5 Questions with Amirah Sackett on “Al Nafs” with Chicago Dance Crash
“Who looks out from my eyes? What is the soul? I cannot stop asking.” — Rumi
These words put a whole new spin on soul searching by asking us to look deeper into ourselves and examine what the soul is truly made of. It’s also a line of poetry included in the sound design for the upcoming world premiere of Al Nafs, choreographed by hip hop artist extraordinaire Amirah Sackett for the diverse, athletic, and ever-enticing dancers of Chicago Dance Crash. Leading up to its premiere at Moraine Valley Community College on November 17, Amirah and Dance Crash spent months in the studio creating, crafting, and contemplating the ways in which emotions like anger and sadness can be transcended to reach a place of love.
When it comes to love, the strongest form is fueled by passion. And Amirah certainly has a lot of it – not just for hip hop, but for all dance, and for art, her culture, her religion, and so much more. Her passion for dance extends beyond hip hop. It led her to study at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and onto the University of Minnesota where she earned her BFA in Dance. That passion created and continues to nurture a high demand for Amirah as a teacher of many dance disciplines across the US and abroad (and even includes a credit as a choreographer and dance master of a circus company). Her love of art inspired her to create “The Joint Project” in 2011, which encouraged hip hop artists to venture beyond their comfort zone and collaborate with artists outside of their discipline. It was this project that she created “We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic,” which combines her passion and love of hip hop and with that of Islam. This project was founded to educate the public and create dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims to promote unity in the community. As fate would have it, all of these passions collide in Amirah’s choreographic work for Chicago Dance Crash – a company as diverse as her passions. With all of this fuel for the fire, it’s no surprise that the end product of her creative journey with Crash has led to the very place they have spent months trying to reach – a place of love.
DancerMusic Dance Editor and Chicago Dance Crash company artist Kristi Licera spent time with Amirah outside of the studio to learn more and share this journey of creation and self-discovery. Here’s what Amirah told us:
I feel to create the best work, I need to tap into each dancer’s soul and place where they found freedom in dance.
Kristi: For choreographers, one of the most crucial parts of the creating a new work is getting to know the dancers you will be working with. For this experience with Dance Crash, you had the opportunity to see the company perform The Bricklayers of Oz during its premiere run last year. Most of the cast you would be working with appeared in that performance, but the first face to face interaction with your full Crash ensemble would not happen until this current season – approximately 6 months after your first exposure. What were your first impressions of the dancers you saw on stage? What was it like meeting all of us in person for the first time, and how did these initial interactions influence the opening stages of your creative process for Al Nafs?
Amirah: I’m always aware that dancers that do “hip-hop” dance or “urban” dance styles can cover a wide range of movement styles. My choreography relies heavily on the foundation hip-hop dance forms such as breaking and popping. When I first saw Chicago Dance Crash, I knew that they had the athleticism and ability to tackle all kinds of movement. I knew that I would have to train them to a certain degree in popping styles, some breaking, and brush up with them on some of those foundational skills. I first saw them in a highly choreographed piece, but was left wondering, “How do these dancers move when no one is watching?” If I knew that, then I could utilize them each to the best of their own ability and style while training them in some areas I needed them to be strong in.
To find out the kind of dancers they were, I asked them to be vulnerable and choose a song they liked and freestyle in front of everyone in a cypher-style get down session. This is when I knew them. I wanted to see how they moved from their heart. I feel to create the best work, I need to tap into each dancer’s soul and place where they found freedom in dance. It let me know how to proceed with my choreography as I thought of them as characters in my piece.
In ‘Al Nafs’ there is breathing room on purpose to let the dancers fill in the gaps. I want there to be moments that they just feel it and dance.
Kristi: Each artist has their own unique process for the way in which they conceive, produce, and present their work. In creating choreography, much of this process is influenced by the world of dance the choreographer inhabits – in your case, it’s mainly the world of hip hop and more specifically, the realm of freestyle. To what degree does this influence the manner in which you create movement? Are there other influences on your choreographic process, or any that played a particular role in shaping Al Nafs?
Amirah: When I’m coming up with movement by myself, I freestyle and choose what I like best, investigate, and memorize. Sometimes it’s a certain music track, beat, or a dance concept I play with and build off of. Al Nafs is a conceptual piece, so I did a lot of reading and writing to develop the ideas. The movement part came after all the concepts. I always like to be clear with what I’m trying to get across to the audience, so each track, poem, and theme is very well thought out.
I was blessed to work with several amazing choreographers while in college at University of Minnesota, where I received my B.F.A. in dance. One of those genius choreographers was Bebe Miller. She would teach a phrase and then watch dancers do it and kind of pick what she liked. She let the dancers explore. That stuck with me. I liked her process. In Al Nafs there is breathing room on purpose to let the dancers fill in the gaps. I want there to be moments that they just feel it and dance. I make the skeleton and they help fill it in. This way I can still allow hip-hop to come through on a stage.
…when they freestyle, they are the truest form of themselves in that moment.
Hip hop was never really meant for a stage. It existed in a cypher. It’s a challenge as someone who loves the theater and loves to present choreography to retain some of the soul of hip-hop in that space. The challenge for the dancers is to make the choreography come alive and look like it naturally came out of them. Their second challenge is when they freestyle, they are the truest form of themselves in that moment. Some dancers in Chicago Dance Crash are more modern/contemporary dancers when they freestyle, so even though I gravitate towards more foundational hip-hop styles, I’ve allowed this range of movement knowing that it adds to this overall piece and reflects the individual dancer. So I would have to say this isn’t a straight hip-hop dance work. There are other styles coming in there.
What I love about working with another artist is that they create stuff that just makes your work go from good to great! It’s like double creativity.
Kristi: There are many a dance maker out there who drool at the thought of having an original sound design to accompany their works. For Al Nafs, you worked with your friend and DJ, Nevin Hersch, to bring together a collection of both familiar and fresh sounds (some original beats contributed by other friends involved in the hip hop community) that add a certain richness and depth to the work overall. Can you take us through the process of working with Nevin to create the sound for Al Nafs? What are the pros and cons of having total creative control over your sound design?
Amirah: I started working with Chicago DJ and musician, Nevin Hersch, a few years ago on my solo work. He created an original music score for me for Love Embraces All. I asked my friend and singer, rapper, extraordinaire, Aja Black to be my voice of Rumi on that track. The end result was magic. I still perform this solo all over the country and everyone wants the music track he made! So I love Nevin.
It really comes down to looking around your community and knowing people outside of the dance world. You can find people who are interested in collaborating. It’s really about being open and communicating. I have worked with beat makers in the past, so it takes some practice and failures to know how to navigate their world and them navigate ours. We don’t always understand each other! What I love about working with another artist is that they create stuff that just makes your work go from good to great! It’s like double creativity.
I would highly recommend every aspiring choreographer to try out [an original sound design] with artists they know! Get good at it early.
Nevin and I sat down several times. I explained the concept to him, shared tracks that I loved, and then gave him the ‘mood’ and basic needs of my piece. He recorded the dancers saying the words of “Rumi” and then masterfully mixed them in the tracks giving Rumi a new way of being communicated for 2018. I also shared videos with him of the dancers and he sat in on rehearsal. On the flip side, I went to his place and saw how he was building music on various programs and was like “Oh my God that’s so complex”. After seeing me direct a rehearsal he was like “Oh my God that’s so complex”. So basically we respect each other’s crafts.
The pros of having sound design made is that you get double the creativity and some of the ideas in your head can be created rather than searching for that perfect track to inspire you by another artist. The cons are it’s handing over some of your control to another partner and relying on them. Sometimes it’s hard if the track keeps changing or it’s not inspiring you to choreograph. Then it’s back to the drawing board with the composer. I would highly recommend every aspiring choreographer to try this out with artists they know! Get good at it early. And your videos will never get copyright flags. Haha.
I also just think [Rumi] might think it’s amazing that a girl in America in 2018 is saying his words in English. His poetry is universal and timeless.
Kristi: A significant part of the sound design for Al Nafs is the inclusion of the Crash dancer’s voices reading the poetry of 13th century poet, Rumi. Can you give our readers some insight into why you chose to include Rumi’s poems in Al Nafs? Why was it essential that the poems be included in the sound design, and moreover, why was it important to have the dancers voice these for the sound design?
Amirah: Rumi is extraordinary in so many ways. I was working on my own solo work using his poetry and that’s what I’m into right now. So when asked to do this project I couldn’t wait to continue and have more dancers to work with. I read a lot more books about Rumi, Sufism and his poetry to prepare for Al Nafs. The concepts Rumi talks about in his poetry are based on Islamic thought and teachings. He was a 13th Century Islamic scholar and poet. His words are universal, but perhaps felt in a different way by Muslims reading them. This is because we understand the concepts he’s reflecting through the lens of Islam.
I like using the voices of all different types of people as Rumi. It gives it a personal feeling and it’s a way for each dancer to feel invested in this piece. They are part of it. I also just think he might think it’s amazing that a girl in America in 2018 is saying his words in English. His poetry is universal and timeless. He is still inspiring us to this day. It’s an honor to read his work even in an English translation and feel inspired by it. Each poem was purposefully chosen because it reflects the themes in Al Nafs.
…as Rumi says ‘Let the beauty of what you love, be what you do.’
Kristi: As a dancer, I am often asked what my journey was like while being part of the creative process for a new work, but as a choreographer, the question does not get posed nearly as often. So for you, Amirah, I am curious to know how creating Al Nafs affected you and your own journey as an artist. Did you notice any growth within yourself or discover anything that surprised you?
Amirah: Creating dance is so special. It’s an exchange of ideas, vulnerability for everyone involved, and it’s an exchange of energy. This journey was so special for me. My dearest father passed away right before rehearsals really took off. I was starting to do something I had been looking forward to for months with a heavy sorrow on my heart. There was healing happening as I poured those feelings into the dance. There are special hidden messages just for him. I hope he would love it.
It helped as I struggled with grief to come into a dance studio, the place I’ve found solace my entire life and see this group of shining souls.
In contemplating life and death, it became clear choreographing a piece about the human condition and struggle was very fitting for me. I thought of my father’s life and his different struggles and the beautiful way he changed himself though the years and softened but remained at the same time strong. There is so much of him in me and therefore, so much of him in this work. It helped as I struggled with grief to come into a dance studio, the place I’ve found solace my entire life and see this group of shining souls.
My father sacrificed to give me a life where I could have the privilege of doing something like being an artist. So many others do not get that opportunity. It’s with extreme gratitude that I recognize this gift. So being honored and trusted with creating something of this significance with such willing open spirits is indeed a gift I will treasure always. A bit of me with always be with these dancers and a bit of them will always remain with me. May we all end our journey as tranquil souls and as Rumi says “Let the beauty of what you love, be what you do.” Ameen.
The Moraine Valley Community College Fine and Performing Arts Center (Dorothy Mencker Theater, 9000 West College Parkway, Palos Hills, IL 60465) will present Chicago Dance Crash on Saturday, November 17th at 7:30pm, in a program that will include some of Artistic Director Jessica Deahr‘s most in-demand recent work, and a World Premiere of Al Nafs by Amirah Sackett.
Tickets are available online from seat advisor.com. (Box Office Phone: (708) 974-5500)