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Dance Manifold: A Conversation with Tara Aisha Willis


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“…completely new yet familiar territory.” These words echoed after I revisited the accompanying publication for Relations, a performance that brought together pioneering artists Bebe Miller, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Ralph Lemon…

A portrait of Tara Aisha Willis, the Associate Curator of Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Tara is standing with elbows on a ledge, hands up toward her face and fingers intertwined. She stands in a space where there are plants and golden yellow lights hanging from the ceiling. Photo by Kristie Kahn.
A portrait of Tara Aisha Willis, the Associate Curator of Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Tara is standing with elbows on a ledge, hands up toward her face and fingers intertwined. She stands in a space where there are plants and golden yellow lights hanging from the ceiling. Photo by Kristie Kahn.

“…completely new yet familiar territory.” These words echoed after I revisited the accompanying publication for Relations, a performance that brought together pioneering artists Bebe Miller, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Ralph Lemon on the MCA Stage in November 2018. In her introduction for the publication, curator Tara Aisha Willis offers a series of questions and propositions that draw from the historically-anchored yet generative tone set by Miller, Houston-Jones, and Lemon, while also honoring the shapeshifting and indefinable nature of Black dance and movement practices.

When considered in full, Willis, too, is the “new yet familiar” manifested in many ways. As a returning Chicago native whose dance career has developed largely outside of the city, there’s a fresh familiarity to her perspective. The new is also visible through her role as a curator of performance and when considering the artists and projects she is bringing to the MCA Stage. Then, an additional familiarity is present within her work due to an awareness of historical context, a body of knowledge that is harnessed, in part, through her work as a PhD candidate in the Performance Studies program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. While paying close attention to the foundations that many before her helped build, she is pushing these experimental legacies forward and charting new territory by demonstrating what it looks like to simultaneously embody and move fluidly between her roles as an artist, scholar, writer, administrator, and curator of dance.

During our conversation, Willis discusses significant moments on the path that led her back to Chicago in order to take a position as Associate Curator of Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the deep and sometimes untethered relationship with dance, performance, and movement that carried her along the way.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tempestt Hazel: It’s been a minute since I was first able to reach out to you. So I’ve had some time…

Tara Aisha Willis: You’ve had some time to marinate.

TH: Yea, I’ve had some time to think about the work you do, and how much work you do–within institutional settings, and your own practice as a curator, dancer and also as a writer. I was a little overwhelmed in thinking about how to approach this conversation and where to focus. So then, as I started to think I found it interesting how we both have, technically, three first names–mine is Tempestt Danyele Hazel. I’ve always been told you’re supposed to be suspicious of folks with three first names because they’re slick, fast-talkers. I’m definitely not like that, but apparently it’s a thing.

TAW: People say that to you? Wow.

TH: I’ve heard it as a kind of adage. Like a ‘don’t trust anyone with three first names!’ type of thing. I started thinking about that when planning for this interview, and thinking about threes. And it got me thinking about my questions for you as prompts to respond to in threes. So, I won’t be asking you about specific projects in sequence or specific moments in your career, but asking you questions that prioritize a mix of important moments across your career–the things that have been most influential for you.

TAW: Oh, that’s great, I love that. And it’s true; Willis is a first name. I hadn’t really thought about that before. I use three names because I realized at a certain point that I needed to be really consistent with using my middle name, or choosing whether I was going to use my middle name or not when sort of branding myself as I was starting to be on staff lists, be published, and stuff like that.

TH: Why is that?

TAW: My parents named me with a first name from the British Isles and my middle name, from Africa, which is a very broad sweeping thing to say. But because I’m biracial, they sort of wanted to [give me these names]. And then [my name] has some vague meaning that roughly comes out of the Lotus Sutra. My parents are Buddhist, and raised me practicing Soka Gakkai International Buddhism. And there is a particular passage about the power of hope. Tara is Gaelic, and it means hill or tower, and then Aisha is Arabic from North Africa, which is not where my ancestors probably came from, but you never know. One translation of it means hope, or something similar. And then I have a Black people Southern last name, from Mississippi, which is also a Black people first name.

TH: Is your family from Mississippi?

TAW: My dad is from Mississippi, he’s the Black parent. He grew up in Jackson. He lived through the Civil Rights in Jackson.

TH: My mom and her side of the family are from Belzoni, which is not too far outside of Jackson. It’s a teeny, tiny place.

TAW: Yeah! So I realized it was very important for me to list all three names, at a certain point, otherwise it would easily just be the Gaelic name. And I find that when I list the full name, people know I’m Black. So when they see three names together, they’re more likely to understand I’m not a white woman because I know my tone in emails and on the phone is easily interpreted as white. Because I’m hyper educated, very much part of the respectability politics. Like my Dad’s generation, to a certain degree. Without realizing it he would change his voice, his Southern accent…and that became important at a certain point in my career. It wasn’t early on when I was trying to be a random dancer, but that started to happen both when I was figuring out what I wanted to be doing and figuring out who I identified as, how I identified in the world. Anyway, that’s the story. Kind of convoluted.

TH: That is not what I was expecting from the name question – that’s amazing. So that brings me to a question, and this can span over time, from childhood, early adult life, maybe teenage years, and doing this in threes: what are some of your first memories of movement? The most significant memories?

TAW: That’s a great question. It’s not just one, but many memories of choreographing dances in my living room, starting from a very small child before I had any dance training through to when we moved out of there at the end of high school years. In my apartment in Hyde Park, there was a particular area on the carpet that was surrounded by the couch on one side and the record player on another side and a big mirror on another side and posters of my Dad’s jazz festivals that he’d been to around 1982. Sometimes my Mom and I would listen to Waltz records and dance to them, and musical theater. But my Dad had a very specific intention around making sure I knew the Black women vocalists of jazz. And then he branched out eventually and started going to Coconuts Record Store and getting recommendations from them on what women were current because he realized at a point I wanted to know the cool stuff. So he would come home with Black females like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Erykah Badu–I was very impressed with that one. Good job, person who worked at Coconut Records in the 90s!

I remember very clearly working on a number that was never fully choreographed to a Billie Holiday song in front of a mirror as a kid, there was a stool that was very sultry. I was probably 8 or 9 years old or something. But there were a lot of memories like those over the years, and then it became choreography once I was dancing.

TH: Do you have any memory of your parents dancing?

TAW: Yeah! You know, another good memory, and this definitely isn’t a first or earliest, but it was the first time I’d say I danced in public in a way that was adult, like club, for-fun dancing outside of a sleepover or something: There was a New Year’s party, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, and my family was in Oakland visiting my sister. She took us to a party of somebody that she knew, and they had hired a DJ and it was this whole elaborate fiesta gather. At some point Mariah Carey came on. I don’t remember which song it was, it might have been “Honey”. I ended up dancing so hard in the middle of the room that everybody cleared a circle for me! I remember I was wearing a blue, synthetic, shiny, printed thing that happened a lot in the 90s, and chunky black little lace-up boots. I felt really cool because it was a shape-fitting dress and it’s got a slit that goes all the way up to my calf–amazing. My parents were like, “what on Earth…?”. I mention it now, because I remember seeing them in the corner slow dancing together and watching me dance, and being very confused by the distance between what I was doing because I was in a deep plie, grinding on the air, and they were slow dancing to Mariah Carey like they were. That was a beautiful moment. Afterwards, they said, “we had no idea you were capable of that.” But I had been doing a lot of listening to those CDs my Dad has brought back from Coconuts in my room, by myself at night, and lip-synching my brains out. I had done that since the beginning, since I was very little, so I knew albums back to back, and I knew how to lip-synch them, specifically. I was doing full stadium shows in my room with a hair brush, with the lights out, after I was supposed to be in bed.

TH: At what point did you realize you wanted to study dance and that movement was something you wanted to spend a significant part of your life thinking about?

TAW: I started dancing in middle school, training in ballet, jazz, and modern. I did theater, dance, chorus and was all over the place through high school. But when I was looking at college I realized I was looking at the dance department and good english programs with creative writing focuses. Then, when I got to college, I thought maybe I’d sign up for chorus or that drama club, but I never did. Dance just took over. Once I got to college, I learned there was an academic study of dance that existed. I had no idea before. Before, it had [just] been this thing I was doing. Now, suddenly, [I had the chance to] understand the specificity of the particular forms of dance I studied, and could think through culturally, politically, and economically why I studied ballet, jazz, and modern first. Or why my Dad offered, “You want to do a dance class? Let’s do ballet class.” That means something in the world, and there’s a history to that. There’s a history to why concert dance looks the way it does.

I was always a very verbally oriented person, so it was always surprising to me that dance was a direction I went, because so often it’s talked about as non-verbal, [though] I beg to differ. So when I got to college and realized there was historical, theoretical study of dance, my mind was blown. Suddenly, I was able to give meaning of a kind that my brain was already sort of adept with to a thing that I was feeling attached to physically and feeling committed to mentally. I think I was secretly, without realizing it, seeking that kind of context or that kind of intellectual culture. Just doing dance is very intellectual, but the culture of intellectualism around dance was really important for me to find. I needed those people who were obsessed with talking about dance. And not just in the sense of which pointe shoes are you buying, but like why a pointe shoe?

I realized, around the same time, my understanding of my racial identity really shifted in that college era. By the end, I was doing writing, I was doing dance and dance studies, and I was studying literature. I was questioning how I think about movement in this context of language and how I think of language in this context of movement. And how race and gender affects both of those. Those [questions] became my two thesis projects.

[At the time] I was like, “hold on, there’s a field for this? It’s called Performance Studies? Let’s do it.”

Then, there was a phase after college where I committed to also doing work in the dance community. That was a really important moment of [realizing that] I don’t love everything I have to do as an administrator in the arts, but I do love this work of thinking about the field, and in thinking about the historical and cultural context of this. Thinking about the culture of this and how do we change it, because that is the place where you can actually shift structures. In my 20s I was living in New York, in graduate school studying dance in a performance studies way, and academically. I was doing dance on stages and in projects. Then I was working as an arts administrator. [I knew that] I actually couldn’t mentally and emotionally fill all my needs if I don’t do all three. So that 20s period was when I decided the shape I wanted [my practice] to take.

Image: Tara Aisha Willis stands, facing the camera, on the stage of the theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. She has her arms folded before her and you can see the rows of seats rising behind her. Photo by Kristie Kahns.

TH: I imagine there were influential people along the way as you were discovering this. Who are three people that you knew, or you met, that were really important to you during that period? And then who were three people or artists who you don’t know whose work maybe you became aware of that were influential?

TAW: This one is hard. Part of me that wants to say the entire staff, professors, and teachers at Barnard [College] when I was there, which was 2005 to 2009. It was a combination of mentorship and exposing me to new forms of dance. Specifically experimental dance, which I had never been exposed to before. In exposing me to experimental dance, it gave me this really fascinating question to ask myself: why do people go to shows where they’re using rules of dance I’m familiar with? Why are artists interested in making this work where there’s talking and feet aren’t pointed, and rolling around is a move as opposed to a leg in the air? So for me, the way my brain works, that inquiry led me further into it rather than away from it. And then the fact that they were doing this academic research with a historical grounding–like Colleen Thomas, Katie Glasner, Paul Scolieri, Lynn Garafola, and some of the [other] artists they brought in to do some choreography workshops.

Next I would say the staff at Movement Research from 2012 to 2016 or 2017. Particularly Levi Gonzalez who was working there as a programmer for part of that time. I worked very closely with him when I was the program coordinator. At that time he was being a choreographer, which he is primarily now, but he was a choreographer doing this work around being super dedicated to supporting the field as an administrator and supporting artist residencies, in particular. So he was a huge role model for me, and also a role model in figuring out what limits are in arts administration. People at Movement Research are particularly good at doing that–knowing what is too much work, which is a non-profit problem. But he was a big influence, and the whole staff.

A third artist that particularly influenced me is another group. The E-Move Series at Harlem Stage, which I think at the time was programmed by Charmaine Warren from 2005 to 2009 and maybe shortly after that, too. Because I went to see E-Moves at Harlem Stage, on a whim, I realized there were Black artists making experimental work. That’s the first place I saw Kyle Abraham, Tania Isaac, and David Rousseve. And then my taste and knowledge branched out even more, and that happened alongside the field being more accepting of that particular intersection. A bunch of choreographers did that series at that time, and it was pretty life changing. I had literally been told I was supposed to go to [Alvin] Ailey before college, and then college was this totally white-woman post-modern dance world with Reggie Wilson thrown in for kicks. But that was the place I realized oh, there are actually artists who aren’t necessarily the famous names who are just doing this work and are interested in forms that are not, for lack of a better phrase capital B, capital D: Black Dance or Black modern dance in the way that people have understood it to be.

TH: So then, on the flip side of this. There are people who are close, and then there is also those that you admire from afar. Who are those people? And this can be people who you now have worked with and maybe are now familiar with and have relationships with.

TAW: Maybe Charmaine Warren goes into that category. She’s wonderful. Also maybe in that category of I know them now who were also very influential in that early time.

Then Thomas DeFrantz came and gave a lecture on Ailey. That was a big moment for me.

Barbara Browning, also, who has since become my teacher at NYU, gave a lecture at some point along the way. She was studying Brazilian Samba at that time and presented on that. Because of her I started to understand that you can show a video of Black women Samba dancing and it can be a [type of] academic paper presentation, and you do that kind of writing around it. I think that was an important moment of realization–I could do more than one thing at once and that the academic study of dance was a thing people did.

Tommy is now a major mentor of mine. And Barbara is on my dissertation committee. I co-edited an issue of The Black Scholar with Tommy. And the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD) that he created several years ago was a moment where there was suddenly a place for the work that I do, though I’m still maybe going to be on the edge a bit because I’m writing about experimental dance in the context of Black dance-obsessed people. But this was a place specific to the work I do. There are dance studies conferences and there are Black studies conferences, but the CADD is a conference that is consistent and [encompasses] both. It was important to know that I have community and that somebody like Tommy DeFrantz can respect what I do in the world even though it’s very different from his.

TH: I really appreciate folks who are operating in these hybrid spaces. People tend to do it in these small chunks and compartmentalize, but the way you’re approaching it and thinking about it is essentially different. Not to say that people haven’t had similar ideas or thoughts as you have, but as far as writing about it, as far as experimenting with it, as far as the types of information and work that is created around different ideas–it’s just not there yet, not where other practices are. Because there’s a lack of language and a lack of knowledge around it, I’m curious about what some of the major challenges have been for you in charting new territory and if there have been instances of people getting it wrong. What do people get wrong about what you do?

TAW: One of the things that is both a boon and a challenge, I would say, is the fact that I’m doing work that is very connected. Its elements are also clearly within a particular approach to things in curation as an artist myself and as a scholar or more a discursive participant. Sometimes the way someone knows me is only through one of those doors, so there are different assumptions that get made or expectations that get set, and I think that’s even more true now that I’m in a more visible position at a big institution. Many people now are encountering me through that role.

There’s also the way that sometimes people assume I don’t know things or that they need to defend the terrain of the artist is interesting, because they read me more as curator, or read the work I’m doing as a curator in a different way when they knew me first as something else. None of it is bad, necessarily, it’s just that a lot of explaining has to happen. I think that in some cases my work as a curator has become very influenced by my interest as an artist and as a scholar, in obvious ways and in other ways, not so much. The path I’ve been on has taken me to a lot of different places.

I worked for two years at Joe’s Pub as a hostess. That was my job out of college, and aside from the festivals I go to now as a curator, I’ve never seen so much performance back to back as when I was working as a hostess in a music venue four nights a week with two or three shows a night. I saw Janelle Monae and Alice Smith, world music, and random late-night Queer cabaret acts. I saw musicals that are now on Broadway, several years later. That really influenced my taste and sense of things. So, that’s one thing.

Then there’s the logistical fact of having multiple careers at once means that sometimes I’m really not doing one of the things for awhile, and then really doing it suddenly again. There’s a way in which I appear and disappear in certain areas of my own life, simply because I have to prioritize different things at different times. And attached to that, because I work at a museum of contemporary art, I’ve had people assume I have a certain degree of fluency or knowledge with contemporary art, visual art specifically. And I have some, definitely more than the average person. I took some classes in college, I pay attention to the art scene but I sometimes get emails from people who are like, “we want to talk to an art curator, a curator at the museum of contemporary art.” And technically, I am that! But I don’t think I’m the person you want to have a conversation with. And that’s just a silly little example of a way that the job I’m in currently, for people who don’t actually come to MCA shows and know what that series is outside of Chicago especially, sort of understand the thing I’m trying to create there. Which, arguably, the work I’m doing as a curator has a very United States-centric context; the work I do as a scholar has a very United States-centric context. I’m thinking about race in America in experimental dance. That’s such a particular intersection. It’s sometimes illegible within that contemporary art museum frame, at least to some people.

And then the particular intersection I’m working at, when trying to explain an intersection that is already complicated for people who know the pieces of it, people have so many different opinions about it and experiences of it, especially in different contexts within the U.S. Like in different cities in the U.S., one person who is an experimental dance maker in one city thinks about what it means to be an experimental dance maker so differently that one in another city–and not even to mention the individual differences between people. My trajectory has been very influenced by New York’s dance scene, of course. I can’t help it. I have to cite that and shout that out when I write.

So much work has to be done to explain the terms of my research and how those are and are not reflected in my curatorial choices. Then, how those are and are not reflected in when I choose whether to participate in a project as an artist.

TH: How do you decide when to take on a project?

TAW: I think a lot about the balance of the financial reward of a project and the personal, social, or political goal or philosophical role of a project. I also think about the career reward of a project. Is it in a venue that is really important? Is it in a place I’ve never been? Am I going to meet a bunch of people I need to connect with? Am I going to dance for someone I’ve always wanted to dance with? The balance of why I choose to do a project has really shifted over the years. I tend more to need it to fall heavily into that personal, political, or philosophical category. I’m now in a position where, generally speaking because I have a full-time job, I’m able to turn down things. I’m not dealing with many requests right now, so it’s not a problem. It’s a real privilege to be able to focus in that way.

It’s strange to figure out my frames for choosing projects and to figure out the overlap and what they have in common, then to ground them in the politics that I’m trying to do in all those spaces. But, also, as a dancer I’m often not working in every case with an artist who aligns visibly in a way that the rest of my work reflects because I’m weighing [other factors] when I’m a dancer. The basic premises on which I make choices in these different fields means sometimes that not everything aligns visibly to people. And it means something different now that I’m a curator, right? When I choose to be in a particular piece, I have a different kind of visibility. People are looking at everything you do to see if they trust you to be politically aligned with them. Not that anyone is really paying that much attention to me as a whole person, but I have to be conscious of that. I represent the MCA now, not just me. And yet, as a dancer, if I want to dance with so-and-so, I just want to do that dance! Which is an old story: Black artists want to be able to do whatever they want to do, just like everybody else, but also they have this particular responsibility. I don’t see that responsibility as a burden. It’s just a fact. Something to consider in the choice making.

Image: Tara Aisha Willis sits on the stairs between the ground level and first floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, facing the camera, as the sun casts a light over her. Photo by Kristie Kahns.

TH: One thing I think I find really interesting about your work is that you’re the closest person to it, so there’s a way in which you can understand it that perhaps no one else will ever be able to until you write that memoir, until you write that book.

But speaking of your different roles, do you separate your role at MCA from your other projects? There’s an interesting overlap but also what you’ve been bringing to the MCA has been really distinct. It can be talked about by itself or alongside all the other things that you’ve done.

TAW: I would certainly include What Remains on my list of projects, and I can’t separate that.

TH: And also, that wasn’t just at the MCA.

TAW: Right. And I would talk about Relations, for sure, which is a project that I couldn’t separate from my writing career, because there was a book published for that. Also, both of those projects will be part of my dissertation, should I ever finish it.

TH: You will!

TAW: Thank you! I don’t know if there’s a way to fully pull them apart because in this first season that I was able to help create [at the MCA], I very intentionally put those pieces in there. I felt very aware that I am both creating a program for this museum but I’m also staking a claim as a curator for the first time in a visible way. I am also staking a claim as a curator who is also an artist who is also a scholar.

In the realm of curators at large, most of them probably identify as a scholar to some degree. In performance, that’s not always guaranteed. We’re just starting to call ourselves curators. Not to say that many of us are not intellectual or scholarly in some way, but the title curator is not guaranteed in performance at all. And it’s a logistical thing. Within the training programs of the academic world, performance curators are few and far between, and they’re new.

TH: What was the language used to describe someone who did that type of work before the term ‘curators’?

TAW: Programmers? Presenters? There’s a lovely little interview with Philip Bither, who is the curator of performance at the Walker Art Center. There’s a little moment in the conversation, I think it’s with Ralph Lemon, where he says something like, “I think presenters and programmers and performance programmers have been doing a kind of discursive work already for ages.” But curators in museums are known for including this as a part of what they do. This work often happens in a setting that is typically understood in a museum to be work of the interpretive or learning team and separate from the curator’s work. I mean, he doesn’t put it that way but that is what I understood from what he said. It’s often the learning team that’s moderating a talk or publishing the program notes. So there’s a lot of conversation at the MCA to ask what is the equivalent to an exhibition around a performance. What is the text? And for me, how can we expand what’s available when it’s relevant?

But there’s also an approach to programming where the goal is to just put the show up. If there are program notes, then there are program notes. But those notes are often more about the people that get credit, the proper credit, and less about contextualizing the work. I tend to fall in the middle of that. I’m interested in doing scholarly work around some projects that need a particular frame when they require it, like Relations. For Relations, I brought together these artists and it was a thing that didn’t exist before. It wasn’t a commission, necessarily. It was more like an event that was in need of an historical and curatorial frame, you know? So it wasn’t the same as a pre-existing show that I’m just bringing [to Chicago]. So it demanded a certain type of contextuality around it and archival materials.

TH: For sure. With exhibitions, in perhaps the traditional sense, the focus is so much on the object. There was an interesting comment Anna Martine Whitehead made recently at an event, just thinking about the role that performance plays or how performance or movement is understood within the context of a place like MCA or other museum spaces. Even though it was started with a focus on very experimental work, the MCA was built on a more visual arts entry point into contemporary art. But when it comes to the body and the object within an exhibition kind of frame, there’s no sweeping away to think about something like that.

TAW: Well, the MCA is building that right now, you know? It’s a fact that performance and event-based work, live work, or time-based work is becoming more present in the museum in a quantitative way. There’s a long array of dance history I could look at, where dance has been behind in being understood as respectable in America–whether that’s respectable in the sense of entertainment versus art, or in the sense of academically studiable versus just physical. And that has to do with a lot of different things. Partly, Western concert dance in the form of ballet coming to the U.S. at the time it did and, of course, because Western culture has this monopoly on things in general–especially in the U.S. That has meant a lot to what’s understood as dance in the first place. I also think there’s a puritanism in this country that comes from our foundation, and the body is scary for that reason, to a degree.

We’re in a moment when it comes to dance in the museum and performance in the museum, but we’ve been so behind [to the point] where dance has been on its own out in the world. It’s been interesting to watch because, you know, I’m not working in a museum because I love museums. I set out to be a performance programmer, you know? And a museum is a fascinating context to do that in. But there are plenty of people out there who program performance who are obsessed with museums and I find that I have a different approach to the work. There’s also the fact that I am in a particular context where our museum has had performance in it since the beginning, even if it was not central. The MCA has had a performance dedicated venue in it since the 1990s, which is not true of a lot of museums right now even though they’re doing plenty of performance programs. What does it mean when a museum doesn’t fit the narrative of, “oh, we’re doing performance in museums now” but rather “we’ve been doing performance and we’ve just been doing it in a performing arts model inside a museum building.”

Image: Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller rehearsing on the MCA stage. At the left of the frame, Houston-Jones is on his back, on the ground with hands raised above him. At the center, Lemon is on his knees, holding and facing a large, flat piece of wood that’s positioned against his torso. Miller sits on a chair in the background looking toward the camera and other artists, out of focus. Performance view, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller: Relations, MCA Chicago November 2-3, 2018 Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

TH: So, what have been the three most influential or definitive projects you’ve done to date?

TAW: Great question. Relations, a show in November, that brought together Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and Ishmael Houston-Jones, who are three giants of contemporary dance, experimental dance, and post-modern dance. They all started their careers around the same time in a visible way, in the very early 80s. All three are Black artists, who have contributed hugely in different ways to the field, whether it’s the artwork itself, their mentoring or teaching, their writing, curating, or all of the above. So it was kind of a huge deal to be able to get all three of them together. But I also asked them to think of it as a sort of reunion and an ode to improvisation, in a way. Or an ode to each other.

For two nights they improvised in the theater, and created a structure for themselves, and let everyone be with them while they played together. And they’d never performed together before, all three of them. They’re very good friends and they’ve known each other for decades, but they’ve never been on stage together aside from sharing a bill back in 1982 on the same night but not necessarily on the same stage. They’ve all played a role, whether desirably or intentionally to them or not, in defining what’s possible for Black artists in dance. In part because that bill they shared in 1982 was a platform that Ishmael had curated back then to ask the question, “What is non-mainstream Black dance? What artists in New York are working at that intersection of being Black and being Black artists and making non-mainstream dance?” So in a way, the role they play in the field is one that sits at the heart of the questions I was asking myself in college as a young dancer and writer.

[Working with them] was kind of a dream. We created a booklet. It was kind of a big deal to create any type of publication for a performance because there’s just no clear, consistent system set up for it. We had to create it from scratch. They each contributed writings, drawings, and images, both old and recent. And I was able to write the intro to it myself and commission a piece from Claudia La Rocco. It was a really beautiful addition to the archival materials that were in the program, which I dug up.

It was also challenging to figure out a way to sell a show like that to the museum, which is half my job. I said, “this is something that could happen in New York, but we’re going to do it in Chicago. And that’s the thesis of this–that even though you might not understand all the dance history that’s relevant, you’re taking me at my word that these are important dancers. And this makes Chicago and the MCA a destination for dance in the country.” But at the same time, my inclination is often to think about how this relates to an audience in Chicago. What does this mean for people who aren’t just dance audiences? What does this mean for Black audiences? And I say audiences very specifically because there are so many different audiences and everybody is their own audience. I don’t know if I’ve figured any of those answers out, but there’s an inclination I have to try to make it relevant to Chicago history in some way. If it’s a historical project, how does it relate to Chicago? I did go dig in the archives of MoMing [Dance Arts Center], which existed in Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s as a kind of a predecessor and a hub for experimental dance. Those archives are at the Newberry Library, so that was an interesting thing to just go and dig through those archives and see all the attempts Ralph, Bebe, and Ishmael made over the years to get shows at MoMing, sometimes successful, sometimes not.

[During my research] there was an article that came up that talked about how Ishmael had been teaching in Chicago and had been really important for Chicago dance. [It countered the] perception in the dance world that Chicago doesn’t have the same robustness of experimental dance or performance–it’s just focused in different ways and has a different history. The reality is that there are these connections [between Chicago and New York’s dance histories], and they may be slim in some cases. I want us to find them and draw out some unexpected corners of dance history by doing so. Those archives would’ve never been looked through if this show had been done in New York.

TH: Chicago has a significant number of dance archives, too. I don’t know how much they’re utilized by folks doing research like yours. The fact that you’re doing that work is really important because Chicago, for better or for worse, is very Chicago. Chicago likes to talk about Chicago and folks outside of Chicago often leave its history out of larger narratives.

TAW: It does! And I find that I have that in me. I was in New York, living there for twelve years and talking about Chicago. I would not know anything about what was happening in Chicago at the current time, but it was ingrained in me to talk about it because I grew up here.

Image: Three performers stand in the foreground, each in similar pose with arms raised, singing together and wearing long, flowing, shining black garments. Another performer sits in the background, looking on. Performance view, Claudia Rankine and Will Rawls: What Remains, MCA Chicago; December 5-9, 2018; Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

TH: So, two more projects…?

TAW: What Remains was a show I did at the MCA Warehouse. It was a huge hurdle to get the institution to think about what it means to plan the infrastructure of a show in a challenging space, but one that’s also really ideal for a show of that kind. It was also challenging to think this through with the artist, Will Rawls. We did a site visit with him to think through Chicago geography and visit a lot of locations around the city–not locations to perform in, necessarily, but just to understand the sort of horizontal sprawl of the city, which I think spatially was reflected more in this show, in [the MCA Warehouse], than any other venues we’ve done it in. It was also challenging because I was in that show, so distinguishing between what I’m bringing in as a curator and why I care about it as a dancer and a collaborator in it, while respecting the areas where that can’t be distinguished. And I was also really thinking through the ethics of it, and making that decision [to be in it] was powerful. And also, you know, maybe I’ll never do it again because it was very stressful, but it was great.

TH: I can imagine! Playing both roles.

TAW: Yeah, and that was a moment. You know how we were talking earlier about our different types of programming at the museum coming to an overlap? For that project we were able to do a talk with our public programs colleagues and Claudia Rankine with Will Rawls together. I was able to moderate for them which was crazy–that I would be moderating a conversation with Claudia! To me, she’s a collaborator in the project, too. But those different types of platforms for the same project and working with my colleagues to make that happen are really important. Then, working with Threewalls who brought their In-Session artists to the show. They had a deep one-on-one with Will when he was here for a second trip, and that was really beautiful. That was the first time for What Remains that we had an audience that was really responsive. They were in the audience and added some color, to be honest, and they responded differently to the show than most. [In the past] we were often in more historically white institutions for the show.

TH: And the third?

TAW: Yeah, the third might be The Black Scholar issue. That was 2016, but we worked on it for two years before that.

TH: When you say we, who do you mean?

TAW: Tommy DeFrantz, me, and the scholars who were published in it. That was kind of a coming of age for me as a scholar, at least a moment of it. I figured out how to think big picture beyond my own work and how to understand my own work situated in the field in a way that I hadn’t before, and what it looks like to be a mentor or to be mentored and to really collaborate.

Image: Tara Aisha Willis stands at the center of an empty MCA Stage with a bright light shining from the left of the frame as she looks out towards the rows of empty chairs in front of her. Photo by Kristie Kahns.

TH: You’ve given some examples of the writing that you do, but how do you feel about the field of writing around performance? And you can talk about that in the broad more U.S. context that you’re navigating, or hyper-locally in Chicago, or the difference between the coverage that happens in New York and what happens here. I’m really interested in, and concerned, honestly, with the written word and the conversation and dialogue that happens around this work. Given the ephemeral nature of performance, it hinges on documentation in some way. Then, because it’s performance, the kind of one-to-one documentation that we try to get in order to re-experience something as it happened falls short. So, that written interpretation can be so important! I’m curious, what is your read of the current state of writing around performance?

TAW: I think there’s just the basic challenge of reviewers. I don’t see myself as a review writer at all, and I’m not deeply well-versed in the history of reviewing performance the way I should be. I’ve had many conversations about it with reviewers and very good friends. Siobhan Burke writes for the dance section of The New York Times. We were in pieces at Barnard together.

I see reviews as only one of the things that happens, or that should be happening and should be supported. That situation is very dire, but I wonder if we’re fully exploring or thinking through the range of what can fit into that category. There’s a relationship between a review and whether or not a show will sell or not sell tickets. There’s a relationship to the archive and the historical record. I don’t think those are separate for most people. I’m not a review-focused person, although I know they’re important to read during a production.

TH: And they’re influential.

TAW: Right! When talking to a marketing person, they’re like “no press is bad press!” Getting the review, even if it’s bad, will still sell tickets. Maybe not as many, but people will buy because they’re curious, they have a relation with that content, or they want to prove the reviewer wrong. It gets visibility, period.

The other category is academic writing. We love to talk in academia, as you can tell, and there’s a way we talk about the range of what can fall into academic writing. But there’s not a ton of training in it, and there’s not a lot of pushing on forms [of writing] inside academia that are respected within academia. I think performance studies is doing some of that, but is it really? Sometimes I wonder.

And then there’s this other area, the one that I’m most interested in: the forms of writing about performance that are, perhaps, for the dance field but not a review and not for the academic realm. The ones that are perhaps part of the process of the piece and are about the experience of the rehearsal. Siobhan is writing those kinds of pieces for The New York Times, and they’re not understood as a review. And sometimes they might be a preview. But there’s also all these exciting ways that writers and dramaturges who are part of the making of the piece, and they’re doing writing that could be the text of the show. It could be the notes of the show that get published somehow. But it also could just be a stand-alone piece that they write and that’s what I’m really interested in. I find myself as a writer most interested in the writing I do when I see a show or am involved in a process and want to write about it, period. Not for that particular context or as a review. Not for a press-outlet and not for the particular context of contributing to the academic field or discourse, but because of the piece. That’s the area where I want there to be more clear publishing routes.

So, as coincidence would have it, myself and Jaime Shearn Coan, a wonderful dance writer and also working on a PhD in New York and a dear friend of mine, we’re doing a residency at Mount Tremper Arts in Upstate New York in a few weeks. It’s bringing together choreographers and performers who have some relationship to writing. We’re going to get together and try to create a publication project and a performance that is precisely questioning what writing is as a practice in relationship to making performance. [We will be considering] not necessarily the written word in and of itself, or publishing in and of itself, but the practice of writing.

TH: I’m so curious about what will come out of that. Are you thinking of physical form?

TAW: We might prefer online, just because of the flexibility, but I’m personally really attached to physical form. I just love it. But there’s something nice about being able to have some media in an online platform, so we’ll see. But we’re open to both. I would do both if we could afford to.

TH: That sounds amazing. And then, my last and maybe most important question: are there three things that you would recommend for people, whether it’s listening, reading, something that has been really thought-provoking for you recently? It doesn’t necessarily have to relate to dance–for instance, you went to the Lizzo show recently but that doesn’t have to be the answer!

TAW: But now that we’ve said it, it can just go in the article and doesn’t have to take up one of my three!

TH: Is there a book you’ve been thumbing through for awhile or an album or song you’ve been listening to over and over?

TAW: Yes! I love this question. Okay…I have a couple of podcasts that I love. Imagine Otherwise is a podcast I listen to. They’re very short and every time she interviews a scholar and people who are also artists and doing activism. And generally speaking, all or most of them are POC and/or LGBTQ in some way. Or women. And they’re doing work in those areas, so it’s always really interesting.

Along with that, LeVar Burton Reads, is my favorite. I love it so much. It’s basically LeVar Burton reading and he’s the pivotal character of the 90s television scene, which is the one I grew up on. He reads sci-fi stories and he just loves sci-fi, which makes me so happy. Sometimes he has a musician play with him–it’s really great. And he often reads women of color authors, which is great.

I just got Gabrielle Civil’s Experiments in Joy, a book about performance. There’s one tiny part of it where she actually wrote a short chapter about an event that I curated, but it’s also a really beautiful book. It’s a little bit of an independent publishing project, and she’s a beautiful writer. She’s thinking about Black feminism and performance, her own work and people’s work that she’s seen.

TH: Thank you for taking the time! It’s really great to have you in Chicago doing the work that you’re doing. It’s definitely bringing a new energy to performance here, and I’m really looking forward to continuing to watch it all!

TAW: Thank you!

Featured Image: A portrait of Tara Aisha Willis, the Associate Curator of Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Tara is standing with elbows on a ledge, hands up toward her face and fingers intertwined. She stands in a space where there are plants and golden yellow lights hanging from the ceiling. Photo by Kristie Kahns.


Tempestt Hazel is a curator, writer, and director/co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center. Her writing has been published by Hyde Park Art Center the Broad Museum (Lansing), in Support Networks: Chicago Social Practice History Series, Contact Sheet: Light Work Annual, Unfurling: Explorations In Art, Activism and Archiving, on Artslant, as well as various monographs of artists, including Cecil McDonald, Jr.’s In the Company of Black published by Candor Arts. You can also read her writing in the Art AIDS America Chicago catalogue and the online journal Exhibitions on the Cusp by Tremaine Foundation. Find more of her work at Photo by Darryl DeAngelo Terrell.

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