Interview: Antonio Brown
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Q: What has your pre professional and professional artist journey been like, and some challenges you have faced during it?

I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I started studying dance when I was in elementary school. Then I went to a performing arts high school from sixth to twelfth grade. That’s where I got serious training in dance. After that, I moved to NYC to attend The Juilliard School. I graduated after four years and joined the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. I danced with them for 11 years. In the midst of that, I also danced with a few other people and started my own company. I left the company about two years ago and am now a freelance choreographer and teacher. I’ve been teaching at Juilliard, NYU, and Cleveland State University. 

Challenges: When I moved to NYC for school, I was on a partial scholarship, which helped a lot, but it was also very expensive. It took a big toll on me and my family, but we made it work as much as possible. I was fortunate to get a job. I made a pretty smooth transition from school to professional work. I was lucky. Even with a  job, living on your own in NYC is so expensive. We work in a field where our income is nowhere near equivalent to the work; we do it because we’re passionate. I was traveling the world. I thought it was so great, but then I was like, “How do I pay my rent?” All of those things that impact most professional dancers affected me as well. I was also crazy enough to tell myself I wanted to create work which is an expense in and of itself. To rent studio space and hire dancers was expensive… I was really lucky that some people would rehearse for very little money. The struggle of it all is very real. It seems like, as my work gets better, as my exposure gets better, and the company’s name grows, the money doesn’t increase. We get more work but not necessarily more money for it. It becomes an even harder battle to deal with––NYC is a tough city. It’s amazing that we get to do what we do in the arts, but it is hard.

Q: Do you believe dance can be a platform for social justice topics? If so, how?

Oh my god, yes. Dance is such a social ice-breaker. Everyone has some type of movement in their body, no matter what culture they come from. We all have that basic foundation inside us that is social at first and can become more stylized as we practice it. Because we all have that common ability, I find it so connecting when we use it to talk about real-life events. I do that in my work as much as possible. I like to be honest about our climate, for example. People do appreciate it, even though it can be hard to dive into hard topics—immigration, politics—because it’s not often that you see people expressing themselves from a genuine place when talking about that, especially with social media. Sometimes we need art to actually come from a genuine place and do that. It’s a great tool to use, the freedom to express and connect. Even for those who don’t dance, maybe watching movement sparks an idea in their head about what someone else is feeling or what their situation is. It’s telling that we have this inner connection. It’s a matter of allowing it to be expressed, to be seen. Dance helps us cope with different situations that we might experience.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?

It flipped everything upside down. For everyone. I was in Cleveland teaching at another school and making a piece; I had just come from Pittsburgh. I thought I’d go back to NYC in two weeks. I taught for three days that week and then we got the notice that there would be no classes the next day because of COVID-19. We were like, “Okay, it will close for a few weeks.” In the midst of that, I thought I’d go back to NYC. My company had performances in Cleveland coming up that I wanted to rally us together for. Two days after the classes were cancelled, I got notice our shows would be cancelled. That was a big hit for me and the company because we were all supposed to be working. Everyone was getting paid and the company was going to be in Cleveland rehearsing for days leading up to the performance. That all got cancelled. It was a big shock. It took away all the work we had, all the work we’d done. 

In the midst of that, we were running a fundraising campaign for that tour and an upcoming show (fingers crossed that still happens). The fundraising campaign was doing well and on an upward trajectory. As soon as the COVID-19 news broke, we had to put a pause on the fundraising campaign. Things were dire and everyone needed to collect themselves—I totally understand that. Eventually we pushed through. We still wound up making a good amount of money even if it wasn’t the goal. We also had rehearsals coming up soon, but those are cancelled now too. We can’t rehearse. There is also all the teaching that I have... I was teaching at Juilliard, and Cleveland State. I’m also one of the movement directors for The Public Theater in New York (I taught online today)–they all got put on hold and cancelled. Our show at The Public was supposed to be in May, but we can’t do it anymore. We’re trying to find ways to come up with a new show and put it together virtually. We want to utilize all the work the kids put in at The Public Theater because they invested so much. All the rest of my teaching has been put on hold, unless I am teaching from my living room, which I have been doing a lot of. I’m also stuck in Cleveland. I thought it was better to stay here rather than go to NYC and try to travel. By the time I thought about leaving a few days after being in Cleveland, it had gotten so much worse. I don’t want to take a risk of going back. I’ve been staying put here and social distancing. I’m here with my family–I’m staying with my mom. It’s fun, but it’s also an experience. I haven’t lived with my mom in years. How do we both coexist with such different lives? I’m worried about her. She’s working, she drives a bus for the city and is exposed to other people every day, and has to interact with them. I always ask if she is taking care of herself. I’m really worried. I’ve had people that I know pass away from this crazy thing. The person I know directly was in their 80’s. I know a few other people who have the virus; they aren’t severely sick because they’re younger. They said that it’s not a pleasant thing, and those people are in their 30’s and 40’s.

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic? Do you think the pandemic will make us a more socially conscious society?

The crazy thing is... I feel like it’s bringing communities closer together. It’s connecting people more than before. In the dance world, there are so many people offering free online classes. There are people doing dance challenges and inspirational dance videos. There have been a lot of meetings and group check-ins. It’s connecting us in a way I’ve never seen before. I did another interview with a friend who I hadn’t talked to in four or five years. She’s in Italy and has been on lockdown during all of this. It was so crazy because we got to catch up after five years and really connect through our art. We talked about the difficult issues and situations, how it was affecting her in Italy, how it was affecting me here, how it was so similar, even though we’re so far apart. We’re connected even more because we have technology and are able to reconnect with some people, even if that doesn’t happen physically.

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.)

I’m very optimistic, though I do think the outcome of this will either be really good or really bad. To start with the bad, I get scared of the impact of technology and how we’re all using it. It will take away from our live performances. It will take away all that we live for as artists. I feel like we’re being forced to use technology, once this is all over, people might miss live performance, but we may also lose the excitement of live performance. Fingers crossed it won’t happen. On the opposite side, I feel like we will come out as champions. Everyone will run out in swarms and fill all the seats in every show. I hope that we all keep bringing our best when that happens and don’t rush to jump back into everything––I hope we take time to make quality work. I’m hopeful people will be so excited to get out of the house and back to the theater to see shows so that we can reproduce our field, because it’s taking such a big beating right now.

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