The Evolution of "My Story" by Francesca Harper

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Francesca Harper offers insights into her artistic trajectory through personal narrative and in conversation with dance journalist Zita Allen.  This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

Photo Credit Richard Termine

Photo Credit Richard Termine


"Like Euridyce, I think I have reached a point in my life that I have to look back to make sense of moving forward.  Both of my parents have passed, I have become a mother, and am living a life that is very different to decades of my life as an independent artist, touring the world with Ballet Frankfurt or performing on Broadway.  Now, my choices from day to day constantly affect others.  It has prompted a period of deep reflection.  In this new phase, I feel like I am constantly contemplating mortality and what I want to do with the rest of my life.  I have also uncovered a deep need to document my experiences in various ways so my daughter, the younger generation, and aspiring artists can have more information.  I don't know why I was born to two people who gave themselves over to civil rights, feminism, and community work, but I do know that the work they did in their lives, has given me a deep sense of purpose and reinforces this feeling of belonging.  Memories of our intersectionality have soothed my heart as I look back to move forward into this a new chapter in life.

As a little girl I fell in love with ballet, a world of fairies and sylphs. But a world that celebrated traditional white culture.  I saw very few other African American girls that wanted to pursue ballet, and very few African American women in New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre.  I found this disheartening.  However, my mother shared a story that inspired me.  Her dance teacher, Edna McRae, told her she was extremely talented and could become a professional dancer.  But she’d have to fight because there were no principal ballerinas of color in any of the major ballet companies.  This story, drenched in racial injustice, fueled my passion to become a ballerina.  An infinite number of plies, tendus, and pirouettes became my armor.  Growing up as a woman of color in the ballet world was a challenge.  I was lucky enough to have support from mentors who instilled a strong work ethic and sense of determination, and guided me towards communicating truthful emotions through my dance.

I studied at the Joffrey Ballet School and The School of American Ballet, but my most influential teachers were my godfather Walter Raines, Director of The Dance Theatre of Harlem School and my mother Denise Jefferson, Director of the Alvin Ailey School.

My senior year of high school I auditioned for the Ailey Company in my deshanked pointe shoes.  I highlight that because Ailey was a Modern / Jazz Company.  After the audition Mr. Ailey, who had known me since I was three, took me in his office, looked me in the eye and asked “didn’t I want to be a ballerina?”.  I started crying and a sense of relief overtook my body, because he was right.  I went to Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) the next week and received a contract with their Junior Company, quickly became an apprentice with the main company, and traveled to Paris and Russia my first year there.

When DTH was having financial difficulties, we were laid off for eight months and I freelanced, traveled to Europe, saw William Forsythe’s choreography in Frankfurt, Germany and instantaneously knew I wanted to perform with Ballet Frankfurt.  I joined his company in 1991, became a Principal dancer in 1994, and was constantly stimulated by the spectrum of artistic opportunities I was given.  I danced en pointe in one piece, would recite text in the next, and sing in another.

I started choreographing while working collaboratively with Bill Forsythe and choreographed my first full evening work for the Korzo Theater in Den Haag, while I was still dancing in Ballet Frankfurt.

I moved back to New York and with the taste for acting I’d developed in Frankfurt, thought Broadway would be a good place to explore next.  I performed in Fosse, All Shook Up, The Frogs, and The Color Purple.  I performed in the national tour of The Producers, and took on leading roles in Sweet Charity and Sophisticated Ladies.  In 2005 I started my own company The Francesca Harper Project (FHP).  We’ve been touring internationally for over ten years now.

Besides FHP, I have choreographed on the Ailey Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dallas Black Dance Theater, for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Harvard University, Barnard College, Princeton University and many more.

While developing my new piece, (y)ourstory, a participatory work exploring autobiographies (which had a work-in-progress showing at Harlem Stage this spring), I had a visceral realization: I need to clearly tell my own story.  This work will integrate both my ballet training and my contemporary training; my love of the dance-theater that I became fluent in while working with Forsythe; and the acting and singing I did both with Bill and the work I continue to do in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.  My Story will stretch my voice in every way.  Needless to say, this will be a journey, but one I need to, and am ready to make.  Another idea I’m ruminating on is less formed, but has just as strong a hold on me is I want to explore my language of contemporary ballet, research how to make ballet more accessible, to bring this art form closer to the people, to being for everyone, as I felt Ballet Frankfurt did.


I reached out to writer and scholar Zita Allen whose work I admire greatly to interview me and delve more deeply into what my current artistic research is:"



ZDA: What are you working on and planning on researching in the next two years?

 FH: Currently I am researching and developing the dramatic components of my work.  While most of my professional experience has been in dance, acting has become a significant in my life.  It allows me to delve deeper into intentionality and the process of personalizing movement.  What’s the connection?  What are the collaborative truths that are being shared from my point of view as the griot/translator, designer/choreographer and/or the dancer/actor/artist?

This is particularly important at this point in my life as most of my professional experience has been that of an African American woman in the predominantly white world of ballet and Broadway.  Lately, my work has traveled through the acting and dance worlds as I’ve begun to use both the voice and music to personalize my work while shaping (y)ourstory.  What I want to do now is allow My Story, to be incorporated into (y)ourstory.

ZDA: Given that creativity is an organic process that can result in the transformative evolution of the initial vision into something new and unexpected, can you describe a rough sketch of the work you currently have in mind?

 FH: I envision My Story (my autobiography) as a component of a larger immersive work that interconnects with the autobiographies of others.  I want to create a full-length and immersive work that utilizes dance, music, and narrative in a non-traditional setting.  It dives into our autobiographies and discovers intersections, and connections with others.

 ZDA: Based on your description of the shape and scope of the work it sounds like it’s not only an immersive work but one that relies on collaborative process.

 FH: That’s true.  There was a moment, as I started working on the stories of the dancers in (y)ourstory, when I realized they were giving me their lives and I felt they had to be managed with real care.  Their stories and experiences impacted me deeply.  I sat there and had to really…it slowed me down.  I needed to consider where I was taking the work and to make sure I was taking care of them.  They were revealing secrets and some of them were deeply personal.  The truthful human story behind all it is really what touches others.

 ZDA What are some of your influences in developing this work?

 FH: Bill Forsythe, Anna Deavere Smith, Susan Batson, Alvin Ailey and my mother, Denise Jefferson.  As you know, I for years I danced with William Forsythe and I grew up at the Ailey School beginning at three years old through my high school years.  My mother was both a dancer and head of the Ailey School and a key architect of the School’s curriculum.

As a child I was able to watch Alvin at work.  As a student, he used to come into our lounge in his socks and ask how our grades were.  He knew each of us by name. Bill Forsythe was very similar.  He would come into the studio in his socks and sit down with us and we would share our personal stories with him and he with us.

With the two of them, for me, there was this relaxed personal connection that was at the root of the work.  I think many successful creative people understand that the creative process is really all about the sharing…  Now, for me, too, it is about this sharing this personal connection with each dancer.  It is actually part of my process, to sit down and talk.

 ZDA: What drives you to create works with a narrative thread?  Are there particular messages you feel driven to communicate to your audience or that you want to prod them into discovering for themselves?

 FH: Working on My Story, has made me think about myself as an African American woman with all this training in the world of ballet.  My mother’s story is my primary inspiration as I look at this world from her point of view and share the experience of what prevented her from pursuing dance as a ballet dancer.  Yet, it also allows me to acknowledge her strength.  She became a modern dancer and later head of The Ailey School and an architect of a program that today trains thousands of dancers of color to be more than proficient in ballet.  I think she poured her frustration into the work and translated it into productive energy.  My mother’s story inspired me to become this strong, well-trained ballet dancer in a world that historically was not open to her or, years later, not totally open to me.  Driven by my mom’s experience of racism in ballet, I worked extra hard to be taken seriously in that world and had a wonderful time becoming a Principal Contemporary Ballet Dancer in Ballet Frankfurt.

In many ways, I am an heir to this countercultural movement in ballet that includes dancers being both diverse and empowering their personal voice.


When I was a little girl in the children’s program at the Ailey School, although I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer, I remember taking an African dance class and the feeling an innate connection to it.  It felt so natural and organic that I really felt like it was in my DNA.  On the other hand, I had to do battle in the world of ballet.  I remember having to straighten my hair and put it up in the bun in order to make sure I looked like all of the other girls.  I think that’s what I’m coming to terms with in My Story.  It wasn’t until years later while doing a play in Atlanta about a Black dance company, that I realized how much assimilating I had done as a child in the predominantly white institutions and how much of my own kind of groundedness I had been willing to relinquish to fit in.  This is also at the heart of what drew me to William Forsythe’s work and why I worked with him for eight years in Germany.

 ZDA: What was it about William Forsythe that attracted you to him as a choreographer?

 FH: When I saw the piece, Limbs Theorem, a ballet designed to Thom Willem’s electronic music with its almost African rhythms.  I was blown away. In addition, I felt he shared a deep connection to African American culture. When I saw Ballet Frankfurt, I immediately thought, that’s what I want to do.  That was it! I had never seen anything like his work and the fact that Forsythe took that chance to create this hybrid language was amazing.  What’s also so interesting is the culture he fostered at the Frankfurt Ballet.  After a rigorous classical ballet class we would put on Misty Elliot and Busta Rhymes and we would jam in the studio to that music en pointe.  Through that simple gesture he was telling us how important our culture was to him, and how much it inspired him.

My mission is simple – I want to take the time to examine my personal story and document my experience in contemporary ballet.  Because I do feel in our current society, we have very little sense of ownership as African Americans when it comes to ballet.  For example, it is not commonly known in the ballet world that at one point a third of the Ballet Frankfurt’s Company consisted of people of color.  If we don’t have documentation of the change that has already been established, we will get looked over again and I feel very strongly that this cannot and should not happen.

ZDA: Explain how this ties into the a longer term vision for the work you wish to do in the coming years.  It seems to grow organically out of the work you’re doing in your first year developing My Story.

FH: You know, I think spending time researching My Story will, on an intimate personal level, bring me closer to defining contemporary ballet and my mission moving forward, while also helping me understand my history and why I’m so passionate about it.  What is really at the root of this is the passionate desire to make sure that there is a seat at the table for African American dancers in the ballet world. In that respect it’s a natural outgrowth of being the daughter of my mother – a woman who helped shape the dance world as it is today and a father who as a Civil Rights lawyer helped make the world a more inviting place for people of color.  What I feel is important is to redefine the world of ballet to inspire systemic change and for people to feel comfortable in their skin.


Zita Allen, the first African American dance critic for Dance Magazine, has written for the Amsterdam News, New York Times, Village Voice, Essence and others. Her works also include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 25th Anniversary Souvenir book, the Kennedy Center’s "Masters of African American Choreography" booklet, the American Dance Festival/PBS documentary Free to Dance website, the book Black Women Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (Scholastic) and several chapters in the Smithsonian’s book Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theatre Shaped American Entertainment (Random House). Ms. Allen holds a Masters Degree in Dance History from New York University.

Conversations with Amara Tabor Smith

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Amara Tabor Smith is interviewed by Tonika Sealy Thompson as a part of UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 



Note from Tonika Sealy Thompson (TST): The text below is an assembly of extracts from a series of conversations that took place over the course of a month (July 2017), starting in United States and traveling from San Francisco to Cachoeira, in Salvador do Bahia where Amara Tabor Smith (ATS) and I attended a workshop on Decolonial Black Feminisms with Angela Davis. The interview is a part of longer conversation that will continue into the coming months and years as we continue to document Amara’s work and process.


The Work : Ritual Work - “I am a vessel”


ATS: I don't see the work I get to do as mine…it is always in collaboration – with the Ancestors, with the other artists I work with, with the landscapes where the work manifests itself and is performed. My job is to be a vessel, an open portal so that that Spirit of the work can come through. I see myself as part of the African-diaspora tradition in which ancestral spirits and universal forces become manifested through the power of human bodies dancing. This phenomenon has always been a part of the ritual practices of black people in Africa, the West Indies, and the Americas; and it is also a major part of my spiritual and artistic practices. In this sense, I am continuing the work of the Ancestors.

The Work - Solo but not Individual


Most of my work is about cultivating community-healing and action, and it is largely situated or performed in public sites and spaces. An example of this is my current project, “House/Full of Blackwomen" which is a multi-year, multi-site-specific, ritual performance project addressing the displacement, well-being and sex-trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland. It is a collaboration with Oakland-based performers, sex-trafficking abolitionists, housing-rights activists, and community members to create performance rituals in public sites throughout Oakland with the express intent of changing how people can engage with these issues to promote healing among oppressed women. The project is driven by a core question: “How can we as black women find space to rest, breathe, and call home?”

As an artist and citizen, I am inspired to address issues in my work that are important to the communities and landscapes that I am a part of. I am conscious that all of the issues presented in my work affect me personally in some way either directly or indirectly. Moreover, I am not trying to tell stories that I am not affected by. If I feel that I am outside of an issue, then it is not my story to tell. I would rather work to support someone else in the telling of that story. I am able to engage the community in my work because there is very little separation between my art practice and my involvement with my community. My art-making “agenda” does not take precedence over my community activist work.

Within the artistic trajectory of my career, I find that I have been much less engaged in solo work or small collaborative projects that involve a few people. These are areas where I would like to continue my emphasis on ritual practice and spiritual investigation, and they also require a great deal of solitude. Engaging in these areas will be very different than the larger-scale works that I am accustomed to creating.

TST : Solitude without Separability?

ATS: Right…. This includes many aspects of my personal life, my spiritual study and research, and my artistic study and research. These are all processes that are inseparable from each other. As I mentioned before, I have primarily been engaged in larger-scale collaborative projects that involve community healing. “House Full” is an example of that type of work; but, recently, I have found myself drawn toward solo work.

The Work : Upcoming Projects


A few years ago, I made an evening-length work titled, “EarthBodyHome” which was inspired by the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. When I started working on that piece, I intended for it to be a solo for myself. But in the end, it didn’t want to be that. However, the time I spent alone in the early phase of EBH was cruciaI for me and made me realize how little time I spend alone in my creative processes. And by alone I am referring to the absence of other people in the studio, because I never feel completely alone. I am always aware of the presence of spirit in the creative process. I have a strange relationship with solo work because I am at the center of the process. That is generally uncomfortable for me. I feel like I want to investigate this problem further. It is time. It is a conversation with spirit that needs my singular body and senses. It’s like that sit-down conversation where everything else around you is slowed down and quieted. I am eager to delve into this terrain.

I experimented with a solo this past January titled, “Black/TIME” which I performed at the FRESH Festival in San Francisco. This work was the beginning of an investigation I am doing around the concept of time and how our experience of it is gendered and racialized. I want to deepen my investigation of this work and begin to understand how solo choreography can fit into my artistic trajectory. My participation in the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative is an enormous gift to me at this juncture in my career. I also know that I won’t be moving into solo work exclusively. I will no doubt work simultaneously on my group work as well, because I am deeply fed by the exchanges I have with other artists and my community in the creative process. They inspire me and hold me accountable and I need that. Especially in our individualist culture, it is important for me to always be in relationship with, and accountable to my village.

It has occurred to me that there is a parallel between the forms of participation in religious rituals and the forms of participation I am talking about in my creative process. In religious rituals, there are times when the group—the whole community—works together to express their spirituality; and at other times individuals function alone, as when a single worshipper becomes possessed during a Vaudun or Santeria ritual. Maybe, the same is true with the creative processes I am discussing. My group works function in a certain way; but I need to explore the ways in which I as an individual function in the overlapping artistic and spiritual realms.

The Work - Future Work in Brazil


TST: I ask Amara on the bus from Cachoeira back to Salvador if she had any plans to make work in Brazil. I knew she had made work in Brazil before and that she has been coming here for more than 20 years…

ATS: The work we do through House/Full is not a product that can be ‘adapted’ for exportation under some kind of capitalist rubric. So, as is, House/Full cannot be done in Bahia… Bahia, Brazil needs its own thing. And what Bahia needs cannot be imposed by me, I would need to be invited in to do that work. This is a tenet I learned through my time as a member of UBW and doing community-engaged work with the company. Every community has their own answers, so whatever I bring to the table has to be something that the community has deemed as useful; and by community I mean the people and not just the arts presenters, unless those presenters have been in deep partnership with and held accountable by the community they are in.

Now, having said all of that, I am also interested in investigating how my work can travel. I have made few performance pieces lately that could travel and be performed in other communities effectively. Most of my recent work has been created specifically for and about my Bay Area community. During my time with the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative, I want to grapple with the problem of creating community-oriented work that is not solely relevant to my specific community. How can I create work that can be meaningfully performed in diverse communities and locations?

The Work - How: Incubation Process / Content Development / Audience / Community / Production Components / Key Collaborators


My process is really driven by extensive research and an embodied practice rooted in improvisation…I don't initially spend much time in the studio. In fact studio practice is not where I find my greatest inspiration. I am much more likely to explore movement in public spaces. I have been finding that the dance studio creates the feeling of an expectation to ‘produce’. And when I am in the early exploratory phases of my research, I want and need more freedom that the four walls of the studio allow. I need a site, an open site, to speak to me. Dance studios for me tend to be void of that thing that I need. It’s not that I don't work in a studio at all, that is just not where I find my greatest inspiration early on. If I am working on a piece that focuses on a specific issue or story, I do a lot of reading, I spend a lot of time talking to folks, going on line listening to music, traveling to places and sites that are relevant to my topic.

Since most of my work herstorically involves engaging with community partners/collaborators, those relationships seem to evolve naturally for me. It is not something I know how to describe. My life revolves around my community, I have multiple communities that I am involved in, accountable to, and supported by. How I engage with community is my life. Since my engagement with community has always been such a complex and important part of my creative process, and it has entailed working closely with many people, my attempts at creating solos and smaller group works have been an ongoing challenge for me. I look forward to having the time to reflect on this challenge at the Choreographic Center, and I also look forward to the feedback that will help me address my hesitance regarding solo work.

I have a long time collaborative partner who I refer to as my ‘Art-Wife’ Ellen Sebastian Chang. Even when we are not in direct creative collaboration, she often functions as a set of eyes/director/mid-wife to my work. We have known each other for such a long time - she knows me artistically better than almost anyone.

On my current project House Full of Black Women”, I am working with a video artist, Alexa Burrell, who I want to continue to work with and deepen our collaborative connection. I also have been working on the past few projects with a costume designer /set designer Dana Kawano, and more recently with a set designer, Shelly Davis Roberts; these are collaborations with artists who I will continue to work with.

Driving Thoughts/Philosophies Resistance to Language and Explanation


When I am working on projects, I find that I resist using language to explain my work. However, I don’t feel that I am totally opposed to the specificity and codification that language can bring to my process. I believe it is possible for me to clearly state the underlying methodology of my work which is a marriage between my spiritual practice, my community activism, and my artistic practice. At this point, I am using the term “Conjure Art” to describe my genre of work. I am still in the process of defining the term. I am endlessly questioning it; and in my questioning, I have found that I always need to hold myself accountable to Spirit …. to make sure that I am not following cultural trends that depend on catchy “sound bites” and shallow narratives that attract attentions. I also stay away from the pseudo-intellectual explanations that I find so many artists using today in their attempts to legitimize their work. I am trying to remain in touch with something more elemental than that.

TST: So, how can we keep our research from destroying our creativity and our spirituality?

Academia tends to have its own rituals that it forces on those who are outside of the academy. The written word becomes the ultimate authority. How can we as artists develop perspectives from outside—and from above—academia that emphatically value more than the written word (while not discarding the written word)? How can we perceive, experience, write, and make work in a holistic way that does not separate art from academia; in a way that explores new approaches that blend and balance the spiritual, the artistic, and the intellectual. In this respect, the creation of art can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives. 

The work needs the time to unfold. The Oracles of Ifa—those prescient spirits of traditional Yoruba religion—are hard to understand at first. It takes years of study before one can understand their meanings, and even then there is always more there that you must learn with time, study and experience… We can end up rushing to create work when our creative processes are dominated by the politics of capitalist culture that emphasize things like fundraising, marketing, and publicity. I need to keep checking myself, so that I don’t let this “drive to produce” undermine my work. I find myself slowing down, re-ordering my priorities, and remembering why I am an artist. This brings me back to “Conjure Art,” that term that I am still in the process of defining. I know that it will slowly reveal its meaning.

This is all a part of the process of the Divine Feminine… a dedication to moving slowly and allowing for the time the work needs for its own gestation, for the idea to be born in whatever way it wants to articulate itself.

I also realize that there is the possibility that at the end of the gestation period what might be revealed to me doesn't want to be articulated. I have to be trusting enough of the process to accept the outcome if that is how it should turn out. It means that I always just have to cross that bridge when I get to it. I believe that there is a spiritual grace within my process that will allow my work to resolve itself.   

Performing the Sacred - “Sometimes the Book is just the Book”


TST: I ask Amara about ‘preciousness’, recalling a time when I was helping her to collect costumes after an event at Counterpulse in San Francisco. I was carefully folding all the materials, you know like on my knees and trying to be ‘reverent’. The materials had been used to build an altar. She told me there was no need to be ‘precious’ with the objects…

ATS: You know, there is a way of crossing the borders between Ritual work and Performance work. Everything is purposeful. Some things require honoring and some things just build up the landscape of the performance world. You know(,) like sometimes the book is just the book. Sometimes the book is “The Book, and its endowed with something else… you know what I mean? I resist that Christian colonial, patriarchal notion of reverence that promotes the idea that only certain people can have a right to Spirit or The Divine. This hierarchical notion of ‘access’ separates us and the divine, and asks us to accept that separation as normal; whereas, in my spiritual practice, what is normal is our inherent connection to the Divine. The idea of the divine being so precious and untouchable that it cannot be accessed by the average person needs to be debunked. Spirit/the Divine for me is always everywhere; therefore everything, every moment should be treated as sacred.…

Acting Spiritual vs Being Spiritual


When one is acting spiritual there is a perfection in it. One attempts to present a kind of pristine version of spirituality that represents purity. Being spiritual embraces the mess, the struggle, the contradictions, the rage, the knowing and then the forgetting and the knowing again. The spiritual is a complex and enigmatic process. It is not a linear, accumulative process, moving towards some designated destination. I believe that those who have a “holier than thou” attitude are performing their beliefs in a very negative and superficial way. That is why I love both Buddhist and Orisha stories, because they bring the spiritual right down earth.

Technologies of Knowing - Yoruba Spiritual


TST: I say to Amara that I am interested in alternative technologies of learning and being… like the Sisterhood of Good Death, the Boa Morte Technique… like Sankofa, and Ancestral Black Feminism…finding ways to always stay faithful to spirit while using the structures of resourcefulness to free the unfree, including ourselves…

ATS: That word technology doesn't resonate with me at all. It doesn’t allow for intuition, for the abstract. Language is super important, I get that. The challenge of using language and the challenge of understanding language is something that we really have to pay attention to. But, sometimes you just have to be instead of speaking. Our spiritual practice in the Yoruba tradition emphasizes the experience, the embodied practice. It is a practice that is kinesthetic. Though written information and even visual media are useful tools for our studies and practices, it is embodied practice that teaches us how to live fully in the world; and that cannot be reduced to language. So, again, we come to the idea of the Spirit being expressed through the dancing human body as a key component in African-diaspora religions. The Sisterhood of Good Death—a female religious society in Brazil—is a striking example of how this type of spirituality is manifested. It is also an example of a woman-centered spiritual practice that focuses on the welfare of the community. So, it is an aspect of my research that has been very important to my creative work.

Many aspects of my research are still a mystery to me and much of it resides in DARKNESS from a black feminist/womanist perspective of darkness. I don't mean darkness in the European colonial sense of darkness with all of its negative connotations. For me, this darkness is a place of infinite possibility. In this regard, I see myself as an artist who is perpetually emerging. I know the distinctions between an “emerging” artist and an “established” artist, as defined by the arts establishment, I get that. But my work has not arrived yet. It is not complete. Maybe it never will be. I am more interested in the journey and the questions than where I arrive at the end of my process. This is where I am. Barefoot on the dirt path.


Tonika Sealy Thompson is a PhD student in Performance Studies at UC Berkley who is concerned with Caribbean cultural and political thought, multilingual/hemispheric Black diaspora studies, Gender Womens and Sexuality studies and Afro Asian connections. She grew up in Barbados and has been living and working globally as a curator, festival director and cultural consultant on projects in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and the Asia Pacific regions. She has served as artistic coordinator of the Africa Caribbean and Pacific Arts Festival, and is the founder of the Fish and Dragon Festival a platform for creative exchange between the Caribbean and China.

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.

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