Angie Pittman and I sat down to discuss our experiences performing in the downtown dance scene. While working, learning, and growing careers in this intimate community, I found our paths rarely crossed and wondered if Angie noticed this phenomenon as well. In this conversation we discover that we indeed overlap, only as two ships in the night through auditioning and casting, where usually only one of us emerges with the gig. Together, we decided to protect the identity of anyone involved in facilitating one of these experiences, out of care and respect. Our aim was not to point a finger, but to discuss specific moments in dance where we question our role, our voice, and in the dances we're cast in.
-- Leslie Cuyjet, Critical Correspondence Co-Editor
[This conversation has been edited for publication.]
Angie Pittman: I wonder, what makes you want to not say names? The call out culture part of it?
Leslie Cuyjet: Yeah, I feel like it will be easy for a reader to latch on and be like, this person did something wrong and that’s not what I’m saying. When it comes to casting there is so much internalized racism at play that we don’t talk about. You know, we’re here just trying to make a dance. What is at the forefront for me is probably an afterthought for certain choreographers or artists that I’ve worked with and I don’t want to say that that’s inherently bad.
AP: Mhm. Yeah, I like that. Because this conversation is nuanced. It’s hard for me to speak about things without using specifics, like names. So I’d like the option to feel free to say the names of who I want to say and then have the option to redact it later?
LC: Of course. Of course.
AP: But I hear you in that once you say a name, it’s the jump to that person did something wrong. And that other person did good. And really what needs to happen in this conversation around systemic and internalized racism, and Black women, is nuance, right?
AP: It’s not like, who did it, who done it. It’s like, we all kind of did it, we all kind of did not do it. Nuance, this isn’t about calling someone out, but really just having a conversation about two people’s experience with it.
LC: Totally. To your point, what is the future of our careers and this conversation at-large? Especially after this past summer with the Movement for Black Lives, while being a Black artist right now, is like a hot thing. It feels like everyone is kind of pointing the finger in our direction and all of a sudden here’s this platform. There’s a microphone to amplify what has previously been a diminished voice. So it’s important to talk about our experiences because people are listening now a little more intently.
You and I are in relation to each other with our training at University of Illinois, and Cynthia Oliver, and our current overlapping experiences in New York. This topic certainly goes beyond you and me. It’s a larger shared experience of what it’s like to be the black dot on the white stage. But whether it’s reparations or whatever there’s so much conflict I feel about feeling deserved of this newfound attention that seems to be targeted towards, um, oh my god, I just lost all my words... [laughter]
AP: That’s okay. Great.
LC: I don’t know, really it’s a conflict in my body and I don’t know how to grapple with it. But I will say, in thinking about this conversation with you, Omagbitse Omagbemi also came to mind because of one specific experience where I was asked to join a process and I was excited to do it. But I got the schedule, I wasn’t able to do it. And, next thing I know, Omagbitse is doing it. Then I happened to mention that I was invited to work with [that choreographer] to [a friend] and [the friend] was like “oh, that’s interesting because I gave that person feedback that they need to expand their idea of casting dancers to include people of color.” Just like a direct okay, dancers of color: Leslie. Oh no? Omagbitse.
AP: I have a lot of stories about that. Should we start with those stories?
LC: Sure, let’s start there.
AP: Well, me and Omagbitse don’t have a relationship but I feel like we are in relationship because of this conversation. And my entrance point into New York was 2015 and I feel like Omagbitse’s exit from NY was around that time.
LC: Interesting, interesting.
AP: You know, I would see Omagbitse in Klein classes sometimes but there wasn’t much overlap with me and Omagbitse. I mean, I danced with [choreographer’s name]. And through [that choreographer] I met [fellow dancer’s name] because we danced together in that work. And me and [the fellow dancer] became friends. I went to [fellow dancer]’s house and I was talking about how I was so excited to dance in New York. Around that time I was getting work but I was like “I want to dance for that person, I want to dance for this person” and then [the fellow dancer] said “Omagbitse can’t get all these jobs.” And in my mind I was like, what? Why did [they] say Omagbitse?
LC: Wow, wow.
AP: It was this moment of like, an identification. The words that weren’t said and what I understood subtextually was that Omagbitse is a Black dancer that can do a lot and also you are a Black dancer that can do a lot, so you are the same. As Black women, we approach movement from a Black woman kind of standpoint so it’s not, and will never be, white.
LC: Well, it’s funny that you mentioned that instance, because that was when I first started thinking about this theory that the three of us will never be cast in one work together. Just before all of that happened I had worked with [a different choreographer] and also met [fellow dancer] and [they] told me “you should do this project with [choreographer’s name].” The same project you just talked about! The same invitation. And I wasn’t available. And then, I see you in that production. I was so happy that you were doing it, but I saw this direct connection between the three of us. And then it kept happening over and over and over again where it felt like the three of us were sort of interchangeable.
AP: [Choreographer’s name] reached out to me because [they] saw me in [another choreographer]’s piece as the one Black body onstage, did you see that piece? [Title of dance]?
LC: Yes, I was invited to audition for it... This is what I’m talking [claps] about! This is what I’m talking about! [laughter]. So yes!
AP: [laughter] Okay, so let’s get back to that. But that’s a whole thing, that’s redacted.
LC: I really wish that Omagbitse were here for this conversation.
AP: Yeah, it’s a whole other part of it.
LC: It’s a whole other part of it because I’m also thinking about another piece I got cast in last year when Omagbitse couldn’t make the tour. I swooped in, and I was so excited, I really would like to work more with this person, but no, it was just one gig that Omagbitse couldn’t do, so I got called. Omagbitse reached out to me directly and was like “hey, I’m trying to fill my spot.” It even goes that deep. I adore her and I missed out forming a relationship with her the way you and I now have. Of course I was going to do it especially because she vouched for the project. But yeah, she seems very integral to this conversation.
Photo by Maria Baranova, Again the Wolves, Anna Sperber (2020)
ID: Angie, wearing a black tee-shirt and jeans with neon green sneakers and a white face mask, sinks in a deep lunge in a performance on a rooftop, with Leslie sitting in the background, in the audience, watching.
AP: Yeah, so then there’s [title of dance] that you auditioned for.
LC: Yeah, that was a very strange experience. I was invited to audition, and then I got cut. Then [the choreographer]’s like listen, “I’m not offering feedback. I’m not going to say why you got cut.” Which is totally fine but I was so confused. Because I think I was the only... hm, is that right? I’m so used to being the solo Black woman in these situations that I’m not even counting anymore. Like normally when I enter a room, I do that quick scan of, am I the only one?
LC: [laughter] But you weren’t there. And in that setting, A) it was an audition so I was going through all sorts of emotions anyway, and B) it was [choreographer’s name] and I felt familiar enough with [them], that it was a range of mixed emotions. But then, when I saw the performance, and I saw... Angie…
AP: [laughter] You saw Angie.
LC: And then I saw Angie! And I was like, there it is again. This makes sense.
AP: But I do remember, that was the beginning of when [choreographer’s name] was trying to think about race in [their] piece. And I wonder what that structure is… if you invite a Black woman into your piece because you want to have more Black people in your piece, how are you going to invite her to an audition and then cut her and then not say anything?
LC: Like I said, I don’t know anything that goes on in [their] process because I’ve never been in an original work of [theirs]. But I can only imagine working with [dancer’s name] and [another dancer’s name] in [title of dance] and in the larger, [title of dance] project, that something must have, you know, turned for [the choreographer]. Or some sort of insight was gained.
AP: Before that, was it [a previous Black dancer]? [They] were like the only Black person [that choreographer] had worked with?
LC: Oh my gosh, yeah. I guess.
AP: Anyway, I remember, [the choreographer] asked me to be in it and told me there was an audition, but no one really worked out. It was so wild because that was such a big piece and I was dealing with all these self-imposed emotions around not feeling good enough, and feeling super inferior in the work every time I went to work. Then I would be positioned as this expert about race.
LC: Yeah, totally.
AP: I remember there was this one part where I walked across the stage by myself. And [the choreographer] was like “oh, but I don’t want this to be about you being Black and everyone else being white.” And [they] sort of said it in that way of like, “okay what do you think?” And all of a sudden, from the dancer mode, I was asked to be in the dramaturg mode, or something.
LC: Right, right, right, right.
AP: Like, it’s fine. That’s also something in this conversation: you’re being hired as a dancer to expand their diversity, equity, and inclusion. But also they’re hiring you as an expert or whatever the fuck. Like, I also want you to contribute by speaking about the ways you’re being perceived. Sometimes I don't want to do all that, and maybe I should just start saying that. I might be getting there.
LC: That’s, definitely, definitely how I feel. A lot of the roles I’m in, I’m supposed to navigate how my body and my presence operates in the work. Like do you even know what it means to have my body in your work? This is a hypothetical example, though it’s also been a real example just because I am taller and larger and muscular, I’m always lifting people, or in the back row. So I’m usually the one who is carrying people around and carrying the load. I’m wondering, “are you considering what this looks like when I always do this?” Maybe they are and they’re just too afraid. Not afraid, they just don’t know how to put words around awareness or concern, around the optics of that. And so there’s been a lack of transparency in just having that awareness at all. In my experience.
AP: Because it’s like, I’m a dancer for a reason. I like dancing. And I’m also a choreographer for a reason but I don’t want to choreograph your piece! This is the nuance, like choreographically what does it mean to engage/use us/our bodies. I had the same moment with [another choreographer]. The weekend before we started rehearsal, the cops of Breonna Taylor, sorry, the murderers of Breonna Taylor, were not indicted. What’s the word?
AP: Exonerated. And that hit me, sooooo much harder than I thought it was. I feel like in the dance world, if we’re trying to be more inclusive of a whole person, we can rise more to the occasion. In that rehearsal process we had to have conversations around the difference between me, [the other dancer], and [the choreographer] before we could even start dancing. We can all come to rehearsal and be like, shits crazy right?! Yeah, shits crazy but my Black emotional insides are different from your white emotional insides. And you can be affected but you have to know where I’m coming from.
LC: When you’re the one going through it and also the one protecting yourself in this vulnerable position, something doesn’t add up.
AP:...something...isn’t...all the way right...here. Thinking back to when you shared about your experiences lifting folk in dances, I wonder are you lifting all the white girls because you can do that, because you have the ability to do that? As a Black woman I’m a shapeshifter and have power coming from all these…
AP: What are my choices about this? I can do everything but maybe it’s a little bit of laziness on the choreographer’s side. It’s the difference between what we can do and what we should do in the work, dramaturgically.
LC: Right. And also, what was that, I can’t remember if [choreographer’s name] told me this about [Black dancer’s name] or if [the Black dancer, themself] told me this, but whatever. [They] were talking about this time working with [a famous choreographer], and there was a dance where [they] were literally in the wings. That was [their] section: dancing in the wings. And [they] were like, “I just don’t think [famous choreographer] knows what to do with me.”
Photos by Natalie Fiol, TETHER, Cynthia Oliver (2019)
ID: A side-by-side photo composition with Leslie on the left, in a gold body suit with laser cutouts, leopard-skin bustier, and purple running shorts flinging a rope, attached to her right wrist overhead. And Angie on the right, in a silver bodysuit with laser cutouts, zebra-skin bustier, and hot pink kneepads, caught in mid-jump facing right, elbows bent with hands hovering over her hips, and legs stretched underneath.
LC: And that just hit me so hard. [That Black dancer] is a beautiful, capable, technical dancer and just the fact that [they] are Black, made [them] virtually unusable and literally invisible.
LC: You know what I mean? So I’m questioning my role as a capable, technical dancer, like you said, shapeshifting, where I’m fluent in so many different things. What do you want? I can do it and carry extra weight with me, I got this. But am I considered? Does this look like Angie’s carrying the whole piece? Or does it look like [the Black dancer] is dancing in the wings? You can’t say it’s not legible by the audience either. This unspoken thing is there when we show up. And oftentimes, if you’re not there, or a small handful of others, then I’m the only one. That’s also why I started making work. Showing and sharing my work is the scariest thing I do. I get physically ill, sometimes I’m like, why do I do this!? And yet, I feel so compelled to share. Because of these experiences negotiating my place, visibility, deserving-ness, ability, is a preface to everything I do as a performer and maker.
LC: That idea has even shaped my artist statement, how dancing for so many people for so long has forced me into this position of, okay what was that? It really does fuck with my sense of deserving. I am always wondering. Am I that technical? Am I that capable? Or am I the diversity checkbox?
AP: Mhm, because it shows the failure of the way that we operate in dance. I mean, that sounds too big! [laughter] The failure of the way to run a rehearsal, the failure of the way to collaborate, maybe?
AP: And what are the consent structures? What are the hierarchies that are inherent? The rehearsal director, who is that and how is power operating through their bodies? I’m trying to frame my point around the basis of anti-racism training. We’re all trying to undo systemic racism from our bodies. White people definitely, people of color definitely, and Black people, but like white people the most.
But it’s just like, if you’re not investigating the structures that are happening inside of your work, as the director, if you’re deferring to the muse, it feels like there’s a pedestal that these white dancers are on. And we can do that as dancers because we can do anything and we’re used to that. But if you’re actually looking at the impact of that, that’s something. And in one experience [a choreographer] said to me, “well that’s not what’s happening.” But it was happening.
LC: It is, it is your reality.
AP: Intent vs impact.
LC: I feel like that’s true for an older generation of choreographers because, I’ve been in situations where the logic is well this person can sing so they’ll do the singing part and this person’s funny so they’ll do the comedy and this person is a strong lifter so she’ll be the lifter. And that’s it. And it’s really hard to break out of those roles. But if I were in TV, or in film...
AP: … voiceover.
LC: Right! Oh my gosh, I can’t even tell you, did I tell you I was taking voiceover lessons? My coach was just like, “well it says African American, 30-40, just think Tiffany Haddish.” And I was like, but…
AP: But um…
LC: I couldn’t do it, I felt so conflicted. But then I hear the McDonald's commercials that are like, [affected] I’m lovin’ it. And it’s very different than, I’m. Loving. It. And I get it. I get what TV and film and voiceover are doing where it’s so specific. I’m not going to be offended if the cast is looking for a white, blonde woman because I’m not that. Can we just be more transparent about what’s happening when you’re casting your dance? Much like [the choreographer I mentioned before], who was just like, I just really think you’re a strong dancer, and I was thinking to myself…
AP: No, that’s not why.
LC: No, it’s not, that’s not it. And I actually know for a fact exactly what is going on here.
AP: Yeah, and don’t think we’re not going to find out. This field is too small for that.
LC: It’s true.
AP: I was an AIR with Movement Research, and back when we were together, Movement Research’s office was small. I remember having a meeting with [Movement Research staff] about something with my AIR-ship and I was like blah blah blah. Then there was also a co-meeting happening with [a choreographer in the room]. I remember listening in and [the choreographer’s administrator] was giving [the choreographer] language who was like “oh I want to diversify my company.” And [the administrator] was like okay, boom, writing it for you, this is the call. And shortly after I remember [the choreographer] reached out to me.
AP: I literally saw the connection. We were in the same office!
LC: Yeah! We will find out. We see you.
AP: We see you and we know what you’ve been doing for the past thirty years. Don’t act like we’re like oh yay! Transparency is super important. Be like, “hey, I just want to bring more Black people in.” Just be transparent. Where it gets confusing is the collaboration, and the terms of our collaboration. Rarely do I walk into a rehearsal room and I just show up and do the piece.
LC: 5, 6, 7, 8….
AP: That would actually be nice, or whatever, if I chose to sign up for that. But what you’re actually asking of me is my whole self. So when I think about someone being hired for a McDonald’s commercial or for a specific casting call, it’s like, we want this, and we’re going to pay you enough to support yourself. And therefore, once I walk into that room…
LC: The exchange is clear.
AP: Boom, all you need is this voice. I don’t need to do all these Olympics in the back of my mind to figure out what you want from me. A lot of times in dance it is not clear, and that’s why we love it, but it’s also the reason why these consent structures get so confusing. We can do better with that.
LC: What you’re touching on is the source of this conflict of feeling deserving. I am not convinced when I show up in that room that they want my whole self. I am questioning, is it my hair? Is it because I can lift people? Who knows. And our fluency makes that distinction even harder.
AP: That’s real. I do hear that. I find myself leaning in when their attention turns to me, to find out what version do you want of me [laughter].
LC: Yeah, yeah.
AP: I thought about Stephanie Acosta’s work when you were talking about old school choreographers. I don’t feel like I question that in Stephanie’s work, about the whole self or whatever.
LC: Not at all. I think Stephanie might have a different experience. If I were to guess she would say it took awhile for me to become disarmed, trusting that she wanted my whole self. I acknowledge, I have a problem with this. But once I saw everybody sort of doing their own thing, that's where we got generative, all that shit came out of me by letting go and trusting it. I wish more experiences could sort of have that, whatever, that je ne sais quoi.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Good Day God Damn, Stephanie Acosta (2018)
ID: Leslie in a tight long-sleeved shirt, shorts, and sneakers is in a plank position over Angie, in a child's pose in a long-sleeved light shirt with triangle cutouts on her shoulder blades. Both have their heads down and hued in green stage light in front of a blue theater curtain.
AP: Totally. The only process in New York where we’ve been cast together is the one where the leader is inherently thinking about collaboration and is really, like, woke. For lack of a better word.
LC: Yeah, and futurism [laughter], like utopic.
AP: I also think about Cynthia, too.
LC: Also futurism!
AP: Yeah, also futurism. So, the only times we’ve worked together as dancers are with that type of thing. I also wonder, I’m thinking about [choreographer’s name], you, [the other performers], and everyone involved in that [title of dance] project. Just the breadth of Blackness involved in that. I also auditioned for that piece when [former performer] left the work.
LC: Oop! [laughter]
AP: This is when you know! Full disclosure! Did you know that?
LC: I’m sure. You had to audition, of course!
AP: We had to.
LC: All on one hand, I could name like probably everyone...was [another Black performer] there?
AP: Literally, I had this zoom-out moment when I was auditioning and we were learning that song. I was getting my life on that song and [a person running the audition] was like ‘oh yeah [another Black performer] did the same thing.’ And I was like oop! I mean whatever it was all good, it was just a moment that was like, oh right. This is what we’re doing.
LC: Yeah, the same thing. I get it. Of course I assumed you were there. If you didn’t audition I would have been like “what do you have against Angie?” [laughter]
AP: I felt like that was another part that could only be filled by one of us, or something. But that situation was different.
LC: And that experience was really interesting for me to be in. Because I thought I was just showing up and filling in for [the former performer who left]. It took me a while to realize that [the choreographer] was like, “no no, I want your self, you. I want your whole self.” And “we’re starting at the beginning again.” And there was no pretending, [they] meant it. I just had to be there. I can’t explain the feeling. Maybe you had a similar experience, with [Black choreographer’s name], I don’t know. Just having all Black people in the room totally disarmed my… Like you’re saying, the mental gymnastics just quieted. And I could actually just make the art and be present.
AP: I didn’t necessarily feel that way about [that Black choreographer] because there was some gender shit that was coming up for me. But, Maria Bauman-Morales.
LC: Oh right!
AP: That’s the space where I’m like, oh there’s a gang of us in here, and I can just be me. Actually that work really picked up during the pandemic. We’ve been rehearsing because we have a premiere on Zoom, so she’s like, “we’re rehearsing.” It was so important to me to be in an all-Black space during this time.
If I have a difficult or challenging moment in that work (which every work has) I know it's not because of any sort of identity or internalized racism from the director. So it allows other nuanced concerns to come up, which is exciting.
LC: As a Black person moving through the state of the world today, I often think first thing, that there is some racism at play. And maybe that’s not true all the time, but the possibility follows me every place I go.
AP: Yeah. The whole self, is like, the way.
LC: I wish I could distill whatever happened in Maria’s process, whatever happened in [the Black choreographer]’s process, and just say like, that. Here you go. [laughter].
AP: Here you go!
LC: “Refer to page 64 for…” [laughter]
AP: [laughter] Yeah, I don’t know.
LC: Well, this conversation can go many different directions.
AP: Yeah, did we do it?
LC: For now?
Cover Image Description:
Angie, a Black woman with shoulder length dreadlocks, a tank top layered over a long-sleeved shirt and shorts, in hi-top sneakers, kneels facing left and twisting towards Leslie, a Black woman with a natural hair style sitting behind her in a long-sleeved light top, who is twisting towards Angie. They are both in performance, hued in green stage lighting with a blue theater curtain behind them, at the Museum of Art and Design.