“Even if we don’t know its name”: an interview with Benji Hart on World After This One

March 12, 2024 · Bilingual, Interviews

In anticipation of the Chicago premiere of Benji Hart’s experimental dance piece, World After This One, Tara Aisha Willis meets with Hart to discuss the development of the piece and themes within the(ir) work.

Image: Benji Hart wearing a white garment that looks like a skirt wrapped around one shoulder. Their hands are outstretched as they look directly into the camera. Photo by William Frederking.
Image: Benji Hart wearing a white garment that looks like a skirt wrapped around one shoulder. Their hands are outstretched as they look directly into the camera. Photo by William Frederking.

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Every week this March, performance-maker, writer, educator, and organizer Benji Hart is performing their newest work, World After This One, to packed audiences across the city of Chicago: in Humboldt Park at La Escuelita Bombera de Corazón, in Washington Park at Green Line Performing Arts Center, and in Lincoln Park within the LookOut Series at Steppenwolf Theater. Beyond showing up in three neighborhoods, the piece is also multidimensional in its form and content: a starkly staged, carefully calibrated, slow building palimpsest of interwoven words and movement; in turn, those practices overlap and blend over the course of the performance to bring together histories, theories, and movements of three forms of Black cultural and creative expression: Afro-Puerto Rican bomba dance, gospel music’s praise dance, and vogue’s queer social/street dance practices.

This three-location premiere sees the work in its final form after many in-progress iterations (including at MCA Chicago in 2021 where I was performance curator, supporting Laura Paige Kyber’s work on the project), but hopefully only the beginning of its transits to various audiences in and beyond Chicago. In February, Hart shared their thoughts on the process of making the work, what performance is and does amidst their many ways of moving in this world, and where the world might be going next—even if we can’t know for sure. At least not from where we might be dancing, now. 

Tara Aisha Willis: Set the scene. When would you say was the beginning of this project—even if it wasn’t a clear-cut moment—and what’s been the trajectory to get to this point? 

Benji Hart: I began working on [the project] in earnest at the beginning of 2018. A big impetus was that through 3Arts I got the Rauschenberg Foundation Residency—my first ever residency. [Before then] I had never had intentional space carved out to just work on something I wanted to work on. It felt like a turning point to [be able to] think: what are the things I really want to dig into, [what are] the questions I really want to ask as an artist? I came out of it with the ten [dance] motions, now, eleven motions, that would form the core vocabulary of the piece.

It was not a clear or fully-formed notion or idea, but I knew I really wanted to connect vogue, bomba, and gospel music and highlight both the historical and the aesthetic connections between those art forms and those initial ten motions were the concrete way of doing that, finding ten motions that I saw as connecting or appearing in or throughout all three forms. 

TAW: Have there been other moments along the way where new material or parts of the idea came into focus? Other shows or residencies or rehearsal moments? I mean, that’s a six year trajectory basically… It’s a significant amount of time. 

BH: Yes. It’s been six years, because it’s been a slow process. I haven’t been consistently working on it, but it needed [that] space and [these] moments to breathe. And there were months that I just didn’t have any new ideas. And then months where a lot happened or broke through. There is this document called “El Reglamento de Esclavos,” which is a recurring reference throughout the piece. It was written by the then-governor of Puerto Rico in response to a failed slave rebellion in Ponce in 1826. I originally wanted to do an erasure of that document, so I was experimenting with taking words out, trying to rearrange the words, or playing with the wording of the document to create a poem. And it really wasn’t working. I felt stuck; many months of wanting to make that happen and it just was not happening. And then one day I had the breakthrough of: it’s not an erasure, it’s an addition. It’s not about taking things out of this document, it’s about adding things to it. I ended up sampling song lyrics, biblical references, and materials from other places, and injected them into [the document]. That’s where my poem, “Deterioration,” came from. It’s a disintegration of the piece rather than an erasure, that was the word that I came up with. 

TAW: So disintegration and adding on. What was the other word you just used? Adding on, or…

BH: Injecting. 

TAW: Injecting, yeah. You talked about these three art forms you’re bringing together and then the set of gestures you came up with early on. How did you land on those? What got you to that clarity? And then what were your next steps? Or rather, what was that moment of being like, “I need structure to move forward; here’s the ten things that will structure the shape of the work?” How did you get from three art forms to ten or eleven gestures? 

BH: That is a little bit hard to describe because it had been an idea in the back of my head and I had already been just in my body or dancing around in the kitchen experimenting with how this or that motion is appearing in multiple ways or in multiple places. But I think that had been kind of a small idea that the time and the space allowed it to kind of fill itself out into a more clear list of motions. The piece is now structured in three acts, representing the three art forms. But even that as a structure took a really long time to emerge. I did not have that idea when I first started out; I was originally trying to create a narrative or arc of different pieces that led one into the other. The three acts are actually all structured the same, but include different interpretations of the movements and the history. It actually took a couple of years for that structure to make itself known. 

TAW: How did you enter and reenter in order for it to make itself known? Were you editing, writing text alongside creating movement sequences? How did those two practices come together? 

BH: Very messily; which is why it took so long. Dancer as Insurgent, which is the first full-length performance I wrote, was a surprisingly linear process. I wrote the script almost in order, one poem after the other. It just came out and then I staged choreography to go with the script. It was a surprisingly linear process. So I think I was sort of thinking, okay, maybe my process is to write the script, choreograph it, and make a piece. World After This One did not want to come out that way, it came out much less linear. 

I was working on the script and going back to the movement and then returning to the script and trying to figure out where they spoke to each other or came together. And Kemi Alabi was helping me edit a lot of the written and spoken components and was hugely influential in helping me bring the piece out. Very initially—it might’ve even been at my first residency—I wrote these three mini poems, each outlining the three art forms and where I saw the philosophical connection between each. I was almost treating those as notes for myself and wasn’t thinking about putting them in the piece. And it was actually Kemi who said, I think these are really important in helping people understand why these art forms matter to you and how they’re connected to each other. I think they should not just exist as your own notes; I think they should be in the piece. And once Kemi kind of pushed that, I was sitting with all the elements I had and began to think, what if there’s three acts and each of these poems is an introduction to the act, laying the foundation for what idea is going to be explored. That was the beginning of seeing the piece as a triptych instead of one long narrative. 

TAW: So there’s been so much space around the process and time taken to let it ferment. Can you talk about how this piece fits in with all the other work you do, writing, organizing, education… All these other practices. Do you see them as interconnected? Is it that your politics are the same across the modes or do these practices influence each other in some other way? 

BH: That’s a great question. It’s something I’ve been thinking about. On the one hand, in the very literal sense, there have been months or periods where I needed to put the piece to the side to do other things, whether that was supporting campaigns or teaching workshops. There were just times that I needed to put it to the side. And then, the piece has been a respite and a place to go to meditate, to focus, to have something just for me that isn’t necessarily connected to all the other things I’m doing and supporting. So it’s been a special place and really helped during COVID when life had no structure and we were all very isolated. It was very helpful to have something I could focus on, that could guide me through that time we were all collectively going through. It’s been kind of a respite and a safe space for me, which I’m also very much processing now that it’s going to be done. That’s a transition I’m sitting with. 

What’s also been funny about this piece is that, so much of the work of political organizing is about putting things in black and white terms and drawing a hard line in the sand and saying, you’re either on this side or on that side. There isn’t any grey area here. You’re either pro-genocide or anti-genocide. You’re either pro-police or you want the police to be abolished. Those are the options. There isn’t any gray area or nuance here. You need to pick a side. What this piece did [which] was challenging for me, was [it] forced me to look at how so many Black cultural practices, and so much of the work of my ancestors is all about grey area[s] and these complicated relationships to power and critiquing, rejecting, lambasting, making fun of [these power structures], but also participating, coveting, and aspiring to power structures. These things are always going on simultaneously. Black art forms reject black and white hard lines: Is this oppressive or liberatory? Is this a rejection of these systems or an aspiration to them? Often there isn’t a clear one way or the other answer. It was very uncomfortable for me to sit with the lack of clarity and at the same time recognizing it was the tension between all those things, the tension between those contradictions that literally created these art forms. And seeing tension and contradiction as generative, both challenges some of the assumptions I make or that we make as organizers. 

And then at the same time, to further highlight the both/and, the complexity also points to the work we do as organizers in creating tension. Drawing that line in the sand is actually about creating tension, creating polarization. And that [polarizing tension] also being generative and where movements come from, where massive sweeping social change comes from. I was challenged by the wisdom of my ancestors and having to reevaluate or rethink my own assumptions. 

TAW: That’s beautifully put. Thank you. That’s an answer to some other question I feel like I’ve been asking for two years that I’ve been waiting to hear an answer to, so thank you for saying that. 

BH: Absolutely. 

TAW: So, art practice as a space for contradiction and ambiguity, I love that. You just described something these three art forms have in common: contradictory relationships with power and having to be inside of power structures while also pushing on them. Are there grey areas that came up in the process between these forms, in bringing them together? Moments of, one of these things is not like the other? There’s something in common across the three of them, and also there are a lot of differences. Were there any frictions between the forms, not only with power, but amongst these empowering art forms, Black art forms? 

BH: I would say not for me. These are art forms I’ve held near to my heart for a very long time, and I wanted to show the connections between them. I think there are so many more connections between them than people often see, and they might seem on the surface very different or even oppositional. Gospel music (the Black church and Christian colonial rhetoric), next to vogue (which is created by trans and queer sex workers), next to bomba (which is deeply rooted in Black and African spirituality, and historically has some very strict gender roles and reinforcing of the gender binary). I think they might seem like they don’t go together, but delving into them is exactly where you see the tension. That, for me, is what really connects them. 

How can you be in an anti-colonial art practice that also deeply reinforces the gender binary? How are you thinking about liberation—Black liberation—through the lens of this religion that was forced onto Black people through colonialism and enslavement? The more you look at the contradictions, the more it’s like, Oh, these are all doing the exact same thing. These are all struggling with or imagining liberation through seemingly contradictory or problematic—for lack of a better term—lenses or materials. But that’s partially what comes out of that. It’s so astounding and so potent and also so complicated that it’s like, Wow, how did we get here from there? Or, How did we, in the midst of this, find a way to pull out this other thing? No, this is what makes it so miraculous and so powerful. How did you find that inside of that? How did you build that with that? This is, for me, the genius of [these forms together], even in its messiness or sometimes contradictoriness.

Image: A dance movement/pose struck by Benji Hart in costume—a white tank top and black pants—for World After This One.
Image: Benji Hart in World After This One captured in movement, wearing a white tank top, black pants, and a white skirt. The skirt is flung upward, covering half of their face. Photo by William Frederking.
Image: A dance movement/pose struck by Benji Hart in costume—a white tank top, black pants and a white skirt—for World After This One. They face left and the skirt is flung in the air, obscuring half their face. Photo by William Frederking.
Image: A dance movement/pose struck by Benji Hart in costume—a white tank top and black pants—for World After This One. Their body is faced towards the camera, they are looking upwards with their left arm stretched above them with their right arm faced towards their chest. Photo by William Frederking.

TAW: You’ve performed [World After This One] a lot of times; it’s had different lives. What does that mean for how you’ve decided to bring it into the world for this set of performances at three different venues around the city? Are there any changes you’re foreseeing? How is this iteration bringing the piece into the world differently? 

BH: I have shown it in progress several times, and I will admit the changes between those performances have been subtle. There haven’t been massive restructurings, but how I read or perform some of the poems, the choreography, has frankly taken the longest. Sharpening the choreography and clarifying the vocabulary, especially getting feedback from dancers in the forms in which I do not consider myself an expert, particularly bomba and praise dance. I definitely hope to continue to show it after these four performances, but I think it will keep its structure and basic elements moving forward from this point.

TAW: And this is probably the last time Chicago will see it, but it’s hopefully going to be in other cities as well.

BH: Knock on wood. I definitely hope so. Chicago is my home and is more in this piece than people might realize. The lessons that Black Chicago has taught me are very much alive in this piece. Showing it in the place that has had such a deep influence on my thinking and my practice feels important, like an important honoring. Showing it in three different locations, particularly in three different parts of the city—the Southwest and the North sides—also really matters to me. A big part of that came from doing Navigating Blackness – Navigando lo negro with Ivelisse Diaz and Edrimael Delgado in summer of 2022, because when we did that programming, which was looking at vogue and bomba, putting those two dance forms in conversation, I learned so much about segregation in the city: if you do something here, who’s going to come and who’s not, versus if you do something here and then follow it by doing something over there, you can bring some people with you who might not have come if you did it in the other direction. 

And so the ways we pulled people along with us during the Navigating Blackness programming and got some Westsiders to go to the South Side and got some African-American folks to go to programming in Humboldt Park, that didn’t just happen: it happened because you actually went to where people were at and brought them along with you. I hope to do a little bit of that this March, as well, going to the places where people are at instead of expecting them to come to you, but also in doing that, bring people into some places where they might not normally go. Not just locations, but bringing communities into conversation with each other who may not regularly be in conversation, which we know is a reality in Chicago. 

TAW: Totally. Are there ways that you’re having to adjust for the space or constraints of the venues themselves or that the work will feel different because of the different spaces? 

BH: I think the work will definitely feel different because of the different spaces. I am not even entirely sure yet how that will be. There’s still a lot that has to happen in the next month, but I try to make pieces that are malleable, that don’t need a specific stage or type of lighting, that can travel, because I want them to live in more than one kind of container. And who is in the room has so much to do with what type of piece gets performed just as much as the flooring or the lighting or whether it’s a dance studio or a black box. Do people sit there silently while you perform or do they respond? Do people move with you or do they stand still? All those things change the performance. So I anticipate both who’s in the room as well as the literal shape of the room will mean it’s not the same piece every weekend. I’ll be finding out with everyone else. 

TAW: I asked you already how this fits in with your other types of [creative] work, but I’m wondering about how this fits into your performance-making trajectory. What were you working on before and do you have any inkling of what’s next after this project? 

BH: The funny thing is I wrote Dancer as Insurgent as my senior thesis for undergrad, and I had always wanted to make a piece like that, and then when I did, I scratched that itch. I really didn’t foresee myself making another piece. I had focused on teaching, writing, and other work, and in a lot of ways didn’t even consider myself an artist, which is a complicated thing unto itself. But I really didn’t think I was going to make another piece. And again, it was a culmination of factors: of support from 3Arts, the opportunity to do my first residency and getting to pause the other things taking up my time and attention that suddenly I found that desire again that I hadn’t had in a long time. I felt, okay, I’m ready again. I completed Dancer as Insurgent when I was 21 or 22, and then didn’t start working on World After This One until I was 27, 28. That was a significant period of dormancy. I suspect it may be similar to that. I might work on sharing this piece for a little while. I put a lot of heart and soul into it, so I want to be able to share it more than just once, but I have a feeling it might be a little while before there’s another itch I need to scratch. Before there’s a little idea in there that I want to explore or spend some time with. I don’t have a strong or a clear idea right now, so it might be a little while, but I’m okay with that. This just might be my process. Every five to ten years I have a new idea I want to explore. 

TAW: Yeah, I relate to that. The structure of what’s available for art making is so much more unstable than what’s available for things like writing and teaching, and so it’s easy for that to slip out as you say “yes” to other things. 

BH: Totally. 

TAW: I’m curious if there’s anything throughout this process that you’ve been consuming: reading, watching, source material, research, ideas that have been central that you haven’t mentioned yet? That has been really influential for this piece or just in general for your thinking… A bibliography?

BH: It’s pretty long. I’ve listened to a lot of gospel music and I love gospel, but I listened to a lot more than usual. There’s been certain songs I’ve really resonated with and connected with that I’ve listened to over and over and over again. So Kim Burrell, The Clark Sisters, of course, Albertina Walker. There’s just certain songs and artists that I’ve just played over and over and over again throughout this process, just because they embody so much of the essence of all of these art forms. Particularly Black women elders in gospel have been a really big touchstone. I actually listened to Cornell West a lot. The second piece is called “Homily,” and that was actually inspired by some of the talks and oration of Cornell West, which maybe is ironic, maybe isn’t, but that semantic delivery of history and political context. Listening to those types of folks and how they speak and connect ideas has been really influential. I read, and this was kind of early on in the process, but I read Olio (2016) by Tyehimba Jess. 

TAW: Is that Lorraine O’Grady on your wall? I have her collected writings right here next to me. 

BH: That’s wild. That’s a portrait of her that one of my roommate’s friends took. It’s one of the most beautiful things on our wall. 

…So, definitely seeing the way other people were structuring their poems or using multiple poem types or models to explore one idea or one theme, or in this case, one genre… That was very helpful and influential and helped me come up with the structure. 

TAW: Tell me about the title. How did you land on that wording? 

BH: The title comes from the line of another poem that I wrote about S.T.A.R., the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which was the organization founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. I wrote a poem about that organization for Trans Day of Resilience with Forward Together back in 2017. And there’s a line in it about language, doing things and acting without language, and what does it mean to exist without language for your identity, to act without language for what it is that you’re doing, but knowing that what you’re doing is still revolutionary. The idea that there is no language, there is no word for the world after this one. We don’t actually know the name of the world that we’re moving towards, but what does it mean to move clearly in the direction of a future that you can’t actually see? 

I ended up borrowing that line because that is so much of what all these art forms are doing. On the one hand moving towards a future that is very unclear and not guaranteed and at the exact same time creating that future in the present. These art forms are diving into duality and contradiction and messiness and gray. I think it also highlights the ways that we really don’t know what future we’re moving towards; there are so many possibilities for what comes next. And even thinking about things like the abolition of the police or the end of U.S. empire or the implosion of capitalism, all these things that I would argue are imminent if not already in the process of happening… We also don’t know what comes after that. 

Even with our most radical revolutionary efforts and imaginings, we don’t actually know what future we’re shaping. What does it mean to shape that future intentionally and in a committed way, even when you’re not actually sure what it is you’re shaping? And that lack of clarity, the bravery I think it takes to move in a clear direction without knowing where you’re going is what organizing is. And it’s what Black radical imagination is, and that’s really what I wanted to highlight. That another world is coming even if we don’t know its name. Even if we don’t know what it’s going to look like, our work is still shaping it and the choices that we make and the struggles we commit ourselves to are what will ultimately bring it into being. 

TAW: That’s beautiful. Thank you. Is there anything that you feel you don’t know yet about this piece? That you may never find out about this piece, or maybe during these shows you will find out, but you can’t tell yet if you will? Like what you just said about not knowing…

BH: Tell me if this is a response to your question. When I wrote Dancer as Insurgent, I wrote it as a Black studies major in my predominantly white university. I was very clear about the message I wanted to send and the last poem in Dancer as Insurgent is literally called “Thesis Statement.” So no one was going to come and see this performance and not know what I wanted them to know and what this art form means to me and what it means in a space like this. It’s been challenging for me to write a piece where I don’t have a thesis and “here’s the clear thing you must take away from this piece.” I have my own interpretations, but I don’t think they’re universal interpretations. Other people may have really different interpretations or relationships to the art forms themselves. I’m trying to be okay with that and accept that, actually recognize that that is, again, part of what makes these things so powerful. Is this thing liberatory or oppressive? Is this thing breaking open old systems or actually inscribing them? 

Actually, I don’t have an answer, and I’m not sure there is an answer, and my answer might be different than someone else’s. What does it mean to be okay with that? To go in and try my best to absorb and scrape out the richness of these forms without needing a clear judgment or a clear, “This is what this means and doesn’t mean,” but instead to let the forms speak for themselves and teach me rather than me using them to teach.

The premiere of World After This One, a movement and spoken word performance by interdisciplinary artist Benji Hart, will take place across three weekends at three separate Chicago venues, for a total of four performances: March 8, 2024 at Escuelita Bombera de Corazón; March 14, 2024 at Green Line Performing Arts Center; and March 22 + 23, 2024 at Steppenwolf Theater.

Tara Aisha Willis is a dance artist, independent curator, and writer. She holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from NYU and is currently a Lecturer in the Dance Program of the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies at University of Chicago. She has served as Curator of Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and previously as a programmer for Movement Research in NYC, where she co-founded the Artists of Color Council. Select writings appear in publications by Center for Art, Research and Alliances; Getty Research Institute; Danspace Project; Center for Book Arts; The Black ScholarWomen & PerformancePerformance ResearchBrooklyn RailMovement Research Performance Journal; Wendy’s Subway, and forthcoming from University of Illinois and Soberscove Presses. She has performed for Will Rawls, Kim Brandt, Yanira Castro, Paulina Olowska, devynn emory, Anna Sperber, and others.