A Choreographer Dances Out His Feelings About Race and Religion

There are signs that a child is born to dance. In Kyle Marshall’s case, it was clear early on: He performed in the living room to an audience of stuffed animals.

“There’s photo documentation,” he said recently, with the hint of a smile.

Dance classes came next. “My parents were both athletes, and I come from a family of runners,” Mr. Marshall said. “My father was in the ’84 Olympics. So I grew up in a family of high-achievers. They encouraged me to dance. They encouraged me to take it seriously.”

Not only has Mr. Marshall, 29, taken his career seriously but the contemporary dance world has taken it seriously, too. His company’s engagement at BAM Fisher, Wednesday through Saturday, carries weight: He is the only local choreographer included in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival under its new artistic director, David Binder.

“I’m trying not to think about it too much, but I do feel a pressure,” Mr. Marshall said. “I think there is a certain expectation.”

For Mr. Marshall, that expectation includes presenting — and representing — both New York City dance and black dance. He’s in a strong position to do so. In 2018, he was awarded the Juried Bessie Award — its main aim is to support choreographers with touring and residency opportunities — for making work that looks at “ideas around race and sexuality.” At the same time, Mr. Marshall is an admired member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. (He will continue with the company through June, he said, then he’ll focus on his own work.)

At the Next Wave Festival, Mr. Marshall will present his acclaimed “Colored,” which explores ideas about blackness, including what it’s like to work in primarily white realms; and the premiere of “A.D.,” about the influence of Christianity on the black body.

“A.D.” was created in collaboration with a tight-knit group of fellow graduates from Rutgers University — Oluwadamilare Ayorinde (called Dare), Bria Bacon, Miriam Gabriel and Myssi Robinson. The production, which includes quotes from the Bible — a recent rehearsal had the cast chanting variations on “until the flood came and took them all away” — is arresting for its formalism and expressive, full-bodied movement that is layered with religious iconography.

Charmaine Warren, an associate producer at BAM and an early supporter of Mr. Marshall, admires his committed approach. “He’s delving into his heart and his culture,” she said. “That makes me feel good — there’s so much to be said, and not enough of these artists who say they’re making work about the black tradition in dance are really bringing it fully forward. I think he’s sticking to this trajectory.”

Growing up in New Jersey, Mr. Marshall attended a Presbyterian church that was on the conservative side. “My father’s family grew up in a Pentecostal church, kind of more shouting and a bit more physical exultation,” he said. “It wasn’t controlling the rules of his house, but it did create the culture.”

Mr. Marshall does not attend church services now, but, he said, “we need more space to think of ourselves as being elevated.”

“I think we need to think that there’s something better than these elections or this world that is literally burning and flooding,” he added. “If I were to believe in the Bible, I would say these are biblical times.”

In an interview, Mr. Marshall spoke about examining his religious upbringing, performing the dances of a postmodern master while choreographing his own works and developing a close-knit dance family. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Is there a connection between “Colored” and “A.D.”?

“Colored” was an exploration of blackness and its spectrum, and one of the final sections of is a section that we call “Gospel,” which kind of references black church culture. I started to think a bit more about my own experience of growing up in a black church. I became curious about how I related to this thing as I was getting older.

What are your questions?

I’m looking at how I was influenced by those experiences, both positively and negatively. What are the ways that Christianity shaped my morality?

You’ve talked about how in religious imagery angels are depicted as white and demons are black. Do you relate that to the way the black body is viewed in society?

If we want to undo some of the white supremacy that’s within religion, we have to shift how we understand some of those images.

There are all these stereotypes that people associate with this body. Especially in America, we see the black body as something that feels almost superhuman in strength or agility and is hypersexual. Those things are idolized — people want to do all those things that people assume black bodies can do — and seen as negative.

Has “A.D.” affected your view of Christianity?

It’s reminded me that religion is not just ideology; it’s culture. So when I visit my grandparents in Jamaica, I could say, “I’m not going to go to church with you on Sunday,” but that feels like it’s against the culture. It’s definitely made me see the importance of spiritual thinking.

In what way?

It’s not just the physical form, but there’s another form that exists: You feel it when you leave a black church and you have a rush, or the music gives you chills. I like to think that in building “A.D.” the audience can become a congregation. It can become a space where people can reflect. So it’s not just audience-performer. I think this work is calling for a different kind of attention.

It’s so interesting that while your work explores issues of race and religion, you also perform Trisha Brown’s dances, which are more austere explorations of space and time. How did you end up there?

I auditioned. I was really into the work and her ideas, but I didn’t know anyone in the company. I was really shocked.

What is it like for you as a choreographer to be living inside the dances of a master?

I’m learning a lot about how she made her works and her values and her ideas. There are some things about the experience that feel very different than my process and how I would like to work.

How is that?

I am interested in the people in the room. Trisha’s work, because it’s so abstract, is interested in other things. I consider the person in the material — their impulses, their questions. My space is definitely more collaborative. I don’t like to use the term “dancers.”

What do you prefer?

“Collaborators” or “performers.” “Dancer,” “choreographer” creates too much hierarchy. It’s not helpful. And they are all artists in their own right. That’s important if we want to undo some of the power dynamics that are in the dance field. With the five of us, it’s a softer way of working.

One thing that’s unusual is how close your company is: You and Myssi have lived together since college, and Dare, Brea and Mimi live together as well. How do you navigate that and also remain in charge?

It’s definitely me directing the room. How we work is a lot more sensitive to them. These relationships aren’t just because of housing. These are close friendships. I like to think of my work as a container, a history of time. That’s really starting to come into focus.

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