Q: How did you begin dancing?
I started dancing with my ballet teacher in New Jersey, named Catherine Allworthy. It was British-style—she used to be a cabaret dancer in England. She had a British accent so everyone thought she was special and she started a ballet school. She taught me that dance is everything. She taught us character dance and put me in a British musical, one of those Christmas shows they do in the UK. It was a version of Aladdin where Aladdin was a cross-dresser. We got to do these big musicals. She always taught us to listen to the music, to learn the culture, that it was deeply rooted in theater. I also remember she put us in a play where I was an urchin, and one day, I was walking down the street to rehearsal in my costume and a man said, “Hey little girl, come here,” and then said, “You look like you need clothes,” and I didn’t get it. And then I realized my costume was tattered rags and he thought I was a real urchin! He gave me clothing and I was so embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say. He saw this little black girl in an urchin outfit and I was just going to rehearsal. This was a moment theater and life intersected.
Q: What has dance taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?
When you dance, you can release your emotions. Your emotions become freer and fuller and you can become more in touch with them. You can dance with anyone in the world. It’s an exchange of steps and feelings. With Urban Bush Women, the first show I did was “River Songs”, and I was playing the crying woman. I had to learn how to cry on stage. I found that if I did this one sound over and over, I would cry uncontrollably. Jawole would put that on stage and see how crying moves through your body. I learned that to influence life, you have to breathe, you have to open up your sounding channels enough so it could connect to the emotion. In life there is a connection between breath, sound, and emotion. If you can connect the breath to the sound, you will release things that will allow you to keep moving through life.
Q: Has dance helped you overcome any hardships in your life?
Of course. It is my go to. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Anytime there is a hardship, I will be doing art. I’ve had three husbands and many boyfriends because I will always put the arts first. My partner now recognizes that. In any hardships, the arts are always something to turn to. Even now, artists are not wondering what to do in the sense of, “How am I going to eat?” and “How am I going to survive?” but in the sense of what to do while sitting at home. For example, one of my students is doing a series called “In my bed”, and she is also doing a whole online series called “Nightly News From my Bed.” She puts on masks and does the nightly news in her bed! There are so many new projects like that.
Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside of dance that influence and inspire your artistry?
I love to cook and then have great, big parties. I used to think all of my passions were separated. People don’t understand how I can write musicals AND books. But it’s all the same thing to me. Outside the arts, there is no outside or inside. It’s all the same... and if I’m doing a ceremony with the native people in South Dakota, I am doing art. I am dancing. If I’m cooking food, it’s so I can have better conversations about storytelling in art. I walk in the woods to find the breath and space in life so I can talk about art. I am an introvert who spends all their time around people. When you are an introvert, you tend to get depleted and so I often find myself in the woods. I have never been a solo performer. I am always interested in how ideas are generated through groups of people and expressed by art. That is why I think the only thing harder than writing musicals is making films in terms of how many elements need to come together in the same space to make something happen.
Q: How can dance and the arts be a platform for social justice issues?
It’s hard for me to separate art and social justice. Making art with and by people is social justice activism. I really only make art with mostly people of color. I have never made art that was not about people of color. I work with all different kinds of people but I never thought I would stray from the perspective of women and people of color. It is my normal. Everything else is a bit abnormal, though can be fun. Even when I did a commercial, it was still about flamenco dance.
I am interested in new work. My center is where dance is making the story, and making up new dances and theater is often about the past. In the realm of theater, I am always interested in new works. I have worked on plays about old works and that has been cool, but it was a play about pre-old-fashioned European magic, which is why I liked that show. People look at me and say that I am doing social activist art and I feel like I am just making art. I don’t know why they call my work social activism. I have a foot in both worlds. I make work of by and about communities that work is usually not about, so I guess that is social activism.
I don’t think there is a time when I have not worked in the arts. I was never a waiter and never had outside jobs. It’s funny to say that at my age. Like, how did I do that? One time, I sold burial plots on the telephone to people in Florida. I guess that was the only time.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?
You have to stay in. All the time, you think about how you’ve dreamed of staying in and working on your projects, and it wasn’t until today that I just started working on my projects. We have this time to write the play but no one is writing. Everyone is like, “Holy shit,” and looking at the news, and it’s like a fake privilege. I spend all my time wanting to cry thinking about the people in the upper peninsula of Michigan that I have been working with. I have a friend that is considered an essential worker. She has to clean toilets. She has stories to tell too, but everyday she still must go to work. And all the people that have no work - how are they feeding themselves? It is not necessarily “staying in” with the leisure of thinking about how to make art. There are so many things that aren’t being talked about. There are relief funds, but the arts won’t be the same after this. Artists are being invested but we don’t have the funding mechanisms in place for basic survival. It is hard to build for something that is not there yet.
Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic?
Performance is about one doing something for another. What will that look like if you can’t be in the same space, if they have to be far away from one another? Priorities have shifted because we have to reimagine the value and impact of our art form when there are 22 million people out of work. We have to reevaluate the impact of the arts in a world where it is possible you can be in different spaces—not in the same space — as one another. Also the environment. People are experiencing what it is like to practice conservation of the environment, and the environment is breathing. They did seismic explorations and you can hear the vibrations of the Earth better. It is indigenous consciousness at a basic level. People are feeling the Earth and the natural elements more. People are walking, people are looking for the places they can touch the Earth because there is nothing else we can do but that. It is not about social activism. It is about survival. Life and Earth and the arts will need to respond differently to that. When we strip away to just that, there is still art, but the purpose of art shifts.
All of that exists but there is still the layer of technology. There is survival, earth and technology that needs to be interpreted by the lenses of the artists. That will be the work of artists. That will be the work of social justice. This month there is no food, and in two months, there will be no houses because there will be buildings that people can’t access because they can’t pay their rent. This is the moment when you see the inequality. The rich won’t have those problems. You are privileged if you are home not working and can pay the rent. But what about the people with no jobs after three months have passed? What will the arts do then? How will we respond? We may have privilege, but we don’t have enough money to feed everyone, so what as artists can we do? We have been vibrating as artists, meaning if you have lived your whole life, what you are doing is art. That is your vibration and that will not stop. And through that lens you can create change in the world through the arts. It is chaos and you must bring order. You will do it through the mechanism of art. Art broadly defined: creative practice, thinking, problem-solving = solutions.
Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)
There are small collectives of people who can be very intimate. The questions you’re asking, no one has an answer to. Even at the Dean’s level, with the senior administrators and all, we sit around and wonder what it will be like in the performing arts after the pandemic because we need to train people for that. And we have no idea what that is. Our institution is based on training students for a world that they will live in. But now we don’t know what that world will be. What are we educating people into if there are no theaters? I think it is a world of small intimate theater spaces. In the performing arts, writers and composers can work in isolation, but the rest need to be with people in a room. We get all the input now from people trying to learn things online. We see instrumentalists teaching orchestra online and dancers teaching dance online and we are changing how we put art online. But when it’s over, people will want to be in the room—though maybe a room with large distances between people. Maybe it will be rooms of eight or twenty so people can really see and experience the humanity of ourselves in close contact like we can’t do now. One thing that struck me was that my job as an administrator is to stimulate global engagement and online learning. Now that everyone is online, people want to be global again and don’t want to be online all the time. It is like a game between these two poles and the new world will be in the middle of all of them. There are cool things online now. I can do meetings back to back where I don’t have to travel. But all people want to do is go out to nature or see people or make something with people. And that is where the arts come in. Someone said there will be more mature performance. I am in my living room singing. I’m making videos of me dancing around. The dancing I see people doing is really just dancing and loving it. Everyone is at home dancing. They don’t need guidance, they just want a community of someone else to dance with them. The professionals are putting their classes online but so are the amateurs.
I am always wondering about the people with no work and no homes, with no future and student debt (if they are students). The ones who have lost their elder generations and don’t have wisdom passed down to them through their family. That is affecting the communities of color. 50% of the people dying are black—in NYC it’s 55% people of color. Inequality is purging people of color off the map. New Orleans: 75% dying are black. It’s Trump’s great victory. It’s the inequality of health systems.
I came back from Ethiopia where there was no pandemic. Everyone washes hands before and after meals. The women are covered always. There was no COVID-19 and there were 300 theater majors and 18 teachers together. I did body-to-body practice and they asked me why I would leave to go back to the U.S. There are 35 cases in Ethiopia and all from foreign contacts. The World Health Organization is in Africa and Africa has dealt with pandemics for a long time. People went on lockdown when I left because one person had COVID-19. People of color are vulnerable and parts of the world have no plan of survival. Our school, the University of Michigan, is primarily white, and in primarily white countries this disease is taking out the vulnerable people who are people of color. They are the essential workers who can’t stay home; those who die have high levels of health conditions already due to inequality. They are the ones who have limited access to health care, if any. In NYC, my friends are terrified. [Before all this started] they did my musical in NYC and the shows were sold out and I was in crowds. Then I went to Ethiopia. I came back here and have been in lockdown. It was interesting to see the contrasting countries. Even now from Ethiopia, they are writing to me to continue their work.