On the Intersectionality of Dance and Social Change
By Sabrina Sellers
Last year, as a member of the Training Program with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet I spent the year quietly admiring the ferocity of former Lines dancer, artistic director of tinypistol, and social change warrior, Maurya Kerr. As a teacher for the Training Program and the Lines BFA Program with Dominican University, Kerr shared with me her thoughts on ballet, contemporary and their place within the presumed dichotomy of dance and social change.
How did you get into dance, and what made you want to stay?
I went to “The Nutcracker” when I was probably 5 or 6, and was absolutely enchanted. You just fall in love with it and there’s no reason necessarily. A woman who lived with us — she was kind of like a second mom, big sister — used to be a professional dancer, so she knew where to put me. I ended up going to a really good school, and I kept doing it ‘cause I was really good at it. I had a natural affinity for it, and I love working hard. There’s no better thing if you love to sweat and work hard and feel your body. Just the discipline of it was very appealing.
And then transitioning from a more classical base and coming to a contemporary company with Lines, how did you know that was something you wanted to do?
It totally just happened. I had been classically trained, and I danced in Balanchine companies for 5 years. And ended up retiring because I had a horrific experience. I had a director who was really emotionally abusive, and I became severely anorexic. I had to stop, basically to not die. I was hospitalized for anorexia, and I thought I had retired because I didn’t think it was possible to dance and be healthy.
I went to school full time for a year and missed dancing, so I started taking classes again and started auditioning and kept getting told I was too tall. I had heard about Alonzo’s company but, didn’t know anything [about it], and this was before the Internet.
So it’s actually a funny story. I ended up being in San Francisco over the summer with my family. I was freezing ’cause it’s freezing in San Francisco in the summer. I went and bought sweatpants, sweatshirts, scarf and went to go take class to get warm because I was freezing. It happened to be Alonzo teaching class. I didn’t know who he was at all. And at the end of class he offered me a job. And I was kind of like, “And you are?” And it was one of those meant-to-be situations, and I had no desire to change out of classical ballet. I hadn’t seen the company when I joined them, so I just showed up and I was given a videotape —“you have to learn this,”— and I was kind of like, what the fuck did I just do? I had no idea how to move like that or confidence I could move like that. So it was sort of unexpected and a trial-by-fire.
Did the difference in directors and also in experiences change how you felt about dance?
Absolutely. I vowed to myself that if any director ever commented about my weight, that I was leaving. I knew I could not survive in that environment. Alonzo has a lot of opinions about bodies, but he never had a negative opinion about mine. So he never commented in any way about my appearance. Alonzo’s philosophy around dance being a vehicle to get to freedom, completely changed everything. It changed how I danced and how I view dance and how I viewed life and myself. Absolutely. I had never been asked for my opinion as a dancer, and that’s all Alonzo wanted was my opinion. It was a big adjustment in my early twenties to come to this place where I was valued for my entirety, and I didn’t know how to navigate that.
Did that spark you to choreograph and potentially have your own company?
That was also completely accidental. I had always vowed that I would never teach and choreograph when I retire because everybody does that. And look at me now, but I was like I’m not going to do that. I was going to go to school and get a PhD and teach in academia. I was going to completely divorce myself from that world. I had to retire early because of injuries, so that alone put a wrench in the plan. I did my undergraduate through LEAP [with St. Mary’s College]. So for my senior project I actually choreographed for Cardinal Ballet. It’s the student-run ballet company at Stanford, and they had asked me to choreograph. So, I did it and fell in love with it, and the following summer did something for the [Lines] summer program. But I never wanted to do what I’m doing now. I am very happy about how things turned out, but I had never thought of myself as a choreographer. I only started a company, because I felt like I needed some sort of entity for grants as opposed to like, “Hey, like, it’s just me,” and I felt like I needed a [vehicle] to put myself out there for residencies and grants. That’s the only reason I started tinypistol.
What are you currently working on with tinypistol?
We’re doing Walking Distance Festival in June, which is a long ways away. Today was actually the second time we’ve gotten together. I’m trying to just have studio time with the dancers, with no pressure to produce. I think it’s really necessary, but also scary to really not know what I’m doing and to come into the studio and not know. So that’s an experiment. But I feel like I need that space to not have deadlines. Generally it’s been like, I have a show coming up and I have to create, and so I’m just trying to be.
In previous works where do you draw your inspiration from? Is it random or are there usually things that you pull inspiration from?
I tend to work always from text. I started choreographing when I was injured, so I couldn’t really manifest what I wanted, so the genesis of how I started to create was transcribing text into gestural movement and then amplifying the gestural movement into full body. That’s still pretty much how things happen. Today we were working on — I call it a “demented, Trump-pocalypse alphabet.” So I’m trying to create an A-to-Z of movements that have a disoriented, demented, drunken hopelessness.
That’s what it feels like. With this Trump presidency looming above us, what do you hope for dance in the next 4 years, especially as an agent to influence social change? Dance doesn’t get as much limelight as music or film does. Do you hope that dance will have a moment to say this is what we stand for as a community?
In the direct aftermath, what I really felt is there’s no time to waste, so I don’t have patience, I mean, I never have patience for laziness, but I feel really like we don’t have time to lolli about. We just need to get to work. I’m feeling this sense of urgency, that for the people who are in these [Lines] programs, this is the vehicle to express their political pride for freedom. Our body is the vehicle. These forms are how we are going to manifest that. I think there is something really special about dance being so embodied.
There’s something we read at grad school this summer. It was about looking at the choreographies of non-violent resistance. And it really is choreographic. It was an amazing article [written by] a grad student I think at Stanford or Berkeley. But just looking at the choreographies of the body in resistance.
We had our first tinypistol rehearsal last Friday, which was three days afterwards, and it felt so necessary to get in there and kind of weep, not literally, but weep with the body and protest and scream and be hopeful and be hopeless. To be able to have that physically, felt cathartic, but also felt like this is how we are going to win: through these art forms and through insisting on expression. When there have been fascist empires all around the world, that’s the time of most creativity. It forces artists to dig deeper and go underground. There’s fertile soil in that sense of having to overcome.
None of me wishes this happened, but I do feel like there is a different energy that comes out of elation and joy. I mean if Hillary had been president, oh my god, it would have been amazing, but I feel like it’s forcing us to dig deep. I’ve seen students turn around in a week just going, “Oh right. I have a duty.”
Although it doesn’t have to be, sometimes dance can be a bubble. How do we push ourselves to look outside of that bubble? Unfortunately it takes moments like this, but in other moments how do we look outside of this bubble and see what’s actually going on?
I think what this election has shown is that there’s a profound lack of empathy and ability to step into someone else’s experience. And I do feel like, again, we’ll talk about ballet because that’s what we’re in, but there are so few people of color, and it’s really the duty of everyone to step into those shoes. Like “What is it like to be the only one of something in a room?” And I’m more aware of it than ever too. I am always like, “Okay, there are two black people here.” That’s amazing. That’s ridiculous. What does that feel like to walk onto the bus and be the only black person? You know, how alienating must that be. Because I’m so light skinned, I haven’t had to experience that in the same way. I blend-in to both spaces pretty easily, and I’m even trying to be more aware. I’m also realizing that racism makes people crazy. People lose their minds. I think, people of privilege don’t want their privilege challenged. Period. So I think stuff gets really tense when you’re asking people to dismantle things that put them in power.
Especially with ballet in particular, how do we make it more accessible to people of color and low income but also recognizing that ballet, or concert dance as a whole, is still an elitist, European art form? How do make people of color feel like they can be allowed in those spaces?
I do feel like Misty Copeland has upped the black audience a hundred fold. So I think having those examples…. It’s always about starting at the beginning; having programs for young children to come in, and demystifying and decolonizing and decolorizing all of those systems, so that it isn’t abnormal to have black people doing ballet. Ballet actually needs you. The form needs people of color. It needs people of different body types. It needs people with different experiences so it doesn’t remain this out-of-touch, elitist form that no one wants to see. It is a dying form because it is catering to a very elite, old, dying, white society. You know it’s not going to survive in that atmosphere.
Dance is a female dominated field, but surprisingly not dominated up at the top. How do we change that encouragement towards women in dance?
I feel like a lot of it is just letting women know that they have a voice. I think very few women, at least in my generation, grew up wanting to be choreographers and every man does. The expectation just hasn’t been there that women choreograph. You need to have an opinion and a voice, which again, in the ballet paradigm women are stripped of. There’s going to be more luck in contemporary programs, and I do feel there is a lot of encouragement for young women to be choreographing. But it’s a question of having the young people grow up until they’re old enough to be in power, and also just the people who are in power, realizing they need to step down. There just needs to be new blood in there that’s aware of race and gender issues. We can’t have an all white male season for the tenth season in a row. It’s so ridiculous. It’s not even fathomable. There’s also fear of even when you’re given the platform how to express and how to stand up for one’s self. We need women of color speaking. We just do. So it becomes more normalized.
Do you think that this election, could potentially help ballet change? Or do you think it would take something else completely?
I have no idea what’s about to happen under Trump, I really I can’t. I think it’s going to be horrific, but we also live in a bubble in California and I feel really grateful. I think a lot of the toxicity is not going to hit us. I’ve been doing Facebook rants for a year and a half against San Francisco Ballet (SFB) about the lack of women and people of color in positions choreographing or even in the company, and I think that until there is financial pressure, they are not going to change. They have no reason to change. There’s not enough people that are going to boycott them — people that matter. Until white people with money decide black lives matter, it’s not going to change. I don’t know what it’s going to take. A bunch of people of color boycotting, SFB is not even going to feel it. So I think that is has to be the positions of power, and they are loathed to recognize otherness and dismantle their own complicity.
At Lines, the climate is different than at other places, but for those who are still in the rigid constructs of classical ballet, how do we let them know that it’s possible to find a voice both in and out of dance?
The institution of ballet silences women and silences people of color. It offers space for white men. That’s society too, but I think that ballet — even the fact that women are expected to be underweight; being underweight silences you. Period. You don’t have enough energy to speak. I think that the institution itself is not set up for people, particularly women and people of color to speak their mind. So I don’t know if that’s going to change. So then it’s the question of like, “Do I want to be in that institution?” And it’s even a question of self awareness; being aware that I’m being silenced because most people in those places don’t know that. They’ve grown up and they’re like, “Oh I’m supposed to be ten pounds underweight. This is just the way it is,” and it’s [not] until you step out, it’s hard to realize that you’re being oppressed. That the actual system and expectation is setup to diminish you. I mean literally and figuratively. So in those places, I don’t know that it’s going to change. [In regards to the election], we can protest. And I think even in the face of these regimes, all you can do is immerse yourself in your art. If we can’t actually fight back in any tangible way, in terms of policy, you can fight back by being a fucking amazing artist and not getting distracted by stuff that doesn’t matter.