Traveling To and Through the Cosmos of Blackness: An Interview with d. Sabela grimes

d. Sabela grimes’ ELECTROGYNOUS. Photo by Gema Galiana

In science fiction and fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin’s work, characters often travel through many forms of the gender spectrum. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the main protagonist, a woman named Yeine, falls for the god Nahadoth, who she soon discovers had breasts before being enslaved in a static male form. Before that, Nahadoth successively embodied both genders. Jemisin’s protagonists and stories percolate in my head as I listen to Los Angeles-based choreographer d. Sabela grimes talk about ELECTROGYNOUS. Presented as part of ODC Theater’s Walking Distance Dance Festival, ELECTROGYNOUS takes us beyond the gender binary within the context of AfroFuturistic sounds, projections and texts. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Marie Tollon: How did the creative process for this piece start?

d. Sabela grimes: ELECTROGYNOUS grows out of this undying desire to add more dimensions to what it means to be human. It is really about traveling to and through what I call a cosmos of Blackness. Where are these places, these dimensions, where we give ourselves permission and protection to be ourselves? And how does it show up in the worlds that we inhabit? I say worlds plural to get away from any ideas of a monolithic Blackness, and into a dynamic and dimensional Blackness.

A lot of my work has dealt with investigating Black masculinity. ELECTROGYNOUS extends beyond how I was previously treating notions of masculinity and looks at the spiritual qualities of gender. It is really about affirming that there is an infinite spectrum of gender qualities that we have access to and that we exemplify even if they are illegible to people who don’t know the codes. In ELECTROGYNOUS we travel the cosmos of Blackness but with a very focused meditations on gender qualities.

MT: Hearing you talk about gender makes me think of Thomas F. DeFrantz’s essay The Black Beat Made Visible: Hip Hop Dance and Body Power which you referenced in an interview. At some point DeFrantz questions whether softness is unwelcome in hip-hop. Softness is often associated with traditional representations of femininity so I’m curious how you dealt with these qualities movement-wise when navigating a multidimensional gender spectrum.

dSg: I understand the language around softness as being feminine and hardness as being masculine, but I would say that if you look at waving, would we say that it is a feminine form? Or would we say that the quality that we draw upon is feminine and valued? That’s the way I look at all these forms. You can’t be all hard in hip-hop. There is this discourse around attack — you have to attack a movement a certain way and that makes it hip hop- for a lot of people that are only invested in the shapes and/or in what the dance “looks” like. There are other sorts of languages where you are looking for nuance. Nuance isn’t always about a hard attack, nuance is an in-between, a combination of both feminine and masculine energies, if we are going to talk about it in dualistic terms. They operate as the same thing and at the same time. Now what is detectible and what is legible depends on how people frame something as masculine or feminine. My argument is that it is what it is and for us to be in discourse and have a sense of understanding we use this paradigm where duality exists. I think Black people globally are rooted in an understanding that there is more depth than how we are reducing things to masculine and feminine. If you look at spiritual traditions, a male body person can embody an Oshun or have Oshun as his head and a female body person can be covered by what would be considered a masculine Orisha.

MT: While in residency at MANCC (Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography) you looked at the history of Smokey Hollow, a black neighborhood of Tallahassee, Florida, eliminated by urban renewal in the 1960s. Did that history make its way in the piece and if so, how?

dSg: Yes, it’s part of the piece, but it’s not explicitly stated. There are certain movement ideas but also music that came out of our experience of going to Smokey Hollow and having conversations with my collaborators Meena Murugesan, Ursula Rucker and Mr. Maxx Moses, as a way of processing that information.

There’s so much history and deep investment of energy that the Black community in Tallahassee regenerates. When at MANCC we didn’t just go to the studio to work on a project. A vital part of what makes ELECTROGYNOUS what it is now has a lot to do with us being in that community, meeting people, taking that into the lab and exploring textually, visually, sonically, and movement wise how we were processing our daily experiences there and how those experiences, in that community, are a part of the overall conversation concerning these qualities and frequencies of gender.

MT: How did you navigate immersing in the past while composing a potential future in this piece?

dSg: For me it’s about being open. I’m very deliberate and intentional about working intuitively so that sort of approach allows space for time to be malleable, to be understood and to show up in the process in a different way.

MT: Did you draw from any specific Afrofuturist artists?

dSg: Yes, Octavia Butler influenced the show quite a bit. We had an amazing time visiting George Clinton’s and Parliament-Funkadelic’s recording studio. There’s Sun Ra of course. There are so many people I carry with me, both known and unknown, celebrated and uncelebrated: Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads; Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust; The Dogon mystical system; Homer Jackson who was one of my mentors.

MT: You mentioned that you have been working on this piece for 10 years. How has it evolved for you?

dSg: It was first going to be a solo piece, but when I went to MANCC, I realized there was no way I wanted to approach these things without having company. It was irresponsible to take that on as a solo project, even though one of the modules is a solo. The perspective of other people, the dancers and other performers on stage, has been priceless.

Early on, it was around Black masculinity and pushing against how Black male bodies are deemed hyper masculine. But I had a desire not to see it just through this perception disorder that we call white supremacy, so I pulled back and said: “OK, cool, I don’t want to even talk about white people, I want Black people to be within the circle that protects and permits and I want to have that conversation around the cosmos of Blackness.” Who are we when we are with each other? How do we dream, how do we speak things into existence without these other instigators? I think the piece has grown tremendously when it just focused on the cosmos of Blackness and, most importantly, when me and my collaborators created space for Black joy to be at the center of conversation. How do we talk about and meditate on joy?

MT: Can you describe Funkamental MediKinetics, the movement system you created?

dSg: Funkamental MediKinetics continues to grow out of a series of questions. How do I create a movement system that helps people learn basic fundamentals of Black social dance? What does it mean to build and sustain community through movements and moving together? At the core it is really about community building and K.O.S. Knowledge of Self — sharing space with people and learning something about yourself. How can I continue to grow and expand individually and make myself available to the community as a means to grow and expand collectively? Funkamental MediKinetics is a two-sided coin: the Funkamental part is funk as a state of being –what does it mean to be funky?- but it is also a very practical methodology — What am I doing with the body?

Black social dance is more than something you just consume and replicate or discard. What’s the deeper practice that each generation continues to reveal to us if we can see it? But how do we see and experience it? How do we teach feeling over counting for example? It’s a different endeavor and a different way of being, and most importantly how do we actively engage in this experience of it? As a facilitator and so-called dance teacher, it’s not all on me. You have to show up and be actively engaged in the process.