5 Questions with 5 Choreographers from Red Clay Dance Company’s La Femme Dance Festival
Yell as loud as you want, but there is no guarantee that you will be heard. Many of us have had a version of this experience in our lives. Perhaps you recall being a child and having your thoughts and opinions dismissed by adults. Perhaps you had an incredible idea at work that no one is interested in listening to. Or maybe you are out to dinner with friends and you notice that no one is listening to you because they are too preoccupied with their cell phones. On the flip side, you may want to yell and be heard, but you feel that you lack the opportunity to use your voice. This seems to happen frequently in the arts, especially for up and coming choreographers, where there is a lack of platforms for showcasing a specific idea or movement aesthetic. You can create dance all you want, but unless you have the proper space and audience to present it to, your message may not get across or have the impact that you hoped for.
The five choreographers participating in Red Clay Dance Company’s La Femme Dance Festival each have a unique perspective and approach to their choreography, and the festival is the perfect platform for them to be heard. Presenting choreographers include L. Graciella Maiolatesi (Philadelphia, PA), Brittany C. Winters (Chicago, IL), Jasmin Williams (Chicago, IL), Marceia Scruggs (Chicago, IL) and Linsday Renea Benton (Montgomery, AL). The festival celebrates women in dance and brings choreographic works created by women of Black/African Diaspora/African descent to Chicago audiences. Each work can stand alone in its own right, but there is something uniquely beautiful about the opportunity to see these pieces in a single evening.
DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera took a creative approach to our standard “5 Questions With…” interview and asked each of the five choreographers to answer a question about the works they are presenting. Here’s what they told us:
L. Graciella Maiolatesi
With Slow Burning, my intention is to provide space specifically for Black women to dialogue, process, heal and recognize the historic violence that has and continues to violate the Black Female body.
Kristi Licera: Over a decade ago, the ‘me too’ movement was founded to bring to light the plight of sexual violence against women, particularly black women and girls. It empowered individuals and communities from all over the world to have a voice and to this day is still a hot topic of conversation. While the ‘me too’ movement was critical, its focus on sexual violence did not resolve the other issues, stereotypes and misconceptions that many people of color face today — the result of which can feed back into that loop of violence. If we cannot address the root of the problem, the tree will continue to suffer without hope of flourishing. While your contribution to La Femme Dance Festival does not draw a direct connection to ‘me too,’ it does address some of the things that have the power to cause it. Can you tell us about your work, Slow Burning, and how the concept, research and development of the work addresses the historical and modern under-representation of women of color?
L. Graciella Maiolatesi: I will begin my answer by saying that I am intrigued by your wording within the question posed: “loop of violence” and “the tree will continue to suffer” – two poetic phrases that subtly work to bring lynching into the space; but there is nothing subtle about lynching or the legacy that hangs behind it. Swollen. Years of avoiding this necessary dialogue has left us so emotionally drained that we as Black people are unaware of the bloating this has done to our mental, emotional, and spiritual psyche; blocked, unable to move forward. Slow Burning uses choreographic narrative to begin this dialogue.
As a Queer-Black-Femme I think it is imperative that I use my art to create space for people to celebrate their personal Black experience, simultaneously recognizing that while infinite Black experiences exist, Black people within this country share a very real history of systemic dehumanization and violence imposed on our bodies. With Slow Burning, my intention is to provide space specifically for Black women to dialogue, process, heal and recognize the historic violence that has and continues to violate the Black Female body. While the piece presents a very triggering topic, it is necessary that we understand that “lynching” is not a concept of the past. There is historic lynching that we are all too familiar with; then there is what I am calling “modern-day micro lynching,” specifically looking at the destructive physical, emotional, mental and spiritual effects that modern microaggressions have on the body. These microaggressions are caused from systemic oppression and are what now cause our erasure: a noose is no longer needed for our demise.
While I do not want to belittle the very real violence that Black men have and still face today, it is a disservice to Black women if we continue to ignore the fact that hundreds of Black women were also lynched, not just the few examples we know of like Mary Turner.
Graciella: My reasoning for having a central focus on Black women within a dialogue about lynching is that historically we have been left out of the conversation. My creative process for this piece started with this realization. I was studying lynching because it was something that continued to come up in my movement research, and as I went deeper into my investigations and had more conversations about historic lynchings, it became apparent that the lynching of Black women had been buried deep within the history of lynching. I remember first learning about lynching in high school, and how the lesson solely focused on Black men who have been lynched. While I do not want to belittle the very real violence that Black men have and still face today, it is a disservice to Black women if we continue to ignore the fact that hundreds of Black women were also lynched, not just the few examples we know of like Mary Turner.
As the choreographer, it is imperative that the artists I create with feel represented within my creative process.
Furthering that thought, this piece is reflective of the current violence that is actively placed on Black Female bodies every day — specifically on the bodies of Black trans, disabled, sex working, homeless, and/or LGBTQIA women — violence that this country is quick to ignore. Within the piece I do refer to sexual violence as one of the many systems that promote “modern day micro-lynchings,” referencing R. Kelly and the #metoo movement as clear examples that America only cares about sexual violence when it is enforced on white girls and women. Ironically, both the #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements were established by truly inspiring Black women, and yet Black women have been forgotten within these movements to the point that an entirely different hashtag, #sayhername, had to be established to recognize the violence that Black and POC women face. In particular, the #metoo movement was not given proper recognition until white women “validated” it as a national movement, which is problematic; where were their “#metoos” for women like those brave enough to stand up and tell their stories in Surviving R. Kelly? Many responses I saw on social media to the documentary were similar to: “stop giving him so much attention, this should not be considered national news.” Completely missing the point.
I recognize that this work is a process, and much of the process is my cast and I finding the balance between surrendering to the intensive emotional and mental states that this topic brings while finding moments of restorative resilience. As the choreographer, it is imperative that the artists I create with feel represented within my creative process. I believe this helps my cast develop a better emotional understanding for material if they have movement in which their body can identify with.
llowing for individuality within the work then speaks to the different experiences that we as Black women face, which creates space for how we experience, process and recover from traumatic stress or violence inflicted upon us on a daily basis
Much of my work is text-based composition, and for Slow Burning I wanted to include excerpts from Without Sanctuary, which is one of the largest published collections of America’s lynching memorabilia. I combined text that documented historic lynchings of Black women with auto-ethnographic reflective writings to create the recorded sound score for the work. My cast and I developed movement reflections to the text within the sound score, adding song, narrative and symbolic props as the work continued to develop. The movement reflections varied, but we primarily worked with a structure where I would ask cast members to physically react to specific words within the text with a gesture or phrase; I would then “catch” movements that resonated with me as moments that I was intrigued to further explore. We used words like woods, unmarked grave, bullets and souvenir. Again, I incorporated this mode of generating choreography because it’s imperative that when engaging with triggering material, we have personal movement that grounds us within the choreography, driving us to transcend to a state of embodied vulnerability. Allowing for individuality within the work then speaks to the different experiences that we as Black women face, which creates space for how we experience, process and recover from traumatic stress or violence inflicted upon us on a daily basis.
Brittany C. Winters
I know that there is a place for my voice in the world; I know that I will no longer be afraid to live in my truth.
Kristi: Every person on this planet is on a unique journey through life. We each face our own challenges, but no matter where we are, we are bound to find others who travel similar paths. One individual can create a path for others to walk on and in doing so, the collective experiences something with more clarity, more richness and more potential to enhance the remainder of the journey. Your work, Yemaya de la Diaspora, embraces your individual journey, pulling from resources that live deep within you to create a work that empowers and celebrates each woman on stage, including yourself. Can you tell us more about how your journey informed Yemaya de la Diaspora? What was it like being the choreographer in a work that you will also perform?
Brittany C. Winters: I knew that this year I wanted to maximize my creative voice and my creative power. To do that, I knew that a lot of self-exploration had to occur; a lot of healing had to occur. I already had tools to facilitate the healing process, and one tool just so happened to be dance. I believe that dance and the feeling of freedom that comes along with it has the power to transform. I wanted to use dance not only as a physical and artistic practice but as a spiritual practice as well. I would go into the studio and dance and move and these beautiful things began to come up – not only movement qualities but the feelings. I had feelings of sacred womanhood, femininity, the ability to celebrate although there are everyday obstacles to overcome, feelings of pride and happiness for the ability to still be able to move. It was just an outpouring of emotions and knew I needed to share them. Here is where my creative power lies.
I know that there is a place for my voice in the world; I know that I will no longer be afraid to live in my truth. Yemaya de la Diaspora is the first of many stories that I want to tell. It represents motherhood, sisterhood, feminine energy and womanhood. It is also a celebration of black women and our everyday plights and journeys. I feel this celebration is especially appropriate as it is Women’s History Month. Yemaya de la Diaspora is a physical manifestation of my own personal journey.
I feel honored to perform in my work. Not only do I have to ability to create and collaborate, but there is the freedom to dance. And it was interesting being on both sides of the creatives process. There was choreography spewing out, but as a dancer sometimes it doesn’t feel right or it doesn’t flow, so I had the autonomy to recreate when things weren’t working.
I’m so grateful for this festival. I am grateful for the platform it gives to women of African descent. I am grateful for the platform it gives to female creators and choreographers. I feel like it is a good time for women… to listen to women, to see our side, to hear our stories and to be empathetic and understanding of our journeys.
I have always used body language as my language to communicate. The process of creation is open and vulnerable.
Kristi: Art is powerful in countless ways. It can bring awareness to political and socio-economic issues and provide a platform for voicing an opinion. Art can also be a powerful tool for self-expression and self-examination. It can also be a form of self-therapy and provide a platform for audience and artist to connect and share experiences. Through that experience, we can find the courage to be ourselves, to be honest with our emotions and find more clarity in life. Can you tell us about why you created Open, about the process and what it has meant to you?
Jasmin Williams: Open is inspired by what’s happening in my life at this moment. I am working on being present in my life right now. I am living in my openness and sometimes failing, but mostly winning. That’s how I feel about my life – my career, my relationships, and just generally how my life is going. It’s what I want to share as an artist, a person and a woman.
Dance is a language for me, so the title came out of the process of creation. I have always used body language as my language to communicate. The process of creation is open and vulnerable. What will premiere at La Femme is an elongated version of a solo that I premiered in 2018 at JELLO at Links Hall. I have performed it many times since then and when I got feedback, audiences wanted it to be longer and they wanted more. I talked to friends, and I often feel uncomfortable going deeper and coming up to my own potential. But now I am ready. I am very sensitive and serious about my work, and I had to reflect on how to revisit it. In the end, my spirit agreed that it needed to be longer and for me to be more open, but it’s been hard. Growth is difficult, but it has been so beautiful.
I want you to take away some self-reflective moments, and I want you to think about something — not necessarily what the piece means, but specifically what it means to you in your own way.
Jasmin: The process was therapeutic, and it has given me the space to process my feelings without having to validate them, but simply by recognizing them. It gave me the awareness that I was not alone, and that everyone is trying to focus on the day that they have, plan for a better future and forgive their past. I want people to figure out that they need to find therapy themselves in whatever way they can. For me it’s dancing, but people need to find their own outlets. It’s my job to help them do that.
I want you to take away some self-reflective moments, and I want you to think about something — not necessarily what the piece means, but specifically what it means to you in your own way. Can you see yourself in the work, and what will you do with those responses and feelings? Some people don’t think they need therapy, but I want you to have a moment of presence in this show, in a space where you feel safe to do a self-check. Be vulnerable. Be open.
Whoever we are, wherever we are, we come from a history of language, of movement, of specific nuances and ways of moving and operating that are familiar to us. And it is with joy that we appreciate and celebrate ALL of those assets.
Kristi: Change is inevitable. While it can be scary, we increase our overall potential if we can find a way to embrace those changes and create opportunities for growth. For a choreographer, shaking up the normal approach to creating dance is integral their artistic evolution, as new methods of movement creation can lead to a fresh perspective on how a particular dance language is created. Can you tell us about Rebuke It and how the creative approach to this was different than your normal routine?
Marceia L. Scruggs: Rebuke It is an excerpt work that celebrates the “hey girl!” – when we see a familiar face and liberated pelvis on the dance floor to exposing the moments where our bodies and choices are a bit more restricted. This work investigates the culture and daily experiences of code switching in relation to black bodies. Too often do we sacrifice the things that makes us, us. Too often do we feel the need to conform or assimilate to other spaces and people and their desires. Instead, we end up leaving those pieces of us behind as opposed to spaces where we feel most comfortable being all of who we are, ultimately stifling our identity for the comfort of others. But, no more!
Whoever we are, wherever we are, we come from a history of language, of movement, of specific nuances and ways of moving and operating that are familiar to us. And it is with joy that we appreciate and celebrate ALL of those assets.
We want to bring people on a journey with us. We don’t want you to hear the same sound throughout the work as we go through an array of different experiences within the piece.
Rebuke It has a strong connection with music. Music has always played a huge role in our culture, from creating rhythmic patterns with our grounded feet in ring shout traditions to hearing Saturday morning Jazz throughout a home as each room was being spic-and-span cleaned. Music lives within our body. This work is strategically designed to take the audience on a journey through music. Here, we introduce more somber-like tones including instrumentals as well as other, more playful sounds. We utilize John Coltrane and all of the rhythmic variety and play that he delivers, a drum line score by Cassidy Byars, and “Keeper of the Keys and Seals” from the amazing If Beale Street Could Talk soundtrack. There is also “Shake It Fast”- a true throwback that will make you want to move and groove. We want to bring people on a journey with us. We don’t want you to hear the same sound throughout the work as we go through an array of different experiences within the piece.
As someone who usually approaches the process with timely schedules and a checklist of to-do’s, it was extremely rewarding utilizing tools like truly dissecting and expanding – taking rich moments and researching ways to allow it to live its life and settle…
Entering this process, there were many new experiences I knew I would find. As someone who typically likes a longer process, I knew beforehand I would find new things, as this process was half the duration (3 months) as my last work that was presented as part of Links Hall‘s 40th Season. This would also be the first time that I would be consistently reinventing and re-imagining the same work, as it will be further developed this summer. It is also my first experience co-collaborating with a non-female identified artist which is also quite as satisfying as other previous collaborations.
Much of the research for this work has been studying artists like Camille A. Brown, Jazz musicians like Coltrane and the book From Bourgeois to Bougie, which examines Black middle-class families and who/what is considered acceptable. I was studying how grounded Camille’s art-making is, the many layers that award her work its resounding effect: the humor, the rhythm and the more theatrical elements of her process. As someone who usually approaches the process with timely schedules and a checklist of to-do’s, it was extremely rewarding utilizing tools like truly dissecting and expanding – taking rich moments and researching ways to allow it to live its life and settle as opposed to having too much material. I must say it has been truly assuring finding the freedom of what I need in the work and getting rid of the things that I didn’t need.
As this has been a different approach to dance-making for myself, I am again being challenged with my creative process as this piece will be edited, or as we call it “wrecked,” in the Breaking Grounds Performance Series March 22-24th at Links Hall. There are two roles in this process: the “maker” who creates the work and the “wrecker” who shifts and makes changes to the creator’s work. Jasmin Williams, a fellow choreographer for La Femme Festival this year, will be taking on the role of wrecker for this work; I am extremely excited about it. As the mission of this performance series is to push the artistic collaborative process and art-making of artists, it has truly been an eye opener and a learning moment in my creative career.
Lindsay Renea Benton
Each individual that has performed the work has contributed their own strength and weakness inside the choreography, and that lends to its change and evolution in every performance…
Kristi: We live in a day and age that is incredibly conscious of the environment, yet we are still surrounded by waste. That waste can take the form of literal garbage, but many of us are guilty of wasting time, wasting resources or wasting our energy. Oftentimes we also view our weaknesses as waste – aspects of who we are that feel like they do not contribute to who we want to be. Consciousness of a problem is phase one; analyzing and reflecting on how to resolve the issue is phase two. Your work recognizes and explores the weaknesses (and strengths) we see in ourselves. Can you tell us more about what inspired this work and how you turned your concept into movement?
Lindsay Renea Benton: This piece is about finding and acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the self, embracing those things regardless of what we like/don’t like and realizing that they are relevant to our existence. That relevance makes those weaknesses valuable.
I come from an artsy family where my dad is a visual artist, and one of the artists that I drew inspiration from is Lonnie Bradley Holley. Holley takes things that are unwanted or thrown away and puts them together to create amazing works of art. It makes you re-examine what you throw you away and value, and I decided to physicalize this.
La Femme is an amazing platform for black women to share their choreographic voice. No one can say the things we say about anything the way that we do.
This work originally premiered in October 2017 with a cast of 8 dancers. The La Femme cast currently has 4. Each individual that has performed the work has contributed their own strength and weakness inside the choreography, and that lends to its change and evolution in every performance/casting. I incorporate those personal contributions of the dancers as materials inside of the choreography. We started the creative process in a safe space circle. We discussed things that we liked/don’t like about ourselves and how they affect us daily. I asked my cast, “What can we do with those two things to transform other parts of our lives?” We then looked at what those things look like physically to arrive at movement. I had a framework for the piece in mind and used those generated movement phrases to fill in the design of that. When we began the process, I didn’t know who was going to be the soloist – I didn’t cast certain roles. I saw what was transforming inside the dancers during the process and that helped me decide how to cast. I let those things manifest themselves.
La Femme is an amazing platform for black women to share their choreographic voice. No one can say the things we say about anything the way that we do. I am grateful there is a space that exists for us to do that and share it with audiences.
Red Clay Dance Company presents La Femme Dance Festival at Green Line Performing Arts Center (329 E Garfield Blvd, Chicago 60637). Performances take place Friday, March 15 and Saturday, March 16 at 7pm. For admission to the festival and its performances, Red Clay Dance on flipcause.com.
The March 15 performance will include a 6pm pre-show talk with the choreographers & curators moderated by Red Clay Dance Company Artistic Director Vershawn Sanders-Ward. The March 16 performance will be followed by a post-show discussion with the choreographers moderated by Lela Aisha Jones.
For a full festival schedule, visit redclaydance.com/performances.