On being a black choreographer or something

This text was written in response to Media Diversified wanting to know what Project O has to say about our experiences as black choreographers. It wasn’t published in the end so here it is now:


It isn’t easy, and is probably impossible, to try to talk solely about our experiences as black choreographers whilst we are also women, able-bodied British women in our late twenties, children of the ‘80s born under Thatcher, and all the other intersections that overlap to make us who we are. And we are also two people. What we attempt to address as Project O – the politics of our identities and the problem of marginalisation and the all pervasive sometimes subtle workings of capitalist imperialist patriarchy on and against and through our bodies – is messy, complicated and all tangled up. We are messy, complicated and all tangled up.


To my mind, first I was a choreographer and then a Black choreographer, a dancer then a Black dancer. This was not a choice. What does this point of distinction mean? How would it be to ask a white choreographer about their experiences? I would like to spend some time announcing whiteness as much as blackness is commonly, casually announced…to be honest, I cannot bear being so conspicuous. It is funny (or is the word ironic?) that being a person of colour is both to be startlingly obvious and invisible at the same time – the visible object, the invisible subject.


As a Black choreographer I have experienced being set apart from white choreographers, from friends I trained and worked with, I have wondered: with whom then do I/we fit? As artists making what has been referred to as experimental contemporary dance performance, our blackness is confusing because it does not mean that we work with urban styles, as people love to assume, for example the other day I was buying a coffee and the man serving me told me that I looked like a hip hop dancer. (He also told me that I must be flexible…). As a Black choreographer I have experienced an alienation, set apart also from organisations doing the important work of supporting Black artists, but often only those either from the Diaspora (more recently than us) or working with the dances of the African Diaspora. I sometimes feel that we are being told to ‘stick to our own’ dances. Although conversely, there are many visible Black dance companies working with and supporting Ballet…


I worry about the assumption of the aesthetic unity of blackness, I guess that this is marginalisation and the problem of the lack of visibility around alternatives. I would like to tear down the assumptions about the way the experience of being black can impact form, taste and aesthetic. I worry that because our work perhaps offers some sort of ‘alternative’, that this is the reason we are offered certain opportunities, rather than on the merits of the work itself, but then, can these two things really be separated?


Our work has been criticised for becoming the thing it seeks to critique, because our shaking brown bottoms and gyrating pelvises are just the same as those ones on television, those shaking bottoms that objectify women and are mimicked by young girls. That we are looking to critique those women and those bottoms is a problematic assumption: we are those women and those bottoms, we love those women and those bottoms but we are also other things too, multiple.  The critique, is on the gaze bestowed on those bottoms and the work towards recognising and transforming the oppression within that gaze, is not solely ours.


This is something we often confront (particularly in contemporary dance spaces), being told directly or being led to feel that it is we who bring ‘the race question’ into the room, onto the panel discussion, into the work. Again, the neutralisation of whiteness. Our having the so-called ‘race card’ means that we spend most of our time discussing race politics and little time discussing the technical aspects of our choreographic practice.


Something exhausting I can talk about as a Black, female choreographer is anger, and the expectation of audiences and programmers around the manifestation of our anger in the work. The desire for us to be exhausting, revealing and exploding and confrontational on stage, for our anger to tense our muscles and distort our faces in one fucking incredible dance. At first, we were afraid to become the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman so as not to be repellent; her rage is so often dismissed, written off as something of no importance, a mere a spanner in the works that can, and should, be tossed aside because it’s ruining it for everyone else; her anger is accusatory, calling into question the privilege of those it shines over. It turned out that many people saw us as fun and not angry. (We turned this frustrating experience into a performance – BYBG or Be Your Black Girlfriend). Now, I am afraid that the anger is not repellent but attractive, a commodity I do not want to supply. I have come to think that the only sane response to this world is rage but that this can be expressed in all sorts of ways, and it can be a generative force for change.