Shamel Pitts’s choreography investigates his own body and the relationship between the performer and the audience. Pitts, who is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in Choreography, is a Brooklyn native and alumnus of the Batsheva Dance Company. There, he trained under Ohad Naharin and became a practitioner of Gaga, a dance movement that studies the layers of the body through motion. For Lake of RED, Pitts’s most recent work, the artist teamed up with several members of his TRIBE collective to produce a performance that explores the fragmentation of the self and the descent into mania. One of those members, Itai Zwecker, is Pitts’s longtime collaborator and one of my close friends. Zwecker has worked with Pitts for the past five years, both as a photographer and, now, as a director. Earlier this month, Pitts, Zwecker, and I spoke over Zoom about the experience of translating a performance into video. Lake of RED will screen at the Fifth Wall Fest, the Philippines’ first international dance film festival, which will be hosted online from October 7–11. The work is also available on Vimeo.
Jonah Goldman Kay (Rail): Can you both tell me a bit about yourselves and your relationship?
Shamel Pitts: I'm from Brooklyn. I trained at the Ailey School and graduated from the Juilliard School with a BFA in dance. That's my formal dance training, but I always accompany that by saying that part of my dance training came from nightlife. Because I grew up with that being a huge presence in my household. After that, I danced with Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv for seven years.
Itai Zwecker: I'm originally from Tel Aviv, where I studied filmmaking. In 2016, I moved to New York and met Shamel through a mutual friend. The first thing I shot for Shamel was Black Box , which was this performance Shamel did a few years ago as part of the Black Series. I was struck by how he performs in low light, almost in complete darkness, which I later learned was a trademark of his work. That’s obviously a challenge to me as a photographer, but it was that challenge that drew me back in to work with Shamel again.
Pitts: After my time at Batsheva, I came back to Brooklyn in 2016 to continue my own choreographic path, which led me toward my newest venture: creating TRIBE, a nonprofit performance collective. Lake of RED is the first work we’ve produced.
I think at the base of my practice, in terms of movement, is a deep learning and use of Gaga, which is the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, the artistic director at Batsheva. Gaga focuses on discovering the layers of the body—the skin, the flesh, the bones—and how to move within those layers with delicacy and explosiveness, and groove. I mean, god! There's so much groove available in dance … it’s never enough!
So when I formed TRIBE, I was also thinking about how to share those layers within—the colorfulness within Blackness—that allow us to be multiplicitous. One of the big things I’ve found is that by working with performers from different places within the African diaspora, my own understanding of the many facets of Blackness has grown. What’s come out of that is this Afrofuturistic landscape that I hope comes across in my works.
Rail: Itai, can you talk a bit about how you’ve translated Shamel’s practice visually?
Zwecker: I’m not a dancer—in fact, I’m a terrible dancer. As a photographer and videographer, I’m doing my own dance as I’m capturing my subject, but I usually still feel very much like a spectator. But watching Shamel, you just get drawn in—when I was shooting Black Box, I felt the whole audience drawn to the dance, the electricity transmitted through everybody.
Pitts: Yeah, the audience, even if they're seated, they're participants. It's not like coming to a show to be entertained, necessarily. It's more a recycling of energy between the performer and the audience.
Rail: But in video works like Lake of RED, the audience isn’t in the space and isn’t actively engaging with you. How has that relationship between audience and performer—and the cyclical energy that relationship produces—changed as you’ve moved into video?
Pitts: I first started to create the movement for Lake of RED in 2018. For my 34th birthday, I challenged myself to create a 34-minute version of the performance to share with a selected group of 34 people and Itai was one of them—he was there photographing the work. As he captured me, Itai was able to sort of shift around a couple of sides of the performance space, which made me start thinking that this work needed to be a video piece, not just a performance.
Zwecker: Shamel’s works are naturally very fast-paced and include lots of lights and projection mapping. So because the projections are changing and, of course, the choreography is changing, stills don't really tell the full story. But with video, you can really accentuate the three dimensionality of the work, which is something we tried to bring out in Lake of RED.
Rail: Shamel, how was that experience of working with multiple vantage points, of being encompassed? How did it differ from the traditional single-perspective experience of performing on stage?
Pitts: When you’re dancing, you have eight eyes—two in the front, two on the back, two on one side, and two on the other. You have to be constantly aware of all sides and all possibilities for how you could be viewed. But obviously when you're dancing with an audience in front of you, you're mostly focusing on your front—how you’re projecting your energy onto the audience and how they’re reflecting it back. In my choreography, I always try to account for multiple perspectives, but with video, that impulse is so much stronger, largely because you’re aware of the presence of the videographer.
I mean Itai—whether he says he’s a good dancer or a bad one—we were dancing together beautifully. I think also Mauricio Ceppi, who was the lighting and video mapping projection artist for Lake of RED, created a powerful fragmentation that released these energies from different sides. At any given moment, each box frame was projecting a different lighting pattern. And light is energy, which meant that each side was projecting a different energy onto me or I back onto it. So there’s this recycling of energy, this reciprocity that I felt throughout my performance.
Rail: In this work, the video medium helps bring out this element of multiplicity, in a way that I don’t think would come across in a live performance. How did you bring out that element?
Zwecker: So first of all, there were about 10 versions of this piece, starting from a 12-minute cut, reduced to five, then again, eight. Eventually, we got to 3:33, which is the final product. As we condensed, this sense of craziness, of multiplicity, started to come out. Then one night I started overlaying footage and noticed that it exacerbated this feeling, so I sort of rolled with it.
Pitts: This sense of mania also emerged while we worked on this project in quarantine. I think a lot of mania comes out of solitude. At the same time, there’s great value in solitude because euphoria is often a byproduct of that experience. I think that when this new reality began to take hold, it shed more light on what we had already created. It allowed us to amplify and replicate those currents of mania and euphoria that already existed because we were able to see them more clearly.
Rail: That’s definitely one of the more prescient parts of the work. Another part was this evocative portrayal of violence against Black bodies that, in the past few months, has really come to the forefront. It’s not new, of course, but recently there’s been a real discussion of how that violence manifests itself on a broader scale. How did you work through that element of bodily violence in this work?
Pitts: As a Black gay man and as a person in general, I'm compelled to use art to show our shared humanity. And as a performer and a choreographer, I know that my body is political. There are certain ways of being or descriptions that are often attached to Black bodies. I confront those constraints by shedding light on the other things we embody—like brilliance, intelligence, euphoria, and generosity. It’s this sense of internal light that radiates outward, both empowering ourselves and impacting others.
With Lake of RED, there's a sense of emergence into the light of the self. And I hope that that comes forward, especially for people of color, that they can go into the light of themselves. Even though we were forced to witness Black people being killed while stuck in quarantine, which was a disgusting and daunting experience, that same restriction offers us an opportunity for internal reflection.
Rail: Does your background in nightlife connect with your interest in these bodily expressions of joy?
Pitts: One of the things I love about nightlife is that you go into this environment with people you don't know and who don't necessarily look like you and dance together; you share space together. A lot of people think nightlife is just escapism. But I think it's a great representation of how we can live as a human race.
Nightlife is a manifestation of that original experience of coming together. If you look to history, there are so many examples of tribes who would gather at night around a fire, dancing and communing together. It’s that sense of community in diversity that I love about nightlife and miss, now especially. My god!
Rail: This is just the first piece in the RED series. Where does it go from here?
Pitts: Soon I'll be in the studio starting the next piece called Touch of RED, which will be a duet between two men. I’ve been watching a lot of boxing recently because, honestly, it’s something I don’t fucking get. Like it’s five minutes, you just get in there with your opponent and beat the shit out of each other. The partnering and the dynamics are so interesting. Sometimes you don’t know if they’re fighting or hugging.
I’m not calling Touch of RED a dance—it’ll be more of a match that explores the allowance of Black men to be soft, to give and take power, and present vulnerability. Everyone who will participate will be part of TRIBE. One cast will be me and Tushrik Fredericks, a performer from South Africa. It’s been living in my head and in my body for so long … I’m just so ready to get started.