Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Arts.Advocacy+Wellness: "SPIT-ting with Gregory King, A Dance Intervention"

Cornelius Jones Jr. and A.A+W is

SPIT-ting with dancer-choreographer
Gregory King,

A Dance Intervention

Times Magazine described Jamaica as “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth”. Many people across the globe, I believe, share similar feelings. Jamaican born, dancer/choreographer Gregory King speaks about his personal struggles living in the country that has, and is still struggling with homophobia. Gregory King shares with us this A.A+W Wednesday how he is addressing these issues through an artistic act of intervention by using dance to promote positive social change in the eradication and stigmas associated with homosexuality, not only in Jamaica but all over the world. King, an affirming black and gay identified man speaks to the notion of solidarity for humankind, regardless of racial and sexual identity. Enjoy this meaty conversation. It is worth the read!

For those who may not know every detail about Mr. Gregory King, can
you please share where you are from and how you get your start in the
entertainment industry?
GK: Jamaican born and raised, I never contemplated a career in the arts.
I remember wanting to be a pilot. (I know right). Went to high school,
graduated at 15 and realized that I didn’t want to go on to College.
There was a performing arts ensemble that was gaining a lot of
popularityat the time and they were having auditions. You had to sing,
dance and recite a monologue. This was the first time I felt a rush in
termsof being artistic. The name of the group was The Little People and
Teen Players Club and it was acting that first introduced me to the stage.

How was life growing up in Jamaica, and briefly discuss the homophobia
that you experienced compared to what is experienced today?
GK: When I was 12 years old, I went to visit my father at a bar he owned in Jamaica. My father was
a police officer. He was at the bar socializing with his friends and outside the bar was a gathering of men
that were perceived to be gay…I’m assuming by their actions and overly colorful mode of expression. He
took his gun out of its holster, held it my head and said, “If I ever found out that you’re gay,
I’ll shoot you”. My 12 year old didn’t know how to process that information,but the older I got, I became
very angry that we were living in a world where it was okay for parents to threaten their kid with guns.

The socio-political condition of the island prohibits the amicable display of any same gender affection. This
sort of hatred still permeates the island and is even expressed in songs performed by popular Jamaican
entertainers. Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton,32, is an avowed homophobe whose song Boom Bye-Bye
decrees that gays "haffi dead" ("have to die"). Banton's lyrics are hardly unique among reggae artists today.
Anotherpopular artist, Elephant Man (O'Neil Bryant, 29) declares in one song, "When you hear a lesbian getting raped/ It's not our fault ... Two women in bed/ That's two Sodomites who should be dead."
Another, Bounty Killer (Rodney Price, 33), urges listeners to burn "Mister Fagoty" and make him "wince in agony."
In recent years, two of the island's most prominent gay activists, Brian Williamson and Steve Harvey, have been murdered — and a crowd even celebrated over Williamson's mutilated body. Perhaps most disturbing, many anti-gay assaults have been acts of mob violence. In 2004, a teen was almost killed when his father learned his son was gay and invited a group to lynch the boy at his school. Months later, witnesses say, police egged on another mob that stabbed and stoned a gay man to death in Montego Bay. And in 2006, a Kingston man, Nokia Cowan, drowned after a crowd shouting "batty boy" (a Jamaican epithet for homosexual) chased him off a pier. Times Magazine described Jamaica as “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth”. A lot of people--straight and gay--go to Jamaica in huge jets and cruise ships from northern climates and swoop in for a winter break along the warm shores near Montego Bay. They find like-minded sun bathers, gamblers, shoppers, drinkers, swingers and divers to hang with for a week or two in palatial resorts along white beaches under swaying palm trees. However, it’s a very different story for a gay traveler who comes looking for a community of queer friends in Jamaica. They won’t easily find a bar, disco, party, magazine, festival or out-loud organization advocating a ‘gay agenda’; these are virtually all underground, disguised, surreptitious or hidden behind a post office. A visitor will find that homosexual acts are criminalized, that there are gay bashings, police homophobia, and a government who intends no changes to the laws or treatment of gays there. Such is the dense and intense homophobia and aggression that still saturates the island known for its sun and sand.

What ultimately brought you to The United States?
GK: When I was 17, I visited NY. I was walking down Christopher Street in the West Village and I saw two men holding hands. That moment changed my life and I realized…right there and then, that I couldn’t live in Jamaica. Ultimately, it was my desire to advance my training in Theatre that brought me to NY. I wanted to audition for the theatre department at New York University. Unfortunately, I came a day late and didn’t make the audition. My friend Kris suggested that I audition for the dance department. At this point, I had no formal dance training and went to the audition with no expectations. I wore sweat pants and a t –shirt to the audition. What? Who does that? I was a hot mess in that audition. I looked crazy. The chair of the department called me into her office and expressed that they didn’t have my level at the school but would be willing to accept me in the program because I had potential. (laugh) It was Donald Byrd who later said “potential means you ain’t doing shit!” I never did go to NYU because I couldn’t afford it, but it was the fact that someone thought I had potential, that made me start to take dance classes.

You've dance with Donald Byrd and his former dance company Donald Byrd/The Group,
how was that experience?
GK: Well, just to be clear, I performed with his company in The Harlem Nutcracker for 3 years.
I wasn’t actually in his company. It was an overwhelmingly intimidating experience. I remember walking into
rehearsals for the first time and seeing Elizabeth Parkinson and Leonora Stapleton and while I felt good to be
in such amazing company; a part of me felt like I was a fraud. How did I get to this place? I felt like a
fish out of water but I approached the process with humility and eagerness. Because the production had already completed its inaugural year, I wasn’t a part of the creative process. I did however inhale the rehearsal process and later on, my role as director/ choreographer; found that the respect for my dancers and clarity creates a more amiable work environment. This wasn’t the only time I worked with Donald. He asked me to be a part of New York City Opera’s production of Camina Burana and I gladly accepted.

The Lion King was a huge part of your life, yes? Tell us more about your time on Broadway.
GK: Well I spent 7 years in The Lion King on Broadway. Seven long years. Lion King was my first and
only Broadway show and I’m so glad to have had that experience. It supplied me with the financial cushion
to produce my work and being able to pay my dancers was completely fulfilling. The thing I hated about The
Lion King
was the monotony of performing the same thing every night, 8 performances a week.
I’ll admit, every now and then I would embellish the given choreography just to bring a new, fresh energy.
In my mind, I felt like I was taking Garth’s (Garth Fagan) choreography and by injecting my own artistic sensibility, would give new life to the otherwise, repetitive system. Little did I know…that Broadway,
specifically The Lion King wasn’t the place for individuality. I got so many notes reminding me that it
wasn’t the Gregory King show. Oddly enough, I never felt like I was disrespecting the show. I wanted to stay
clear of boredom and in so doing courageously brightened the stage…if you were! This performing experience taught me to appreciate my dancers uniqueness. It also opened my eyes to fact that art is ever evolving. (I’ll leave it at that.)

How has past experiences with Donald Byrd/The Group and
The Lion King lead you to choreography?
GK: Watching beautiful bodies move turns me on. …and not in a sexual way. It triggered in me, the need
to play. With Donald, I was completely fascinated with the way he manipulated movement. How he would
take a phrase and dissect it was genius. But it wasn’t only the manipulation of choreography, it was also
the social, political, religious and sexual references that made me aware of the fact that choreography was more than steps. It is the physical embodiment of a train of thought. The Lion King gave me access to some beautiful bodies to play with. I would ask dancers to come play before the show or between shows. (and by play with me, I mean allowing me to use their bodies to bring to life my movement). The fact that I was surrounded by my peers also fostered the confidence for me to make work. These works were sometimes performed as part of the Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights Aids fundraiser, which did reward me with a few presentation awards for my choreography.

You just recently completed your MFA in Choreography from Southern Methodist University and I am so amazed in the fact, that you bypassed obtaining a BFA and went straight into and MFA program.
That's like Alec Baldwin recently receiving his honorary Doctoral degree from NYU (Well...sort of!). But
seriously, congratulations on that accomplishment. Can you share with us your experience at
SMU and if this honor has had an impact on your life now?
GK: Receiving my MFA without having a BFA was a huge accomplishment. But I will say this, Grad School
after the real world is no place for the faint of heart. (laugh). Although my Grad School experience was horrible, I left SMU knowing what not to do. It provided me with a model that I didn’t want to follow. I have
three memories of my time at SMU that I would like to share:
(1) I was told by a professor that when I argue a point, I should be less passionate.
(2) The same professor told me that if I didn’t like their rules, I can leave.
(3) I was put on probation for saying fuck in class. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
No it wasn’t all bad. I think I’ve grown as an artist and I’m ready to go wherever my artistry will take me. Having my MFA allows me the opportunity to teach at a tertiary level. It also expands my options when it come to careers in the arts and let’s face it…Gregory King MFA just sounds really cool!

SPIT.... sounds provocative...edgy...sounds damn right dirty!!!
It's the title of your newest work of choreography, which landed
you a feature in The Dallas Voice. I found SPIT to be unapologetic,
radical, and moving me in so many uncomfortable but good ways.
Please share with us why you chose to create this beautifully engaging piece
charged with such a strong and important message.

GK: “Spit” came out of my own life experiences and I wanted to use my choreography to highlight a social
issue that affects me on a personal level. As a people, we have worked hard to eradicate racism
(although it still exist), from the forefront of our social projection. We have huddled together to eliminate sexism from the workplace and subsequently, the stage. Heterosexism has lived in our society for way too long and with gay pride parades around the world, there is the unspoken belief that it doesn’t affect our psyche; what we see as right and what we see as normal. I wanted to create “Spit” in order to challenge the perspective of individuals who see the world through hetero-normal lenses. I wanted to redirect the focus at empowering the individual and give voice to the socio-political issue of sexual orientation as it exist in a vicious world that violently disapproves of same sex affection. I really wanted the piece to act as a catalyst in the conversation surrounding the fact that the world cannot be defined in exclusively heterosexual terms.

You may have answered this, and for those who are
curious about the title alone, why title it SPIT?

GK: Spitting, literally, dribbles contempt, and it is the noxious, vicious disdain of the act that makes it such a
powerful and intimate insult. The appeal of spitting is the effortless momentary disrespect it conveys,
while the person on the receiving end must experience the full humiliation of the splash, the dribble and the ungainly wipe. As it relates to my choreographic idea, the ripping and robbing someone of the right to live freely, is indeed an act of disrespect. It is belittling, insulting and a brutal way to invade someone’s
psyche. Hence the title “Spit”.

In SPIT you have your dancers crawling over a huge brick wall
that is a bit distressed. What is the metaphor behind this wall
and the climbing over?

GK: The 1952 painting of Afro-American Hughie Lee- Smith title “The Wall” inspired the wall in Spit. His wall is an allegory for prejudice and how each of us deals with it on a personal level. The rotting wall represents the obstacles of racism and general prejudice. To be gay in addition to being black is to be constantly climbing over walls. At least, this is what it seems like most of the time. The wall is a metaphoric barrier and as a black gay man, I have had to make decisions, about which wall to climb over, which wall to break down, and from which wall to walk away.

The illumination of the follow spot on the one dancer
reminds me of a police helicopter searching
for a criminal, was that intentional? and how so?
GK: I’m not sure where in the piece you are making reference to, but the only section where a follow
spot was used was in the first section of the ballet. The spot was manipulated by the lone dancer downstage of the action. I wanted to play with the idea of the audience viewing the actions of the dancers through the eyes of the person with the follow spot. The follow spot does have an oppressive feel and it was my intention to have it read that way, be it from a helicopter or a police officer shining a flashlight in your face.

The throwing of the sand for me symbolizes Jesus being lashed on the cross
numerous times. What's the relation to the self and identity when
religion, sexuality, and homosexuality intersect in this moment?

GK: I wanted to use the throwing of the sand as a symbol of stoning which is a form of capital punishment
in which the convicted criminal is put to death, generally by a crowd. In some cultures, this was seen as
allowing the larger community to participate in the administration of justice. Stoning has been used since
ancient times to punish people judged as criminals; these included prostitutes, adulterers, and murderers.
The act in itself is inhumane and I wanted to show the act in a raw, provocative manner. My goal was to
provide an experience that conjured a visceral reaction.

I know, when choreographing a project for a thesis,
sometimes we are limited on the type of performers we have in mind.
Still to this day black LGBT/same gender loving men and women continue
to be ostracized by some religions and more specifically in the black churches,
I naturally assumed your cast would consist of all black male dancers.
However, you use black dancers with white dancers, yes? Is there some
sort of socio-political reference you are challenging or questioning?

GK: Okay. First let me say I went to Grad school in Dallas. Dallas, Texas. Southern Methodist
University is highly conservative so just getting “Spit” on the stage was a huge feat. After I presented
my proposal, I wasn’t sure how the faculty would react to the title and the subject matter. When I started
writing the proposal, I wanted the three strongest dancers in the program, it just so happened that one was
Caucasian. I wanted the narrative to be believable and to be performed with strength, vulnerability and passion. I had a story in mind and ideally, I would have used three black dancers to be culturally, historically and geographically true to the work. Having the one Caucasian dancer did add another element. An element
I welcomed because heterosexism and racism, exist outside of my personal story.

Talk briefly about the change of music towards the end of
the piece and the last moment with one dancer left on
stage, the other 2 pushing against the brick wall, and the return of
the heartbeat.

GK: The music was an original composition by Oscar Williams Jr. In our collaboration, I had a very
clear idea for how the music should sound. I wanted the music in the third section to be gripping and
hopeful. The ballet ends with two dancers moving towards the wall. One dancer has secured his position
close to the light where he will continue to be threatened by anything different or out of touch with his sense
of normalcy. The sheer determination to get over the wall drives the other two dancers and the fight to
be free results in one dancers succeeding. I went back to the heartbeats to reference the journey and
to play with the choreographic form ABA.

So we've dissected the piece enough. Can you tell how moved I am by it!
Gregory, share with us how you compose your
How do you create?

GK: I usually start with the overall concept of the piece. I decide whether I want to tell a story
or have it be abstract. Because I’m interested in telling stories that are compelling and rooted in truth,
I build phrases that include pedestrian gestures. I rely on the experiences of my dancers to bring to life
my vision and as a result the experience of the audience to access the information being shared. I try
to create a rich vocabulary that is usually a fusion of classical ballet and modern dance with a pedestrian
sensibility. I call this an urban fusion, which lends truth to my heritage and training. All my dancers
are equally important to my creative process. I try to create a healthy working environment by treating my
dancers with respect. I encourage laughter. I actively engage the dancer so they feel connected. In
the studio, it’s a collaborative effort. No two dancers are alike so I encourage individuality and in so doing,
pull from the strength of each dancer. Art is a constant process. The job is never done. But somewhere
along that journey you get to a point where you are willing to share with the viewer. When you get to that point, you are open to feedback, negative or positive. This you then take so you can climb the next rung of your creative ladder.

What's the hope
? The future?
GK: I would like a wide cross section of the community to see “Spit.” It’s my intention to build “Spit” into
an evening length work and use it as an educational tool in schools and community arts forums. As you know
the expansion of any project takes money. So, I’m hoping to receive a grant for this undertaking. Who knows,
maybe this article will open the pockets of an arts patron. (smile)

Specifically speaking about Gregory King.
What inspires you on a daily basis? And what is your Vision,
for your life, in the next 5 years?

GK: My dancers are my inspiration. They are open and they trust my process. It is this openness that
allows me the opportunity to experiment and explore different movement possibilities. Currently, I’m teaching at Richland College in Dallas and I think I’m slowly owning in on the fact that I may be anti institution. Not in
an academic sense but in a way that stays clear of anything that rejects new ways of thinking. I would
like to push the trajectory of dance by challenging existing ideology and generate new options. I would like to
be a part of a new group of artists who believe that self-exploration triggers artistry. I would love
to work with arts organizations to help create performance opportunities for the under represented while setting politically charged work on different companies and in various academic institutions.

This is a Future one guilty pleasure....

GK: McDonald’s Sausage McGriddle. It is so good.
Don’t judge me. (with a smile on my face)

copyright 2010, Cornelius Jones Jr.

Thank you Gregory.
For more information on Gregory King and SPIT:

with Cornelius Jones Jr.
Tune in next Wednesday for more
Arts.Advocacy+Wellness with Cornelius Jones Jr.
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