Hometown: St. Croix, Virgin Islands
Current city: New York
College and degree: BS Newspaper Journalism, Florida A&M University
Graduate school and degree: MFA Choreography & Performance, Case Western Reserve University @ age 30
How you pay the bills: Producing, performance, choreography, facilitation, project management
Non-dance work you do or have done in the past:
For the past decade, I have made my living as an artist, administrator and facilitator, but before that I was a newspaper reporter and editor, magazine freelancer, waiter, personal assistant, and teaching artist.
Describe your dance life….
20s: A decade of longing to dance, until I realized that if I didn’t try I would “live a life of regret.” That sounded horrible, so I decided to leave the “security” of my career as a journalist for a life in dance.
30s: Living in my power, the happy intersection of peak form and mature spirit. Dancing with Urban Bush Women was a centerpiece of this decade. Also danced in amazingly diverse projects, from Liz Lerman’s large-scale touring show about the origins of the universe to Jill Sigman’s improvisatory ensemble work exploring sustainability and the uncertain future to Marjani Forté’s examinations of structural racism and mental illness.
Paloma dancing with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange; photo by Astrid Riecken
40s: Feeling clearer about my broader purpose and unique skills, and leveraging my assets for the good of both the specific visions I want to develop and the visions of others.
Major influences and inspiration:
I admire a lot of artists, but in terms of how to make, live and be in the world I look to family…
- My mom, for whom Angela’s Pulse is named - an artist, teacher, activist and force of nature. My mantra: What would Angela do?
- My sister, Patricia, a generous free spirit who is grace under fire.
- My husband, Kofi, whose flexibility and understanding make the partnership work.
- My daughter, Olamina Ayo, who is literally “my wealth and joy.”
Urban Bush Women; Paloma McGregor, far right
Can you talk about your time with Urban Bush Women? How did you get into the company (audition, workshop, seen in classes)? Please talk about your growth as a performer during that time…..
When I was 20 years old, I interviewed Jawole Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women, for a newspaper where I was an intern. I had given up serious dance study as a teen, after a series of moves around the country, and when I met Jawole I was a senior at Florida A&M University, studying journalism. Her vision of dance rooted in the undertold stories of the African Diaspora stuck with me; she planted a seed idea in me - that I could combine my interest in amplifying our voices AND dancing.
A decade later, after leaving behind my journalism career to earn an MFA in dance, I moved to New York in the hopes of working with UBW. A year later, the company had an audition to replace one member of the 7-woman ensemble. More than 100 people showed up. During the weeklong audition I performed my own solo work, partnered on a new duet with a company member and sang Happy Birthday to Jawole. By the last day there were less than 10 of us left – and I was the only one in my 30s.
When I got the job, one thought quickly emerged: Now what? What happens when you achieve what seems like an impossible goal?
First, you try to enjoy being. It quickly became clear that I had joined a sacred tradition of truth tellers and medicine women. I got to be a part of the sweat-and-tear soaked development of one of Jawole’s most impressive master works – Walking With Pearl: Southern Diaries – in which we performers had to inhabit the terror, resilience and hope experienced by black southern sharecroppers. The work, rooted in pioneering artist/anthropologist Pearl Primus’ journals of her time in the south, won Jawole her first Bessie Award for Choreography. And it allowed me to hone a deep landscape of emotional terrain, technical consistency and a reservoir of energy as a performer. All of those skills would serve me in the six years I danced with the ensemble, as well as in the development in my own work.
Brooklyn Arts Exchange open studio of Building a Better Fishtrap (paper ocean created by Sara Jimenez); photo by Sara Jimenez
What is on your calendar for 2016 (teaching, choreographing, performing, writing, organizing)?
2016 has been a busy year. Importantly, it is the year my daughter turned one. Having a child has created a new framework to which everything I do must relate. So for 2016, I’ve had to say “no” to significant things, including invitations to serve on a half-dozen panels (including the Bessie Committee – which was very difficult to give up). I am serious about the commitments I make, so I’d rather say no to something I’d love to do than say yes and do a bad job.
The things I’ve said yes to for the first half of the year are primarily my own work, including:
- January: co-facilitating The Gathering, a forum for black women dancers and allies created by Camille Brown; Open Studio showing of my developing work Building A Better Fishtrap/Part 2 at Brooklyn Arts Exchange
- February: producing Dancing While Black: On Fertile Ground (part 1), a weeklong residency for four black women choreographers in New Orleans
- March: producing Dancing While Black: jumpin fences, a showcase of works in process by 7 members of the DWB 2015-16 Fellowship; teaching The Political is Personal workshop at Gibney Dance
- April: producing Dancing While Black: On Fertile Ground (part 2), a performance at New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center
- May: producing Dancing While Black: Healing and Holding Our Selves, a daylong event at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance focusing on self-care and celebration
- June: presenting Building a Better Fishtrap/Part 2 – an installation-based solo - as the culmination of my 2-year artist residency at Brooklyn Arts Exchange
What are you exploring with your residency at BAX?
I’m in my second year as an artist in residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange, where I’m developing a solo iteration of my Building a Better Fishtrap. The work is rooted in my 90-year-old father’s vanishing fishing tradition and explores what we take with us, leave behind and return to reclaim. I have begun collaborating with visual artist Sara Jimenez, who has been exploring similar questions in relationship to her grandmother and the Philippines, and Everett Saunders, a composer/sound designer with whom I worked on the ensemble iteration. The work will likely be a “supported solo,” meaning there may be other performers in the space with me tasked with tracking my journey in structured ways.
What does collaboration mean to you in your artmaking?
Collaboration for me is an invitation to conversation. Collaboration is foundational to my practice. Collaboration is much more fun than being alone.
Can you talk Angela’s Pulse - directing it and co-founding it? What is at the heart of the organization?
In the Fall of 2008, I had a lot of sleepless nights. I had just emerged from a horrible roommate situation and was doing a lot of thinking about my artistic path. One night, I began penning notes for what would become Angela’s Pulse. At the heart of Angela’s Pulse is an investment in creating and supporting work that values hybridity, community and underrepresented stories.
2015-2016 Dancing While Black Fellows
With Dancing While Black, what projects are happening in 2016? How can artists get involved?
Dancing While Black is really in a pivotal place this year. We have launched a big project in New Orleans, in partnership with longtime ally Junebug Productions, which centers on cultural exchanges between black choreographers and black communities. The work was funded by the Surdna Foundation and Dance/USA (Doris Duke Foundation). The project takes place in two parts. In February, four black women choreographers, representing three generations of artistic work, spent a week in New Orleans teaching workshops and attending cultural events; they will return in April to continue the exchanges and perform their work. This is a pilot for what we hope will be ongoing engagement with New Orleans and other communities with Historically Black Colleges.
In addition, last week was the culmination of the NYC-based DWB Fellowship for emerging artists. Seven choreographers shared experiments and visions in progress after spending the past 6 months building community, participating in master classes and sharing their ideas in a public discussion. Creating space for a range of hybrid voices – coming together in fellowship, respecting their differences and common ground – is critical to me. After launching a pilot fellowship in 2014, this year’s cohort was the next step toward my goal of more ongoing support for community building and professional development among black dance artists – particularly those working in modes that push the bounds of the form while examining the role of blackness in their making and being.
In May, our annual event at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance will be a daylong forum on self-care and celebration. It will be free and open to the public, and is being organized by Angela’s Pulse team member Nia Austin-Edwards.
We are also fundraising right now, which is a necessary part of offering more resources to artists and communities. For more information about our programs, and to contribute to this work, folks can visit angelaspulse.org.
You are involved with many aspects of dance as an organizer, performer, and choreographer. What do you love about wearing many different hats? What challenges can this pose?
Many years ago, I stopped believing the warning about being a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none and started saying that I was “jacking all the trades, and mastering them too.” I am from the Caribbean. Accumulating many skills is part of my cultural heritage in a landscape where such multiplicity is expected. So, for instance, a lawyer back home in St. Croix – who went to Brown University – is also a jazz singer and runs two radio stations. Adaptability and invention are a part of our legacy as members of the African Diaspora. I celebrate that.
Of course, I have been strategic about my development. I studied journalism as an undergrad and did five professional internships before I was 22 and landed in my first job as a reporter at the largest newspaper in Ohio. At 27, I went back to school to get my MFA in dance – three years of intensive study – before moving to New York. So I have “focused” at various times in my life on a particular pursuit.
Though I do have a great hat wardrobe in real life, I don’t think of my pursuits as wearing many hats, which feels too externalized. Rather, like in dance practice, I have worked to integrate my multiple skills in a deeply embodied way that is connected to my core values and vision.
Advice to dancers wanting to move to NYC:
Give it more than a year. If you want to understand what NYC has to offer you, give it at least three; if you want to get to show what you have to offer New York, give it 10.
If you have your sights set on a particular company, find out how to dance with choreographers who come from/work with that company, so you build some specific, related skills and networks.
This is not such a big city. And it’s a tiny field. Do your best work in all you do – from waiting tables to performing at The Joyce. You never know when your actions will work for or against you, so make being your best self your practice – in the studio and out. I’ve experienced young artists diminish their possibilities with short-sighted actions that burned strong advocates, including myself; such actions often have long range negative consequences on their trajectory, sometimes without them even realizing what they’ve done and how it cost them opportunities.
Don’t spend all your money on where you live. My first room in New York didn’t have any natural light and barely fit the double bed, but I never worried about making enough for rent, even when I quit all my day jobs during my first year to focus on just dancing. Be safe, but don’t be fancy.
New York is a good place to grow, gain perspective and hone your voice. There is an audience for everything in New York, which you can’t say about most places, which allows you a freedom to be authentic. But New York is not the only place to be an artist, and increasingly is pricing us out; so if it’s not for you that’s OK.
Final thoughts: Hope/belief/love of the profession:
As I move through this landscape and accumulate markers of what some call success, my hope is to always be emerging. For some, emerging means undeveloped; but for me it means pushing beyond my known, acknowledging with my practice that I am endlessly striving, endlessly curious, endlessly a student of this time and my place in it. That, to me, is what it means to be an artist and to be alive.