GESEL MASON with Megan Pugh
In NO BOUNDARIES: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers, Gesel Mason is, as she puts it, “a body of research.” Since 2004, she has been learning and performing solos from some of the most exciting choreographers of the past few decades, all of them African American: Kyle Abraham, Robert Battle, Rennie Harris, Dianne McIntyre, Donald McKayle, Bebe Miller, David Roussève, Andrea E. Woods Valdez, Reggie Wilson, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Mason can’t dance each piece in a single evening, though the six or seven she takes on at a time constitute a heroic feat, and she always closes with her own solo, No Less Black. In between the dances, she screens footage from her interviews with choreographers. They all talk to her, but you get the impression that there’s a much vaster conversation going on, with sentences and gestures from different pieces inflecting one another, questions begetting questions.
On April 6 and 7, at the Billie Holiday Theater, Gesel Mason will give the final live performances of NO BOUNDARIES, with a new solo by Kyle Abraham alongside revivals of the pieces by Miller, Roussève, McKayle, Zollar, Harris, and herself. But she’s already busy making plans for the project to continue, in the form of a digital archive. An NEA grant will help fund the filming of this month’s show, and Mason hopes to make that footage available—along with recordings from past performances, rehearsals, historical materials, and extensive interviews with choreographers—online. She’s envisioning a participatory portal that can hold this history for future generations undertaking research of their own.
Pugh spoke with Mason by phone February 19 and 27, Mason from Colorado, where she is an Associate Professor at C.U. Boulder, and Pugh from Oregon, where she teaches as an Adjunct at Lewis and Clark College.
Megan Pugh (Rail): You’ve performed NO BOUNDARIES a number of times over the past fourteen years. What’s going to be different this-go-round?
Gesel Mason: The part that’s different is time. A lot of the project has actually become about legacy and the passage of time. I’m re-taping a lot of the footage, and you’re going to see old footage that I did, you know, ten, fifteen, even three years ago, alongside new rehearsal and interview footage.
So many of these choreographers give us snapshots into stories like Black Lives Matter, into some historical stories that then come into the present. And instead of a rejection of the past—like, “I don’t do that kind of dancing anymore” or feeling that something is dated—I’ve been learning so much about what it really means to understand the root of something, so that as you go forward you’re bridging the gap from the past, the present, and into the future.
Then we’ve got this ephemerality of dance thing happening: dances evolving, bodies changing. What is of more value now? Where is the richness? What can I do that I couldn’t do before? That becomes hard if the choreographer isn’t there to teach you that thing, which is one of the reasons it’s been essential to go back to these choreographers. How can I execute your intention? How can I capture that? And not just with steps. The why and the how—because I feel like that’s where all the information is, where the genius is embedded; it’s in the how. Sometimes it’s the what, but the what is still to get you to the how and the why. It becomes my job to also figure out in what ways [this work] is still relevant, and that might just be by illuminating a moment.
Rail: Tell me some more about that richness. I imagine some of it coming from having lived with these pieces for so long. What’s it like to carry the muscle memory of these dances around, some of them for well over a decade, and then do them again?
Mason: When you learn something for the first time, there’s something that’s so exciting about doing that. But you’ve got, like, one layer. Yes, you nailed the turn, or you got the leg, or you got the quality. But, like, with Bebe [Miller’s piece] I kind of purposefully didn’t relearn it before I went to go work with her. Because I actually think I understand a little more about gravity, and giving weight into the floor, that I didn’t know when I danced with her ten years ago. I haven’t done that piece in a long time. And it was funny, as I began to learn it, it was like “Oh, it’s coming back!” But I had to make sure— sometimes the old way of doing it comes back, instead of trying to work with this new information. My kinesthetic sense is actually pretty powerful, so undoing it—it takes some work! So there’s this process of undoing, and relistening, and relearning, of staying curious and being a novice.
For Jawole [Willa Jo Zollar]’s, we did a little more unpacking of the character, and mapping sort of the journey of the character. Sure, there’s probably a richness that comes with more experience and more maturity, but then there’s also the richness [of being] able to go another level. You’re able to talk about something else in revisiting it. Because they’ve lived in you, because this is an aspect of it that you have. What else is there to discover?
Rail: In the archival interview footage, you ask choreographers—among other things—”What is black dance?” or “Where do you fit into the diaspora that is black dance?” How have the conversations around those issues changed?
Mason: It’s interesting, because the questions that I’m asking now—the conversation is different than it felt in 2004. And when I first made it, it was already feeling dated. I would say probably in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, we’re dealing with how it wasn’t the choreographers who made up the term “black dance,” it was critics. And they’re like: “There’s this influx of African American choreographers and they’re saying something a little different.” [They were] not afraid to talk about issues that were important to them and their communities. And the approach and vocabulary was different than what was going on in an abstract, modern-based approach. So they’re like, “It’s different.” And they called it “black dance.” Then African American choreographers got lumped together, and we lost the diversity of those voices. Eventually “black dance” became—Alvin Ailey being in some ways the most successful—concert dance in the Ailey or in the Horton tradition.
Now as work by, for, and about African Americans has in some ways become more visible, there seems to be less interest in the question of “what is black dance” and more about what it means to be a black artist making work. What are the current mainstream expectations that black artists are inspired to push against, dismantle, ignite, or ignore?
Rail: How did you see yourself in this mix?
Mason: I think when I first started this project, I kind of felt like I was an outlier. As a teenager I was told that maybe I could be in Ailey or Dance Theater of Harlem. Those are my two options? I knew I wasn’t going to make either one of those situations. I wasn’t an Ailey style dancer, and my ballet was fine, but... it [was] not actually what I wanted to do. I [felt that], “I kinda like Paul Taylor. Or Hubbard Street, they’re cool.” And I was interested in the experimentation, and the improvisation, and where were those models for a young girl in Texas? Later, I became exposed to more work by black choreographers like Bebe Miller and David Roussève and Ronald K. Brown and found myself drawn to those works. So I was asking the question sort of later on in my personal journey and in the conversation in general, and that’s what’s kind of funny about it. I’m asking, “What do you think about this thing called black dance, and is there such a thing?” It’s kind of like an inside joke. Everyone has their own take. We’re all outliers ‘til we aren’t.
Bebe [Miller] talks about how in her work, “I was following my roots, I grew up in Brooklyn and my background was Nikolai.” But if you didn’t seem to be following your roots, there could be this dismissal, like if you didn’t make work like xyz you aren’t making “black work” and then you aren’t “black enough.”
Now what is great is that a lot of young folks don’t even know that that’s a thing.
Now, I’m like “black dance,” if you wanna call it that, is any work that’s made by, for, or about African Americans.
Rail: In the interview footage, you don’t have footage of yourself answering those same questions—you’re asking them. Am I right to see No Less Black as your version of the answer? Or as another way to answer the question?
In some ways, that’s correct. That’s where that poem comes in. Is there something you need me to do that would allow me to be black? Black enough for whom? For me, it’s self-defined.
Now we’re seeing how, absolutely, all of these folks are a part of the cannon and a part of Afro-Futurism, and now we’re beyond African Americans and we’re looking at all the forms from along the diaspora: Afro-Cuban, Afro-Carribean, African, all of these influences, club dances—and it’s all available. But there’s, you know, your background and your culture doesn’t necessarily go away. How are you in communication with your communities? Yeah, that conversation feels broad and fruitful, but it still seems to be important to keep opening up the possibilities so that nobody feels limited by the labels of blackness.
So instead of it being like, “Please add us to the cannon, we deserve to be heard,” it’s like “No, let’s acknowledge the way this has cracked open other possibilities.” “Let’s look at the way these artists defy expectation.” There are things we can do onstage that we couldn’t do [before], because of the contributions of African American artists. I can move my hips in a certain way, I can do work about identity, I can do work about my community, I can speak to social issues and social change and social activism. I can also be fierce and funny and vulnerable and make work about sunflowers.
That was also the conversation in NO BOUNDARIES—not getting stuck in a label. These conversations are beyond boundaries.
Rail: What new questions are you asking this go-round?
Mason: [One part is] about just asking folks: How have you changed in the last fifteen years? What has changed for you? What do you see happening in the field with black artists and black performance? What happens when we’re not just trying to insert ourselves into the cannon but just existing on our own? What is there to learn from just doing the work? And so then that brings us into the future.
I feel like the question has shifted—it’s not as much about “What is black dance?” and “Do you do black dance?” But of who and what is the work for, like, here is my experience. It’s more than identity; it’s about what the work is doing and what it’s bringing attention to. And part of what’s coming up is that—people are like “My job is not to translate. I’m gonna make the work that I want to make. I’m going to make it unapologetically, and you can figure out what you want to do with it.” And that’s exciting. I’m not trying to answer someone else’s question; I’m being true to myself. And you know, whatever I do, I never stop being black!
You know, Ishmael Houston-Jones redid his Parallels project, and that [involved] a lot of folks who were in the experimental field, the downtown dance scene, the black folks: Bebe Miller. Ralph Lemon. Blondell Cummings. So it’s like, how has that shifted from then? Is there something about the unapologetic ways that people are making work now that was forged by the folks who are continuing to ask the questions?
So now, I’m asking the choreographers, what do you think about what people are making, how they’re making it? What does it mean to be a black artist right now? That doesn’t feel different than what folks were doing before: a willingness to speak on issues, a sense of storytelling, an interest in challenging the status quo. It’s like, you are of the tradition. You don’t have to push against it and reject it in order to move forward. So that’s where the conversation is going.
What are people feeling about the work that is being now, and how is it in conversation with blackness?
The work of contemporary black choreographers—it almost feels like they’re always contemporary, because they’re always going against the grain. Like Rennie Harris, who’s been doing hip-hop concert dance since the 90s. Every one of them is innovative in a way—that type of innovation and remixing and questioning and going against the grain in tackling social issues, not being afraid of using the body. Maybe there’s less explanation: I’m going to give you a window into this world that I don’t have to apologize for. I don’t think that’s so different, that quality.
Rail: I feel like there’s this commonplace idea—and it’s one that I tend to believe—that the performing arts are good at generating conversation. People are in a room together, there’s a relationship between performer and audience. But I also think there’s this way that we can talk about “conversation” without really having it. So it seems exciting to have those conversations up there on the screen when you perform, to hear people responding to your questions in different ways.
Mason: It’s a push toward the archive. Exactly what you’re saying—trying not to give it lip service, but to continue to blow up and blow out the conversation, so that it doesn’t get stuck in this conversation about black dance. That’s like the littlest part! It may have been my first entry when I first started thinking about it twenty years ago. But in order for this to be as rich as it is, it’s like, yeah, how do we ask questions? What questions should we be asking? How do we build upon history? How do we contextualize? How do we ask how? What are these artists contributing? What have they contributed? Why do I get to do hip hop at CU Boulder now? Why do I get to have these kinds of stories onstage? It seems to be a big deal that an artist [Donald McKayle] decided to talk about homelessness and spoke a poem [Countee Cullen’s “Saturday’s Child”] in 1948. What door did that open?
Rail: You just got back from Irvine, where you working with Donald McKayle on Saturday’s Child. How was it?
Mason: It was great. It was very sweet. Mr. McKayle’s gonna be eighty-eight in July, and one of the people who helps him set his work is a younger gentleman, Bret Yamanaka. I think he also works at U.C. Irvine, and was like, we really want the students to see this work. They’ve never seen Saturday’s Child. They work with Mr. McKayle; they’re a part of his UCI Etude Ensemble.
So Mr. McKayle is still setting material. He’s in a wheelchair. He still knows what he wants, but you have to kinda ask him: What about this? Do you want this or that? He totally has an opinion on things. He had given me another video to watch, and he said, work on the dynamics that are a part of that video. So then I did, and the students were there, and the film crew was there. He had said, I’m not so sure about the interview, but I just said well, we’re just gonna put a microphone on him at the beginning [of rehearsal]. And sure enough, all my questions got answered.
It was better to have it in this sort of in-the-moment conversation, because I also wanted to get his corrections. But in between I’d be like: “What made you make a piece like this? You know, you were eighteen, it’s the first piece you ever made.” And then he tells me the story. He tells all of us the story. And the students are interested—they weren’t doing it for a grade or anything like that. These were just people who worked with him. You could see the respect that they have. And also for me to come and do the work—for them to see someone else learn the work and then be coached by Mr. McKayle—I felt was huge. And then I was talking about sharing this project with them, the larger scope of this project and what we’re trying to do. And I’m able to pay Mr. McKayle for this. So it felt like all of the pieces of the why of doing this were there. I want people to experience just like an inkling of what I get to experience. I don’t think it’s like I’m gonna do this better than anybody else has ever done it. It feels just more like—to really get to know these people beyond what you get in a book, to have these other conversations.
So I asked him: “What is it that you would want to tell these young students? You probably already told them, but I would like to hear.” And he [said something like]: Follow your heart. Follow your intuition. Keep making dances. So I ask, there you were, and you were working with Doris Humphrey and Martha Hill, and who was making dances to poetry? And he’s like, Nobody. So this thing about dancing the visions of contemporary black choreographers? It was contemporary. His  piece Games was about the games of the young people of his neighborhood, and then, police brutality. We’re still dealing with that, you know, the police coming into neighborhoods. And, so, we change the words, we say things like “contemporary” or “postmodern” or “new,” and in a field that is always about the next and the new, what is it that we have to learn from history and from their visions and what they were doing, and what has been opened up to us as result of their journey and their questioning? He said, “I was precocious.” He also said, “I was really taken with the poem.” So there was something that drove him, and that’s the thing that he was passing on to the students: Don’t be afraid to break the rules, follow your vision, go with your gut. That’s the same message.
And that’s what came up with David Roussève. He said: you know, I thought when I did this piece, when I revisited it, I thought it would actually be a piece that is of its time. [But] he said it feels more relevant now. It feels like a warning. Because one of the last things that is said in the piece, the voiceover says something about wondering how far this hatred could go. And this moment that we are in, of violence against the other. Now people are not afraid to speak to the things that are in their head... people have a voice. And they are empowered by that voice. They’re performance trolls.
Rail: In the footage you took some years ago, Donald McKayle mentions that he first read the poem “Saturday’s Child” in a pamphlet that Countee Cullen gave him, which just astounded me. Maybe it shouldn’t have. But there was something about that detail, about a poem that I experience in anthologies, getting passed to this young man by the poet himself—it didn’t provide the context of “Oh, now you know all the things to help you have a correct understanding of this piece,” but of “Yeah, this was real.” People knew each other. There’s so much texture there.
Mason: Yes—and it feels like—this is like the Harlem Renaissance! This is this explosion of Black Art, and it feels like reading Shakespeare. It feels like reciting Shakespeare. How do you do it in a way that is about it being so relevant. We don’t think twice about Shakespeare being relevant, right? [McKayle] said something like his aunt knew Countee Cullen, and that’s how he got the poem.
I was saying this to the students—we’re in Irvine—I saw someone [on the street]; I think the thing that struck me about this was they weren’t begging, but they were underneath a sleeping bag. And something about that image was really striking. I had that moment of art shifting your perspective. Like, “I am seeing that person on the ground differently. I am looking an extra second.” I’m thinking about that when I say these words [of “Saturday’s Child” on the experience of poverty]. [The speaker] is like, “Something has made me want to speak to you, to share my story.” What makes that happen? This is what art can do. Can we see the world differently?
Rail: And you see someone and take the time to think that there could be poetry in that person. I wanted to ask you about poetry, too: I saw that you’re currently co-teaching a seminar at CU Boulder on poetry and performance with Julie Carr. And NO BOUNDARIES includes a fair amount of poetry too. So I guess my question is mostly just: Can you talk to me about that? What does that class look like? And what’s the relationship between poetry and performance like for you?
Mason: I remember the time when somebody said to me, “It seems like writing is very much a part of your work.” And I hadn’t really thought about it, and I was like, actually it is! I write quite a bit. And sometimes it’s notes: you don’t think about it as poetry, but it’s in journals. I have lots and lots of journals.
I like anything that helps me think of my work differently. I’m often inspired by other forms, and words and language have often been a part of it. And then I was with the Dance Exchange and Liz [Lerman] was using text. I felt like I really started talking onstage, and that was new for me, in 1996. And now it’s like I won’t shut up [laughs]. But I felt like that actually was the real beginning of me having a voice: I was asked to speak in her work.
Back in the day, around the time that I made No Less Black, I had made my own little personal chapbook. No Less Black started as a poem, and then it became a solo, and then it became an evening-length work. And then I had a smaller thing called Taboos and Indiscretions, and that had a chapbook too. I was in DC. A woman I worked with was a poet, Toni Asante Lightfoot. She’s in Chicago now. She’s part of Cave Canem. And so I was hanging out with her a lot, and we actually did a piece together where I was using her work. So it’s been this thing that’s been in my sphere.
And then when this opportunity came up to work with Julie—we’ve never worked together but we were talking about the possibility of collaboration. In this class, we think about the multiple ways that writing and performance are in conversation with each other. So for the movers, it’s writing, generating words, letting this come from the body, and then continuing that circle, how do the words then inform the movement? And a lot of these folks haven’t had experience with dance, but they’re interested in how you bring the body into conversation with words. So [in the first unit] we had people make numerous ways of making these walking poems, using pedestrian movement.
I think that some of what writing and language give me are ways to create dialogue. We have the performance, but what else can we do? So [in NO BOUNDARIES] those in-between moments of having the choreographers talk to you, of talking to the audience—we get to hear what they think. I mean, I’m conducting the interview, but that’s what you get to hear. And you’re only going to get a snippet of that, but I’m trying to figure out ways that people could have more access, before we turn this into a full digital archive. Maybe even in the lobby you could put on some headphones and go listen to Donald McKayle.
Rail: What was your writing process like for the No Less Black solo? Did your words come first, and then the choreography? Was there a back and forth between the gestures and the language?
Mason: The poem in that one came first. But then the dancing was an improvisation to this music. So it was more like I had the idea, and then I did this dance to this music that I found really beautiful, so I put that in there. And then as I was making the dance I also added—you know, it talked about the Million Man march. So that got added. The thing I was thinking about when I was making the movement, again to this music, there was something about beauty that was a part of it. Because the music was beautiful, but some of these words were a challenge. So it was like, the struggle of feeling this beauty and the caress and the beauty of the body and the beauty of blackness and of the ribs and the hips and the butt and the hand. And pulling from all of this vocabulary: and just see the back. And it being for myself. Which is actually ultimately the reason that I did add it to NO BOUNDARIES. I was like, “This is me.” Everything about that final piece is me. So yeah, I think that it was back and forth in the making of it, because there’s definitely stuff that is tied in to the language and to the rhythm of the language.
Rhythm is also a big part of my process. When I think about this project I’m thinking about the rhythm of it, the order of the show. So, you know, sometimes the words to me provide a rhythm. Sometimes the movement provides a rhythm. How it’s read. And then that affects the movement, because there’s a rhythm that I’m looking to.
Rail: In this version, you’re planning to have another dancer, MK Abadoo, perform No Less Black while you read the poem, to point to how you’re passing the project on. This got me thinking about how this piece is in some ways a story about you: this heroic researcher and performer, with the burden of an evening upon her. And then of course it’s not at all just about you. Which I really like.
Mason: You’ve got Donald McKayle in there, and I’m learning [his piece], and maybe one of the students will learn it. And here’s a dancer [Abadoo] who’s worked with me for fifteen years, so she has this history with it too. And now she’s Top 25 to watch in Dance Magazine, she’s getting recognized for her work, she’s doing important work that’s also about blackness, both in her body and her subject matter. And that thing about how it’s not about me—it is me, but there’s something that I like about the idea of passing it on. To really practice that legacy. All of these folks gave me their work, so now I’m gonna give this dancer mine. And she’d actually asked me to learn it years ago. So it’s kinda fun to be like, “Well, let’s do it.” I still get to be onstage, I still get to be with her, we’ll be in the studio together, it’ll be a switch of roles. So now it’s a question of what does it mean to pass it on. And that feels right. I have to weigh that against this idea of No Less Black [as] when you really got to see me do me. So there was a part [of me] that was like “Aww, I’m not gonna do it,” but it feels right to pass it on. That feels like the legacy: It doesn’t stop with me. You know, I got the piece by Kyle Abraham [which is new for this iteration of the project] and he’s younger than me. That feels like one of the ways that this project has shifted—that it’s about past present and future, that it’s about legacy. And that feels right.
MEGAN PUGH is the author of America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. Her writing has appeared in the Village Voice, New Republic, Oxford American, and other magazines.