Interview: James Gilmer
Edited by: 
Alicia Samson

Q: How did you begin dancing?

I started dancing around five years old. My mother and father put me in ballet and tap classes for kids. I’ve loved it ever since. My older sister is a musician. There was always music playing, and I was always moving around in the house. So, the music for her led to the dancing for me.  

Q: What has dance taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?

So many things. One thing that comes to the top of my mind is spatial awareness. How people move throughout space, no matter how big or small the space is or how many people are around you. How people occupy space. Being a dancer, I am constantly aware of how much space I take up and how much space I know I can fill. That is a big one. Also, teamwork. For example, the last two to three weeks I was working on a group project with some of my co-workers remotely. Just basic teamwork skills. Dancing teaches teamwork and you don't even realize it. Whether you are in a class learning choreography or learning repertory, even the basic skills of knowing how to work with another person is huge. With that comes compromise and patience, and a whole list of things like that.

Q: Has dance helped you overcome any hardships in your life?

Something that has been hard for me in dance is that dance can be very self involved. Especially the more you get into it. Whether you’re on a professional level or just training, your body is producing the artwork and the product. And it requires you to have maximum attention on yourself most of the time. Growing up, it was just me, my sister, and our parents. We didn’t have a very big family but you learn to get along with other people when you live with other people. You’re constantly sharing and you learn to take into account other people's energies. I think dance is so hard because it can be so selfish. That sometimes makes it hard to get out of my own head and stop thinking my whole existence is about me. Our lives are so much greater than just what we do, it’s about who we are as well.

Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside of dance that influence and inspire your artistry?

I have never played an instrument but I am very interested in music. It inspires most of my dancing. I am also very interested in dance as physical therapy, physical fitness, and how those things work together. I have had the opportunity to meet and work with incredible dancers who are extremely powerful people as well as really strong and really well conditioned athletes. That is something that I really value seeing on stage and it is something that has helped my performance a lot. I am passionate about being in really good shape and focusing on personal training and nutrition. Things like that really interest me.

Q: How can dance be a platform for social justice issues?

I think a lot of it comes down to the content; what you are seeing through the screen or onstage. By that, I mean what the audience is actually seeing. What are the actual steps? What is the choreography? What is the process to come up with the steps? Those things matter. And as a dancer, as someone who gets to be in the process of a lot of original creation work, I see how artists can pour so deeply into a piece of movement or production. Whenever it comes to having really good content and choreography that pertains to our history or the future or what's happening in the present, the visibility and access it brings to the audience and the people dancing is the best way for dance to be a platform for social justice. I also think that dance can be a platform by allowing access for students in school to see the same companies that perform in the biggest theaters in the biggest cities and giving the access to organizations for underprivileged minorities. Things like that, as well, are great ways of using dance as a platform.  

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

Four weeks ago we had just flown to Dallas, Texas to perform, and thirty minutes later we got an email from the general manager saying the presenters in Dallas and Los Angeles had cancelled the shows. They would fly us to where we needed to go. Some of my coworkers, in planning for this long tour, subleased their apartments. So, some people couldn’t even go back to their own homes in New York City. I luckily did not sublease mine so I am back in New York City now. But I was planning to go to California, and I would have been in California performing for the last three weeks. The rest of the tour has been cancelled. A month from today was the second to last city on the tour. We were doing one performance in my hometown and I am sad that that was cancelled as well.

Q: What were your initial reactions to the shutdown? What did that look like for you?

I was pretty surprised. We are young people. I feel like our parents and our grandparents have seen so much more of life. Even with the amount of crazy things that I have seen in the past, like 9/11, things that are so crazy don't really hit home often. Once I got back to my apartment and the first couple weeks went by, I felt a real sense of disappointment. Not only was I looking forward to performing, but I also was going to have the opportunity to see a lot of my friends along the tour and I was hoping to catch up with them. So, it was disappointing to not be able to do that. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is now conducting Zoom meetings and we are moving forward in a similar fashion to other companies and organizations. Our work load just looks different. The other week, I was working on a group project with some coworkers to put together a video to post on the Alvin Ailey Instagram and YouTube page, just to bring some joy to the audiences that we couldn't perform for because of this pandemic.

Q: What other interests have you delved deeper into during this time?

I have been reading and cooking more. Right now I’m reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. In being interested in health and nutrition, I really do value what I put into my body, but a lot of the time I just don’t have enough time. I just moved to New York last year, so the pace of life is still very fast to me. But now, having the time to make every meal is amazing. I have also been doing a lot of living room yoga, which has probably been my favorite thing.

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?

I just moved to New York City from the West Coast last year. So, this time has given me more space and an opportunity to use technology to reach out to people that are in different cities and time zones, knowing they are either working from home too or not working at all. I know my family is being very cautious. I was on a call with my mom and grandmother, and my mom in the past has had health issues and so she hasn't left the house in two weeks. I was blown away by that because I live across from a park so I go for walks sometimes. I think most people are kind of paranoid, and for good reason. The numbers are staggering. Most people I know are so worried about remaining healthy, trying not to go out excessively, and taking the proper precautions. I haven’t noticed it where I live, but my friend posted on his Instagram story that everyone is going out on their balconies at 7:00pm and cheering for the essential workers.

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.)

It would be amazing if the government funded the arts. But even just people acknowledging the importance of the arts in their day to day conversation and in their actions. Now, there is no movie theater to go to, there is no live theater to see, there are no live sports to watch. Everyone is feeling that deficit. It is interesting. I would hope there would be more cognisance all around. Even in my family that is artistically driven, there is still an underlying importance and prevalence of sports. Sports is always on TV. That’s what takes top priority on the weekends. In my ideal world there would be more equality for what people want to consume and see. I have been spending a lot of my time going on Instagram and YouTube to see what full length works my favorite companies have posted. Some companies have posted footage of entire dance pieces and it's amazing. This is prime performing season so not only would we be performing, but we would be filled by seeing other performances ourselves. I hope that it leaves a space in people and makes them yearn for the arts. I hope this makes people want to be filled in that way, especially next time they have the opportunity to buy a ticket to see a show.

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