rick Fortè to weave historic and personal narratives into an embodied tale of broken lineage and legacy, unabated love, and Warriorship.

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