Pre-pandemic, Kyle Marshall was in artistic overdrive dancing and touring with Trisha Brown Dance Company while also directing and making work for his own company, Kyle Marshall Choreography. The early months of the pandemic offered him a chance to slow down. “I had to hone in on my own dancing spirit again and understand why I was moving, why I was making dances,” says Marshall. “There’re all these other layers of experience to my Black body that are not just about trauma, but also about joy and celebration. So I think in order to get that to an audience, I have had to find that for myself as well.”
This month at the Chelsea Factory—a new venue in Manhattan that was founded to accelerate post-pandemic recovery for arts groups—Marshall offers audiences Rise and STELLAR, two new dances he created with that feel-good spirit. The program will also include I & I, a solo exploring Marshall’s multi-faceted Jamaican identity. I spoke to Marshall about the themes underlying these works and what he has learned through the creation process.
Candice Thompson (Rail): I’m interested in this idea from your company’s mission: “the dancing body as a container of history, an igniter of social reform and a site of celebration.”
Kyle Marshall: For me, the body is always the center when I think about our experiences in the world: how we learn from other bodies, how we stand, how we move, how we treat others. Social reform starts with the person, with the individual. It’s all embodied information. When I’m making my work, I tend to think about history, the ways that we’ve been influenced by our past training or culture. The social instigation or impetus comes from the internal.
Through understanding myself and sharing that, I am able to bring up conversations that need to be had with wider audiences. My work hasn’t shied away from dealing with race and white supremacy and capitalism and religion. But there’s also something in my new work—especially the work that’s happening at Chelsea Factory—that is thinking about the radical notion of joy and uplift. I’m taking some of the understandings of the spirit that come from Africanness and Black dance traditions: holding the spirit as something that can be celebrated and stimulated by joy.
A lot of the social issues that we are having right now, to speak broadly, are also coming without joy. Talking about complicated subject matter doesn’t always have to be accusatory. And I don’t think that we can reform or change this country or change our culture without also giving folks a reason to keep going. And that is empowerment—feeling our spirit, remembering our ancestors, and shaping how we want to move forward in this world. Joy is a part of that.
Rail: Your newest work, Rise, is also about the sacredness of gathering. Was the pandemic the inspiration for it?
Marshall: Rise was commissioned by The Shed before the pandemic. Originally, I was going to make an evening-length work about Christianity. But as the pandemic hit and things started to feel real, I didn’t understand how I was going to make a piece about such a heavy subject matter. I was already navigating so much with BLM, COVID, with changes in my organization. I was in a residency at Bethany Arts Community in Ossining, New York, and I was doing a lot of improvisation, realizing the connections between the feet and my heart. The more I moved my feet, the more my heart pumped. And I realized the direct connection between the feet and spirit.
I was listening to house music, and I was dancing outside, and I felt like I was being supported. Rise takes this idea of spirit from the original project and thinks about how house music and gathering to dance can be so empowering and enriching. I was trying to have joy. Talking to my sound collaborator, Cal Fish, I was like: “this piece needs to ascend, and it needs to satisfy. It can’t be ironic.”
Rail: Tell me about the music.
Marshall: The first part of the music is like a sound bathing space, which opens up to this staticky buildup and then blossoms into house-inspired beats and Cal playing the flute. The whole end section is footwork and line dances, social dances. There’s an ethereal kind of fuel to it. Cal uses all these different technologies and apparatus and flutes and performs it live. The music for STELLAR will also be performed live by Dial Winfield.
Rail: Was STELLAR created against the same pandemic backdrop?
Marshall: STELLAR was originally a dance film that was commissioned by the Baryshnikov Arts Center. We filmed it mid-March last year, and it premiered in June. I was thinking about jazz and Afrofuturism and the transcendence that improvisation in sound and dancing can bring. We were really inspired by Alice Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders, the kind of free jazz era—Sun Ra in particular. There are all these celestial sounds and images; we’re covered in these painted sweatsuits by Malcolm-x Betts. We were really thinking about improvisation as a place of experimentation. So often in my dance history classes, I learned about experimentation in the sixties and seventies, that era of the postmodernists, [Merce] Cunningham and [John] Cage in particular. And I didn’t quite understand until I started listening to jazz, that these artists were also experimenters. Especially in the free jazz era when they were pushing dissonance, pushing noise. I found that place really grounding as a Black artist who works in abstraction and in less traditional situations and aspects. That there was a history of Black experimentation—that felt really affirming for me. It gave me permission to keep going. This will be our second time doing this as a live performance and Dial will be performing with us, with electronics and auxiliary percussion and trumpet.
Rail: Since STELLAR is improvised, what are the scores like? Are they descriptors for the artists or are they time/space markings?
Marshall: Because it was a film originally, I made a storyboard with images of all these different moments. Each section has a score depicting some different image. There’s one score that we call “Orbit” where the three of us are continuing a phrase in a circle—we do it together once, and then we improvise with the phrase. When we hear all these sound cues, we know that we’re moving on to the next section. Another score is “Landscape,” which is the most out there, abstract. Dial’s playing with these abstract sounds in the sound system, and the three of us are in these different states as alien-like figures. We have the score of where we’re supposed to be, but the movement is really open and we can give ourselves that time to sense everyone coming in at the end, but how long that takes and the specific movement of that idea is shaped by them.
Rail: Earlier, when you were talking about your knowledge of the postmodernists being filled out by learning about Black experimental artists, I wondered if you had thoughts on the gaps in dance history and how it is taught.
Marshall: We learn about all of the “greats,” you know, the people that formed movements—Cunningham and Cage and Trisha [Brown]. But what is disconnected for me is that we don’t always learn where their ideas came from. It’s often scripted as if it just came to them. We don’t always acknowledge that Cunningham and Cage were informed by Eastern philosophy, that there’s a wider conversation they were a part of.
I also find it illuminating that jazz was the music of the artists of New York. People would hang out at jazz clubs and listen to the music and love these artists, Black and white. I don’t know all of these correlations—what inspired people to start moving and thinking in these different ways—but jazz and so many African and Black diaspora forms have been rooted in improvisation for centuries. And it is a relatively new thing in contemporary dance, let’s say since the sixties. I can’t help correlate jazz and what people are listening to with the understanding of, “oh, we can do this as well.”
As a young Black artist, I had to do my own research to find examples of Black artists that were really experimenting and progressive in their form. People like Bebe Miller, like Ralph Lemon. I grew up in the downtown world and I now feel like I have a community of artists working within these aesthetics and these ideas, but I wasn’t taught that we were always here.
Rail: What are your research methods? In particular, how did you go about exploring your Jamaican identity for your solo I & I?
Marshall: I started researching and thinking about it in 2018. Were there ways that I moved innately that I didn’t know were coming from Jamaica? I didn’t know a lot of the movement forms from the Caribbean; my mother was born there, but I didn't know a lot of the history. So it was really a very long process of understanding my Jamaican body, learning more about my family’s history, learning more about Jamaica and its history, the dance forms and the cultural forms that are there, the Rastafarian culture and the religious faiths.
It's like an ongoing knowledge. I was also trying to feel affirmed in my queerness, to understand masculinity and how that shapes culture and shapes me. So the process was kind of wide: I was reading, I was talking to my grandmother and asking her for stories about her father, her grandfather, listening to music coming out of Jamaica.
Rail: And did you find Jamaica in your body? Is it innate?
Marshall: Some of it is, some of it isn’t. The big conversation about this work is that my family is from there, but I am of the diaspora. There are all these questions around homeland, authenticity, realness—are you really of the culture? I had to understand that that’s such an open question. And as someone who’s Jamaican American or has Jamaican heritage, but was born here and lives here, I have a very different relationship to the island than those that are from there and grew up there and are maybe even still there. There was a line of respect that I think I had to land on where I'm exploring what I want to explore, asking the questions I want to ask, but I am in no way a holder of these traditional forms. My creative experience is valid, but I had to realize that distinction and be okay with that.
There’s whining in there and references to dance hall culture in the music as well as the movement. There are iconographic images. I twist my hair when I do the piece. I wanted to share this kind of image I had as a kid, of seeing a Jamaican man, just like walking down the street. But I’m embodying it from someone who feels like an outsider.
Then there are these layers of queerness in the piece. I use this fabric to create dresses or robes that shape-shift, playing with masculinity and femininity. Learning that my diasporic experience is a part of this whole conversation was something that I really had to embrace, because for a while, I was feeling like I wasn’t enough. I had to step past that in order to really tell my own story.