Consultant and guest editor Dr. Anna B. Scott sat with choreographer and company member Shelby Williams-González to ask her some questions about her latest piece, Revealed, which had a very successful world premier at the Music Center in the program Moves After Dark. Here's what Shelby had to say.
How long did it take you to choose the theme and location for the work? Did the location evoke the theme or were you already mentally working on a piece that could be in conversation with Black Lives Matter? Also, did the name arrive before or after the work was created?
This piece was really the convergence of two ideas that I have been tooling with for some time now. For years, I have wanted to do a piece about the Orixás, specifically the female archetypes, and deconstruct the image of the Goddess. In a very respectful manner and with only good intentions, I wanted to look behind the crowns of the Goddesses to explore the complexities of any one deity. For example, I have always wondered, "Wouldn't Oyá get tired of always ushering bodies into the gates of the eternal?" I mean, that's some serious heavy work.
When Linda and I went to look at the spaces to chose a location at the Music Center, I quickly settled on the Stern Grand Hall, not really knowing what I wanted to create. It was an easy choice. On a logistics level, I loved the challenge of playing with levels, vantage points, and reflections. all under the beauty and opulence of the chandeliers. I grew up here in LA, and I had my senior prom on that staircase. To be back in the space as an artist bringing a completely different version of beauty and majesty to the location than that of my 1995 prom was also a little perk. The staircase was an exciting way for me to think about how to present Afro-Brazilian dance and costume, as well as an opportunity to play with depth and levels which you cannot do on a flat stage.
That afternoon, I started driving out of town; the start of a five day road trip through Joshua Tree and Zion to do some hiking. I remembered my idea about deconstructing Orixás!! That's where the piece started.
Now, it could have easily stopped there and I could have done an Orixá piece that did just that: deconstruct. But what also has been on my mind, much more in the forefront, is the overflow of senseless violence against people of color in this country (and abroad). As a Black American woman and a mother of a young black child, I cannot ignore the violence that is happening across this country to my people.
It hurts to listen to NPR in the morning and to be constantly bombarded with images of violence, the misuse of power and death; as well as the lack of justice for such offenses. I am not knocking social media—I am glad that we have a technological tool to expose injustices to the masses. I mean it hurts to see it, in my bones, my mind, and my heart.
During our rehearsal process, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed, and then the following week, the police officers in Dallas. I gotta tell you, those two weeks I really wished that art didn't imitate life or vice versa…I could not ignore this issue. So? What do you do? You bring that reality into the work. As a choreographer I don't think I know how else to work. I am inspired by life and the world around me and there is no separation.
All this to say that, “Revealed,” before I even started working with the dancers, quickly became a piece that set out to address my fixation on deconstructing the Orixá AND a commentary on the current viral occurrence of violence against people of color. Having the four dancers in the black hoodies (I call them the Fallen) didn't come about until our first rehearsal. And that was an inspiration of the amazing dancers that I get to work with. My original idea was that they would appear . . . more as visual reminders, but when we got in the studio and I started moving and they picked up my choreography so quickly . . . it was clear to me that the Fallen were claiming the space, they were coming to dance and they were coming to be seen!
The work was gorgeous! Can you step us through the choice of blending contemporary and traditional costuming? Our fans know and love the extravagance of the traditional Orixá costume. What new things did you discover by playing with the layers/levels of costuming?
Getting out of an Orixá costume is no easy task!! You can rig it until the cows come home and it still won't be easy!! And to be honest, I love seeing the dancers struggle a little to get out of the costumes on stage in front of the audience. It brings a humanness to each Orixá. The piece was named for that moment; the moment when the three Orixás reveal themselves to the audience. They take off the crown and the regalia and stand before everyone revealing their own fragility which ultimately is a piece of the puzzle to authentic beauty and strength.
I also see the importance of "blending contemporary and traditional forms" to reach an broad audience. People familiar with Afro-Brazilian dance, the Orixás and Viver Brasil Dance Company will recognize the narratives and as choreographer it is my responsibility to keep it fresh, new and exciting for them. And I also want to present work to the audience members that have never heard of an Orixá or Afro-Brazilian dance. Bringing in social context was a way to do that.
I had the four dancers in all black with their hoodies on because the hoodie carries so much visual weight to it. Despite the fact that Trayvon Martin as not killed by police, his death, more accurately his murder, marks a very specific moment in my life and in many. When there was no justice for his murder, my idea of our civil society crumbled. That was the powers that be telling us . . . "no, sorry black people don't matter." It's Trayvon's fault, he had a hood on, its his fauIt, he looked suspicious. What does that even mean? That 's just code for" black = threat." Travyon Martin was murdered in 2012 for wearing a hoodie and walking home, that breaks my heart and I honestly don't think it has ever healed. Since 2012, fallen black bodies have become so frequent. The names of people of color who are victims to police violence from 2012-present are printed on the back of our black hoodies. The sad and disturbing truth is that there were too many names to fit them all. The conversations around this--the social media, the public outrage--are there, but the law and justice system seems to be far behind and not in any hurry to catch up.
There is also a moment when The Fallen take off their hoodies. And they too become the revealed. The black hoodie isn't just "that guy in Florida.” It’s someone's child. Someone's best friend. Someone's brother. Someone's sister. This piece is about compassion. We don't have enough of that in this world, for ourselves and for each other; and when that happens . . . even the mighty fall.
Speaking of levels, the work is performed in a stairwell, a transitional space. How did your choice of stage infuse or remix the meanings of the stories of the Orixás and their sounds?
Once I had the narrative of The Fallen coming up to meet the Orixás, the staircase quickly transformed into a transitional space and the reflections on multiple levels added to the etherial-ness of it all. Not really earth, not really heaven; but a place where the Orixá reveal themselves and The Fallen are revealed as beautiful black bodies.
The beginning of the piece really sticks to the Orixá [storytelling] form in that I wanted to hear the rhythms of the Orixá. Oya with Ilu, Oxum with Ijexa, etc. I chose Opanije for the apex of the piece because that is Omolu's rhythm, a rhythm associated with disease and death because that is exactly what The Fallen died from: a social disease that is running rampant!
Finally, why those four Orixá's? How do they exemplify that a Black life matters?
I chose Nana and Iemanjá because they are the ultimate mothers and creators of the body. Oya is the goddess of wind and uses that energy to bring the spirits of the dead to 'heaven" Oxum is love and beauty and I wanted to make a statement about the lack of love for the beauty of the black body. And finally Oba, as the independent warrior, I wanted her to be a message to the fallen that simply, " We will get through this."
Any thing else?
I think we (I) successfully created a piece for the space. I cannot imagine seeing "Revealed" in any other place than on a staircase and under chandeliers. The space and the dance have merged as one.
And apparently so does the Los Angeles Times. You can read Cristina Campodonico's great review on their website.
Revealed returns to the staircase in Stern Grand Hall on Monday, August 15 -17. Tickets are on sale now at the Music Center.
Choreography by Shelby Williams-González
Music Composer, Kahlil Cummings
Costume designers, Maria de Lourdes Silvestre dos Santos, Laura Howe of Matrushka
Construction and Rosalba Gamma
Dancers: Laila Abdullah, Ashley Blanchard, Rachel Hernandez, Natali Micciche, Ajah Muhammad, Haniyyah Tahirah, Vera Passos, Nagode Simpson, Shelby Williams-González
Musicians: Luiz Badaró, Simon Carroll, Kahlil Cummings, Fabio Santana de Souza
Singers: Katia Moraes and Kana Shimanuki