Interview: Damani Pompey
Edited by: 
Caroline Glazier

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you first became involved in dance and what that journey was?

I studied martial arts for 10 years prior. It was traditional Shotokan karate, and it just kind of kept me off the streets,  kept me focused, kept me looking forward to a better sense of life. And then I got my secondary Blackbelt. And where the karate school was housed there was also some other arts and crafts and other programs. And so I started picking up on a dance class or two here and there. Then in junior high school, I picked up on dance classes, because I didn't want to do gym, I thought gym was a waste of time, especially when we were so heavily persuaded to pursue academics. So I did dance and then I realized I kind of d it and then the dance teacher took interest and kind of  mentored me a little bit. And I just auditioned on my own for LaGuardia high school and I got in. And that's kind of how it started. I was there four years and it was  one of the best experiences of my life. And it just changed my whole aspect of what is possible and what is necessary. But I didn't think I would pursue it in college, and when that time came to apply for colleges, actually got into a few but not for what I wanted. Then I did the big name schools.  When I didn't get into those, I  was kind of crushed. I studied arts management there as a minor (SUNY Purchase) and I did a concentration in lighting design. Then I graduated and literally the next day after graduation I was back home. All the excess amount of crap I've accumulated over four years of college, just looking around in my childhood bedroom  what am I doing, and that's kind of how it started. And I started working for a few people freelancing, getting paid nothing,  but rehearsing way too much.  I got a few opportunities to choreograph, and then I didn't want to be a choreographer. I really, really want it to be that dancer on stage but the more and more I did the dancing on stage,  the less magic I felt as to why I signed up for it in the first place. That  kind of saved my life, you know, to kind of change my life. No, no, it's a very generic way to say it but I just kind of lost that sense of magic. I went back to my high school and I taught for a bit, master classes and workshops. And then I ended up setting two large works there and that experience really changed my life. I ended up stage managing there and lighting designing there and solo work there. And then I got an opportunity. I got commissioned to make a piece in Shanghai at 23 and I wish I got that opportunity now because it'd be totally different, that's kind of when I was , I'll invest in this I'll see what it's about. Then I got into film. I  got asked to do this HBO show and that really changed my life because the amount of the type of artists I've met there who were working in their own right and on their own pace and then all disciplines, but  really really wanting to connect art to life outside of the theater based system. And the amount of conversations and the amount of respect I got for what I did and how I did it and who I was first and not what I look like.  That's when I was thinking, Oh I totally want to do this! I don't want to be tied down to a thing or  producing the same thing over and over and over and over, you know, making donors and people who don't look like me happy.

Q: Can you talk about some hardships or some challenges in  your pre professional or professional career?

I noticed the biggest hardship was because I put myself in college. I paid for college. I'm still paying for college. And  the biggest hardship was noticing how much support from families  everyone else had or for the majority of everyone else there was my group of friends. I was pretty much the token. Their parents are flying from places  North Carolina or Bermuda, , every weekend if not every other weekend and my parents went to work and  they never came to see me. So I was really getting that sense of , if I sign up for this I have to commit to it wholeheartedly. The kind of experiences I've had in my life. I found that  they were very specific to me. And it was hard trying to find answers for what I was looking for, and I used to get mad at those people back then and now that I'm older, I totally understand why they just don't know where I'm coming from. And what they see is an external representation of the idea next to the old education we were taught. So I think the biggest hardship was the lack of support from where I'm from, you know, and also just  the lack of support of how I do what I do. Also, I'd say that finances, of course. At one point when I was dancing for nine people I think only two people were paying me. Wow, and it was  $200 for a show or $100 for a show.  It would be  four times a week,  three hours a day, you know, and I was  working a restaurant job till two and four in the morning.  I’m kind of  feeling  my hard work is slowly starting to pay off and that I'm entering a space where I'm making work that I feel is necessary to our communities and entering the times and not for the sake of beauty and aesthetic.

Q: How do you think dance is a platform for social justice issues?

I don't know if it's a direct relationship to social justice, but I do know that social injustice is present in everyday living. And just the concept of one of us having the privilege to go and watch art or dance in the most comforting of spaces. And there are people literally outside of those venues and institutions and buildings who are so broken, that they don't know how to access their own art, you know, their own spirit, their own inspiration. That was the hardest thing for me too. I made an agreement with myself  that I cannot continue to perpetuate or help support a system that continues this and doesn't relate to the people.  You know the old age conversation of filling seats and funding and donors, when it's  the whole system. Capitalism is its own dynamic and the trickle down is its own dynamic. It denies the actual reality of most people that walk this planet. So my intention to make them work is, you know, always in a different medi because you don't know what medi speaks, or triggers someone's experiences, and also to push myself on conversation,  building support or crafting support. People can open their eyes and see other perspectives as to what they think they already know. And I really cannot claim social justice but, you know, there's an aspect of it that is definitely prevalent in my work.

Q: Can you talk broadly about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected you as an artist?

It affected my personal living because I was actually trying to transition out of restaurant work. I've been in restaurant work since I've graduated, pretty much, and I saw an opportunity and I was almost out, but this happened. And so kind of put a knife in my cake. Basically I have to collect unemployment for my everyday living because it is so expensive. So it's  all these  anxieties  floating around. But in terms of my actual,  freelance work and making art, I had  two music video shoots back to back  two weekends in a row, right before this happened. So, those funds kind of put me ahead of the curve.  I've just kind of been working remotely, for the most part. I've been editing my own films. Now I have time to do that, whereas  they've been sitting there for almost three years, I have  two or three. I just did a music video recently which was a very interesting thing because the director was working from New Zealand and we have to stand six feet apart. So, you know, I don't have the worst of it is what I'll say it feels bad because it's not exactly what I was expecting or what I wanted. But I know a bunch of people got fired from the dentist's jobs and they're out here thinking ‘What do I do now?’  And that's why I kind of want to stress. The importance of interdisciplinary because when you know dance should not be limited to what we think or what we have been taught. You know, the world has changed so much,  technology has changed so much and it's not really pushing ourselves in that way -  to be uncomfortable and stretch the media and make it kind of a necessity for people. It's the one art form where your whole entire vessel and your being is involved and your spirit is involved. I  just feel  that could just be used as a multifaceted aspect of cross collaborations and conversations.

Q: Can you talk about since you're in New York, which is the epicenter of this,  about what it looks  when New York was shutting down and what process you were in, and your initial reactions, including  what people were saying and  things like that?

I mean I'm from here and I've lived  through that big snowstorm and after 911 I looked at the blackout. And you know I'm poor and I'm first generation American So, when this all started happening I didn't really, I wasn't really affected by, you know, I knew something was happening. I didn't know the severity of it all, but I just knew what I had to do you know to care for me and  to look out for me. So when I was  having conversations I think I was at work on a Sunday before the official announcement happened in Leicester, and no one was there.  I had  two tables, and it's a pretty large establishment. It was just  a weird time and I ended up just  getting off early and hanging with friends. I'm just  conversing about what we're going to do, because it's clear that it was gonna happen. We talked about how drastic the change will feel or what it was going to be. You figure out how you're going to focus your day to day living and understand where the resources are, where money is coming from and how money is going to be used. You always took your time with adulting but now you understand  that you have to adult quicker. You don’t want to get caught in a trap that you set on yourself because you weren't prepared.

Also, the hardship from COVID. This is a side note, I was fundraising money for my residency. And that residency was a week long and I wanted to take seven dancers and I wanted to pay them a fair wage meaning a week's worth of work, and not  $200 or $600, I wanted to give them  real money. So I was fundraising. I was kind of  on a trajectory. I landed around $5,000 for COVID, but then realizing that there was no way I could ask people to give money or donate to anything when  real life was happening. So that kind of  challenged my whole Manifesto. Why is art important, why is dance important, you know , what's a necessity?  Why isn't dental necessity, why isn't, you know, all those things? I've been brainstorming and formulating my ideas around that to  engage with other people who are thinking the same. When we come out of this I feel  there's going to be a huge dent in our system. I want to remove that dent to support more artists and more work that actually is  challenging and shows an audience and people why it's important.

Q: what have you been working on if anything during this time and what does a weekday look like for you?

I've been working on a few grants. I've been editing my films. I've been brainstorming new ideas.  I had a residency that I was supposed to do, so I ended up doing a whole digital residency. That was fairly simple as it was all about  social media, but I'm happy that I ended up filming something for that too because then I wouldn't have had content.  I was blessed in that way. And I'm just trying to stay committed to what I want regarding the trajectory I was working on in the first place. But I'm being a little more realistic about time and space.So I was trying to get these grants. Well I don't know what's gonna happen with that but you know everything is a work in progress right now.  I had another show that I was supposed to do. That was going to take place at Citigroup theater, which was  an immersive interdisciplinary  festival show. I  was  excited because I was going to work with this light installation artist and projection artist, but we can't do that. So I'm trying to brainstorm for that as well, because the plan is for it to come back around in the fall if all goes well.

Q: What shift and change would you like  to see after this pandemic in the dance world?

I would like to make isolation Funny enough, you know, we're  relishing isolation right now in terms of first of It all starts with our educational systems. A whole rubric has to change the whole approach has to change. If I have to have a five credit ballet course I want five credit African course, I want a five credit Russian dance course you know  I want a shift in the system to prepare us for universal movement, and understanding of all the peoples of the world. So when we come out here, we're not stuck to these two things that the world no longer cares about. I want to be gracious about it. So I think it starts with education. To young artists and older artists and older generations of the Dance Conservatory who kind of just  always work together, but it just seems  I think we do that naturally, because , we get that experience there but it's very interesting to know that there's all these institutions here in the city who literally are  blocks away from each other, that don't even communicate about what's happening at their own institutions, what's happening in their own lives, a projection of where they want them to be seen and how they want it to be seen.I mean  literally I thought it was so interesting that I went to high school at Lincoln Center, but never once had across collaboration or, I don't know, workshop guidance anything from  New York City Ballet is across the street ABC is around the corner you know Broadway is right there  there's no it was just so hard to make those things work and I feel  all of it is one in the same. And if we're trying to prepare the younger artists for what's out here that's what happened. , and also,  creatively crafted works. Having conversations with people from these other places who are interested in doing the same thing but in a very, very different way.  Nobody does that. I feel that is one step in the conversation. So it's  us letting go of ego as well, you know, which is very very hard for them. So start from education first and then all the working artists out here people should operate  together. Things don’t just need to take place in New York City either - at the same theater all the time. You know, money is a thing.  And that goes back to the whole shaping of capitalism and what that means for us.

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