To the study of the moment: ‘we free’, traps, and other philosophies

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Marguerite Hemmings takes us on a journey into her current work and research.  This article is the first in a five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

Photo: ‘we free’ at Gibney Dance Credit: Scott Shaw Pictured: Courtney Cook, Italy Welton, and Marguerite Hemmings

Photo: ‘we free’ at Gibney Dance
Credit: Scott Shaw
Pictured: Courtney Cook, Italy Welton, and Marguerite Hemmings

We free is applied freedom. It is active liberation. It is a practice of trusting the unseen, undocumented, the unwritten.

We free is a multimedia endeavor that first and foremost concerns itself with the reparation of the African Diaspora. And secondly concerns itself with this very instance. We free wonders how this millennial generation is living its freedom, right now. Having begun as solo dance performance and video collage (big ups to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for your curation and Gibney Dance’s Double Plus Series for holding space for that first iteration), we free now moves deeper into the social.  

The methodology of we free rests inside of improvisation — cyphers, labs, freestyle, jams, parties, sessions in living rooms, community centers, clubs, backyards. It pulls heavily from living inside of the work and voice of young people, womyn, and gender non- conforming peoples. It studies street styles across the African Diaspora. It side eyes methods of ethnographic research while still using many of them. It’s group work. We’re recovering, remembering, imagining, un-loosing, changing. Changing. The process of decolonizing, of getting natural, of making ready again, is utter change. And with this surrendering to change, a belief in deeper and higher communication comes up, a different way of communicating with one another comes through. And this way, of communicating, or relating, that is coming up, that comes up inside of this process, is lit.

And what’s coming up is multiple. Is layering. Is looking laterally. Is lateral supports. Coexisting. Co-living. Riffing.

To the study of the moment: (this reads like a dj set where the selecta keeps talking over the riddim, so it’s kind of annoying, but you still get your life in the in betweens)

First and foremost. Take a look at this playlist to get your mind right for this piece [1]

First and for real foremost. This one goes out to all the yute dem.

we free.

Thank you for living in this moment and being such brilliant vessels and maps and windows to freedom. We protect you, we serve you, we listen to you, we know you enough to remind you, please remind us. Lead us, we will follow.

A study of this moment. A close read on millennial blackness. A decoding of our song and dance. De-colonizing how we listen to and ascribe meaning to millennial music and dance. Connecting this, rightly, to its lineage of liberating black genius. To Makeda, to Celia Cruz, to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Katherine Dunham, dun dun, rock steady, mbalax, talking drums, dub, nyabinghi chant and…

A close reading of our freedom, as it has happened, and as it is happening, now. This rests on a belief that we are already free(ing).

Ok, so if this is the belief, wtf is going on?

Going in and back back back back back and between, to the vibe. To the feeling. The beat. The rhythm. Riddim, before tongue. Re-membering, timing, time traveling, inside of time. What’s that beat again?

If nothing changed. If everything remained exactly the same, who would we be? How could we still be free?

Freedom is inside the time.

Time, riddim.

I started with rap music. This, conscious, decoding of popular songs started with rap music [2]. I started with ‘Jigga What’ by Jay Z. Then went into a lot of Ludacris. And more recently, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Future, Migos, Desiigner, Gucci Mane. Then (right now) I noticed a pattern. These are all songs by black men. It’s not as if I wasn’t entirely obsessed with music and lyrics by women. Come through Lauryn Hill- Miseducation, Erykah Badu- Baduizm, EVE, Missy…but this didn’t feel like a decoding, or digging for something, I already felt free, listening to them. But with the music by the men, there was a process, a getting free that came with listening to them speak. Maybe my obsession to study and listen and dance to the ins and outs of music by these men was low key a survival strategy? A map to surviving patriarchy? Or a map to get closer to my father? Now I see that a large part of practicing freedom for me has been going into the places of cognitive dissonance. Where you ask, wait, why am I here again? Hearing those words is absolutely terrible for my subconscious mind! Why am I doing this to myself? Trap. Omg I am trapped. That beat though. Why is it making me make this face? And my body do these things? (shmoney, nae nae, reverse, whip, dab, hit the folks, milly, hit the quan, Bernie, floss, and unnamed). What is this feeling? I am trapped! Or free? K, I think I’m here because I have to re-member something.

(But is the beat enough to save us?)

When I say close reading, I do not mean of the words. — the words, that’s the trap, relying on the words is a trap.

Ok? Language…English ain’t our mother tongue.  But we use it. And I listen to these songs, I dance to these songs, I close read these songs hoping that it’s really those other things that are sinking in, those riddims, those patterns, that connection to lineage. And we pray that those riddims are it. We pray that love is the message. Getting beyond the words is the beginning of the decoding, the decolonizing. Cuz why are those words being said? Why are those the words being said? Why are these the words being said? Why would they be said?

Dance and music work directly with the unseen. It’s important to go beyond what is being said, or written, it’s important to go beyond words, or even trying to put it into words. It’s hopeful.

First read. Migos:

Bad and Boujee

Raindrops, drop tops (drop top)
  Smokin' on cookie in the hotbox (cookie)
  Fuckin' on your bitch she a thot, thot (Thot)
  Cookin' up dope in the crockpot, (pot)
  We came from nothin' to somethin' nigga (hey)
  I don't trust nobody, grip the trigger (nobody)
  Call up the gang, and they come and get you (gang)
  Cry me a river, give you a tissue (hey)
  My bitch is bad and boujee (bad)
  Cookin' up dope with a Uzi (blaow)
  My niggas is savage, ruthless (savage)
  We got 30's and 100 rounds too (grrah)
  My bitch is bad and boujee (bad)
  Cookin' up dope with a Uzi (dope)
  My niggas is savage, ruthless (hey)                                                                      

words=terrible. But that’s the trap, the words. Now, how the rest of this will be read, must be in tandem with sound, and the unseen undocumented unwritten, or else it won’t make sense. Or it will make sense, in terrible ways. Please listen to this song right now and listen beyond meaning. Beyond reason. Do not continue without listening. Matter fact, dance to it. Because “dancing is an intense listening state”[3].

Do you hear that call and response?

Do you hear the dialect? The lilt?

Do you see the patterning? The repetition?

Do your shoulders or head or hands or chest want to do anything?

Do you hear that riddim? That polyrhythm?

(But can the (has the) polyrhythm save(d) us?—is it enough to save us?)

It’s enough to make my mind bend back. Look at Kida the Great, 15 year old mover, time traveler, and interpreter, interpret another Migos song, Slippery, (what’s up with Migos? What’s up with Atlanta? What is up with the South?) a song that uses rhythms and cadences that did not make any sense to me at first. A literal riddle. I had to listen to it 1,000 times to hear it and finally ‘understand’ the time signature to feel any sense of peace. Then you look at Kida and his sisters and they just… get it… they are inside of time. look:

Kida dancing to Slippery [4]

Now just Slippery the song





ta, ta — drop — pop tha perky just to start up (pop it) ba, ba, Pa! pop 2 …Ayye!

Young people are lit. Trap is lit. Rhythm is being played with. Through production of the actual beat and then through the cadence and way of the tongue, the word. There is surprise, syncopation, chant. An understanding of time that allows for time travel, for freedom. Improvisation inside of pattern. Moments go on longer than you think is logical, repetition is done more times than you think makes sense.

Now listen to Versace by Migos.

From the dawn of jazz until about 1960, African-American popular music was based on an eighth note pulse. The advent of funk brought with it a shift to the sixteenth note pulse. Now we’re undergoing another shift, as Southern hip-hop is moving the rest of popular music over to a 32nd note pulse. The tempos have been slowing down as the beat subdivisions get finer.” Trap beats don’t use swing. Instead, they create rhythmic interest through syncopation, accenting unexpected weak beats….. Afro-Cuban music is a good source of syncopated patterns. The snare pattern in the last quarter of my beat is a rotation of son clave, and the kick pattern is somewhat clave-like as well.
— Ethan Heim

There is surprise, syncopation, chant.

Speaking of chant. Speaking of not being understood. Desiigner. Ok. I love this dude. Desiigner is an artist from Brooklyn, that everyone thought was from the South because of how he rapped. He came out with that extremely popular song ‘Panda’. The joke with this song, and this artist being, you can’t understand a word he is saying. But dancers went offffff on thissss songggg! Listen:

Hip hop is moving from a focus on lyrical content and lyrical legibility/meaning to rhythm, cadence, and pattern. So then how do we look at meaning? How do we look at time?

Time riddim pattern system ritual

—how do you approach what you do not understand?—

Time riddim pattern system ritual

I think of talking drums. I think of another way of communicating.

Something, else, happening! Illegibility. Maroon. Elusive.

NOT UNDERSTANDING DESIIGNER FORCES US TO LISTEN IN A DIFFERENT WAY. Trap music forces you to listen in a different way. It forces you to adopt a different way of listening.

When panda came out? Listen!

Another example of Desiigner being African diasporic, time transcendent af:

Watching this brings so much to mind, so much connection so much memory is inside of this.

Whatever. (HEART EYES)

I’m just trying to situate our moment inside of and with all the other moments of African diasporic genius and liberation. So when youth provide a sort of map to all of us by simply being, we can offer another type of mapping, an affirmation, a head nod saying we see you. And you are riiiight…here. Next to Queen Nanny, adjacent to Prince Rogers Nelson (points at map). You are a part of it. You are connected. The book Rebel Dance Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity is an incredible example of this type of mapping work. One connection it makes is between a popular music and dance of Cuba, timba, to maroon history in the Caribbean. This quote shows a similar relationship to time, language, and identity that I am drawing within my observations of trap music for this millennial generation.

Both timba and maroon life in the Caribbean colonial period are based on “outsider identity,” unique language, “raiding”, and the use of old principles to improvise new styles in emergent social circumstances, which Amiri Baraka calls “the changing same”. (Vaughan, 3)

But there’s more…

”While sociocultural “marronage” certainly entails transforming the anguish of the black condition and the status of servitude through “creative explosion”, the relationship between maroon communities and the dominant society remains complex and at times contradictory. In fact, the maroons who had been the “chief opponents” of slave society, at times became its main props.
— (Vaughan, 4)

Yehhhh. There is more. So much more. I’m realizing in doing this kind of work, it’s less about the actual genres of music and dance and more about the decoonizing process, whoa, I mean decolonizing, but I will keep that mistake right there lol, yes… it’s about the process of looking at ourselves and one another, differently.

How can this kind of decolonized way of working with, educating, and listening to young people, to the music and dance of now, free us all? (this reads like it’s at the end of a dub reggae song when the artist is basically chanting over the beat)

Because systems = pattern = ritual. An oppressive system is made up of oppressive patterns is made up of oppressive rituals. Also inside of oppressive systems is a constant practice of self-liberation. What are these practices? It forces you to study both the role of oppressed and of oppressor. What patterns are we creating. What are our rituals. What systems are we creating and how do we fit in and innovate inside of the systems/rituals that we find ourselves in as both oppressor and oppressed (this is trap. Innovation inside of oppression). With a deeper decolonized detached analysis we can then see where we, ourselves, are oppressive, and also where we are oppressed and need to use liberatory practices to move around said oppression. And maybe the more we see how we are oppressing, we can start to not, then those most vulnerable to that oppression can freely go head and create those new systems they were brought here to create instead of just creating ways of navigating around and inside of them.

Because the most vulnerable to an oppressive system, are the ones who have a constant practice and ritual of self-liberation and can – and do – create the most, lit, systems.

If we even attempt to play with playing the whole Oppression Olympics game, youth are 100% the winners. Why?- I define oppression as the active crushing of spirit. Cardinal sinning. Engaging in ritual that suppresses another’s ability to live or connect with/be led by/walk with their spirit. The act of acclimating a child to this dream reality we’re all ritualizing is mad soul crushing. I.e. the trauma of disconnecting, of separating, of identifying, – then the concrete facts – of being the most susceptible demographic to all forms of abuse, at the whim of hierarchy and authority 100% of the time. So my main investigation is wtf are they doing? HOW tf are they innovating inside of that? That’s the map to freedom. And the map to stop oppressing them. And instead 1) protecting and 2) deeply listening and 3) being affected by. The youth.

Looking at myself, the situations where I am most consistently oppressive of others, are those where I teach young people. I have to constantly fight a terrifying impulse to colonize young people, teach using fear and threat of violence, and recreate systems of complete control that make existing very hard for them.

Time riddim pattern system ritual

Questions that come up in this looking to millennial music—specifically trap– as a map that situates the movement to liberation:

Why is trap music so void of (visibly) the empowered femme? And what lineage(s) is that a part of?

What do these musical phrases mean, if I’m arguing that it is language? What is it communicating? What’s the vibration?

Where do the tonalities, lilts, and cadences come from? Any connections to specific music and dance and language lineages on the continent?

What do the social dances say about this generation?

Who’s naming these dances, giving tutorials, teaching classes? What will studying them and intellectualizing them and overly naming the unnamable do to them, its liberatory connections, its origins and its Africanness?


This one goes out to all di yute dem

Lead us, we will follow!


And then

a black womanist close reading : why we absolutely cannot get behind trap music


The thing with identifying with an oppressed group, of being a part of an oppressed group is that it makes peculiar things happen. One being, settling. Brilliantly tho.  But settling. Taking what you can get.

lemons —> lemonade. And then feeling ever-filled with bitter, bitter rage.

Feeling that in order to get or experience aaanything good, you gotta take some bad/terrible/soul crushing/abuse. So we’re less likely to ever, rightfully, admonish and banish. Ever write off or cut off or let go or say no. Because of a belief that we cannot be members of wholly loving environments. We cannot feel completely all the way good. So let’s make that feel good. Let’s make not feeling good feel goooood

Exploitation feels bad, misrepresentation feels bad, being used feels bad, wasting time and powers feels bad, performing can even feel bad, being watched sometimes feels bad, being directed can kinda feel bad, it all feels bad when it’s invisible parts of, representations of, degrees of, abuse and guilt and shame and abuse

The brilliant part =

This ability is magic. It is alchemy. It is a superpower.

It forces you to see everyone and everything as whole and complicated and forgivable. It creates a higher way of engaging with humanity. When abuse is all around you, you become an expert, a supreme diamond in the ruff spotter.

But what if? Ya know? What, if?

So I listen to a song, oneoftheones I was highlighting the genius of up there, and I have to shut down parts of myself, numb parts of myself to survive it; to continue engaging with the good parts. Cuz we will get to the good part, right? I feel it…’s close…

But what if? There’s a place? Somewhere? Where? We forgave ourselves? And where there are nothing but good parts? Where you don’t have to dig for millennia to find them? (and by good parts I don’t mean just one type a’ good, that one way we think of good, I mean goddess god good, I mean it all, transcendence, I mean love first.) What if we poured energy into that notion? And gave a hard pass to anything that demeaned us, even just for 7 seconds?

Is an example of an exercise of imagination we could do.

So much energy going into justifying something not being enough. It’s not enough. The polyrhythm is not enough. It didn’t save us.

And I don’t wanna waste more time squeezing out the last remains of this damn lemon.

-But, if my idea of freedom is about de-colonizing, maybe we cannot avoid these spaces.
-It’s like wanting to un-earth something but not wanting to be on planet earth.
-It’s just that in those spaces we feel torn apart.
-So in digging there, we rely on a belief and faith that we are all one, for real for real.
-Like, FOR REAL. It relies on a belief and faith that it’s worth it.
-That what lies beyond and behind the colonized is worth it.
Plus, I’m colonized. 
-The whole reason we free was conceived was to deal with my own decolonizing.
-So maybe it’s also an argument that I am worth it? I am worth digging deeper into too.
-Ok, fine it’s worth it.
-Let’s study trap music and the brilliance of the African Diaspora while not creating this myth thateverything is cool just because we hear a cute beat

Ok now let’s talk about that other violence and oppression that this piece lives awkwardly inside of.

Radical blackness and the academy, and the institution. Institutionalizing radical blackness. Or having the terrible soul sucking job, grossly underpaid job of radicalizing, blackifying, the institution. And by institution I mean white space. And by white space I mean materially resourced space, mainstream, connected, promoted, ‘visible’, ‘public’ space. My definition of white space is kind of wacky…because yes, it is literal in many cases – spaces with lots of white people – but sometimes there are lots of people of color there, sometimes it even seems to cater to people of color. Yeh, it’s wacky!

But as wacky and in development as this definition is right now, it would be sad if I didn’t mention it. This thing, this attempt to define that thing, that force, this dynamic that works and has worked as a sort of undertow or vacuum for this work, we free. What does it mean, how does it feel to institutionalize radical blackness? How does it feel to ask these questions? How do I even feel rn?

Annoyed and fearful. And chill, and cool, too.

But like, how do you feel? Are you afraid of getting sucked up and away?

This article, when I was writing it, had myself and my tribes in mind. My interests. But that changes with audience. It always changes with audience. Where an exploration of self…where a riddim a ritual, suddenly becomes a defending, an explanation, a pulling of teeth, a plea, to be seen, a begging, to be valued, a begging, for this to feel easy for two seconds, a prayer that if I stopped pulling for those 2 seconds it wouldn’t mean I’d be disappeared. What is that? Is all I’m saying.

It is murderous. It is exhausting. It is distracting [5]. And is exploiting all our fears of our ideas of our deaths, our specific deaths. Down with that othering idea of death.

And, also, this sucky vacuum thing is the innate, inherent, founded dynamic of race [6]. And the struggle of the black radical artist who lives in public. [7]

How does one fly in these spaces? How does time fly, can time fly in these spaces? And if the answer is no……

Yute dem?

[1] Playlist Songs


[2] The way I decoded back then was standing in my childhood bathroom playing a song on repeat and making up moves to every single sound I heard.

[3] Sublette, Cuba and Its Music

[4] And if you want to watch a beautiful collage of Kida and his 2 sisters messing with time some more:




*Special thanks to Em Rose, Deema Nagib, and Solo Woods for their precious editing time.

Marguerite Hemmings is Jamaican born, raised in New Jersey, and has been living in NYC for the past 12 years. She graduated from Columbia University receiving her BA in Education and Urban Studies. As a dancer, Marguerite specializes in street styles, social dances, hip hop, and dancehall. She currently teaches Experimental Dancehall, a class that looks at the power of African diasporan social dance through a lens of dancehall/reggae culture and music. As for her latest projects, she has been working on a multimedia endeavor called ‘we free’ that explores the millennial generation’s take on liberation. Iterations of 'we free' have been shown at Brooklyn Museum, BRIC Arts Media, Gibney, JACK, and MoCada and will be shown in New Orleans this summer.

Urban Bush Women Announces Choreographic Fellowship Candidates

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Urban Bush Women (UBW) has named five Choreographic Fellowship Candidates; Marjani Forté-Saunders, Francesca Harper, Marguerite Hemmings, Paloma McGregor and Amara Tabor-Smith. 

The UBW Fellowship Program is one component of the evolving UBW Choreographic Center, a ten-year initiative to bring greater national, recognition and support to women choreographers of the African Diaspora. The Fellowship Program is structured over two years and includes a 9-month planning process with Fellowship Candidates, followed by a full year of Fellowship activity. 

The inaugural Cohort of Fellowship Candidates was selected through a rigorous application and review process.  The Fellowship program will support the development of work dealing with complex narratives addressing race, history, cultural identity, ethnicity and pressing social issues. These five choreographers were part of a nationwide vetting to identify choreographers who have demonstrated readiness for the program, and have distinctive artistic voices and compelling point of views addressing particular issues of cultural narrative and history.

The Fellowship program has been designed to ensure the work, and the works’ multiplicity of components and vision, are more fully realized then would be possible without additional edification, reinforcement or support. The program includes direct financial support, one or more residencies, mentorship, writing and reflection.  Participating choreographers have made a commitment to placing one’s choreographic process as the highest priority examining questions of craft, clarity of vision and execution of ideas in a rigorous and granular way through a dramaturgical and research process.

More information on these five artists can be found below. Feature articles will be released on each choreographer over the course of the next year.

Follow these links to read more about the Urban Bush Women and the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative


Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

Marjani Forté-Saunders was born in Pasadena, CA and is currently a Harlem resident. Saunders toured with UBW Inc. for 5 yrs, and is now an independent artist and co-founder with Nia Love, of LOVE|FORTÉ A COLLECTIVE. She is a Princess Grace Choreography Fellow (2014), Jerome Foundation Awardee (2015)  and participant of LMCC Extended Life Residency (2015-2017). Undergirded by a SURDNA Foundation Thriving Cultures grant, she curated a 3-month exhibit at MoCADA featuring the work of 4 multimedia artists encore performances of "being Here.../this time" and LOVE|FORTÈ's Memory Withholdings. Saunders recently choreographed Sampha’s Short Film “Process” directed by celebrated film director Kahlil Joseph. She is an active member of Urban Bush Women’s BOLD Teaching Network, and has served on faculty at Hunter CUNY, Bard College, and the Yale School of Drama. Her work stems from being born in and having engaged with culturally rich, vibrant, historic, and politically charged communities.


Photo Credit: Richard Termine

Photo Credit: Richard Termine

Francesca Harper danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) and as Principal Dancer in Ballett Frankfurt. She was named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and has performed at the White House. Her Broadway credits include: Fosse, The Producers, All Shook Up, The Frogs, The Color Purple and leading roles in Sweet Charity and Sophisticated Ladies. Harper was a ballet consultant for 'Black Swan', and has appeared on Boardwalk Empire, David Letterman, and Oprah Winfrey, and is currently in Sleep No More in New York City. Harper has choreographed on Ailey, Ailey II, Hubbard St II, and DTH. Harper was honored with a Living History Award during Black History Month in 2013, and an Innovation and Technology award from Louis Vuitton for her choreography for Fashion week in 2013, and her piece, 'System,' created for DTH, has its New York debut on April 21st, 2017 at New York's City Center. Harper was awarded a fellowship at the Center for Ballet and the Arts in 2017 in which she started developing a new immersive work, and film entitled ‘(y)ourstory’. The Francesca Harper Project, founded in 2005, tours worldwide.


Photo Credit: Scott Shaw

Photo Credit: Scott Shaw

Marguerite Hemmings is Jamaican born, raised in New Jersey, and has been living in NYC for the past 12 years. She graduated from Columbia University receiving her BA in Education and Urban Studies. As a dancer, Marguerite specializes in street styles, social dances, hip hop, and dancehall. She currently teaches Experimental Dancehall, a class that looks at the power of African diasporan social dance through a lens of dancehall/reggae culture and music. As for her latest projects, she has been working on a multimedia endeavor called ‘we free’ that explores the millennial generation’s take on liberation. Iterations of 'we free' have been shown at Brooklyn Museum, BRIC Arts Media, Gibney, JACK, and MoCada and will be shown in New Orleans this summer.


Photo Credit: Erik Pearson

Photo Credit: Erik Pearson

Paloma McGregor is a Caribbean-born, New York-based choreographer whose work centers Black voices through collaborative, process-based art-making and organizing. A lover of intersections and alchemy, she develops projects in which communities of geography, practice, and values come together to laugh, make magic and transform. She has created a wide range of work, including a dance through a makeshift fishnet on a Brooklyn rooftop, a structured improvisation for a floating platform in the Bronx River and a devised a multidisciplinary performance work about food justice with three dozen community members and students at UC Berkeley. Residencies include: 2016-18 NYLA Live Feed; 2014-16 BAX Artist in Residence; 2014 LMCC Process Space; 2013-14 NYU’s Hemispheric Institute Artist in Residence; and 2013 Wave Hill Winter Workspace. Grants include: Surdna Foundation; Lambent Foundation Fund; MAP Fund; Dance/USA - Engaging Dance Audiences.


Photo Credit: Ana Teresa Fernandez

Photo Credit: Ana Teresa Fernandez

Amara Tabor-Smith describes her work as Afro Futurist Conjure Art. Her dance making utilizes Yoruba spiritual ritual to address issues of social and environmental justice, race, gender identity and belonging. She is the artistic director of Deep Waters Dance Theater, and co founded Headmistress-- a collaboration with Sherwood Chen. Amara is the former associate artistic director and dancer with Urban Bush Women, and has performed in the works of dance and theater artists such as Ed Mock, Joanna Haigood, Ronald K. Brown, Faustin Linyekula, Ana Deveare Smith, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Residencies and awards include, The Headlands Center for the Arts, CHIME Mentorship Exchange, CounterPULSE Theater, and ODC Theater artist in residence. She is a 2016  Creative Capital awardee, and was recently awarded a residency at Sacatar in Bahia, Brazil. Amara received her MFA in Dance from Hollins University, and is a continuing lecturer at UC Berkeley.

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.

Reflections on Dramaturgy in relationship to the Choreographic Center by Tara Aisha Willis

In January 2017, with support from the Ford Foundation, UBW hosted a Dramaturgical Planning Convening for the Choreographic Center. The goal of the gathering was to interrogate and refine plans for a dramaturgical support program for emerging to mid-career choreographers. Dance Artist, Writer, and Curator Tara Aisha Willis participated in the meeting and reflected on the convening as follows.


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s capacity for building networks of connection between the people and resources that come into her orbit is an ongoing, caring practice. It infuses the structure of Urban Bush Women, as the container for her choreographic, educational, and social justice projects alike. At the start of the Dramaturg Planning Convening held at the offices of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Zollar began by describing the driving question behind UBW’s new Choreographic Center: who will be the next generation of female-identifying choreographers of the African diaspora, making work for nationally or internationally visible stages, that actively contends with multiple layers of narrative, identity, history, and social justice? And what might be the best way of nurturing those choreographers toward artistic maturity, complexity, and longevity? How might UBW’s resources and core values strengthen the work of artists who want to make dance through nuanced narrative approaches? An important part of the answer for Zollar: strengthen the infrastructures around those choreographers. Rather than simply supporting one limited project or phase in their process, provide a personalized system of connections and relationships that will push and anchor them over time.

Zollar envisions this Choreographic Center as servicing artists who fall within three sequential tiers of career development. Artists in each tier have been supported by various UBW choreographic workshops and commissioning programs in the past, and through Zollar’s individual mentorship. But the Center will bring those efforts into focus. Inspired by conversations with arts advocate and administrator Sam Miller, Zollar realized that this was not a limited initiative, but an ongoing “center”—a vital framework to organize the constant attention Zollar already pays to each emerging artist she encounters. Crucially, it will not be a literal building, but a network of partnerships with institutions and individuals, all brought together in a clearly delineated but flexible structure. A house filled with rooms that have permeable walls, an amoeba-like structure that can morph to fit each artist’s needs while also having moments of community across the Cohort, or across multiple Cohorts. Focused on the particularities of shaping a two-year program for Cohort 2 artists, the Dramaturg Convening brought together UBW staff Jawole Zollar (Founder and Visioning Partner), Renee Taylor-Foles (Organizational Advancement Partner), Jennifer Calienes (Choreographic Center Strategic Advisor), Ruqayyah Albaari (Logistics and Media Coordinator), and myself, with choreographer Nora Chipaumire, teacher/dance musician Douglas Corbin, actor/director William Nadylam, dance history scholar John O. Perpener III, dramaturg/scholar Katherine Profeta, and dramaturg/director/playwright Talvin Wilks.

Why dramaturgy? Zollar pointed out the troubling trend she has seen across college-level students working with narrative-based choreographic approaches. In many composition classes, abstract dances tend to receive more praise and support than narrative dances, which are often interpreted as didactic—even when both choreographers have yet to develop complexity in their work. Seeing the many black students in that category getting shut down and ceasing to grow because of that tendency, programs in Cohort 1 of the Center are designed to help those story-focused dance makers develop their choreographic voice and find layers of nuance in their practices. Cohort 2, however, she calls the “mountain climber” cohort. They already have the skills and experience to deepen their practice and make complex work, but would benefit most from having the time, space, and infrastructure to ask and be asked questions of their established practices, to examine their work with a “granular approach,” and for focused periods of intense making, in community with others. These artists need not only development and residency support at a crucial turning point in their careers, but a chance to solidify their relationship to their artistry through the feedback loop that a dramaturg is equipped to provide. Many in Cohort 2 will be building their visibility, getting larger and more elaborately produced opportunities to perform. But, speaking from experience, Zollar points out that such recognition can mean losing track of the creative process and integrity of the work itself. The Center would help those artists develop strategies for collaboration, for staying in the work, and probing it with care that will stay with them throughout their careers.

Even with the three-tiered structure in mind, it was clear that at this convening, all feedback and contestation of the Center’s parameters was not only welcomed but valued. By the end of the day, an altered and improved program structure had blossomed out of the group’s conversations. That is a strength of UBW’s ethos: gathering artists and culture workers together with distinct goals in mind, but taking an intentionally open-ended path that is collaborative, without disappearing the individual. As each participant described their relationship to the notion of dramaturgy, it became clear that Zollar had a range of relationships with each person—from longstanding collaborations to admiration at a distance. Nonetheless, it was crucial to the process that each person brought their distinct perspective and queries to the table.

History—perhaps as a necessary vehicle for working with narrative—was a common theme. Nadylam described his investment in work that has a sense of time and history, echoing into the future and resonating with the past. Wilks’s dramaturgical practice attends to the embedded history dancers carry in their bodies over time, finding language and sequences for what ideas are trying to do within the choreographic process, especially in his work with Bebe Miller. Perpener expressed that the title “dramaturg” might not be the right fit for his expertise, but it would be crucial for artists to see how their work fits into a historical continuum of black artists, to understand the archive of precedents to their work. Zollar added that while many young choreographers know big names in black dance history, they may not be familiar with earlier black experimental dance artists. Like the group gathered in the room, this Center will support artists as they work across a wide range of approaches to mobilizing narrative and identity-related material—the center has the potential to bridge across and nurture the full continuum of what working narratively might mean.

Chipaumire questioned the necessity of dramaturgy for these artists; she sees her own constant remaking of and research into herself as inherent to the material and process of choreography. Her background and body need daily dramaturgy, not necessarily through a separate process. Corbin’s task with dance students has often been getting them to think about sound choices at both macro and micro levels of form, to pay attention to the music’s tension with the dance, not just it’s alignment. Profeta’s dramaturgical practice with Ralph Lemon has included feeding what she has documented back into the room later in the process. She sees dramaturgy as fulfilling multiple needs within a project—editor, researcher, questioner. Talking through the work consistently with someone who is intimate with the work but still maintains an outside eye can be particularly potent when an artist is making a major shift in their process.

Profeta raised a question that resonated across the conversation: how can the Center allow choreographers to have agency in building a relationship with a dramaturg? Wilks wonders if, given the unique nature of pairing choreographers with dramaturgs, the Cohort 2 artists may need an ongoing space for conversation about dramaturgy itself, and all its slippery definitions? How does the fellowship support an artist if the pairing doesn’t work or needs to shift? Is the pairing necessarily a mentorship, or more of a collaboration? Might it serve as a learning ground for early career dramaturgs, as well? If that partnership with a dramaturg is so central, how can the Center most efficiently determine what an artist needs while also helping them establish a long-term relationship, to both their dramaturg and their deepening practice? How can the Center create the best conditions for each artist’s needs for ongoing critique, for an outside viewer to be invested in their growth, to be asked the questions that fuel and frustrate them?

The group agreed that a longer retreat with dramaturgs and choreographers would be crucial, for multiple formats of working together and alone, investigating what dramaturgy might be, building relationships, and finding the right collaborators. It would also produce ongoing meaning throughout the rest of the two-year program, and serve as a meeting ground for artists across the Cohorts to connect. The artists selected for Cohort 2 would be able to demonstrate the urgency of the program to this moment in their practice, for its support of their process but also their readiness to dig in and put that process into action. Not fully settled on was what the role of writing might be, for the dramaturgs, but also the choreographers. How might the provocation toward writing and research that a dramaturg brings to the table open up doors within a choreographer’s process, to give dimension to the work, and perhaps even get them writing themselves? More practically, how should the program’s funding be structured, so that it can be responsive and flexible to each dance artist/dramaturg partnership, even when they might not know what kinds of resources they’ll need until that relationship is fleshed out? But that is the uniqueness of UBW’s porous structure. All of its programs occupy rooms in the same house, but with such permeable walls, the new Choreographic Center will be able to offer a program with complexity and depth, that fosters the same in the artists it nurtures.

Walking with UBW: An Interview with Chanon Judson 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.


The UBW Core Values: “Validating the Individual,” “Catalyzing for Social Change,” “Building Trust through Process,” “Entering Community and Co-Creating Stories,” “Celebrating the Movement and Culture of the African Diaspora,” and “Recognizing Place Matters.”

In January of 2016, the first UBW Choreographic Center Prototype workshop brought together an intergenerational group of fourteen choreographers to work with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, as well as faculty members Nora Chipaumire and Nia Love to explore the needs of women of color choreographers and potential curricular directions for the Center. In this conversation, Associate Artistic Director and company dancer Chanon Judson reflects on how UBW’s Core Values influence its practices and processes, as much in rehearsals and on stage as UBW’s education and engagement initiative, BOLD (Builders, Organizers, & Leaders through Dance). For Judson, the new Choreographic Center will more clearly extend those Core Values and solidify two additional value sets that have always been a part of UBW: the importance of openness to change and evolution, and a commitment to life-long learning.

Chanon Judson: Jawole delivered the keynote for the Black Women in Dance: Stepping Out of the Barriers conference, produced by Serendipity in Leicester, UK in May, 2016. During the address, it was funny to hear her note that she has a high degree of patience for sitting in discomfort. It’s one of those things that—being inside the creative process—feels like the elephant in the room. There could be any number of reasons for discomfort in the space: because the task is daunting and we’re trying to chip away at it, or we’re brewing, we’re on the right track but can’t find the thing to really make it pop. To hear her say, “Yes, that’s actually part of the process!” made me think about the nuggets of gold I’ve uncovered after going through that period of discomfort. You stay in that period long enough and something different has to happen—not magically, but different choices have to be made. I recalled all the creative processes I’ve been in with her. That murky discomfort comes up all the time. It’s the phase that ushers in the risk factor, of breaking boundaries and pushing while not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next. You have to go through that to get to the gem on the other side.

TAW: It makes me wonder about the tool kit that UBW and Jawole are using in choreography, but also in the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) and the Choreographic Center. There are things under the surface besides the Core Values that have to happen for the work—both inside and outside the studio—to happen.

CJ: We’re trying to pull away from the word “tools.” People come to SLI and want UBW to show them their tools for entering, building, and then exiting community. People come to classes and want to learn a tool for creating in this way or that. But we want to encourage the idea of being seeped in practices or methodologies. Learning that you live inside of and continue to brew over a period of time—a lifetime. It’s not a fixed thing: “If we could do A then it yields B”; but instead it’s a slew of practices that are interchangeable, that can be combined, modulated. That can happen for a long or short period of time; they’re not necessarily linear, but you draw from them as it necessary inside of the learning or creative process.

UBW’s BOLD training is practice based, drawing from the model of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond: the facilitators are made ready for the field by consistently applying the methodology to their own efforts of organizing, educating, or creating. Artists don’t follow a how-to guide, but rather incorporate the values into their personal journey, allowing it to shape and shift their lens.

TAW: Are there other ways you see the studio practice or choreographic practice dovetailing with, running parallel to, or intersecting with these other initiatives?

CJ: The SLI facilitates the critical study of community, beginning with examining oneself—the body as our first home, our first community. The process is revelatory, unearthing, and at times, destabilizing. It takes courage and vulnerability, the kind that makes your whole body warm, to be willing to learn things you thought you already knew: “No, I can push further.” To support this learning, UBW very intentionally constructs a safe space for learning (falling down, questioning) and encourages participants to honor a notion of truth that validates their own experience while allowing space for others. This system of support, respect, validation, and community is imperative to the learning environment. Building trust through process, so everyone can take two steps further, knowing you not walking it alone.

These values and the systems that shape them run deep inside all of UBW’s work.  

Coupled with our Core Values is a willingness to be malleable. Change is interwoven into our methodology. I mean “change” in the sense that we’re constantly embracing information that serves the work. I joined in 2001, toured for about 5 years, and then came off the road. I remember coming back to company class and being a little taken aback, thinking, “What is happening? I don’t recognize this?” There was a new group of creators and the work was growing—not just shifting because, “Oh, there’re new people, so we’ll do new things,” but they were all bringing different sets of expertise. The company embraced the deepening of that learning, and now we’re in the midst of another cycle of that. Now we’re thinking about new information on the science of the body, enhancing sustainability for the muscles and joints, the dancer in longevity—that becomes part of the company practice.

TAW: So change over time... Adaptability...

CJ: I know I used the word “change,” but I want to use the word “evolve.” There’s attention in it. It’s not haphazard. It’s not, “The wind has shifted so I want to do this new thing.” It’s that new information or expertise has come and there’s a new goal at hand, so now we evolve.

TAW: Can you talk about your experience over your decade and a half of dancing with UBW? How that trajectory has evolved and shifted around those processes and practices of the Core Values?

CJ: We just had the Cultural Traditions Residency at Jacob’s Pillow [in June 2016]. In the archives there they have old UBW repertoire, first company repertory I had never seen before. One thing that struck me was how strong the seed of the vision was. You could put your finger on the Core Values. The use of the sciences of the African diaspora, risk, courage, individuality, choice, all were in the early work. I saw the company mining their traditions of double dutch, hand jive games, and marching band experiences. Examining the root, “their mother tongues.” Feeling so much in relationship with that work myself made me realize how strong the bedrock of the company is.

What I’m noticing now is not so much the way the company has evolved but the way that I’ve grown over fifteen years. I came into the company as the baby in the group; learning in a shared ecosystem. I remember seeing the different choices the women that were my elders made. I remember being intrigued, being in question, consciously learning from that. Sifting through spirited “a-ha” moments and lots of murky doubt.

Now I’m the eldest person in the touring company… Still sifting through spirited “a-ha” moments and some murky doubt! I’m appreciating how much I’m pushed by those twenty-two and twenty-three year old members of the company, and the knowing that comes with being on another tier of life experience. Finding newness within the same practice, accepting its struggles, expecting the change. It wasn’t too long after I first came into the company Jawole had her 50th birthday, and I remember her being in rehearsal, saying, “This is the first time I’ve been able to do this stretch in my life!” I remember the impression that had on me of what it meant to be a life-long learner. It’s really remarkable to be inside a body of learning that has width enough for that kind of growth.

I taught at New York State Summer School of the Arts (NYSSSA) this summer and heard a remarkable lecture. The artist who talked about how the company he danced with for many years gave his body agency and expanded what he could do physically beyond what he thought possible. Sometimes this artist wanted to do his own thing, but he was in a specific methodology that didn’t allow for such exploration. When he decided to make dances and flex his own voice, the things he started going back to were the stories of his activist parents, remembering his feelings while listening to Nina Simone, how he would make faces in the mirror. He started digging up all these treasures, and that was the seed for how he was creating dance. What’s so beautiful is that this searching for treasures is the charge Jawole gives inside of the work. That’s the art maker’s practice. To pull from what you know was the very thing I explored with the students in our UBW technique and repertory workshops. When this artist spoke of the company he had been with, I thought of how opposite the drive of UBW is from that. You actually have to bring your full self to the work. This is how we create. It’s so brilliant and so human at the same time. Why would it make sense for you to only be a fraction of yourself and not the fleshiest, most textured version of yourself? I was reminded that this is not a given.

TAW: Do you feel like you’re actively transmitting those Core Values to the younger UBW members? Or that you’re retracing or reiterating those values in your practice as a performer, a mover in rehearsal, a teacher? Are you feeding those Core Values back into the UBW ecology?

CJ: Absolutely. In some regards, it’s the responsibility of the Associate Artistic Director: to share, probe, and push the dancer’s growth inside the methodology. The work has made me a more responsive artist and so the sharing comes by way of my doing. I recently watched Walking with Pearl...Africa Diaries of 2004. I remember how frightening and vulnerable it was to make decisions inside the work. I remember the songs I had to listen to over and over again to get my mind right so I could be bold and naked in the space, so I could actually live in my own choices. That’s much less of a challenge now. You give a task, an instruction and I’m already filtering it for what it means to me, in a way that puts me in my expertise, that challenges me: Where is the risk for me? How can I push myself inside of that? How can I find what puts me really inside of my groove? I’m thinking all that as I’m getting the instruction. How can I maximize me in that moment, in ways that allow me to bring truth but allow me to push myself so the growth factor still happens?

It took me sitting in this practice for a long time to reach the place where there’s a comfort in that discomfort. There’s comfort in knowing I can and have to make a choice. I watch the younger company members struggle in that space. The mom in me wants to give them information and tell them this is just the process. Sometimes I do that and still watch it run the course it has to take, because it’s a practice. It takes struggling through it, growing inside of it. And then you accumulate and grow all over again. There’s no shortcut, there’s no book you can read. It’s an embodied thing that takes time. Fortunately UBW is a playing field with which to bring that forward. We were just inside that very space in rehearsal.

TAW: And what happened?

CJ: We came back to what it means to make a decision. Samantha Speis (Associate Artistic Director) and I will give them a task to encourage the dancers to stay in the “frying pan” of that decision-making place. And everyone will do it because they’re phenomenal artists. Getting to the point where that becomes a go-to in how you navigate creativity or life? That’s experiential.

TAW: And you’ve reached a point where it’s in your cells. I don’t want to say “automatic,” because that makes it sound unthoughtful. But it’s already embodied from the start. So just by living that way in rehearsal you’re reiterating the Core Values to younger members. How do those values manifest in the choreographic practice?

CJ: “Validating the Individual”—that’s a big one. Walking With ‘Trane Side A & B is scored through states of being. The first state asks that you bring your mother tongue to the table: the movement, physical language, and experiences that live in your body as reservoirs of information that didn’t come from a classroom practice. In rehearsal Jawole will say, “Take a given movement phrase and put this in it...” I think my task was transcribing a drum solo as a petit allegro—in my brain that becomes this play of hip hop, house, combined with the percussive sensibility of tap. I made it my own by thinking about the things in my embodied movement practices that speak of the feet moving rapidly with dynamics and airspace; gliding, shooting, or soaring. I pull from what my body knows of that concept. I might play with it for five minutes, and then a count of eight gets put into the final work. But the rest of all that play is not for naught. It’s how my body deepens its understanding of what it can do with my roots of house dance, and hip hop from the 80s, 90s, early 2000s.

Creating art based on collective learning & research is part of UBW’s process. In our Chicago residency for Walking with ‘Trane we visited the Natural History Museum, the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, “100 Saxophones for Sun Ra” on his 100th birthday, jazz lounges, story shares, and more. We were really interested in the history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) so we sat with artists that are part of that lineage.

In our library study, Jawole gave us the task to go into the library and explore what called us. Dancer Courtney J. Cooke was drawn Coltrane’s upbringing in the church, noting it as a pillar in her own art making. She honed her focus in on the ring shout, the trance like state, duration, repetition, and the difference between the spirit being on you as opposed to in you. She created a physical and vocal exploration that encompassed her memories and research. It yielded a fresh palette for her explore with.

The research, critical study, and staying in the “frying pan” is part of the work of “Validating the Individual,” by way of pushing your understanding of who the individual is. Dr. Pearl Primus said, “dance has been my teacher.” Validating the individual doesn’t just mean I bring myself to the table and everything I bring is whole and great. You have to push and examine. Chanon in 2001 is not the same as Chanon in 2004, and couldn’t have imagined Chanon in 2016. The work has pushed me, has grown me.

TAW: In “Convenings and Gatherings” Marguerite discussed Jawole’s dedication to seeking out and nurturing black female choreographic voices. This Choreographic Center will formalize that mission—how has the trajectory you’ve experienced led to this moment in UBW?

CJ: UBW has always been a choreographic center. Now the focus, intention, and vision are to create a container to push what’s been happening all along. The company has always been a collective of artists with a point of view. It’s part of the audition. The audition is physical; it’s you doing this series of tasks; it’s what book are you reading. Ever since the first company, where those artists were all connected to their own choreographic voices and chose to come together as a collective.

I can remember a strong shift in thinking about our legacy around our 20th anniversary. More than likely that shift had been happening under the water, way before I caught wind of it, but anything like that must have started as a seed and a thought and a plan and a grant in order to make it happen. Jawole recognized the lack of black female choreographers represented in the concert dance landscape and the preservation of black female choreographers’ legacies. My first encounter with her efforts was by way of commissioning choreographer Millicent Johnnie to choreograph a segment of the HairStories (2001). In 2003, Kim Bears-Bailey was called upon to re-stage Dr. Pearl Primus’s original works on UBW, Hard Time Blues and Strange Fruit (1943). That was really impactful: having the opportunity to put these master works in my own body. To experience history and research woven into physical language. In 2004 Project Next Generation (PNG) was launched: commissioning female choreographers to set new work on UBW. Recipients were Bridget L. Moore and Camille A. Brown (2006). In 2008 UBW commissioned the restaging of Blondell Cummings’s Chicken Soup.

These modules preserved and furthered the legacy of black female choreographers. The Choreographic Center’s concern is to extend this reach. How can we serve not just the new artist but also those with developing and established practices? How do we prepare an ecosystem of presenters, funders, supporters to increase the demand and knowledge pool to support black radical, experimental voices?

I’m appreciating how we are folding the intentions of the Choreographic Center into our existing practices. Through BOLD, we’re sharing UBW methodology, history, and repertory study in ways that allow students to embody the learning process. At SLI this year we gathered organizers, funders, and policy makers to learn alongside artists. The process stretched their lenses and seeped into their understanding of black radical traditions. These efforts really affect the demand for risk-taking art by narrowing the proximity between the art maker and supporters. It’s one thing to read about art on a grant application or New York Times review; it’s another thing make an informed decision from embodied gut learning.

TAW: How will the core values—and other aspects of UBW’s ecology—shape the Center and develop new choreographic voices?

CJ: We draw from our thirty-plus year practice. We share the same methodology that has encouraged generations of company members to push, probe, discover, and evolve. The blueprint has always developed or refined choreographic voices. It’s a rigorous and unapologetic space for exploration.  Experimenting without trying to create work, but to facilitate learning. Also key is the shared space in which to do this. Much of UBW’s process is birthed of collaboration: the early works where Jawole collaborated with Laurie Carlos and Steve Kent; Walking with ‘Trane with Talvin Wilks. More brilliant minds in a room means more learning.  

I’m really excited about how the Choreographic Center is shaping the company. In regards to legacy, I’m noting a zeal to tell our herstory. It’s great to have someone write about our practices. It’s another kind of sharing for me to sit here with you, for you to record it, as many places as this conversation has gone! To be able to tell the story from inside embodied experience is aligned with our value of celebrating the African diaspora.

This journey of creating the Center is hammering in the awareness that we have to do this now. We have to tell our own story. As we find and shape containers to hold these practices, we also need to name our practices. In the same ways we’ve earmarked our shared legacy with others, it’s valuable for us to do the same with the work inside UBW. I’m really excited about how it’s feeding the organization—it’s asking us to hone in on what we do without codifying it and stopping it from evolving. This is a mind shift in how I’ve experienced information shared in the modern dance world. In my training, I studied the continuum of ideas codified in specific techniques and exercises. The value set swung between what’s strongly codified or what’s the trend, the new style. But UBW’s passing on of values and practices: the methodology is absolutely tangible and expected to grow.


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