Cassidy Smith Hall: Thank you both so much for being here. I'm really excited to be speaking with both of you. I'm a gender studies major at Columbia University, and I'm also a ballet dancer. For my thesis at Columbia, I'm writing about postmodern choreographer Trajal Harrell’s choreographic series Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church. And in particular, I'm thinking about how Harrell incites a conversation between the legacies of postmodern dance and Vogue dance, and in doing so, opens up questions about how the democratic potentials of dance were explored in the scenes of the Judson Memorial Church, and the Harlem ballroom scenes in the 1960s. So in this conversation today, I'm hoping to think about this dialogue between the two different dance forms and their legacies. And also, I wanted to make sure that if you have any questions for me or for each other, that you feel free to just go ahead and ask, I want this to be a very open conversation. I thought that I might start by showing a short clip of each of your choreography, if that's good with the both of you. Professor Casel I was thinking of showing a clip from Taglish and Mr. Wiles sharing a clip from New York is Burning. So I'll get those started.
CSH: I can send you those links later. If you both want to watch each other's works. They’re just so brilliant [laughter]!
Gerald Casel: Yes, please definitely, I would love to.
CSH: What I particularly love about both of your choreography—these pieces and beyond—is that you both bring in multiple dance forms into your dance vocabulary and into your choreography. So Professor Casel, in that piece, you’re using Filipino folk dances, house, voguing, hip hop and postmodern dance, and Mr. Wiles with your company Les Ballet Afrik, you use the movement vocabulary AfrikFusion, a dance form you created that combines different West African dance forms, along with house, afrobeat, and voguing. So I would just like for the both of you to speak a little bit more about these different dance forms, what brought you to them and then also what possibilities open up when you introduce different dance vocabularies together in your choreography?
Omari Wiles: Because voguing comes from the LGBT community, black people, brown and black and Latino descent bodies, it's really important for me to show a lot of the origin of dance through African dance culture and steps and movement, and to also play with this idea of femininity and masculinity through dance. Being someone who comes from the LGBT community, but also being from West Africa, there's always been a disconnect with that. Within movement, I've always felt very strongly that dance shouldn't have… a dance should almost be nonbinary, right? It shouldn’t have this box of being masculine or feminine, or, or the individual who's performing shouldn’t feel that they should be in this box. So that's something that I have taken pride in doing with my work. With my company, I want to find that blend and bring in a little bit more of ancestral vibes into what we see in today's dance.
CSH: Yeah, that really comes through in your work. Those different qualities, you can see that in your movement. It's really beautiful. I also see that in your work, Professor Casel, too, with those different kinds of qualities coming into your motion.
GC: Yes, absolutely. Making visible things that we have kept quiet for so long, is a really vital part of my work. I'm an immigrant. I'm a first generation Filipino American, I come from the AAPI community, which is aligned with the model minority myth. Right? So concealing our identities, our accents, our brownness, the things that make us essential has been part of my training, unfortunately, because I went to a conservatory, I went to Juilliard, and then performed with a postmodern dance company for almost 15 years. So what my body knows is not my own cultural history. It's a white history. It's a space that was made by and for white people. So what I'm contending with now is making things visible that I have oppressed in myself.
In the clip that you saw, we were using, as you said, Filipino folk dances—Tinikling and Binasuan—and those are very famous, but also colonial forms brought over by the Spaniards. And then also, I wanted to make visible our brownness. Suzette Sagisi, the dancer that you saw. She started her career dancing hip hop and street dance, has performed in a Beyonce video; and I started dancing in the clubs. In high school, we used to go to the clubs here in the Bay Area. When I moved to New York, I went out a lot to the clubs, and I went to a few balls myself. So I was there in the late 80s.
And that kept being tapped down. Right now, this piece that you saw, Taglish, which means Tagalog and English, which also means hybridity of cultures, in my personal experience. I was invited to make a response to Trisha Brown's Locus, which exists in a white cube, kind of an autobiographical form that Trisha Brown invented. But when I'm responding to it, I couldn't relate to it, even though she is in my lineage because I danced with Stephen Petronio and he was the first male dancer in Trisha Brown’s company. I felt excluded from the process. So I wanted to make a piece that was speaking to that sense of exclusion.
Photo by Margo Moritz
ID: Balancing on one foot with her body leaning to the opposite side, dancer Suzette Sagisi unfolds her arms elegantly. Her softly open eyes and her dreamy presence starkly contrasts with the cold white floor underneath.
CSH: I think that both of you make interventions into the spaces in which you're choreographing or performing these works. With your work Mr. Wiles, I see an intervention into the exclusionary spaces of Lincoln Center, bringing together all these diverse bodies and celebrating diverse movement qualities.
OW: When Works in Process at the Guggenheim brought the project in, we ended up filming it at Lincoln Center. I wanted to use every part of Lincoln Center because you don't see many black and brown bodies out there performing, you don't see that type of work. You don't see the diversity of bodies, not just skin complexion or sexuality, but bodies. And I have trans women, I have all types of bodies in my company.
Coming from the club world, everyone danced. It didn't matter what size, what height, what color you were, you had a chance to hit the floor, go off, and be in your own world. I wanted to take our world, what's so beautiful about it, present it to Lincoln Center and be like, hey, those who come here, this is something that you need to look out for and this is something that needs to be represented in your space. It was interesting, because everything is done outside. So we're still not technically in Lincoln Center [laughter]. It was a play on that too, like everything is outside, surrounding, and it felt like we're trying to forge our way within these walls. I loved the scene where we were on the green because that reminds me of the African diaspora, just being on the grass, being earthy, and feeling roots really underneath for us.
I was really hoping people would understand these bodies, without representation, no one would see them. No one would appreciate them and no one is going to respect us. Because society and commercialism… Even the song that is playing on top of it is called “Commercialism”... They commercialize our culture, what we do, for their benefit, right? But the communities never receive or see the fruits of that labor, right? I remember going to auditions and my Vogue style and even my West African style would be called a specialty act. That’s opposite from the people who were coming in to audition to be backup dancers. And I was like, I know I’m special. I know this dance is special. But why am I considered a specialty act? And that always puzzled me.
So I never thought I was going to be able to create a dance company. But I felt the need to. I felt the urge to. Everyone at the company are my dear friends, like friends and family—I call them my brothers, my sisters, my daughters, my sons. So none of them auditioned. Because I didn't want to do that process. I literally reached out to all of them and said “would you share with me and the world your story? The way you move and how it makes you feel?” And can we find a relation, similarities even in our differences? Movement is language. Dancing is a language. No matter what groove or what texture you choose to play with it. It's all a language. We, as humans, are hard of hearing in understanding language. The best way for me to talk is through dance. And the best way for my company members to talk and express themselves is to dance.
GC: I appreciated what you said about being in a space that was not usually welcoming to the forms that you create, that you manifest in your daily life, where your histories come from. One of the problems of the term DEI—Diversity, Equity and Inclusion—is that we often don't feel a sense of belonging in these large cultural spaces and institutions. So being invited not just as a curatorial gap stop, as being a token. Oh look, we have Omari, see how diverse we are.
The visual metaphor that you showed, where the circles from social distancing on the grass, where the dancers were breaking those rules of being socially distanced was so powerful to me. It speaks to this time, this current moment that we have to really think: what is the institutional shift and thinking in terms of cultural belonging? And how can we make more space for everyone to feel that sense of belonging? I want to respond to what you were saying, Omari, about bringing trans women, black and brown bodies, large bodies who don't fit the kind of modern, postmodern, classical modes. That reminds me of Sarah Lewis in her book, The Rise, who talks about representational justice. We have to bring all colors, all sizes, all heights, all dimensions, all abilities into these spaces, so that we do represent the society that we are addressing.
Photo by Robert Altman
ID: Seven dancers from Les Ballet Afrik fiercely pose in front of a bright red background.
CSH: I really love that. I am thinking about what you just said, Mr. Wiles, about how you approach creating your company. I come from a very strict ballet training and the choreographer/dancer relationship is very hierarchical and there's not a lot of room for dancers to voice their opinions, their feelings. A lot of the time, we were told to leave that outside of the studio. So I'm wondering how the both of you approach that as directors and choreographers with dancers in your companies.
GC: First I acknowledge that there are social hierarchies. Outside of the studio, outside of the theater, we live in social hierarchies, which can be deconstructed because they're socially constructed. Things like gender, sexuality, race, and ethnic identities. These things are fluid, just like we are. And also acknowledging my privilege, that I am a cis man who identifies as queer, who also identifies as an immigrant, that also I have a lot of privileges, but also disadvantages in the social hierarchy. So bringing all of that into the studio, I look at people in a very intersectional way. I see their backgrounds, their skin color. We talk a lot about what their value systems are, what they do to enact those value systems or what they don't do. What is invisible, in the hierarchies in the room. So not speaking for people, asking everyone to acknowledge community agreements, that we are in the space, and then agree also to challenge those dominant narratives that perpetuate social hierarchy.
OW: Like I said, I never auditioned anyone in my company. I asked them, because they were friends, they were family, they were someone that I saw something amazing in that I did not see out there. Or did not see enough of. In the rehearsal room, in the studio, I treat it as if it's a club, I treat it as if you're a cypher. That's how we build our story. That's how we build our connections amongst each other. That's how we learn from each other. I have a company member from Guatemala, a company member from Korea, one from Japan, one from St. Louis, one from Iran, and myself, being from Senegal. I infuse a lot of what they do culturally, how they move culturally. And again, we try to find out a lot of the similarities.
Can I say, I'm the choreographer? No, we are all that in the company. I am the director, who then has to see the choreography and give it direction, so I can tell the story. Growing up, I was told about Nunci the spider, the storyteller. That's how I feel I am, I'm webbing. I'm drawing this web for us to be able to catch flies and bring up words and see. That is how we work in Les Ballet Afrik. We all put in our two sentences, we respect it, we agree to disagree, we challenge each other. That's because dance is a conversation. I don't want us to just put a period or exclamation point or comma, on dance, you know. For me, it's almost like, sometimes we create these run-on sentences. And then as a director, I have to figure out how do I piece it together? How do I make it make sense?
I don't know if that can work with every company [laughter]. I don't know if that can work with every dancer. But I try as much as possible to give my company members a chance to have a say, a chance to develop the body of language. And they allow me to direct and put it where it needs to be placed so that the viewers, the audience can then think when they're watching it, can then take in and even be overwhelmed sometimes by what they're seeing. And then the viewers will have a conversation later on, and they'll continue to talk about it. And then that's how we start to spread this level of respect amongst cultures, colors, bodies, religions.
CSH: Something you said really struck me. Like not finishing the sentence, not finishing the movement language with a period, with a question mark—this resistance to a finitude within the choreography. And it reminded me of performance scholar and queer theorist, José Muñoz, who writes about queer gestures as carrying ephemeral queer archives. He thinks about how a lot of the time queer histories are left out of dominant archives, and that gesture transmits these queer histories into the present and resists this kind of finitude. So there's a futurity to it, too. With that in mind, what histories and collective experiences are in your gestures and your choreographies? And also, what is your relationship to the dance legacies within both of your works?
GC: I used Muñoz’s work a lot too. I think about disidentification. How I am refusing or resisting being identified with postmodernism. And then also, what happens when you refuse something—what scholar Maile Arvin describes in terms of regenerative refusals? How can we regenerate something? Especially as a colonial subject, when we refuse something of power, what grows in replacement of that? So I'm questioning form in my work— what is a choreographic form? What are bodies in space doing? What is time after COVID? How do bodies of color feel time differently than white bodies? And how does time also dictate things like efficiency, history, repetition? And how does that deliver the demands of capitalism and racial capitalism in our work?
So all of that is very much in my mind. I'm thinking about gesture, the way you're framing the question. I'm very conscious when I bring up a Filipino dance gesture, and how that can also produce or reproduce a white fantasy about Orientalism. And then how can that be marketed by a theater that wants to tour my work? So I’m being very conscious about the racial dynamics involved—how that perpetuates some kind of tokenized marketing and capitalism. Thinking about the gesture in itself, could there be something as a pure gesture without a historicized analogy or metaphor? Good gestures of Trisha Brown in the planal space, alongside voguing, our practice—could they have similarities, but still be so different?
Photo by Margo Moritz
ID: Gerald Casel and Suzette Sagisi stand facing each other with their eyes closed. There's a gentle sense of symmetry in the space.
OW: Gestures, I know so much about them. Voguing is all about gestures, the hands, the way that our hands talk to one another. In African dance and culture, a lot of the movements and the steps have meaning. They are purposeful, they are doing it for a reason; whether it's to celebrate a wedding, a death, the rites of passage, they all have something. So when I'm dancing, when I'm doing these fusions of these styles together, I have to pay close attention to the dance itself and what they mean. I can't just mix this step that is done for war with a step that is supposed to be more feminine. It won't mean right, but it also won't feel right. I don't want to tell the wrong story using the wrong gesture.
The whole thing about being tokenized—how does this theater or these institutions market us, market our dance—that's really important for me. Within this piece that I did, I couldn't just choreograph like a ball. I still had to paint this picture, this modern, this classical way of choreography in order for people to get it, or for them to respond to it. I still felt trapped in that box. I couldn't just have categories, be a commentator on the mic, just chant and let everyone feel themselves and feel the space. That's social dancing. We all know social dancing: hip hop, house, African... You dance in a circle, in a cypher. There's no "your facing is this way, and then your camera’s facing is that way."
I had to feed into the way that they need to market this as well. I had some conflicting feelings about how I had to choreograph this piece in Lincoln Center for Lincoln Center to get it, for the people who watch Lincoln Center performances to understand that. I've worked at the Guggenheim, and the Guggenheim allowed me to not choreograph on the stage. I can use the entire theater. Hopefully, once the pandemic is done and we can actually perform at the Guggenheim, you'll be able to see that I got to choreograph a ball. I got a chance to play with both worlds—the stage, and also be in the space as if the whole audience is a part of this ball. That was beautiful. Those were the gestures that I was trying to get out.
GC: I can totally relate to that. What I'm hearing is this conflict that we have to do as Brown and Black artists of tempering and code switching to market something that is palatable to white comfort. That tension is very real for me, and I think about that a lot in terms of tokenism where the feature is so much on the spectacle and the performance. But in order to address tokenism, I think we have to go much deeper than the spectacle, that we have to say, "Hey, Lincoln Center, Hey, Juilliard." Why aren't these two institutions having a conversation about ballroom or other social dance forms? We have to change the curriculum, we have to look at how it perpetuates white supremacy and the invisible structures of whiteness. And then these educational systems, these museums, these other institutions and training programs that bring artists to schools, if they are then also talking about why voguing and ball culture is important, why West African dance is important,, why Filipino traditional dance is important, and why fusions of those things are important; then this idea of tokenism, this idea of not belonging gets addressed in a deeper way. Because students, young people, get to see them even before they see the spectacle. They have more context to it. They understand the difference between appreciation and appropriation. They see themselves in it too because there are a lot of non-white, non-cis, non-traditional bodies who want to train in these forms.
CSH: I have another question that also engages with Muñoz. He writes a lot about queer futurities, and he describes queerness as a “mode of desiring” that moves beyond the present and imagines new possibilities for the future. So I want to read this quote to the both of you: "Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. The aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity." I'm wondering what blueprints are you creating for the future and what horizons are you reaching for with your choreography and your works?
OW: For me, I'm really hoping for people to see that queer bodies creating art is essential, and that we've always been here. That's never gonna change. We've always been here. But give us the space to be here. You know we were saying we belong here… we do belong here. Even living in America, who belongs here really? Whose right is it to be here, to be on this Earth? So I'm trying to create that space, I'm trying to forge these doors for people like myself. Even for myself, being an African male andidentifying as queer, I'm trying to keep that alive, to keep that normal even if a lot of people back home do not want it to exist. But it does, and we've always been here. I'm trying to create a space for people to see themselves in other people. That's something I want to do. That's something I am doing. And that's something we all need to do within our work. And even if I was heterosexual, that's something that I would want to do for the world to see. I would want to put more trans choreographers out there, but no one knows because of the stereotyping of trans women. I want people to notice that. I don't want to be the token, I don't want to be the poster boy for it. Because there shouldn't be a poster boy for it, it shouldn't be a poster. It should exist because it does exist.
Photo by Robert Altman
ID: Brightly lit under red light against a blue background, each dancer from Les Ballet Afrik triumphantly dances with one fist in the air.
GC: I agree with so much of what you're saying and can relate to it as well. Collective liberation, that's the goal. That's the horizon to which we are reaching. But with that, what are people in power willing to give up? Specifically, white people in this new imagined future. I'm thinking about surveillance, policing, prisons, and how those systems have to change—looking for systemic change, looking for voting rights, looking for trans visibility, empowerment, and affirmation. But in terms of dance, I lead a group, a cohort of BIPOC dance artists called Dancing Around Race, and we think about these things a lot in terms of systems, approach, and change, whereby curation, funding, philanthropy, education, dance writing, dance criticism, all of these things inform and feed one another. And in order to affect the change that we want to see, if we want to really do the hard work of abolition and collective liberation, we have to change all of those parts, not just one part.
We have to also acknowledge when we're tokenizing artists of color, when we're going back to our same old cycles of presentation. No, we have to disrupt, intervene, and change course. In order to do that, we have to have a collective listening, listening or grounding or regrounding of what is important to everybody, featuring and centering Black Indigenous People of Color with that vision. I will also even say that there's a hierarchy in BIPOC, that Black and Indigenous should really be in the front and center of that envisioning because Asians, due to the model minority myth, have been established with a fantasized, socially constructed proximity to whiteness, and this relationship perpetuates the harmful effects of colorism. But white supremacy creates a hierarchy within BIPOC culture, and we also have to dismantle that to enact equity…
Yeah, I don't know if that answers your question or attempts to answer the idea of queerness and futurity.
CSH: This has been so meaningful, and thank you both for being so open and sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate getting to meet you, having you share your time with me, having you share your words, your thoughts, and this has been wonderful. I'm so grateful !
OW: Thank you, you give me hope. For you to bring us together because we don't see a lot of that. So thank you.
GC: Yeah, I appreciate it. And thank you so much, Omari.
OW: I cannot wait to see your work. I am already intrigued by just a little bit that I saw, so I'm dying to see more. And then the way you speak as well—I want to know so much more!
GC: I look forward to seeing more of your work too.
Cover Image Description
Dressed in vibrant and glamorous clothing, performers from Les Ballet Afrik step to one side with bent knees and dance in formation.