The Grandeur of His Epic: An Interview With Choreographer Jay Carlon

interview by Summer Bowie

photos by Oliver Kupper

Defining a culture that comprises 7100 islands, centuries of colonization, and an overwhelming desire to assimilate is profound and Sisyphean. Unlike a migration that takes place over land, the ocean seems to wash away all evidence of the traveled path. The historical narrative that has framed Filipino-American immigration is fraught with this eternal question of identity and belonging. Being part Filipino myself, I learned very little about my grandmother’s life story while she was alive. It wasn’t until after she passed away and my grandfather published her memoirs that I learned just how harrowing her journey had been.

After attending the world premiere of FLEX, a dance theater piece that explores primarily the story of choreographer, Jay Carlon’s father and his immigration from the Philippines to the States, I realized that the erasure of these stories is rather commonplace. Jay’s father was not only a senior citizen by the time Jay was born, but it seems that he liked to let others tell his story for him. It wasn’t until his father passed away that Jay started to make heads and tails of the man versus the myth, and the role that he and other Filipino-Americans played in the United States throughout the 20th century, from World War II, to the Labor Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond. The work explores the story of Honorio Carlon and his immigration to the States, as well as that of several other Filipino-Americans and their children. This pastiche of memories serves as a paean to those whose stories have been lost in the shuffle of sublimation. In the following conversation, we discuss everything from the Filipino sartorial sensibility, to the homoerotic Renaissance paintings of “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” in the book of Genesis, to the implications that result when one must prioritize survival over preservation.

SUMMER BOWIE: First, I want to talk about your upbringing as the youngest of 12 children, and what that’s like to have such wide age gaps between both your siblings and your parents. Were you all very close?

JAY CARLON: I suppose this question is difficult to answer succinctly. My dad had 3 wives and my mom was the last. Let me provide some context: My dad, Honorio Carlon, immigrated to America in 1932 during the Great Depression, while the Philippines was under US occupation. Filipino immigrants were almost exclusively men due to gender expectations in the workplace. These immigrant men started bachelor societies for solidarity. Due to anti-miscegenation laws (anti-interracial marriage laws) these men found it difficult to start families in America. Despite this, my father married twice and had 6 children. It wasn’t until the 1970s when my dad was able to make it back to the Philippines to eventually meet my mother and bring her back to the US. Now back to the question, my siblings: 6 of them are my half siblings and the other 5 are my full siblings. Naturally, because of age and generations, I am closest to my full siblings. The strange thing is some of my half siblings are older than my mom, which is a weird dynamic having half-brothers older than your mom. My relationship with my father, however, was somewhat distant. Ever since I was born, his death was imminent. He was 74 when I was born. He kept to himself; perhaps my expectation of him as a father was to simply maintain this “Big Fish” legacy and the grandeur of his Epic, being among the first wave of Filipino immigrants in America. He lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Labor Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, etc. He never talked to me about his experiences, also I was a child, so I couldn’t really understand why any of this was important/interesting. However, doing all the research I’ve done for FLEX, I’ve been able to fill in some of these gaps in his memory, his narrative.

BOWIE: I grew up in a suburb of San Diego with a large Filipino population, and my being only a quarter Filipino meant that I had a lot of Filipino friends, but I was never Filipino enough to call the parents of my friends Auntie and Uncle the way they did with each other. Did you grow up with that idea of the extended cultural family?

CARLON: I grew up in a large Filipino community and both my parents are from the same very small island in Philippines. My dad immigrated here with a group of about 8 men, some his cousins and some his friends. Those 8 men stuck together and worked as migrant workers throughout the Southwest. Every Labor Day Weekend, they would all come together and have a fiesta. This tradition has been going on since the ‘50s and still happens today. From those 8 pioneers, there are now over 500 descendants, and we all still gather in Santa Maria, California. All those 500+ extended family members are my uncles and aunties, whether I’m related to them or not! 

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BOWIE: It seems like you did an extraordinary level of research into your father’s life while in the process of creating this work. Do you feel like you see your father in a different light now that the work has been fully actualized?

CARLON: Like I stated earlier, a lot of my knowledge surrounding my father’s history was from oral stories told by uncles, and aunties, and cousins. Some of these stories seemed to be conflated or exaggerated, as most memories are. 

Last year, I was interviewed by an Asian periodical and was asked how my work was influenced by my identity as a Filipino American. The question really caught me off guard and I felt uneasy and confronted with this responsibility to be more or less Filipino. I am a contemporary dance choreographer. Some of my work is abstract, some of it is conceptual, and some of it is expressionistic. The general topic of my work was often surrounding migrant issues and labor rights, but as far as a direct Filipino relation to my work, I was stumped. I thought of an article that I came across by Miguel Gutierrez in BOMB Magazine called “Does Abstraction Belong to White People.” The article resonated with me and elicited introspection: as a Filipino-American abstract choreographer, what am I doing here, and why, and how did I get here? Soon after being asked the question about my identity and coming across this article, L.A. Dance Project asked me to be their first recipient of the MAKING:LA Residency, a new work by a Los Angeles-based artist. I knew I wanted to make an unapologetic work about the diverse tapestry of Southern California. My father’s, mother’s, and my story seemed to be the perfect backdrop for that opportunity to create and share a hella Filipino [untold] history.

To return to the question: the process of researching my father’s history and filling in the gaps of his narrative allowed me to create a more human understanding of who he was. My dad was this historical figure to me once I was born. I wouldn’t say we were emotionally close. I have few memories of him, some of which include dropping me off to kindergarten with whiskey on the dashboard. (Laughs), it was a different time I suppose. But I never had conversations in length with my dad. Doing all the research I’ve been doing has made him become a more human and tangible person in my life. This research has also served my relationship with my mother, who is still alive and thriving. I seem to understand her better; why she is the way she is. My mother and I never had conversations beyond the weather or my financial situation, but now we talk about memories, family back in the Philippines, and emotions (which, for a Filipino family is huge).

BOWIE: You grew up training as a competitive wrestler. How did you find dance, and how do you think your wrestling background has influenced your approach to choreography?

CARLON: My first introduction to physicality was wrestling at the Boys and Girls Club. I followed my older brothers, who joined the wrestling team to stay out of the streets. I was 5 years old when I started wrestling and competed throughout my teens. I learned partnering and momentum, strength and velocity, and nuance between force and flow. I loved these concepts, but hated competing. Wrestling is brutal. I watch videos on YouTube now and think, “Goddamn! I grew up doing that?” I found the arts in high school, first with architecture, then voice (choir), and eventually the body (dance). I knew that I could channel these learned skills into a different medium.

I am also inspired by the image of “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (Genesis 32:22–32). The story has been depicted by many Renaissance artists in painting and sculpture form. The artworks inspired by this scripture tend to look very homoerotic. I wanted to use this image as inspiration for FLEX to represent the Filipino peoples’ resistance to colonization, and perhaps the obedience as a result of colonization. The image also reminded me of Filipino male affection, and I wanted to use this image as a way to display the way different cultures showcase affection.

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BOWIE: FLEX tells the stories of several Filipino-American immigrants and their children. There’s a very militant scene, it feels like boot camp and the dancers are counting in Tagalog, I believe. Can you talk a bit about that scene and the story behind it?

CARLON: I love that scene. I wanted to integrate Filipino languages in the work. I don’t speak Visayan (my family’s dialect), but counting seemed to be a natural and relatively easy way to integrate Tagalog (the national dialect of the Philippines) into the work. We made 16 gestures/movements and gave them each a number. I noticed the sequence of movements with the counting in Tagalog sounded very militant. This section made me think of the Philippine American War (1989-1902), where the Philippines fought for their freedom and independence from America.  I wanted to create a scene where the wrestling drills, something I grew up doing in America, paralleled the guerilla warfare in the Philippines.

BOWIE: The dancers you cast for this piece are all incredibly athletic, they’re poetic with their movement, and they’re multi-talented. At times they lend voice, either in narrative or song, and your choreography demands a certain versatility as well. How did you go about casting the work?

CARLON: I only cast people I trust. Trust is a very important component of my work, for the performers, the audience, all the natural and simulated elements, etc. I have worked with all my collaborators in the past on projects at REDCAT or The Annenberg Community Beach House. In my process, I like to [safely and consensually] push physical and emotional boundaries. I also like to work as a multidisciplinary director and see how I can integrate each and every individual's skill[s] into the work.  The cast of FLEX is incredibly dynamic and I had a wonderful time learning about their multiple talents and how I could incorporate them into the work.

BOWIE: Your dancers seem to go through a marathon from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of their faces were dripping within the first 3 minutes, and you see the way that the movement becomes increasingly more demanding, pushing them into a deeper synchronicity with one another. What is the warm-up and rehearsal process like for a project like this?

CARLON: I often like to focus on sensory improvisational tasks to begin a process. I like to work with eyes closed to privilege the other senses, especially touch. We start with an improvisation with eyes closed while being guided through the space. The participant with the eyes closed will recall a memory and tell that memory to the person guiding them around the room safely. This mode of embodiment and memory primes the dancers for the process of creating FLEX.

BOWIE: There are two very deep Americana references that you included in this piece, the first being the opening monologue from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, the second being Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.” The Tennessee connection seems coincidental, but can you talk a little bit about those choices, and the Filipino rendition of the song that you included? Where did it come from?

CARLON: I wanted to create a 1950s Filipino American ballroom, a place in which my father and his comrades found solidarity--the only place they could escape and have fun without judgment. My dad loved the Cha Cha and music from the ‘50s. The Tennessee Waltz was incorporated into the work because the lyrics reminded me of the loss of their home. 

We also changed “Tennessee” to “Philippine” in the live version of the song. I did this because I wanted it to be clear that these Americana attributes were coming from a sense of otherness, or perhaps reappropriation.

I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced her to my loved one
And while they were dancing
My friend stole my sweetheart from me

I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
Now I know just how much I have lost
Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing
The beautiful Tennessee Waltz

BOWIE: The musical score was really beautiful. I think Alex Wand did a phenomenal job. How did that collaboration come about, and what was it like?

CARLON: I began working with Alex Wand on a previous project that took place in a parking lot with my car about mental health and stability. We used audio recording from the iconic moon landing as well as solar system sonifications (using the orbital speeds of the planets and creating a sound score). After that project, we became obsessed with sonifications and played with amplifying sounds of a cardboard stage, we made synth sounds activated by waves by putting Wii controllers in a buoy at the beach, and made a resonant frequency plate that used sand to predict the vibrational sound, etc. Prior to FLEX, Alex went on an epic bike tour across the Mexico-American border, biking from LA to Michoacan (the Monarch Butterfly migration path). We used field recordings from his bike ride for the ambient and environmental sounds in FLEX. I love finding parallels with Alex’s interest in ecological sustainability, like with the Monarch Butterfly migration and my interests in immigrant stories, and visible vs. invisible borders.

BOWIE: The costumes were really lovely. I understand that many pieces were from your father’s wardrobe. There’s one story you tell, called The Filipino and the Drunkard by William Saroyan. Can you talk about your father’s sartorial sense and the role that the costuming plays in this piece?

CARLON: My dad, though being a strawberry picker for over 50 years, never left the house without a suit. He never wanted people to know we were poor. He wore pressed suits and tailored clothes daily.  He taught me how to shine my shoes and slick my hair back. I always felt that Filipinos had this sense of showing off, and I never understood why. When I heard The Filipino and the Drunkard, it brought to light the complexity of Filipinos not wanting to look poor, to assimilate. This is one factor why I decided to call this work FLEX--slang, to show off.

Over 70% of the costumes were sourced from my father’s wardrobe. However, the garments were quite large and boxy. Ching Ching Wong, soloist for FLEX, also served as a costume production assistant and tailored the costumes to fit the performers. 

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BOWIE: Throughout the show, there are times when characters can be seen in the back folding, unfolding, and refolding jackets. You also have a previous work literally called, Fold, Unfold, Refold. Can you explain this theme a bit?

CARLON: The integration of the folding in the background came out of this notion of hidden labor.  I integrate labor a lot into my work. The work Fold, Unfold, Refold was a work about monotony, and repetitive gestures, and the performance of labor. I’m obsessed with the performance of labor. The folding in the background of FLEX was inspired by my mom’s immigration story. My mom lived in the shadow of my father’s epic and I wanted to pay homage to her. I thought about the invisibility of domesticity within our Western culture. I tried to incorporate as much folding in the background as possible to remind the audience of a sense of forgotten work.

BOWIE: The history of Filipino-American culture and its contribution to American development has been widely overlooked. However, Filipinos are the second-largest population of Asian-Americans, second only to Chinese-Americans. Why do you think this history is so easily overlooked?

CARLON: The Philippines is such a uniquely eclectic culture that is constantly evolving and trying to understand itself. From the 7,100 islands within the archipelago to the large amount of immigrants all over the world, Filipinos are great at adapting to cultures while still maintaining their own culture. There are so many influences, mainly because of colonization, but it’s hard to pinpoint what a Filipino is. I think assimilation, the desire to fit in, is a result of our culture being forgotten. I also think erasure is just a part of the Filipino diaspora; through centuries of resistance, the Filipino mentality is primarily survival, not preservation. That’s why I think it’s important for more Filipino stories to make their way into pop culture, and media, and academia. I think we’re getting there.

BOWIE: Where else would you like to take the work from here? It’s so emotionally compelling and educationally-rich that I could see it playing at a number of different venues.

CARLON: My dream is to share this story with other Filipino-Americans. I want to focus on touring this work throughout California, to start. From San Diego to the Bay, California is home to the highest number of Filipinos outside of the Philippines. I would also like to take the work to New York and other Filipino populated cities. It would, of course, be a dream to even take this to the Philippines.

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Follow @carlondance on Instagram to learn more about FLEX.


The Tao of Maceo: An Interview Of Multi-Disciplinary Artist & Behavioral Economist Maceo Paisley

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interview by Summer Bowie

photographs by Dan Johnson

What does it mean to be a twenty-first century renaissance man? For Maceo Paisley, a wide range of disciplines comes together in a positive feedback loop that supports his indefatigable exploration of human behavior. Using embodied inquiry, he investigates his own identity and presents his findings in performance and film. A prolific writer of prose, he just released his first book Tao of Maceo, which takes inventory of his personal beliefs and aims to define his perspective more acutely. Stepping off the stage, he cultivates community through his Chinatown gallery, Nous Tous and a multi-pronged community practice/social innovation agency called Citizens of Culture. When he’s not writing, choreographing, curating, advising, and organizing, you might find him modeling or dancing for the likes of AirBnb or Justin Timberlake, respectively. Or you might find him enjoying a day to himself with a great book in hand. In the following interview, we learned about Maceo’s ever-expanding artistic practice, his time in the Army, and his unique approach to community organizing.

SUMMER BOWIE: Your short film, Dynamite investigates gender and identity, specifically the black, male experience through embodied inquiry. Can you talk a bit about the concept of embodied inquiry and any discoveries you made about your identity through this process?

MACEO PAISLEY: Yes, embodied inquiry, as I see it is a practice that deepens the thinking process by approaching ideas through the body. From the neurological perspective, we tap into kinetic intelligence, and somatics. From the more spiritual or philosophical perspective we tap into the bodies natural, sensual wisdom, as a reference point for our conceptual understanding.  

The most interesting discoveries have been around relationships, in partner dancing, where trust, communication, vulnerability, and boundaries aren’t just metaphorically applied, but fully actualized in the bodies of two dancers.

BOWIE: Speaking of masculine expression, I understand that before your career as an entrepreneurial creative, you earned a Bronze Star for your service with the Army in Iraq. Can you describe your tour in Iraq and do you feel this is a testament to your masculinity, or something else completely?

PAISLEY: I think that my time in the Army, was challenging, but it gave me access to a kind of masculinity that, when untempered appears as violent aggression, but when honed, can actually be useful as clarity and assertion.  It took me going to the extreme to know what limits I was comfortable with, but through that expression and exploration I was able to find a balance point and operate from there.

Iraq was a mixed bag, everyday was different, some days were almost boring, and other days there were mortar rounds blasting over our heads.

BOWIE: Aside from being a multi-disciplinary artist, you’re also a model, behavioral economist, an entrepreneur, a writer/magazine publisher, the president and director of Nous Tous Gallery in Chinatown and you oversee strategy and vision for a nonprofit called Citizens of Culture. That’s a lot to unpack and we’ll come back to these projects in detail, but have you always been such a polymathic person, and how do you manage to wear so many hats?

PAISLEY: It seems to me that my work is actually quite dynamic in practice but almost singular in focus. At core, I am deeply interested in the humanities as a field, so that might be the qualitative measurement of human behavior, or it could be the observational study of a couple arguing in a coffee shop, or the of publishing of works across whichever medium is most suitable for the audience.  

Art & science are often posed as opposites, but I believe that they are like twins separated at birth, who are both often misunderstood, yet each necessary to gain as robust a picture of humanity and it’s surroundings as possible.

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BOWIE: You just had your first book published, Tao of Maceo, a personal inventory of your beliefs in writing. You say that by putting your views on paper, you gain a better understanding of your fallacies and limiting beliefs. What’s the most important thing you learned about yourself through the writing process?

PAISLEY: The most important thing I learned about myself has to be that for as much as I am open and perceived as vulnerable in my work, I am a very private person, who isn’t nearly as open in my relationships as I am in the controlled context of sharing art.

BOWIE: You’re an avid reader and you publish a biannual print magazine called Correspondence. Who are some of the authors and magazines that inspire your writing and publishing, respectively? 

PAISLEY: Well, in 2016 I read about 115 books, both fiction and non-fiction. I really have to say that Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite non-fiction writers because of his range of experience dealing with the human mind. In the fiction realm, Octavia Butler is really a titan, that I keep wanting to go back to. As far as periodicals, I really love the Copenhagen Institute for Cultural Studies magazine SCENARIO, it has the most fabulous images, and deep insights about culture and identity from the individual and macro perspective.

BOWIE: You seem to be on a highly proactive odyssey toward excellence. Are you seeking an arrival point, or are you simply trying to see how much you can accomplish within your lifespan?

PAISLEY: The latter, I don’t know that “excellence” is the goal, it certainly was at one point. Now, I am more focused on finding peace and living in an urban environment, and contemporary society makes that a worthy challenge. My biggest goal at the moment is to understand what “enough” means to me, and how that idea changes accordingly with changes in my environment, and at various stages of life.

BOWIE: I want to talk about Nous Tous (French for all of us). What made you decide to open a gallery/community space and what does the decision process look like when curating artists and hosting events?

PAISLEY: Well, to be frank, we’ve never really said “No.” to anyone who wanted to show at Nous Tous. It would be contradictory to the name if we were to be exclusionary. Instead, I see my role as gallerist to be more of an editor, highlighting the best elements of whatever work is brought my way, and to coach the artist to trust in a shared vision, or in some cases, simply submit to the artist’s vision, and work to support it as best we can within our parameters and resources.

We have a manifesto that we reference, and works that fit naturally within it are usually what we attract, and other times we offer rental agreements to allow works to be shown with more autonomy. We then use that financial support to uplift other programs.

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BOWIE: Can you talk a bit about Citizens of Culture? How it came about and what you guys do.

PAISLEY: Citizens Of Culture is really about creating a place to have all the conversations we find difficulty having otherwise. Whether it be race, sex, politics, death, money, or morality, we support individuals and businesses as they approach cultural challenges in the hopes of providing the kind of clarity that can inform values-based actions. Practically, we are consultants for innovation, diversity and belonging, in companies, and that work supports, free or low-cost programs that are art-based, therapeutic, or support economic empowerment.

We have weekly meetings on Wednesdays, 7pm at Nous Tous in Chinatown if anyone wants to pop in and check it out.

BOWIE: Through Citizens of Culture you conducted a dating social experiment called, No Pressure, No Shame. What do you think are some of the current challenges that single people face in our current dating culture, and do you have any wisdom to impart for those who are currently trying to navigate the dating scene?

PAISLEY: The biggest challenge is that we have only been trying to marry for love for a short while in human history, and we don’t really have stale or universal definitions for what “love” is. So there is this mythology around it that we are trying to live up to, all while the ground shifts beneath us as to how we are supposed to go about achieving a loving relationship.

We first try to encourage people to clarify their intentions in the dating world, and that might mean having a flexible, working definition of what love looks like, and how a romantic partner might fit in to an ideal life. The next thing would be to set up some goals and boundaries that feel appropriate for our stage in life, and realizing that the work is never really done, so having compassion for ourselves and others along the way.

BOWIE: Is this an ongoing project or was it more of a one-time thing?

PAISLEY: No Pressure No Shame, started in 2015 with a 150-person queer, sex-positive, consent-based dating event, and we have been activating different iterations of the program as talks, art events, and parties ever since then. We activate something larger each October.

BOWIE: I’m really interested in a video series you feature on Citizens of Culture called Talking in Circles. Can you talk a bit about the concept of this series and any future topics you plan to cover?

PAISLEY: We believe that every great movement in humanity starts with people coming together to make collective decisions. Every one of our programs has some element of this, in the past we have covered technology, religion, police brutality, gentrification, and other issues, and moving forward I think we should be speaking more to addiction, sex-work, ideas of normalcy, economy, and mental health. As we move forward, we would like to be a go-to place for all of the most important conversations of our time.

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Maceo Paisley will be officially releasing Tao of Maceo and signing books Thursday March 14 from 7:30-9:30pm @ NAVEL 1611 South Hope Street. Please join us for a screening and performance of DYNAMITE, as well as a short Q&A with Maceo Paisley & Summer Bowie.


Rebuilding the Model: An Interview of Contemporary Choreographer Chris Bordenave

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text by Summer Bowie

 

How could anybody forget Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of Loie Fuller at the Folies Bergère, or Picasso’s myriad costumes and set designs for the Ballets Russes? Even if they've become less household over the years, those images made an indelible mark on mainstream society. Then there's the almost completely forgotten gems, like the stage set that Jasper Johns created for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, a pastiche of images from Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped By Her Bachelor’s” in clear plastic pillows. The 20th century offered a spoil of fantastic collaborations between the visual and performing arts: Eadweard Muybridge’s iconic photos of Isadora Duncan, Léon Bakst’s costumes and set design for Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, or Isamu Noguchi’s set for Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring  – just to name a few. Unfortunately, I find myself hard-pressed to find any similar contemporary examples, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to discover Chris Bordenave.

A classically trained, multi-disciplinary choreographer, who is one of the 3 founding members of a dance company called No)one. Art House., Bordenave has recently been working with a number of musical artists, such as Anderson Paak, Mayer Hawthorne, and more recently Solange and Kelela. He has also been creating site-specific works for institutions such as the California African American Museum, Hauser + Wirth, and Solange’s SAINT HERON House. I caught up with the young choreographer at the Annenberg Beach House, one beautiful autumn day, where he was rehearsing. We discussed his early training, the current state of dance affairs, and dance’s ceremonious relationship to visual art. Whether this current century will bear witness to dance and art finally renewing their vows is still a mystery, but if it is the case, Bordenave is one choreographer making a clear gesture that he's ready to meet in the middle.

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to start by asking you about your performance this past weekend at the Hollywood Bowl with Solange, how did it go?

CHRIS BORDENAVE: It was good. She brought me on to help with coordinating the additional performers that she had. She had twelve or fourteen extra horn players and she had a full string arrangement. I was just helping out with getting their choreography and their entrances and exits together. Just kind of helping out with whatever else she needed.

BOWIE: Is that your first time choreographing musicians in their movements, or is that something you’ve been doing?

BORDENAVE: I’ve been doing it. I’ve worked with Mayer Hawthorne, Anderson Paak, Empress Of, and a few other artists, just choreographing them in music videos. It was my first time doing a live performance — actually no that’s not true, I did Anderson Paak on the Ellen Show.

BOWIE: What are you rehearsing for right now?

BORDENAVE: Right now we are doing a performance at the Bootleg Theater. It’s going to be me with a vocalist and she made some songs out of these old black poems about the Great Migration. So this performance is one man’s journey through these songs, dance, theater, and projection mapping. It’s about their experiences moving from the South to the North during that time, what they went through, and how layered the experience is.



BOWIE: Since founding No)One. Art House, you’ve been performing and collaborating with a wide range of musical artists and art institutions. Is that bridge between musically driven work and performance-art driven dance what you were originally aiming for with No)One.?

BORDENAVE: Yeah, we knew that we wanted to educate and also challenge audiences in LA, because LA is a bit new to concert dance. We figured bringing it physically closer to the audience would impact them a bit more. Doing it inside of a proscenium stage doesn’t really connect, especially with contemporary dance. So, we found that when we do it in galleries, or unconventional spaces where we can physically get closer to the audience. They feel more connected to the work.

BOWIE: On the music side, you’ve been working with everyone from Solange, to Kelela, to Mayer Hawthorne, to Anderson Paak. How do you approach those kinds of commissions from a choreographic perspective?

BORDENAVE: First it goes off of their original vision. Right now I’m working with Kelela, and it’s nice to be working with her at this point because it’s really the first time she’s headlining shows, and it’s going to be her first album. It’s kind of a new arrangement for her, it’s very fresh and very new. So, it’s nice because I’m able to bring my concert dance art sensibility to this kind of commercial, mainstream element.

BOWIE: On the art side, you’re going to be presenting work at Hauser & Wirth in LA, the California African American Museum, and the SAINT HERON house. Does your approach change dramatically in accordance with the different types of venues that commission you?

BORDENAVE: Totally, it’s all about the space. It doesn’t really benefit anyone if we keep doing the same thing in different spaces. We want people to feel connected. We want them to feel like they are the work, that their role is as vital as that of the performers.

BOWIE: So, let’s go back to the beginning, you started dancing when you were about nine. What was your training like at that age?

BORDENAVE: I started at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre here in LA, and we did a lot of modern, African, jazz, and hip hop. Kind of everything, she wanted us to have a lot of tools under our belts so that we could work and do whatever we were asked to do. Then I went to the Debbie Allen Dance Academy once she opened up her school. When I graduated from high school, I moved to New York and went to the Ailey school, then I graduated from the LINES Ballet BFA program in San Francisco.

BOWIE: So you went to Ailey then came over to Alonzo King and finished your education?

BORDENAVE: Right. I was part of the inaugural class for their joint program with Dominican University. That was mainly contemporary ballet and I danced with the LINES company for a little bit after I graduated. Afterwards, I danced with Morphosis in New York, and then Luna Negra in Chicago. I moved back here because the state of affairs with dance companies in this country is failing. A lot of the most prominent contemporary dance companies have closed because people don’t care anymore about dance and they don’t want to give money to it. I basically started this new company with some friends as a way of rebuilding the model, because the old model clearly isn’t working. We thought that LA would be ideal, not only because it’s our home, but because it doesn’t really exist here. There’s definitely a void, but concert dance in LA is quickly becoming more popular.

BOWIE: It seems like your dance practice itself has been moving stylistically as well as geographically. From the examples you just gave, you’ve gone from ballet, to latin-based contemporary, to contemporary, to gaga-based movement…and I’m sure you’ve done a whole wealth of work in between. Would you say there’s a single motivating factor behind your overall trajectory?

BORDENAVE: The direction. It was always really important for me to work for someone who I knew could change a dancer. Every time I would go and see LINES, I had no idea how the dancers were doing it. I wanted to learn from whoever was directing. Gustavo Ramirez Sansano (who took over Luna Negra before it closed), he really trained me how to dance and how to work with different choreographers; to not only be true to what they’re doing, but also to be true to myself.

BOWIE: When we look at dance history, at least from a Western perspective, dance and fine art really developed in tandem, especially over the 20th century from the avant-garde movement, to modern, and finally the postmodern movement. Then we get to contemporary, and it seems like contemporary art has gone in a very conceptual direction and contemporary dance has been very commercially driven. Do you have any theories as to why that phenomenon may be occurring?

BORDENAVE: I think contemporary jazz dance has gone commercial for sure. But true contemporary dance, I wouldn’t say that it’s gone commercial quite yet. I think people just get confused about the differences between the genres. A lot of people think what they’re doing on So You Think You Can Dance? is contemporary dance, and it’s not. It’s contemporary jazz dance, which is very different. A big aim for me, and the reason why I always try to perform in these fine art institutions, is because that’s the only way that people will understand it’s at the same level as fine art, as visual art. In this country, unless you’re doing ballet or commercial dance, there’s no funding. The level of what you’re seeing on stage is usually very basic because the funding isn’t there. But when you go to Europe or when contemporary companies tour here, you see the scale is so large, and so much more than what we’re doing here. It’s sad that we have to bring outside companies from around the world to show us what the next level of dance is.

BOWIE: Do you think that academically, our institutions are doing justice by American dancers?

BORDENAVE: No! I’ve found that the institutions that have dance programs usually keep the same faculty for decades. Decades upon decades upon decades. People who have not worked, people who have not been in the field for years. So, of course, if you have this outdated information that you keep perpetuating to your students, they’re not going to know what’s going on. I would say there are about four conservatory programs in this country that can compete with companies outside the U.S.

BOWIE: Which would you say those four are?

BORDENAVE: I would say they are USC, Juilliard, San Francisco Conservatory, and SUNY Purchase… and LINES. So, five.

BOWIE: Do you have any predictions for what the future of dance will look like, both academically and commercially?

BORDENAVE: I think people are starting to wake up to contemporary dance for sure. It’s becoming more prevalent with people like Ryan Heffington. They’re bringing it into fashion and music videos and to film. There’s definitely a slow progression, it’ just... slow.

BOWIE: What do you think is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a performer?

BORDENAVE: That it’s important to see dance, to see all forms of art, to let it inform you, to be influenced, and also to copy. I feel like I’ve only been able to be so versatile because I’ve been able to really observe and listen and then copy and then let it influence my work. People are always scared like, “Oh no, I can’t be like them.” But Michael Jackson stole the moonwalk. All these influential people steal. Beyoncé steals... she does. It is a form of flattery. I don’t see why people get so upset when Beyoncé steals their work. Their work would never have been seen by that many people unless someone like her was to do it. Of course, there’s artistic integrity and all of that, but I still think that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s okay.

BOWIE: Finally, I feel like we see a lot of young people who’ve fallen in love with dancing but then they don’t know how to continue the practice as adults. Do you have any advice for young adults who struggle with feeding that passion?

BORDENAVE: That’s a great question. As soon as I moved back here, people came up to me like, “Oh are you still dancing?” You know, of course. It’s what I am. It just goes back to arts education. I know USC is definitely teaching them the business side of it, because that’s a reality. Especially now with social media, you have to be able to market yourself. You have to be able to know what you look like, what to post, you have to know the avenues you can go down. You can be an arts manager, you can be a publicist, you can be a gallerist, you can do so many things within the art world even if you’re not the one performing or creating the work. I taught myself how to curate, how to reach out to magazines, how to do all of these things just by seeing what other people are doing and trying. I think it’s important to know that you can’t just dance anymore. You have to be able to promote yourself, promote your work, promote every aspect of what you’re doing. Even if you’re not that good.



No)one. Art House will be performing at 8pm November 9 at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, as well as 7-9pm December 19 at the California African American Museum. Follow Chris Bordenave on Instagram @chrisemile, follow No)one. Arthouse @no_one.arthouse, follow AUTRE @autremagazine. Look out for this interview, as well as interviews with Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Varda, Harmony Korine, Judith Bernstein and many more in the Winter 2017 issue of AUTRE. Available for pre-order now! This is a limited-edition issue, get your copy while supplies last!