Jonathan Gonzalez in Cynthia Oliver's Virago Man-Dem, photo by Julieta Cervantes

Cynthia Oliver in conversation with Leslie Cuyjet

Longtime collaborators, Cynthia Oliver and Leslie Cuyjet got together to talk about Cynthia’s most recent work, “Virago Man-Dem” which was presented at BAM this past Fall. The word “Virago” is used in the Caribbean to refer to gender transgression, often in a derogatory way to describe a woman who possesses stereotypically masculine qualities like aggression or bravery. Cynthia's work explores the ambiguous nature of masculine identity and subsequently uncovers the instability of cultural symbols that define maleness as an embodied experience. In the work's landscape of movement, text, video, and sound, we come to find how the body thrives in a state of in-betweenness, suddenly spilling out from the container of words and categories.

- Tess Dworman, co-editor


Leslie Cuyjet: Okay so what are we supposed to talk about?

Cynthia Oliver: We are talking about Virago Man-Dem

LC: I was glad I got to go to Philly to see it.

CO: It was quite different to see it in that space I’m sure.

LC: Definitely. It was way more intimate and I saw a lot more things that I didn’t see before at BAM.

CO: Really? Like what?

LC: I just felt like a lot of the projections were so huge. It was almost like it dominated a lot of the viewing area at BAM, but this one was more condensed. I could see more of the dancing.

CO: Ah, interesting. Interesting from that point of view because I think for us, on the design side of it we were lamenting that we had to kind of reduce the brightness of the environment. Well we didn’t have to, the projector there was just not as powerful as the one at BAM, so it was already reduced. We had to figure out how to adjust everything else so you could even see the projections. That felt like a loss on our side, but it’s interesting to hear your side where it felt like the other elements were amplified.

LC: Yeah, I thought it was a nice balance. I thought you could still see it. It was still clear. Maybe because I was already familiar with it. It was nice to be able to focus or my eye was drawn more towards the dancing where at [BAM this was not so at] times because of imagery. The images [in the video projection] were just so striking.

CO: And bright. Which was part of my intent and I think enlisting John Jennings and Stacey Robinson to do those images in that kind of size and for John Boesche to then play with them and make them come at us and animate them in the way that he did. For me, it did the job of that kind of bombardment that I wanted, you know? It started the piece out with both the stereotypical images of black men and then pushed those images further and included those that are kind of outside of those stereotypes, it stretched it. But I still wanted them to come at you quickly, brightly, flamboyantly in some ways, maybe even scary, and then go away.

LC: Right, right

CO: And then you see these bodies that you had been staring at for, you know, ten minutes before anything had started, which hopefully would make folks think “oh wow, what did I kind of subconsciously attach to these bodies? And how does their moving right now kind of upset or disrupt that idea that I initially had when I was looking at them?”

LC: Especially at the beginning with the hoodies up and you know, you have that extended period of time to take in that iconic image of a black male figure in a hoodie and navigate all of your feelings about it for a long time while this sort of imagery in the background was going through this very soft… and you know that was the one thing I think I either read it or I was writing it in my notes the last time that I saw it. It was a blend between-- when you’re talking about this bombardment, it’s a lens that’s going in and out of focus. You get those sharp lines but next to really soft moments. That first moment with these figures in these positions and the soft focus blurry projections in the background was effective.

CO: And the kind of black water that is happening for that extended period...with those tiny sounds tinkling in the background. You know as you were talking about the images, it made me think about the new kind of sadly iconic figure that has come to represent the movement. And I’m thinking about it because when we were in DC, I got a chance to go to the museum for African American History. I don’t remember the official name of that museum, but you have to get up at the crack of dawn and get a ticket and I went for hours and it’s an amazing place. One of the most moving moments in there was the memorial to Emmett Till. I don’t know that I’ve ever mentioned it in an interview or been asked anything about Emmett Till in relation to the piece, but there is a moment in the “Boom Muthafucka” section where they whistle.

LC: Yeah

CO: And I wanted to keep that in there because of the conflation of whistling with that historic moment. There are those who say it was a contested kind of description of what happened to him. In one account it was like he had whistled at this white woman. In another account he had said something that was offensive to her. Of course we don’t know what happened. I remember when we were working on the piece and when they started whistling, they were just playing or maybe I instructed them to whistle at that place and I thought about that moment and whether it was something that happened or not. It is stamped in our history and I wanted to keep it in there as a reference to that painful history. But it is also a seduction or a play at a seduction, or the simple passing of time. It’s interesting to think this piece starts off with this iconic look now that is associated with Trayvon, but that there are these other references later in the piece that gesture to other tragic historical figures and moments.

LC: I don’t know if you felt this way, but I didn’t have a sense of tragedy.

CO: No.

LC: About the work. There wasn’t a theme, and that’s going against this lens of going in and out of something. There were moments where the spikes of joy or spikes of intimacy, going into a specific place… there’s definitely a lot of that blurry in between moments of just being.

CO: Yeah, which I was insistent upon. I wanted that.

LC: From the beginning?

CO: Yes. I wanted folks to feel what that kind of timelessness feels like. You know look at these folks as human. They could also just be. Every moment is not about a certain kind of potentiality. Every moment is not about a relationship to you. Every moment is not about the potential of some kind of violent action. That there are moments when folks are just being and it doesn’t have anything to do with you. *laughs* It ain’t got shit to do with you. And you know I would love it if populations of folks understood that about one another. That it’s not always about you.

But in spite of that, the flip side of a lot of the humor in there has that tragic historical reference. I feel like it was present for me even though I didn’t want to necessarily make it blatantly present for the audience. I’m not interested in that kind of didacticism. But I do know that for all of us, it is threaded in the lives that we live every day and I want that to be a part of the layered nature of what’s happening in there.

LC: Yeah

CO: So when they say comedy comes out of deep tragedy…

LC: For sure. When you were talking about, “ain’t got shit to do with you” it made me think about one of the things that you and I have talked about before. There’s just so much there, more to explore with your connection to this work and your research in this work as a woman and working with the performers telling, because I’m sure it was a personal journey for everybody. And how, I’m thinking about... I started now seven questions here…

But about the creation of it… As the driver, were your original curiosities informed or fulfilled in some way? I don’t know if fulfilled is the right word. How were those curiosities stretched? I’m thinking about your history in the Caribbean, and then also thinking about the mindfuck you must go through about raising a young black man today, and our very clear personal connections, but then taking into account all these different perspectives in relation to this work and how that satisfied those curiosities.

CO: Yeah, you said perfectly all the complicatedness of delving into this work. I think, well I know that it has been something that has been kind of riding along with me for years because if I’m doing work that is focused on excavating black female worlds and giving voice to that because I think that was something that was not particularly recognized in multiple fields and definitely not in dance. I wanted to contribute to the voices that were speaking at this particular historical moment that I’ve been privileged to live in. But if you’re focusing on one gender, of course you’re noticing what the other is doing because you have to consciously exclude that. And so on the one hand I’m doing all this research and I’m observing and I’m also peeping what the brothers are doing like, “Oh that’s what you’re doing while we’re over here doing this. That’s what you’re doing?” And so there was that was going on, like you know even just as a kid, as a young person, the impact of black men’s voices in particular is part of the reason why I wanted to have that “boom muthafucka” section, because that skill, that craft of being able to talk shit is key in our world, you know? For entertainment, for distraction, for knowledge building, for all kinds of things and so I was absolutely certain it had to be in there.

But your question about curiosities, they were really triggered in Trinidad when I started this process and Makeda Thomas of New Waves Institute had set up a casual situation for me to talk with some of the guys, some of whom were part of the dance community, some of whom were not. One in particular, oh my god this man. He’s a fashion designer. His company is called The Cloth. His name is Robert Young. He’s not a dancer, he’s a, he’s not portly but a thick kind of fellow who’s really smart, knows his cultural material back and front, part of the Shango community there. He was willing to come into the studio and experiment with us. He came into the studio interested in the questions I was asking. Every day, he was into just having these conversations. We’d start the rehearsal every day with conversation. We’d talk about what it felt like. I started every process with the root question, which was, “What was your epiphanic moment, where you were told, where you realized, where something happened to make you super aware of the fact that you were to behave differently because you were a boy, or a man, a young man?” That question set off fireworks in the room. Everybody had their stories and it was fascinating and so I thought “Oh wow. Who knew that I was asking the question that would be the trigger that would ignite all of this excitement?” So I used that as the baseline and at every residency after that, that was our starting question.

Robert was one who started talking about what would happen if we removed all of these markers. Would we recognize what “being a man” meant? What would that look like if there was a certain kind of freedom to just be? Alongside my determination to present in a kind of ethnographic fashion, just to have people being... what would it mean if you didn’t have these restrictions, these rules of engagement? [Robert asked] would we recognize it? And that stayed with me. That became the thing that I held onto and became one of the reasons that I made this particular piece at this particular moment. I have a male child and I have witnessed him negotiating his masculinity, trying to figure out what it is as a young person, as a toddler even. And it was sad to me to see him place limits on it, but he was like “no no no mom, these are the limits.” He didn’t say this, but he was essentially saying it to me, “these are the limits.” Being a boy means you have to do this. And I would say “why?” and he would talk to me like I was an idiot, like “because! this is what’s happening out there.” Essentially he was saying “this is what’s happening out there. This is what I’m seeing. This is what I’m being told and this is what being a boy means.” And that was devastating to me because I wanted him to have more options.

Okay so I’ve been talking for a long time, but these questions and these observations and Robert coming into the studio and it triggering all of this, and then thinking about what Elias was coming home and saying to me as a toddler. All of this became this kind of soup that I was negotiating. And then inviting these very particular performers to also share their accounts. And then for me to really orchestrate which threads of the many accounts we have do we deliver for what kinds of effects or reasons? That was really exciting.

...

Ni'Ja Whitson, Jonathan Gonzalez, and Duane Cyrus in Cynthia Oliver's Virago Man-Dem, photo by Julieta Cervantes

LC: I forget who I was talking about this to recently, about the sense of time and the marker before one of your best friends had a kid and then after. Or like before a close person committed suicide or after.  And these things from which you can’t return. There’s no access to the before. There’s only the after and how that shapes us and anyways...I love that idea of what if those markers were removed?

CO: Yeah, I mean the thing that’s interesting at this particular time period, at this historical moment is that they are being moved. And so there’s a whole kind of gender-bending gender-blending moment that we’re in that’s really exciting. It’s difficult because you realize that “oh shit, this is part of the language that we are brought into the speaking world and we have to dismantle it.” You know the he/she binary.

LC: The shapeshifter. That was such a huge theme in the work you know with Niall on his own track and Ni’Ja’s story and how all of them go in and out of like a different specific character and  general being.

CO: Right because the truth is all four of them are shape shifting throughout the work.

LC: Absolutely

CO: So it might seem like th--

LC: Techniques of shapeshifting almost…

CO: Exactly. But you know when you were talking about the before and the after, it makes me think about my dear friend and mentor, Laurie Carlos a number of years ago. I hope one can see the stamp of her influence on my work, but even if one didn’t there was a moment years ago when many of us in my generation who have been a part of her life and she a part of ours, we were all having babies and she said “look at all you bitches, all you feminist bitches went and had boys.” And she was like “whatchu gonna do now? Easy to talk all that shit when you were amongst all women, now what are you feminist bitches going to do now that you have boys?” And it was true! There were like three or four of us that all had boy children and we were like “What?!” Some of this [masculinity] stuff seemed hard-wired and that was surprising to me. And then some of the things were clearly environment. And the thing that shocked me was the hard-wired stuff. Like for Elias, he was never interested in dolls and it wasn’t about me not presenting it. I tried. He liked soft toys, sure. But dolls? Pfft. Give the brother a truck. There were things like that that I was sort of offended by, like my son just wants to hammer things! *laughs*

LC: Yeah, I mean I never saw him be hyper into trucks or fire.

CO: Yeah you missed that part with the trains and the trucks - Thomas the Train! It was intense!

LC: Wow.

CO: There were those things but then there were all these other negligible areas that I was happy for. Anyways it was really interesting when Laurie pointed out to me that “all you bitches...” *laughs*

There were the questions and the figuring out how do you change something that has been dyed in the wool societally? How do you do it one-on-one with a young person? And the other thing is the worldmaking of creating a piece at the same time that I am raising a young son, and I love that. I love that for three years, he has been in close proximity to these amazing people who are in our process asking all sorts of questions and pushing it and messing with him. Like “Whatchu wearing?” “Whatchu doin?” I have been privileged to live in the world with these artists. And the truth is, I don’t know if you think of it this way, but you have been in my work since… *laughs* early 2000.

LC: Yeah

CO: Probably longer than anyone else. More works than anyone else, I would say. And maybe you could say something about this, but I would say that even though those other works, including BOOM!, were not specifically about masculinity as Virago Man-Dem was, they addressed it.

And you know BOOM! had a way of talking about it, addressing it that was also in the same way that Virago Man-Dem has - this subtle layer of tragedy in it.

LC: Yeah

CO: BOOM! has this very subtle layer of an aggressive masculinity.

LC:I think that is both present in you and I, just as people. Yeah that definitely came out.

CO: Say more about that. What do you mean by that?

LC: I’ve always been asking questions about my role in a lot of the dances that I’m in where I feel in general… I’m not dark enough or I’m not light enough or I’m not small enough or feminine enough, there’s… I’m at a lot of in-betweens and my character and my… which is not necessarily a good thing because I feel like I tend to accommodate, so I take direction from, cues from other people rather than driving my own character.

CO: I don’t think that’s true, I don’t believe that. I mean I’ve known you for a long time and you have a very distinct character and you have--

LC: I feel like in pieces like BOOM!,  that’s able to come out in a way that feels so natural and so clear. In some other roles that I’ve taken where I’m just like, what action am I taking here? What purpose am I serving? And how am I stretching my skills as a performer and my experience in life? How is that feeding this work? And being able to be a shapeshifter, trying new things that I’m not trained to do. We just did it.

CO: But I think sometimes that comes from unspoken expectation. I think it’s a great question to ask, why did somebody select you for this particular piece? I don’t know that we ask those kinds of questions often enough. I remember getting to a certain place when I was dancing with David Gordon where he sort of, I don’t know, if he said these words explicitly, or intimated them, but he indicated that…we had gotten to a point where he didn’t really know what to do with me.

LC: Why’s that?

CO: And I think he was moving into narratives around his Jewishness and not just narratives in terms of how it could kind of work through the choreography so it was movement-based, but he was really moving more theatrically. I really respected that question and what I could do in the work and I think that was kind of the beginning of me starting to move in another direction and I left there on quite good terms and we continue to have good terms, but I left there and started working with Laurie because there was something about a certain kind of specificity about what I had to offer that made sense for me and Laurie at that time. You and I both have this quality of both being able to kind of be a chameleon. You can look at the art that you require to, or being asked to embody and kind of empty out affectation and it really kind of serves the work. But, that is operating under the presumption that the work is not expecting you to have a certain kind of presentation of self.

LC: Right. And maybe that comes from our history. [I’ve been] in process with you for so many years that I know that when I show up [my history] is what I have to offer and there’s not so much of the guessing game of which part should be highlighted or prioritized or, deprioritized and…

CO: I wonder if folks know how funny you are?

LC: But… I just make you laugh.

CO: *laughs* That’s not true!

...

Cynthia Oliver and Leslie Cuyjet in BOOM! photo by Ian Douglas

LC: In the pieces of yours that I’ve been in, you were moving through themes about the relationship with your mother. The first day we walked into the studio for BOOM! you were like, “this is not my cancer piece”, but you were navigating being in the studio after extended time off. And some of those things, even though they weren’t directly related, were related to my experience as a person outside of all the other dance commonalities that we share.

CO: Right

LC: But you know I was going through some of those same things. Certainly not indicating that I went through anything as severe as cancer, but you know that it felt like your navigation of those questions through dance process was something that I was learning to do myself as well. And it felt like a safe place to kind of work through those things.

CO: Well it’s interesting I feel like we created a safe space to work through a lot of things. I mean god forbid I hope you don’t ever have to negotiate some of the stuff that I have had to negotiate, but I think that the freedom in that space to do that stuff and to unleash some of the ideas that we did and to think and speak frankly about a lot of that stuff is what comes out of a process like that. I think you can see authentically in what the movement then becomes, what the journey of the choreography that then is presented. It seems to reach a certain kind of universal logic.

But to do that, you have to have a really rooted specificity which, even though it seems as though we might be chameleon-like in some regards, yes, you can shift and change and all that but at the same time at the root of it is some serious specifics about emotionality, about impulse, about response, reaction, attitudes about encounters, you know, all about that.

LC: Yeah, and I think that comes with age.

CO: *laughs* As you make a face.

LC: Because I was thinking that, now I’m not trying to divert the conversation back to the- what we were supposed to talk about but, I am…

CO: Subtle hint!

LC: I wanted to bring [Virago Man-Dem] up because of something that I’m negotiating with and I’m wondering if you have insight on it, cuz there were definitely moments where I was like “that is Cynthia through and through.” Like I could see it. I could see you in the studio giving instruction for a movement or a section.

CO: You talked to the dancers and they told you, “that bitch! that section she would not let us get rid of that section!”

LC: “She made me do…”

CO: “She insisted that be on the seven!” *laughs*

LC:I saw when you were working out those little penché walks and I was like “woo, woo!”

CO: I know they curse me every time they have to do that.

LC: I know I would too! *laughs*

CO: *laughs* Anyway, you were saying…

LC: Basically what I’m trying to get to is this notion of your specificity and character and style. And how you have to compromise or have a stronghold, I don’t know if stronghold’s the right word, but when you‘re dealing with such a huge team of designers and performers who’re giving a massive amount of input for the creation...and so essentially. You and I have had a conversation before about collaboration and authorship and I’m wondering specifically in this event in terms of your style, how John [Jennings’] work… you talked earlier about how you knew it had to be this bold, bright-colored thing, and how did that work? Did you feel like you maintained that style and that character, those specifics?

CO: One of the things that I feel like I do well is pull the right people together. Sometimes it takes me a while, sometimes it’s maddening, but I am a keen observer of folks’ work and I completely trust that their artistry is going to serve in ways that I can’t even imagine and so we have lots of conversations. John Jennings and Stacey Robinson [visual artists of Black Kirby] would sit at our dinner table and Jason [Finkelman - composer] and I would have these intense conversations about comics or black imagery and Jason and I have been working together since 1991 and so there’s a whole language there that doesn’t even have to be spoken out loud and when it does *laughs* it might unnerve folks because sometimes it can be a little testy. But I know that what he’s going to contribute is going to offer another kind of layer of depth and sensitivity that I couldn’t necessarily give words to.

So I think what happens is that I just trust all of these elements from these brilliant collaborators will strike the nerve, will hit the right tone. Mandy [Ringger’s] lights, Susan Becker’s costumes, Jason’s sound, John [Jennings] who brought Stacey [Robinson] into the project and John [Boesche] you know their various materials... the projections - the way John Boesche kind of brought the projections and talked about what he was going to do about it. We have these intense conversations. We experiment a lot, and at the same time, yes my quirks remain in it and I think it’s because these folks are super sensitive as well and that I am relatively good at this point at communicating the quirks. I think. *laughs* And then you know, like you were saying with the dance, with the choreography there are some things that as a choreographer, as a maker yourself, are questions that you will let percolate for a while.

LC: Yeah

CO: And then there were those things that present their certitude immediately. There are certain things that are like, “that knows what it is and that will not change” even though you’re changing all kinds of things surrounding it. That is not going to change.

And so with the dancers, there was a lot of experimentation for a long time and I would indulge in it and we came to some beautiful things that I would record and I had to make decisions about and then they got a little testy when I was like “okay, well this is what we need to do” and I would organize it a certain way and insist on one thing or another and be like “wait a minute, that’s not how we did this.” And I was like, “I know, I know that’s not how we did this. It’s not going to stay that way though, we’re not going to do it that way forever.” *laughs* You know?

LC: You just have to try it!

CO Yeah!

LC: It’s so tricky though, it’s so tricky to have that conversation with a team that’s giving you so much of the content.

CO: Yeah.

LC: It’s impressive to see so much of you in a work that is coming from so many different people.

CO: Well thank you.

LC: Well also because I know your work. *laughs*

CO: *laughs* It’s just that one quirk, actually. But yeah, you know that moment when I started to have to really hone things and shape them and be specific for myself in directing and then specific for [the performers], you know that became a bit bristly for a while, prickly for a while. But it was also really productive because they were like “wait a minute, but that’s not how we were operating!” And I was like I know, but now I have to like, direct! I have to make this into something that can maintain attention and has a certain kind of arc and yes it might address your politics, it might not always address it the way you want it to, but you know, I have to think about all of these other concerns in addition to my personal politics, so I need to think about the shape of the work, the arc of the choreography as well as the narrative, as well as the all those elements that come into play. Not so easy. There was a moment where folks thought I was kind of bending to the machinery of production. And well, yes and no. I do have to bring it down to something that people will want to watch.

LC: Yeah.

CO: Yes I sat in here hours at a time and watched stuff, but not all of it was interesting, sorry to say. But part of that was me being curious and letting myself have the patience to let something kind of live to see what it could become.

LC: Well yeah, that’s hard. As a performer I remember this too in BOOM!, but also in other places, when you find something that feels good like on the inside of a dance where you just want to be in that place for a while. It might not be interesting to look at, but you will fight for that, you will fight for that feeling to be extended as long as you can.

CO: And I think that we all had to exercise trust. I needed them to trust my directorial eye. They needed me to trust when something wasn’t necessarily as complex as it could have been and they were guiding me toward more complexity. So those moments were really productive and fruitful and difficult but I think in the end, it was awesome, we all learned a lot.

LC: Thank you.

...

Ni'Ja Whitson, Jonathan Gonzalez, Duane Cyrus, and Niall Noel Jones in Cynthia Oliver's Virago Man-Dem, photo by Julieta Cervantes

Virago Man-Dem (2017), choreographed by Cynthia Oliver

Black Kirby - John Jennings and Stacey Robinson

Projections - John Boesche

Lighting - Amanda Ringger

Music - Jason Finkelman

Costumes - Susan Becker

Performers - Duane Cyrus, Jonathan Gonzalez, Niall Jones, Ni'Ja Whitson

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Leslie Cuyjet

Leslie Cuyjet has been performing and dancing in New York since 2004, working with a range of artists from David Gordon and Meredith Monk, to Niall Jones and Kim Brandt, to Anohni and Solange. She has...
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Cynthia Oliver

Cynthia Oliver is a Bronx born, Virgin Island reared dance maker. Her work incorporates textures of Caribbean performance with African and American aesthetic sensibilities. She has toured the globe as...
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