Navigating both ‘macro-questions’ pertaining to issues of identity, race and gender and ‘micro-questions’ tracing, for example, the subtle tremor between two bodies, San Francisco-based choreographer Maurya Kerr’s work resonates like a protest song, gathering courage and unearthing shushed brutal truths. Founder and artistic director of tinypistol and an ODC Theater artist-in-residence, Kerr presents PoemAnthemSong at the Walking Distance Dance Festival this weekend. In the SPEAK column of In Dance, Kerr evoked the texts that are at the origin of PoemAnthemSong and the questions that she grappled with during the creative process. Kerr and I talked over the phone last month. Below are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Marie Tollon: When you started poem : one, did you know you were starting a trilogy?
Maurya Kerr: I think I had a vague sense — I did call it poem : one — but I thought it was going to be a series of duets. In the interim between poem : one and starting the other two pieces, I finished grad school and felt confused as to what kind of medium I wanted to work in artistically. In school I was grasping with different questions: How can movement be effective? How do I want to participate in the economy of movement? After three months of hibernation after grad school, I went back into the studio without any expectation. Unexpectedly, I was invited to D.I.R.T. and The Black Choreographers Festival, and I felt it was the perfect opportunity for me to possibly extend the work into a trilogy. And also poem : one was very text based and I wanted to figure out a way for text to be the through line.
MT: You used text as a springboard. poem : one is inspired by Lydia Davis’ Head, Heart and anthem : two by the National Anthem. Was there a text support for song : three?
MK: We looked at the texts of fairy tales as the base, words and images and ideas around Swan Lake, so it’s based on text in a more abstract way than the other two.
MT: You mentioned that text has helped you avoid what you call “movement habits and affinities.” What other tools did you use, if any, to move away from familiarity?
MK: anthem : two and song : three are much more politically motivated — I think everything has to be right now. We can’t create in a vacuum. It’s also due to my own confusion around choreography: Is it a force in the world to affect change? The elections forced that to the forefront. I feel that my voice has always been about feminism. How can it be about broader subjects, embedded in the time that we are now? I said in the [In Dance] article I have been grappling with my own blackness for so long and trying to figure out a way to work with that in art. I’ve written a lot about blackness but there is a different audience, risk and exposure for me with dance. There’s less of a stereotype for what ‘black writing’ is than with ‘black dance.’ It’s been a harder thing for me to navigate in terms of race. I make ‘black dance’ because I’m black but that’s not how I feel the dance community in general sees it.
MT: A 2005 poll showed that many adults knew neither the lyrics nor the history of the National Anthem. It is one of many examples of a narrative loaded with meaning and perpetuating power structures that we inherit and carry through without questioning. At a panel discussion around resistance and activism last April, Larry Arrington and Amara Tabor-Smith were questioning where we have taken those structures in our body. As a dancer and choreographer, I wonder if you could talk about that?
MK: One thing that I often think about is that I never refer to dancers in my company as “my dancers.” That actually feels really weird to me. But it’s hard to find language that doesn’t say that without feeling awkwardly clumsy: “These are the dancers that work with me!” Ownership is a part of the system, and is patriarchal. Ownership is white supremacy. I cringe when I hear someone say: “These are my dancers.” No, they’re not!
But if the system is totally egalitarian, it breaks down. Having a woman and a person of color in the front of the room is already a very different dynamic. For the work that I’m trying to make, there has to be someone in charge, someone with the final say. Some of the structures in the system are in place because they need to be, but we can all be aware how we treat people in the studio. I try to have very encouraging and hard-working expectations of our time together. I think it shows in how the dancers work -they are hungry and I feel like they feel supported and respected and loved.
MT: With beast, you explored ugliness and the kind of space it created. With this work you are summoning rage as a tool of protest. Can you talk more about that?
MK: As an artist, as a writer and someone who creates, I’m always interested in the underbelly, whether that is ugliness or rage. All the richness is there. Those are things that as women we are not supposed to be and as people of color we’re expected or presumed to be. I’m interested in trying to explore the power and the beauty in those epithets. So much in classical ballet is the absence of those things. I have a lot of rage and I have a lot of ugliness and I’m trying to see how to exercise and exorcise those. I’m attracted by people who have that also. Rage is complex and fascinating.