The crowd went crazy. Joya Powell had just been declared the 2016 Bessie Award Winner for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer in recognition of her racially charged work. In the world of dance, the equivalent would be the hometown girl winning the Grammy for Best New Artist. Against all odds it turns out that you can actually put a lynching onstage, talk about Black Lives, be true to searing politics, and still beat out the competition. Even when that competition includes the critical darlings John Heginbotham, Larissa Valez-Jackson, and Jillian Peña in a town that normally bows down before esoteric dance. Despite the incredible joy that was radiating from her eyes it was clear that no one was more shocked that she had won than Joya herself. Black Girls may be magic but Black People usually don’t win for talking about Black Things. Capping off a year that includes being designated a 2016-2017 Stage Directors and Choreographers Fellow, Joya sat down to speak with me about the thrill of getting here and where she’s headed next.
We met at Hamilton’s Bakery in Harlem with her gorgeous mother, the tea guru Jo Johnson. Joya stands at nearly six feet tall with voluminous wavy hair that is nearly as long. One look at Jo tells you just about everything you need to know about Joya. Both have sphinx like eyes that beam intelligence, infectious smiles, and fabulous fashion sense that makes you scream “YES!”; this is a lineage of queens. After savoring one of Hamilton’s cinnamon bacon rolls, Jo bid us farewell as we dug in.
I always tell people that before anyone else was talking about Black Lives and politics through dance, you were the only one-.
I wasn’t. Definitely not! There are plenty of people who came way before me.
You have your obvious ones like Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus for example. Unfortunately in my schooling we weren’t really told about people of color in the dance world. The only other people that I had a reference to at a young age were Josephine Baker and Alvin Ailey. What about Eleo Pomare? Dianne McIntyre? Blondelle Cummings? Jawole Willa Jo Zollar? The people that I had around me really weren’t talking about other representatives of black dance. But they were there. So it’s not like what I’m doing is unique, because it’s not.
What’s unique to me about you is that you are not afraid to put the ugly truth onstage in a hard-hitting way. How has that been for you?
At the start of my career with the company (Movement of The People), it was: going up for the same applications as other people who were just doing pretty work. I mean, it was straight up: “This is a line, and this is what that line looks like, and this is what all of our faces must look like in this line.” It was such a hard struggle trying to understand, like, maybe our work doesn’t necessarily fit in.
Your work is intense.
But it’s not provocative for the sake of being provocative.
What we do is provide a platform for people to start discussions. You know? The fact that you are affected by us in some way is really important. Maybe you’ll take the time out to Google what this is about and learn a bit more. And even if you don’t, just having that conversation is of the utmost importance to the work that we do. Get it? Don’t get? That’s okay.
I’m thinking about your piece that I saw at Webster Hall in 2010 where the women were choking in burlap bags and rope. Where did that come from?
Well, it’s funny because when you emailed me with your synopsis about what you wanted to write, “Even before Black Lives Matters Joya Powell put lynching on the stage”, I was like, “I did?”
I thought that you were talking about a more recent piece. Then I remembered, “Oh! ‘Breathless’. Oh yes, I surely did.” That piece was about the Jena Six case. When that whole situation came about it was just, A) infuriating and then B) people started seeing these massive amount of nooses at various-
Right. Businesses, homes- and to me it was like, this can’t be a joke. You can’t do this and be joking about it. That is not okay. You have to know what lynching represents. And if you don’t, then what are we doing as a society that we’re not making sure that you understand? Whoever you are, you need to know as a human being that this is: Not. Okay. Period.
I appreciate that you give voice to things that other people don’t talk about. I feel like you choreograph to tell the story of people who don’t have a voice or who don’t have the outlet.
I wouldn’t say, “people who don’t have the voice”. I’d say people who may not have the outlet or certain privileges to get their work out there.
From here Joya explained that her company, Movement of the People was inspired by a piece she created about the Argentine peaceful protest movement, Las Madres de La Playa de Mayo.
Well actually it started out as “The Ayoj Llewop Body Politic”
But no one could ever say the name so about five years after that I changed it because I kept getting, “What?! How do I say this? I don’t understand!” And I was like, “You have companies from all over the world that you’re presenting; can’t you just pretend to say this or even ask me?” It was such a big deal. And I honestly felt like I was not getting certain gigs because of the name. I mean, seriously. A venue actually said that.
What keeps you going when you face such arbitrary nonsense?
I was brought up with a sense of resilience. Both of my families come from immigrants. My mother’s family, both my grandmother and grandfather were raised in Jamaica. For my father’s family, my great grandparents came from Russia and Eastern Europe. So, just this sense of constant fight.
Joya starts pounding her fist into her hand.
Constant struggle, being around that all of my life, it’s just… what you do.
It really is. And it goes back and forth because within that struggle it wasn’t like my grandfather was like, “Yeah. Go ahead. Dance!” Absolutely no; of course not. He was like, “Be a doctor or a lawyer because that’s what’s going to make you money!” But constantly seeing him in that struggle and constantly seeing my grandmother in that struggle is how I was raised. That’s what I saw all the time. And so of course I fell into the hardest art career possible.
What was it like receiving your notification that you’d been nominated? Because I imagine that you were sitting at your coffee, checking your email, and then… SPIT! Everywhere.
That’s exactly what happened. It happened right over there. It was literally right there in that seat.
We both laugh.
I grabbed a seat over there and… there’s the email. I open emails like that all the time and I always prep myself for the “We’re sorry but-“. I mean, you’re just ready for that spiel because nine and a half times out of ten, that’s what’s happening. So then, “Wait a minute! I was nominated?!” I might have screamed; that might have happened because it was-. I was in this insane state of shock.
When I read the press announcement I was like, “Joya Powell?” I mean, Joya Powell – duh – yes. But “Joya Powell? She’s not supposed to be nominated for this stuff.”
Yeah. Who’re you telling?
Looking at the database of people who’ve been nominated, you really don’t fit the profile. Your work “goes there” in a way that most people pull back from because they are afraid of offending. Or they’re attached to the idea of being pretty. Or presenting work that, at least to me isn’t really about anything.
Everyone has their own aesthetic. I mean, I’m definitely not interested in pretty. In rehearsal I’m constantly saying “that was too pretty.” It’s not that what we’re doing is ugly. Because it’s not. It’s-. Just yesterday I was telling my dancers, “Please do not point your foot on this. Because that is just not what this is about”. But I also have to say that it’s not that I’m not afraid of not offending because I definitely am all the time.
So what gives you the courage? I’m not saying that your work is offensive because it’s not.
It’s not offensive, but it could definitely make people say, “I can’t believe she did that!”
It’s a process.
Joya pauses as if to reflect upon everything that has brought her to this point.
I’m really fortunate to work with dancers who are right there with me and who believe in me when I don’t necessarily believe in myself. I don’t know if it’s courage because I don’t think of it that way. Maybe it’s the chutzpah? To just know… What is the story we’re telling and what does it look like?
In an interview with Lucy Sexton, the producer of The Bessie Awards, it was made clear that celebrating diverse voices and perspectives was a new focus for the awards.
Lucy Sexton: We really wanted it to be clear that The Bessies were going to be looking at all kinds of dance work, so we tried to be much more transparent about it and made the (nominating) committee much bigger so that we could be more intentional about covering a broader scale.
What was it like getting the award? There was a roar that went through the room after you were announced.
It was insane Juan Michael. My analytic brain was like, “Okay, whoever is announcing the awards is clearly tied to whose winning. I’m seeing the pattern.” So when Jerron Herman came out I was like, “Okay; amazing Black dancer. I’m not going to think it”, but I was thinking it. Then when they were showing clips of the nominees I was like, “Oh no! The clips that they showed of mine were garbage! People are going to think, ‘Of course she didn’t win’”. But then Jerron started reading the citation and at first it was like, “For her”, and I was like, “Alright it’s not John.” This is all happening in my brain within milliseconds of course, and then it gets to “Work with social justice” and- Agh! My mom and Megan Minturn, one of my dancers and closest friends, were sitting in front of me and the two of them turned around and I was like… Sweating. And then I couldn’t hear anything else. Thank goodness I tuned back in just to make sure it was me because I was like, “There’s no way.” When I heard my name there was this – I don’t know – underwater like feeling. My mom was hysterically crying and I was like “Hug Mom.” It was all in slow motion: voices; what’s going on; smiling; I’m crying; “What the what is happening?!” And then being up there and being like, “I guess I’m supposed to be here; I’m pretty sure they called my name but I’m not quite sure. Let’s look at this again because it might not say my name.”
Video courtesy of: Out and About NYC Magazine
Does this say Jillian Peña?
No. Really. Honestly I was really terrified about going up there. I was like, “Joya. Make sure you got the J right”. Make sure you don’t start screaming and then it’s not really you. I was totally prepping myself for that! But it was really me. I’m not sure why. I was super confused. I just stuck to the script because I couldn’t look out at the audience. I was flipping out inside knowing that so many people that I respect were in the room. Because it’s this constant struggle- this constant battle just to continue. I’m super fortunate to have the family and support system that I have because, literally I don’t know that I would be able to survive in the world of 9-to-5. The only reason that I can do what I do is because my family is there to support me. Because all of my money goes to the company. The money I make goes directly to the company so that I can keep it going and that’s it. If it wasn’t for my family constantly supporting me there would be no way. Literally, no way that I would exist. Period.
What’s next for you? I know that you just choreographed The Flea’s production of “The Trojan Women” and that you just finished choreographing the premiere of “Fit For a Queen”, and of course Movement of the People is performing at BAM on October 18th for The Bessie Awards ceremony. What else?
MOPDC's Free Day of Dance at Casita Maria on October 22nd
My ongoing Samba Afro Classes at Cumbe/Gibney on Sundays
MOPDC performs “Farm House-Rules” in the Urban Garden at Bryant Park, November 2nd-6th.
Socially Conscious Choreography workshop in partnership with Dance to the People at BAX on Nov. 17th.
MOPDC's 3rd Annual 3-day Winter Intensive: Dance, Choreograph, Envision on January 14 – 16th, 2017.
MOPDC's 3rd Annual 3-day Winter Intensive: Dance, Choreograph, Envision on January 14 – 16th, 2017.
What are these socially conscious choreography workshops about?
We share our process with people in the community, then community members create their own socially conscious work that has its own showing and talkback discussion afterwards.
I’m going to join one of your workshops.
Bring a friend.
Joya Powell’s Movement of The People Dance Company performs, “Song and Dance You” at the 32nd Annual Bessie Awards on October 18th, 2016 at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. Tickets start at $10. For more information, visit www.bam.org