anna martine whitehead interview

This conversation took place in March and an excerpt of this interview appears in the May issue of In Dance, published by Dancers’ Group. I asked Anna Martine Whitehead if the entire conversation could be posted here because there are so many incisive ideas about equity, access, and spaces where people are making and sharing their work.

kate mattingly: What do you think of the recent conversations about access to opportunities for women in dance?

Anna Martine Whitehead: I think it is complicated. In the article by Ismene Brown in The Spectator the title is “I’m having trouble finding an anti-woman conspiracy,” and I agree with that in that there’s a more complicated issue here that’s not necessarily about female bodies making choreography, but about broader access and issues.

There are two layers to this conversation, and to any conversation about access and affirmative action issues. There’s a need for people of color, trans and cis women, femme women, and genderqueer people to have access to performances and to reviews, but there’s another layer that’s about the work being made. That is: regardless of the body making it, does the work reproduce patriarchy?

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photo of Anna Martine Whitehead by Robbie Sweeny

That’s what is happening right now in the presidential campaign that to me is a great example: people who say, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have female president?’ For me I don’t think she’s going to bring a critical lens to imperialism, incarceration, or gender liberation to the presidency. So there’s an issue about female choreographers having access, but there’s another conversation that needs to be had that isn’t just about real world access but about what’s happening in the process of making work, and what the intentions of dance-makers are in creating work. And also not just choreographers but also the whole structure: the presenters, funders, and supporting structures.

It’s related to conversations I have been having, coming off of the FRESH festival, and here in Chicago we have this In Time festival, a kind of sprawling dance and performance festival in Chicago, which feels like a queer and female festival even though the director is a man––and to me that’s neither here nor there honestly. The feel of it, the choreographers and artists are mostly women and there is a feminine feel to it. There’s a conversation I’ve been having with organizers of Fresh, not so much in terms of artists but in terms of audiences and people participating in the workshops. We’ve been thinking about how can that be different, how can that be changed? The thing that is awesome about Fresh is that it’s very queer, Bay Area, very accessible to women, a kind of feminine feel to it, and it’s also made by queer people. What I think is also very “Bay Area” is that it’s a double-edged thing where if you don’t have people of color organizing a festival, and more importantly, if the issues of people are color are not central to your mission, then that’s going to frame it. There’s nothing is going to change. If you prioritize queer in your work, then it will feel like a queer project. If you prioritize issues addressing anti-blackness or racism in general then that will be the priority. There may be a legitimate concern for wanting bodies of color to be present in the space, but if you are not asking the question, “how can we bring the issue of eradicating racism to the center of our work?” or other issues that affect people of color, like housing justice, then the people of color are not going to be there.

km: Do you think issues of access and questions about what is central to artists are geographically different?

AMW: I love being in Chicago and feel very supported but what’s exciting about this place is monopolized by the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago Performance Studies project…. So how do I answer this question? The kind of dance I participate in is totally different from what many cities present as “dance” or “choreography.” Here in Chicago the group “Every house has a door” directed by Lin Hixson and Matthew Ghoulish just did a show and they have created a culture here that extends beyond their group and is an interesting, more experimental performance work that involves theatre. To me it is similar to the Bay in its mash-up of techniques and styles, and also in terms of the communities that it’s drawing from and relating to. Performance work in Chicago, and this is another similarity to the Bay Area, feels isolated to its communities and feels home-grown. You can see performance work in Chicago that’s clearly a Chicago work, and I feel that about the Bay Area too. I don’t feel that so much in New York. New York has more of an international feel to me. Which is both good and bad, at times it can be frustrating in any of these places.

km: What happens if we look at work by women in dance through more of an intersectional lens?

AMW: Yes intersectionality is totally relevant. It was in the London Dance article that discusses Crenshaw’s theories and that was a great point that they brought up: why is why is no one talking about Akram Khan as a person of color? A person who has a relationship to a historical movement and how important that is to how he situates his work in the world? I think that’s totally important and that’s something that in my experience of being in the Bay, and I lived in the Bay Area for 3 years, was that you could have really exciting work being made by white, queer people, and then you also have this totally other world which was work being made by primarily queer women of color, that was also a very vibrant world and looked really different, and these 2 worlds rarely merged or come together. They don’t seem to collaborate with each other. So I wish we didn’t have to explain intersectionality. I wish we didn’t have to explain why that’s relevant. I feel like everyone needs to understand why that’s relevant to everyone’s lives. Having multiple standpoints is the point of Crenshaw’s theory. Anyone can relate to that. Something that I feel in this historical moment in US and the world, is that we are in this Post-Post-Black moment, where people really wanted to be Post-Black I guess, and then it became apparent that that was not going to work and that in fact there is so much to love about being Black that we want to hold on to. It feels like this is a really challenging time of understanding how and what do we as people who understand ourselves as oppressed or impoverished people, what do we have in common with those folks we understand as our oppressors, and vice versa. The question becomes, “What’s our goal?” or “where are we going?” Is the goal to destroy the oppressor or to figure out a way to hold the multiplicity that we all share?

We saw that with the Rachel Dolezal thing. It was a really clear moment of people being afraid of someone transgressing race. For white people maybe it seemed funny but for a lot of Black people it was about a fear of, “you don’t have a right to come in to my territory,” and people were defining that territory as oppression and slavery and a privileged relationship to death and violence. People felt, and feel, an ownership over that privileged relationship to death and violence and that, to me, is not going to work. We’ve got to figure out how we can be ourselves and how we can honor and celebrate ourselves and also release the trauma that we all have. And that’s not just about Black folks. I want a world where everyone understands that they have a dynamic relationship to violence and a dynamic relationship to liberation. Everyone is always holding these things at the same time within themselves. Then, once you really understand yourself as an intersectional subject, you can start to think about how issues of incarceration, for example, are central to this festival, because you understand how incarceration affects all people and especially communities of color, so that’s a part of my struggle too, and I understand myself as somebody who shares those struggles with others.

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photo by Yenyen Chou

km: What are steps towards being able to create those dynamic relationships and recognizing that capacity in ourselves? Or another way to ask this is how do we shift those conversations and articles that bracket identities and issues as a “woman” thing or a “Black” thing?

AMW: Back to this idea of intersectionality: I see that people working in the arts sometimes feel divorced from these issues, but gender feels super-apparent in dance because it is a field where there are a lot of women dancers. There’s a ratio in terms of gender of dancers to choreographers that’s undeniable. I think there is a rich conversation happening now––and I hope it will happen more and more––that’s about working in the fine arts and in community arts. There’s a fear of being dragged down into the community arts and into the muck. I remember bring in grad school, and I went to school at CCA for Social Practice, so we were already in a really precarious relationship with the community arts world, but a lot of us are coming from a community arts background. I remember there was this idea that I heard on more than one occasion, “I’m not an arts therapist” or “I’m not a social worker.” It was important to people to make that distinction. What’s good to me is that people are making that statement and that we are in this slow and dramatic turn away from that distinction. How can we make work that’s really interested in formalism and also understand my work as always existing in the social world. That’s a place where we are going to. It just feels like it is taking a long time.

km: Yes. When you say that the person who comes to mind is Theaster Gates.

AMW: Yes, but if you bring up Theaster Gates and the racialization of this relationship, I think we have to see how what people always to do is make people of color do the labor of that work, and how artists like Ralph Lemon or Theaster Gates or Rick Lowe are existing in that bridge between fine arts worlds and socially engaged practices. These are the people we are looking to them to do that work. I don’t think we put that same imperative on white artists. That’s a habit we have that we have to stop having. It’s a bad habit we have and it’s about assuming that white people are specters that float above or that take and consume these practices. I really appreciated the panel for the FRESH festival that Eastside Arts Alliance was bought up and how there’s a certain history of being a community-based center but it is also starting to having a little more recognition beyond the Fruitvale community. That’s interesting because that’s a moment that’s really challenging to hold as the shift occurs but also really great.

km: Do you think it’s important for deciding bodies to pay more attention to equity?

AMW: Yes and I feel like there’s this other layer that’s not just about representation. I feel like sometimes I can go off o the critique and analysis and do better with actual steps. One thing that has come up in conversations with organizations of the FRESH festival and maryanna mentioned was that last year keith and sri louise dominated conversations about race and anti-blackness… I really appreciate FRESH, and they are trying, and they may be failing in some ways but they are informative and what I see is that is that yes, it’s an issue: there should always be more bodies of color and that’s always going to be true. There is nothing wrong with white people talking about race—they should do it more—but I think then you also have to make sure you are not just having a closed conversation among white people… to me that is evidence of really trying to think about curating the critical conversations we are bringing into the festival and not just making it about the bodies we are interested in having be present.

Beyond this, it is really about audiences and curating audiences. For a festival like FRESH, that feels regional and home-grown, there may be more connection to communities and I see something similar in American Realness, which can do a similar thing where you are not just curating artists but you are also curating audiences, in terms of the work that you do to prepare audiences for the performances. It’s about building the audiences that you want to have which is really hard when you are on a nothing budget. That’s part of the struggle. I do think there are ways to partner with entities that are doing that work. Or maybe that’s actually something that is lacking that we need: organizations or spaces that are invested in building critical arts audiences. I don’t know that we have that, except Eastside Arts Alliance, that’s a great example of an organization doing that work.

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photo of Mlondi in Whitehead’s interdisciplinary performance Treasure by Yenyen Chou

Maybe that’s part of the challenge: how do we build those critical audiences so it’s not just white people talking to white people, but everyone talking with everyone? We don’t have the money to do that, unless it’s about finding the institutions with the infrastructure to do that, like ODC.

I also think Destiny Arts Center is a good example. It would be great to see more partnership across these diverse institutions that are invested in the arts. I am trained in how to participate in the world of fine and performing arts. I value aesthetics and formalism, to some degree. I think there are things offered by the organizations and spaces that are less socially conscious than others. There are things I enjoy about them. I remember having this conversation a lot with Xandra Ibarra (La Chica Boom) who like me walks between and performs among different communities, like there are lots of people in the Bay who are in the world of dance and nightlife, or dance and burlesque. She and I were constantly frustrated by the fact that things that we could make work about things that were personal and intimate to us and we could make it in a way that felt accessible but didn’t feel experimental or pushing our formal boundaries, and that would go over well with audiences of color. Or we could make work that really abstract or fun and edgy formally but divorced from anything specific to our lives and that would work really well with white audiences.

That’s why building critical audiences is so important: You can read work critically in terms of experimental work and not have to respond, “I don’t get it.” There’s a critical lens you can access, but I can also see work that feels very real and of this world and I don’t have to only see only the formal elements. I feel like slowly but surely there are artist bridging those ideas and getting more funding. I am saying this because the On Edge festival just brought this work by Dana Michel’s Yellow Towel and Okwui Okposkwasili was here, and Urban Bush Women were here and they have always been bridging these ideas of the formal and community, and pushing those boundaries. I do see this happening, and it’s happening more. I see taisha paggett in LA doing this work too. They are all women. That’s interesting.  I’m also thinking about the amount of solos I am seeing by women of color, that seems to be a thing that’s happening now. Your body does give you some politics, and situates you in the world politically. So it makes sense that these people are making this work. It’s not just a coincidence.

km: Have you ever had an experience where you were given or denied an opportunity based on being a female artist?

AMW: I have to think about that. I don’t know: I feel like I applied for something a few years ago that was highly selective and knew the chances of me getting it were not high, but I had some really strong people writing letters of recommendation and the work samples I submitted were strong. I didn’t get it and that part was understandable, but it was so selective in terms of dancers who were selected were all men and I knew them and knew their letters were coming from similar people. It felt like how could this be? Plus I knew the person running the selection committee was a male choreographer who was known for working with cute, twee boys, and all the men selected were cute, twee boys.  It just felt like I am a woman and I’m dyke. That sucked, and that’s a thing that’s tricky about performance, is that you are dealing with bodies and you are dealing with, on some level, what you like to look at. You are dealing with headshots and that’s I think an extra hurdle that dance performance has to work with. There’s lots of ways to apply the gaze and there’s lots of bodies that can be appealing for lots of different reasons. Why I freaking loved Dana Michel’s piece was that, and it was so awesome,  was that she, even in all the opacity of that work, and most of it is unintelligible in that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. But at the same time she is giving the audience this tremendous gift of: you can just look at my body. You can look at my body doing things that might be special or might not. We as audience get to indulge in all these ways to look at a Black female body. It’s so important to do that in a safe way. It felt like we weren’t doing anything wrong. We don’t need to avert our gaze we can just like watch this body with both revulsion and attraction, and that’s fair because that’s what you feel and that’s okay.

The other part of your question, about opportunities, who knows?! Probably! When I was in the Bay I felt like I was really cute and that is not so true outside of the Bay. I felt very desirable there, in San Francisco, and very not desirable in LA. In Chicago I feel like everyone likes everyone no matter what. We are surrounded by nice people here and who all want to talk to me. In the Bay it felt like people were constantly asking, “here do you want this?” [laughter]

It makes me think too about this idea of curating an event which is community-based. I have always been interested in this in an anthropological way. I am interested in the idea of it, but generally I think it fails but it is such a throw-back idea that we are still working with because there is something that we still need. Whenever I am in a situation like that, because I am a woman or whatever I have, it feels like “this doesn’t feel as good…” It is great to be in a community and part of an event, but it also makes me question, “Is this even good?” There’s a woman in LA, a Black woman named Lily Bernard, she does this Black Artists In LA (BAILA) for years. It’s mostly conversations and they are really cool: like an afternoon conversation at LACMA or The Getty and she invites Black artists to come and representatives from the institutions. There is a dialogue that happens and it’s deep. I went to one where they were discussing the relationship with the Watts Towers, and people were pissed!  People wanted to know like really personal things like why certain artists are selected. And she has also done a couple BAILA shows, and they include EVERY Black artist in LA. They are these wild things, and such a throw-back to another time where it’s a visual art show and the walls are covered with material. Everyone is there and performance artists are doing performances in the middle of spaces and there are paintings on the ceiling, and it’s also kind of cool. You are able to release any kind of desire to be included based on merit, and just feel like you are part of something that’s not really about me. We are all in this together. I don’t even know if people can see my work but we are all in this thing… I don’t know… It goes for women-centered galleries and queer spaces as well. There’s obviously a desire to belong and be seen and be together. There are these random assortments of performers and who even knows if the work is any good… sometimes I wish we could be a little more critical here…  there’s a way to feel that feeling of we are all here together but also to allow an opening in the space that could include other voices that have a way to relate to that feeling that aren’t necessarily embodied in that same type of body, but can also identify with the issues at hand, and to allow that opening as a way to give some aesthetic rigor to the situation. That is important to me.

for more information about Anna Martine Whitehead please visit annamartine.com

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