Creative Dreamscapes; Maria Bauman-Morales in conversation with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar
UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Maria Bauman-Morales is a NY-based, “Bessie” award winning, multi-disciplinary artist and community organizer. With her company, MBDance (founded in 2007), Maria presents work that centers the non-linear and linear stories and bodies of queer people of color. Maria is a core trainer for The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a co-founder of ACRE/Artists Co-creating Real Equity, a UBW BOLD (Builders Organizers and Leaders through Dance) facilitator and currently Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange.
Maria was featured on the inaugural 2019 Who Yo People Is podcast with Sharon Bridgforth, the dramaturg for Maria’s next major project, Desire: A Sankofa Dream.
Maria’s article …and the Cosmos is featured in the inaugural 2019 Dancing While Black Journal: Black Bodies|White Boxes.
This post, an interview between Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Maria, is the third in a five-part series of articles offering insight into the UBW 2018-2019 cohort of choreographers redefining the world of dance today.
In this frank conversation between colleagues and friends, a relationship that has spanned nearly two decades, the two speak candidly about an often unspoken gift of Maria’s: to navigate with empathy and rigor the permeability with ancestral worlds that shows up in her work. Educator, choreographer, dramaturg and scholar, Melanie George, who is currently working as dramaturg with Maria on (re)Source was witness to the interview and makes a cameo appearance.
Maria first met Jawole in high school and the two spent four years together during Maria’s undergraduate program at Florida State University where Jawole was on faculty. During this time, Maria first participated in the UBW Summer Leadership Institute. Over the course of two decades, the two have remained close as Maria’s path wove in and out of Urban Bush Women in various capacities. Maria took on the role of apprentice, company member, Associate Artistic Director, Director of Education and Community Engagement and even as Interim Managing Director.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (JZ): Let’s have a conversation about things I’ve noticed and am curious about in relationship to the motivation spots and feelings behind your work and process and where you are digging.
I am curious about your noticing of when the process, the work, the moment feels really charged, right and true and what does that feel like in relationship to your work?
Maria (MBM): I hesitate to say this to sound hokey, but have to say what has been true the last couple of years, which is that when I start getting dreams about the work then I know I have something to wrestle with. I almost always remember my dreams, but some give me a particular feeling that lets me know they are from an ancestor. In particular my dad likes to participate in my art through dreams. I start to get a snippet of a song or a bit of choreography while I’m sleeping and I start to look at it from this way and that way…and then I’m “in” and boiling and in the thick of it, in conversation with the piece.
JZ: When you say you are boiling with this charge, is there something you notice that is starting to manifest itself physically?
MBM: One thing I notice is when that happens, then what I bring into the studio is less hesitant. Physically I get out of my own way. I just make, and edit later. Something is happening and I need to stay with that momentum. There is less time for me or the dancers to question (as I don’t know the answers yet, so let’s keep going). The process becomes quicker and more charged, with less hesitation.
JZ: Part of the reason I ask that is we noticed that charge at Arizona State University (ASU) in the opening performance at the 2018 Summer Leadership Institute (SLI). You had a charge and an urgency that felt like a different place. A lot of us noticed it and we talked about it. You said it had to do with the vulnerability of coming into a new space and had to figure it out on the spot and the fact you were dealing with what was happening in the moment.
MBM: Yes – that is how I designed (re)Source; to contend with those things all the time, knowing a matrix of ideas I will deal with in speech and dancing but not knowing the order and what will come out strong in each iteration.
(re)Source is an evening-length installation and performance that will premiere in Fall 2019 at The Chocolate Factory Theater in partnership with BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance).
“Within the web visual, sonic and human landscape, I employ some of my families’ histories as a complex microcosm of race relations in the United States. I conjure my grandmothers’ strategies for survival. I bring my community organizer skills of building trust and mutual support to bear in performance. I must bring my physicality to bear or risk bringing the whole installation crashing down.”
At ASU, it was literally a new space for me and I was coming out of the audience. Taking only a part of that work and making sure it braided or dovetailed with the rest of SLI Opening Performance, I had to quickly consider what aspect of the work – what kernel – needed to speak and would best serve the rest of the performance.
Like a dream. I need to let my ancestors speak.
In that performance at ASU it was my Great Uncle Artis Lane, a man who “disappeared” in the Southern U.S. in the 1940s. Our family has so many questions about him—about where he went and why. At ASU, I knew I needed to get out of my own way say these truths and give up my voice to Artis Lane.
If it was only me I don’t think I would embody the same way.
JZ: That seems like something central you are hitting. Like that nerve; explosive. How do you know it, notice it, and capture it? How do you move into Sankofa? It’s not that you go back and recapture – like an actor hits a moment – but how do you get back there again and again and deepen that place?
MBM: I think on one hand I’m still figuring this out and discovering it. On the other hand, I need to spend time with my people. I have an altar and they have space in my living room. I literally invite them in.
I say - I would like to hear more from you. And when I invite them I know they will come.
I have talked to Amara [Tabor Smith] about that to understand how to do that in a responsible way. There is a spiritual part of my work that I don’t talk about much.
For dying and dying and dying, I always brought a photo of Maria Ascenson, who I’m named after, and a bowl of water into rehearsals so she knew she was welcome. I know when we think of it from a Eurocentric point of view that kind of inviting people in can seem like schizophrenia…but from an Africanist perspective, when I’m doing my best job, there are ancestors who take up space and I try to let them move through me and with me.
JZ: Also interesting, is dramaturging and crafting the voices that are speaking with me/you.
I don’t know if you remember Walking with Pearl: Africa Diaries. There was a point where I said Pearl wants me to do this and I was in this conversation and crafting with Pearl. Is there something that comes to you to talk about that?
MBM: I do remember that! I’m glad to hear you talk about it.
How do you dramaturg your ancestors?
I dream all the time and remember those, but I can feel in my body when it is someone else’s idea. My dad gave this idea – asking me to remember the song from Toys R Us from my childhood – I don’t want to grow up. He said – change it. Sing that song but change it. So I do in (re)Source, but feel vulnerable. I stand on highest point in the room and I change the words and I sing it. At this point I’m not sure if it is strong or not but I honor the fact that he gave it to me. I would like to be in conversation with him about the idea.
JZ: In one of the early pilot workshops for the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative (CCI) we had a lot of talk about fictive autobiography and ancestors and in bringing forth the story, what is fictive? Where are our edges and our imagination as we see these stories through? When you are hitting into your power, you are hitting something inside that play.
MBM: I think that is more the realm of Sankofa Dream.
Desire: A Sankofa Dream is a multi-disciplinary, site-responsive artwork centered on imagination and consent as mechanisms of survival. The work, a sprawling fantasy, spilling across several rooms, takes place inside a kaleidoscope and will likely premiere at the August Wilson Center in 2021.
The script for Desire: A Sankofa Dream is fantastical. It is set back in the time when our ancestors were unicorns and ate different shades of red to feed their imaginations. It is informed by some things I know of my own ancestors and what they have done to enact their own desires and embody their own dreams.
There are things I know, things they know and things I can imagine with their encouragement.
(re)Source is not so fictive – it is nonlinear – but it is about my family as a microcosm of racial dynamics in this country, whereas Desire really gets into imagination and fictive territory.
JZ: What we were proposing in the CCI workshop is that any time it is autobiographical, it is fictive. I used to joke about Maya Angelou…did she carry around a tape recorder with her everywhere?
Of course she makes it up – a plausible story with memory and connections – but the truth is she is making it up. Not making it up from Octavia Butler sci-fi fantasy, but really from a place of reality. I think that is where the permission comes; to craft; to see their stories. I’m still working and struggling on that with Scat! with our dramaturg Talvin Wilks.
Scat! is set in a fictional jazz club, a dance-driven musical that tells a love story of two people making their way during the Great Migration through song, dance and story telling.
“Scat! is my story. It is my family's story. It is a personal and collective story of a family and a people, moving from the Jim Crow south during the Great Migration.”
I just read “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward. Such a powerful book of ancestors and story and trying to find resolve. I’m curious – what are you reading that is helping you dig in or question or deepen?
MBM: I appreciate that you asked that as you and I have a long history of trading books! Reading is a big part of my creative process. It helps an idea get lodged in me and to start to look for cousin-ideas in lots of different ways.
Really influential to me is Ben Okri’s “Famished Road.” I appreciate his willingness to go into his fantasy/ancestral vision and the way he played in that space. On one hand it could be science fiction/fantasy and on the other an almost spiritual text to go into his land of ancestors, learn, and then write down and share. Right now I’m reading N.K Jemison’s “How Long ‘til Black Future Month?: Stories” and you know I’m a big Octavia Butler fan and just finished her Xenogenesis series.
But N.K. Jemison has this collection of short stories that is wild to me as she has written in a largely white genre of science fiction/ fantasy – and won three years in a row of Hugo Awards, unprecedented. When I read what she is writing I see how it slides into sci-fi fantasy and on the other hand it’s telling our story. She tells of a young man, homeless in NY having visions – yes sci fi/ fantasy/ superhuman; and another way to read this is that what is happening is real but on another plane, in a spiritual place. That intermingling had been freeing me up – whether spiritual or creative – all true on some level.
JZ: When I think about Ben Okri’s work –I’m interested in the bridge you will make between the beauty of the conversation and this work. In many cultures, the dream world is as valid as any – and how you will craft and bring the passion and intelligence of your voice into what happens. Going back to what happened at ASU, something lit up around you that we all saw and it is not like we want to capture photographic moments and go back to over and over, but how do we notice that place when something breaks open and where to go from there?
MBM: You know it’s funny, I want to share a memory from back when I was younger and dancing in your work in Urban Bush Women (UBW). A seed was planted around going in and out of time and that being ok. In Walking with Pearl Southern Diaries – that section after Chanon [Judson] has gotten the news about the lynching and we are all helping her out, there was a moment on stage on tour and I went out – there was a portal that opened and you asked me about it later and I said – yes – I think I went out, and didn’t know what my body was doing. But it felt ok, as I was getting positive feedback from others on stage when I started coming back to that present. I remember talking about it with you. You know how we don’t know how we will store things and how they will come up? That was a seed planted then that offers a permeability I draw from now in my choreographic process.
JZ: I’m wondering how you can create that space. It happened once with me in Germany – you don’t know when it is going happen. In thinking about Desire: A Sankofa Dream and (re) Source, are these part of a trilogy and/or connected in some way together?
MBM: It’s funny, you and I were talking about this last time. The idea is I don’t know, and yes!
I wonder if it started with dying and dying and dying as that is the work wherein I started opening up to my ancestors as artistic co-creators. I don’t know what that trilogy looks like and how it works but there is a through-line.
JZ: I would say it started earlier with your piece Fifty Ways to Say… – on the murder of Sean Bell – that was a place where I saw your solo again that I thought - what is happening here - maybe there is a channeling? That is the point where I saw something change and then I saw it close again. Then I saw the opening again at ASU.
In this spiritual work we are in a Western normative. We are discounting ways we have an experience that opens, enlivens, shocks, soothes our work in some way but all of the Western culture says that’s not normal or wasn’t’ real or you could be crazy. So I wonder if some of the reading you may want to look at – how people have discounted that in different kinds of ways.
MBM: That is what I meant by I don’t talk about it as much. I made Fifty Ways to Say… in 2010/2011 and felt like I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that police officers had shot at Sean Bell literally 50 times. I understood it on one plane. We know racism is alive and well, but I was numb in another way. 50 times??
That was a time I opened myself up. I choreographed every one of those bullets. I was scared to do it. Who wants to reenact that type of thing? But doing it, I gave up my body to experience someone else’s reality; to learn from it even if I was scared of what I would learn or less in control than I was used to in my process. Perhaps now I’m getting more and more courageous and noting that this is where my creative process lives so [I must] create the conditions for it.
JZ: And that is the craft. This is the thing I have to do every night - because the 50 ways was SO powerful and SO shocking in a profound way. As you are looking at the continuum of your creative practice that is something I have noticed.
The other is your profound sense of intimacy. You have this amazing physical power; full on. Then you shift into this vulnerable intimate space. Has this found a space in Desire: A Sankofa Dream or in (re)Source?
MBM: As far as the craft, I think that is where having danced with UBW and toured for so long holds me in good stead. Because I do understand the lightning bolt that is creativity and also that we took this on as a vocation. I keep myself conditioned for when that lighting bolt comes; I’m ready. That company class/ rehearsal/ performance/ experience has fed my creative practice. Also the intimacy piece certainly has come up for me and that is why I’m not dancing on or choreographing for proscenium stages right now. I want to be in more immediate relationship with people around me. And I want that for the performance collaborators I work with.
One way for me to get at the idea that we are in this together – as allies and co-conspirators – and also that we are each implicated – is that we have to do something (or not), but we have to do it together. I was talking about this last night with cast of Desire: A Sankofa Dream. I purposely put audience members in with them [the performers] to see and to be seen – to eschew some of the elitism of us powerful dancers being showcased on stage and admired that way. And I also want to interrupt the dynamic of audience members passively consuming the performance and performers. When we are closer, we have more skin in the game.
In terms of intimacy - growing up as an only child with a single parent, one-to-one is part of how I’m wired and why I’m drawn to community engagement, community organizing, and dialogic work. I feel empathetic and porous and the artwork needs that. Dancing is a way to soften ourselves, and I don’t necessary mean physically but after performances, people come up to me and feel softer and talk about their own families. Their voices are different than before the experience, and they want to hug me and the other dance artists. We seem to shed a thin layer of distance.
It’s funny about the power – I feel powerful physically, and it’s something I crave, and I’m curious about that as I don’t think it’s the opposite of intimacy. Dance folks in the past have coached me to soften up and have talked about the physical power as a kind of armor. I think those dichotomies are not quite right and my work is walking the edge. Especially as a Black woman, it feels like dancing is a being-ness in space where I and we get to take up space and be powerful, and I don’t want to give that up. We get to be this big and unapologetic and yet – it doesn’t mean we are aloof and uncaring about the audience members. I’m trying to interrogate – can I be bigger and bigger and still be more connected to others…or do I need to diminish in order to be connected?
JZ: There is a huge racial dynamic to that.
MBM: Right?! Can we be this powerful and intimate at the same time? [This is] an element of MBDance I’m continuing to excavate all the time.
JZ: Remember Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto”? If you had to make a no manifesto right now what do you say no to?
MBM: My spiritual self has gone to a yes manifesto! But if I were to be able to create a yes manifesto – I would say
Yes to multi-linearity
Yes to multiple planes at the same time
Yes to people of color
Yes to audience members as participants
Yes to physicality
Yes to narrative as an innovative structure
Yes to multi-valence, multiple values and meaningful values at the same time.
JZ: I still want to get one no.
MBM: Yes to dream state; Yes to ancestors. But a no?
No to two-dimensional creation for me
No to works that live only on one or two planes – intensely physical virtuosic work without anything else or to work that situates itself as intensely narrative but that’s it – we have more all the time
No to physical categorization
In thinking about the aesthetics I bring in – capoeira, athletics, ballet, modern, hip hop, house, post modern – all of this comes into play. All of the above yes, and all at once in varied ways.
No to concretizing of our aesthetic categories
JZ: Melanie is there anything you want to ask?
Melanie George: My brain is exploding. The thing I’m going to want to dive deeper to at this moment – is perhaps because I am pre-occupied with this Western normative idea and primarily because in part coming up in other work and writing I am doing. But also for me – I’m trying to figure out how to language this really profound and really clear way you talk about spirituality in whatever I’m going to write without feeling I have to quantify or defend it. How to language it for what it is and the values it holds?
MBM: That reminds of something I was talking about with Sharon Bridgforth, the dramaturg for Desire: A Sankofa Dream. It came up because I am writing this script for the piece and studying the way my Grandmother Emma talks. There is a person in Desire: A Sankofa Dream,a guide of sorts. Her name is Tempo. Some people may not understand some of the vernacular this character is speaking and I’m ok with that. She says things plain, in her language, in her community, and she doesn’t bother to translate. She simply is and her language simply is.
In thinking about this with spiritual portals and codes I the artwork, for folks with whom those doors aren’t open, it is ok; some doors aren’t open for me and I haven’t yet learned how to know about them. It’s fine. But for folks for whom the codes and portals makes sense, the truth just is. This is a co-creation with some folks who don’t have bodies. There are some things that simply are and don’t need translating and if they don’t get it no problem, there is plenty else to be gotten.