unruly body – the world of jamila johnson-small

In her own words, Jamila Johnson-Small is interested in dance as a “radical social proposition”. She means this quite literally. And in fact, this quality of “radicality” – a potent combination of power and resoluteness – is palpable in Jamila’s presence, both onstage and in person.

When we first met to discuss her work, Jamila Johnson-Small said she’d rather speak without being recorded. I understood this preference: Too often words are misused or not completely understood, and it’s clearly crucial for Jamila that she is accurately interpreted. We ended up speaking for several hours before beginning this interview over email; an arrangement which I think suited Jamila, as she perhaps more naturally fits the role of author, rather than subject.

Jamila is deeply articulate; when she speaks, her words come out steadily, carefully. She is invested in meaning, and doesn’t take expression for granted. Expression, after all, is her currency. This seems to be the way she dances, too – with a robust sense of purpose. 

When I went to see her perform at Dance Umbrella in the fall, she was dancing under her moniker Last Yearz Interesting Negro, showing her piece ‘I ride in color and soft focus, no longer anywhere’ for the first time. The soundtrack (comprised of electronic music made by her friends and collaborators) was rumbling through a stack of speakers on the dark stage, and Jamila danced alone with the music – not necessarily clinging to predesigned movements, but seemingly allowing her body to carve out a space in the sound. It was captivating to watch.

Over the course of our conversations, Jamila told me that “sometimes dancing is impossible because I have so many thoughts about what and how and why and manage to think myself out of moving at all”. This seems to be the conflict at the heart of Jamila’s practice, as a performer who questions the meaning of performance, a dancer who questions what it means to dance. Jamila will be doing more performances in London and elsewhere in the coming months, with the official premiere of ‘i ride in colour and soft focus...’ being held at Fierce Festival in Birmingham in October 2017.

I’d like to talk about your performance at Dance Umbrella. Can you tell me how you arrived at your concept? What sorts of ideas were you playing with?

I was imagining it as some kind of rhythmic interface, an atmosphere, a landscape that somehow could embody the texture of my mental state at the time; something that played between states of loudness and chaos – apocalyptic over-stimulation, and a meditative calm. It’s my first full length solo work, so I was trying to figure out what that might look like, where it might sit with the other things I’ve done and how I could draw together things I had been thinking about over the years. So I was really going with: Where am I at right now? And some of the questions that came up were: What’s the impact of the digital on our relationships to our bodies? How can I challenge the aesthetic conventions of ‘marginalized’ bodies and the quest for ‘visibility’? What is the impact of the city on bodies? What is it that moves me? What defines how I dance? I wanted to make something that spoke to ‘this moment’ in its complexity.

What kind of feeling were you aiming to transmit to your audience? 

That feeling that I was feeling: of treading an edge, of incredible density rather than 'going anywhere', noise over silence, now over yesterday, and pleasure over doing it right. I wanted to make a dance that understands form as emergent from the tension between things, as a fiction to be dismantled and performed over again.

I would say that one of my aims is for the dances I make to become spaces that offer no single direction and no clear intention. I want the work to embody the thinking and feeling behind it, not explain it away, laying it out for the audience. I guess you could say this is a decolonial project.

It seems that a lot of your work relates to questions about what it means to be – as you’ve written about – categorized as “other”.

I wrote a blog post at the beginning of 2016 that was kind of a new year’s resolution or something – I was writing about my desire as being symptomatic of my circumstances

and subject position, as something that has been given to me rather than something that emanates from me and whose co-option (by white supremacist imperialist neoliberal capitalism) has at times encouraged me to contribute to my own erasure. I had had enough of this. I wanted to uncover my desires – for making a work, for being a body, for dancing about. So I’ve been trying to practice this. It’s pretty subtle and kind of vague but it does something...

It may be subtle, but these kinds of thoughts felt quite present in the performance.

My thinking while making this performance was for it to literally be a meditation practice, for the choreography to become some kind of meditation on the things I was thinking about. I was considering the idea of my body as an archive that holds everything and everyone I have ever encountered, all the things I have seen, heard, felt, been beside, and my dancing as an elaboration or embodiment of this.

Is your relationship with dance something that feels native to you? 

I was putting on shows and charging my family $0.60 to see them aged six so I guess this has been going on for a while, yes. I find dancing interesting because it’s something that everybody can do; what defines it is changeable and vague. From the outset it is slippery – both time-based and solid, but also always metaphorical too. Totally amazing and complex.

Are there ideas which you feel you can communicate exclusively through dance as opposed to other forms of art?

For the above reasons I think dance is magic. The criteria that make something a dance are totally specific in each case and for each person, like an uncapturable aesthetic/spiritual/physical/social/internal thing that is expressive but you couldn't say of what exactly. I think dance is great for being able to hold contradictions, because the language of dance is not codified, you can be illegible. 

What did the actual process of collaboration for ‘i ride...’ look like?

I met with everyone to discuss working on the show, I spoke a lot about what I wanted the work to do or evoke, sharing the things I was thinking about and researching, and the experiences that had led me there. Basically a lot of rambling – talking the show into existence without imagining exactly what it would look like. I gave the people working on the sound different briefs – like Shelley Parker I asked to do a cover Sade’s ‘Cherish the Day’ using my voice, and Phoebe Collings-James I just sent a poem I’d written. Some people I had ongoing discussions with, others not really. I like to engage with making as something mystical sometimes. It’s a vibe thing, no? 

What about your ‘soft practice’ workshops? How did they originate? 

I don’t usually go to classes or workshops myself, they make me super uncomfortable and trying to deal with the power-relations and assumptions in the room usually takes over from my learning anything practical. I’ve also been thinking about how a lot of what I have learned has been some training in obedience and subliminal correction; I’m trying to think about what an anti-assimilationist class could be like.

It seemed that a lot of your movement in ‘i ride...' was formulated in opposition to the heavily rehearsed, hyper-choreographed movements we might be used to seeing in dance performances. Was this a conscious decision?

I work to undermine the aesthetic assumptions around what dance or choreography should look like. I hate nostalgia in performances – the feeling of reliving something else that happened a while back, or imagining the performer preparing and rehearsing and repeating what you see, or the performer trying to perfect something...I’m not interested in this at all.

I can completely understand this – your sense of performance clearly comes from another place.

I got there by moving and thinking about some of the ideas I mention above – trying to locate my desire and follow it, trying to untame my dancing from whatever expectations I carry of myself, or the ways I have presented it publicly in the past. I was thinking a lot about rhythm, syncopation, offbeats, their cultural and social significance. I was thinking about the things I’ve seen on stage recently that have moved me: Jennifer Lacey, Antonija Livingstone, Dominique Pétrin, and Stephen Thompson’s 'Culture Administration and Trembling', Lesley Ewan and Catherine Hoffman’s ‘These Tender Alms’, Benoît Lachambre’s ‘Lifeguard’, and Dana Michel’s ‘Mercurial George’. And I was thinking about Ralph Ellison’s prologue for Invisible Man, a book I was reading about the history of reggae, this idea of cyber-virtuosity and wondering how I might dance the way I manipulate my body to dance in the videos I’ve made, asking myself what an ‘unruly’ body might look like...

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