Interviews

“I Do Believe in a Speaking Brown Body”: Okwui Okpokwasili’s Dance Becomes a Documentary

The dancer and choreographer’s breakout solo performance Bronx Gothic is the subject of a new documentary by Andrew Rossi at Film Forum.

Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary <em>Bronx Gothic</em>, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)
Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name (all images courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

When I first saw Okwui Okpokwasili perform in 2010 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, she flung herself about the stage in explosive free-fall, and then stood alone at center-stage and cried in anguish for five minutes. I have since seen her perform many times in Lemon’s work, as well as in her own, which sits somewhere between dance and theater. In each performance, Okpokwasili transforms. Each time I am taken by her total immersion into the complex psychology of her characters; her total embodiment.

Okpokwasili’s work is often concerned with the gaze of her audience, and how the readings of a black performing body can be subverted and renegotiated. Her solo performance Bronx Gothic — a faux-autobiographical reckoning with growing up as a young black girl in the Bronx, and winner of the 2014 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production in Dance — is now the subject of a documentary by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) currently screening at Film Forum.

When I sat down with Okpokwasili at the Daily Press on Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn, she had just arrived on a delayed red-eye flight from Los Angeles. It was her husband’s birthday, and she hadn’t managed to get him a present yet. I got the sense that her frantic energy is less a drain and more the fuel that sustains her. We chatted about everything from why treadmills are better for your knees to why wealthier neighborhoods have more dog shit until, after about 20 minutes, we remembered to talk about her upcoming film, her performance practices, and what it was like to give creative control of such a personal work to Rossi.

Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

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Rennie McDougall: I’m interested in performing for a camera’s eye, whether you were aware of a shift there. And even seeing yourself viewed through the camera’s eye, how your physicality, which seems so much about an exchange with live viewership, maybe gets distilled into just the visual.

Okwui Okpokwasili: I didn’t think of performing for the camera. I was still in the space with all the folks. Also, sometimes when I’m trying to make movement, I feel like I’m constructing a very specific internal psychic landscape that I’m traversing, so sometimes it’s weird when I see it on film, and I think: “That looks crazy! And kind of mad; wild and ugly.” In Bronx Gothic, I was looking for these spaces I could go to that were at the extremes of my rage, or the attempt to kind of find what it takes to keep going. You feel beaten, somewhat brutalized, and to keep going, you’re not going to stop.

As a woman of color, growing up in a space where there are certain standards of beauty that I could never hope to attain — and obviously there are woman of color who can — but I just feel like I occupy a specific space where I felt invisible, or where there were not reflections of me in the larger cultural landscape. And I wanted to break down “Who gets to determine beauty and symmetry? Who gets to shape and make those standards and imprison us in them?” I want to see beyond that space.

RM: There is such an interesting thing that I thought happened in this piece, between specificity and storytelling, and then this idea of infiniteness or possibility. And because you’re working between mediums — dance and theater — those collisions can happen. It made me realize that there’s a history within dance of sometimes denying the specifics of personal experience. I wonder if that’s maybe why storytelling became a part of your work.

OO: My ignorance of the dance canon might help a little bit. Because I come from theater. But of course I have been exposed to Yvonne Rainer, Judson Church, and all of the ways that people tried to find something and undermine all of the outdated principles — these imperatives that really were imprisoning.

RM: When you were talking about beauty and symmetry — that language is very loaded in dance.

OO: Yes! And I’m like, no! There is no fucking harmony right now. So I refuse that. I refuse! And I think that maybe these imperatives from the 1960s … I’m not saying that they were political necessarily, but the act of abandoning these sanctioned structures of how to make something, and then what should ultimately be exposed, is maybe a political act. When you get to what people were making in the ’70s and the ’80s as AIDS was ravaging the community, people were finding ways to make languages that could address what was actually happening to them.

To me the body isn’t just in the moment. It’s not only architectural. I think the body is an architecture; it does shape space. But I think that our bodies are so heavily imbued with readings and positions; for me, particularly a black woman’s body. If I were to stand up in the middle of a room and just start yelling; perhaps it’s not a beautiful sound, it’s not a song, and it’s not understandable language. I’m just yelling a sound. There are going to be readings that I’m not in control of, or that I didn’t intend. The hope is that I try not to be too over-determinative, so that at least people can confront the way they are reading.

Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)
Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

RM: Speaking of not necessarily an overt politics, but the idea of politics. It’s infuriating to think that the current political situation impacts or changes the way we see everything, but I can’t help wondering how Bronx Gothic shifts or changes now?

OO: Just looking at how social media has made acts of state violence against brown bodies incredibly apparent, and transmitting it over the landscape in a very present way. Even though you could say that images of state violence against black bodies is not a new thing. But a general cultural agreement that that is violence might be new. Whereas before it was sport, or those bodies had no agency or subjectivity.

Clearly with what just happened [last month] when the police officer who murdered Philando Castile was acquitted, and it’s very confusing. Or maybe it’s not confusing. But I’m like, “We have video,” and we see that this man, this police officer … I would say that his state, his consciousness of fear, is something that needs to be addressed. This fear of a brown body, a black body, that’s the condition that he was in that allowed him to keep pointing a gun at a man who was bleeding out, a four-year-old black girl in the back of the car, and a woman sitting in the midst of this trying to navigate this man’s fear.

The point I’m trying to make is that we are still living in this thing. How do you make the space to let people view the brown body, and then to somehow have some kind of connection? But also to understand what their relationship is and to be able to understand what they might be putting on it, and how to have an awareness of what they see?

RM: That feels like such a vital question in terms of, when you talk about how we see the footage now on social media, there is so much visibility now, and for some reason that still isn’t enough. So that question of then what is visibility doing? Or how can visibility be used to connect, or initiate change?

OO: That’s a really good point. How does visibility sort of just inure you to that violence? How does it kind of dull the senses? And one would say that there is a tradition in this country of looking at violence, and violence at black bodies. Years ago, there was an exhibit of lynching postcards. You see charred, hanging, disfigured black bodies hanging from trees, and white folks picnicking under them — young children smiling. And then written on the back of the postcard, “Wish you were here.” So, there is this tradition and this legacy of that violence being meaningless, or it’s happening to a body that doesn’t have a subjective life. So yes, how do you frame it? Maybe someone could argue, you’re looking at this character that I’ve made, and why is it different, or what does it do differently? If anything, I feel like the space creates a relationship. There’s this live relationship, and the importance of direct address. I do believe in a speaking brown body.

We have audiences — and young folks, young women of multiple colors and hues — who may not have been exposed to performance at all. So they’re looking at something that may seem formless or it’s not immediately apparent, like: “Is this dance? What is this?” I hope the film reveals that. Also, the conversation I had with Andrew about the specific concerns that I have: the memory of being a brown girl in a country that didn’t see me. And particularly a brown girl that wanted to do performance, or was interested in a landscape of storytelling and being, and trying to find reflections of that outside and not seeing that. So I hope it does that too.

Growing up, I would feel alive when I saw performance. There was something about it. I felt the electricity. I wanted to see people dance and sing. Watching my mother dance, or watching people at a party, or watching them argue. Just watching people try to reach each other was always really exciting and interesting to me, whatever way they did it — sometimes fighting. But I want to push that, to say: Here’s the expectation we have around a black performing body, and I want more space. I want more than that.

Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)
Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

Bronx Gothic runs through July 25 at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, West Village, Manhattan).

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