Thursday, August 28, 2014

A. Nia Austin-Edwards explores the world of dance artist Nia Love

I'd like to welcome guest writer A. Nia Austin-Edwards who has contributed a fascinating profile of New York-based dance artist Nia Love. Both women demonstrate profound commitment to art in the context of culture and community. Their inspiring professionalism, generosity and creativity make it a pleasure and honor to share my space at InfiniteBody with them. Please enjoy.

Nia Love in Memory Withholdings at BAX (Brooklyn Arts Exchange)
(photo: Iquo Essien)
A. Nia Austin-Edwards
(photo: Gerry Eastman)

No Lines & No Coloring Books:
Nia Love’s Polyrhythmic Existence

by A. Nia Austin-Edwards
Polyrhythm, simultaneous sounds that create an elaborate musical composition, is commonplace in music of the African diaspora—spirituals, jazz, salsa, blues, hip hop, and beyond. As my sister-friend, mentor, and artistic inspiration, Adia Tamar Whitaker says, “Cooking dinner, watching babies, planning the weekend, and talking on the phone, that’s polyrhythm too.” Indeed, many of us negotiate a plethora of rhythms—art, life, parenting, race, gender, sexuality, nation building—all at the same cadence. Nia Love is one of those phenomenal beings, and she continues to be an inspiration to us all.
As the Skype call begins, I enter a room full of shadows. Nia Love is framed by plants, and her afternoon soundtrack is her husband’s jazz band in rehearsal. The internationally-renowned band also features her 10-year-old son, Kojo, on drums. This is her world–epitomizing life as art in a way I see so infrequently that I often wonder if it’s even real.

When Nia Love was young, she always wanted a coloring book. As she and her father waited in line at the grocery store, she would ask and ask and always be told no. She remembers being four- or five-years-old and complaining to her mother that her father kept refusing to buy her a coloring book. Her father overheard her and responded:
"I'm not going to get you coloring books because it's the first oppressor. It's the first thing you have as a child that makes you conform to a line that's not yours. It's not what you make. What you make is important. So you make the line and color it in if you want. And if you want to go out the line, go out the line. But I will not give you someone else's mark and consciously oppress you."
This message has informed her life, her art, her world, and anyone who has met Love would agree that she makes her own lines and colors where she pleases. I wholeheartedly admire this commitment to identity, ideas, and self—a steadfastness that is not often easy to maintain.

Nia Love is a choreographer, mother, performer, wife, educator, grandmother, artist, doula, scholar, jazz lover, collaborator. Her story is not linear. It is one that places family and humanity at the forefront, one that challenges perceptions of art and hierarchy, one that exists outside any frame I have ever known.

Beginning at the Beginning

Nia Love has performed across the world. She has lived in Ghana, Cuba, Sweden, Harlem, and beyond. She has raised children, helped these children birth grandchildren, held hands with grandparents as they transitioned, and when I ask her where her dance begins she offers her absolute beginning. She observes:
“As dancers, when we start talking about our physical careers we start talking about training. I think you come with everything, and then we start peeling that everything away. We start with infinite numbers of things, and as soon as you take that first breath you're that many breaths closer to death. Training becomes something that can confine us based on how we manifest it.”
She remembers a letter her mother sent her from her childhood home in California to where she was working in Japan. In the letter, her mother shares a memory of a New Year’s Eve party that she attended days before Love was born. At the party, her mother couldn’t stop dancing. Her friends told her “You better sit down! You’re about to have that baby right here on this floor.” The morning after the party, her mother woke up feeling the “most freedom she had felt in her life.” Love was not born that day, but in fact four days later. Still, she was dancing well before she entered the physical world.

Portraits of Nia Love
(photo below by Antoine Roney)
With this we begin to understand the integrated life Nia Love leads. Her father was a sculptor who taught at Florida State University, New World School of the Arts, and Howard University. In his Washington, D.C. backyard, he had a welding studio with images of Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, and Toni Morrison on the walls and John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Thelonius Monk as his creative soundtrack. The blending of art, identity, and academia is not a conscious choice for Nia Love. Rather, it is the foundation of her experience.

From California to Cuba

An avid young reader, Nia Love spent days sitting on the floor covered by books in the now-forgotten space known as the library. After seeing a movie that featured fairies whose costumes she liked, Love decided she wanted to study ballet. It was the only dance she saw that had similar costumes. Through her reading she came to understand that the Russians were the gatekeepers of ballet technique, so she searched California’s phone book for a Russian ballet teacher. Yes, the good old Yellow Pages directed her to her first ballet teacher, Olga Fricker. No YouTube videos or Facebook pages, just a name and a phone number.

After six years of study in California, Love asked to join her father in D.C. so she could be as close to New York as possible to further her dance career. She received a scholarship to train at the Washington School of Ballet (WSB) where she experienced struggles that I found all too familiar. No matter how good she felt about her technique, she was constantly challenged by a body type that was not “ideal” and racism that would always define her as “second best.”

Nia Love was about twelve years old when Ballet Nacional de Cuba was rehearsing in WSB’s studios. While watching a rehearsal, Love found herself enthralled by artists who looked like her, “from my skin to my hair to my body and my hips and they were KILLING IT!” Seeing herself reflected in these artists was life changing. They were not only technically sound, but “completely driven spiritually, completely present in their emotion and love and passion.”

Alicia Alonso, the company’s co-founder and one of the dancers she had studied in those library books, came to watch Love’s class one afternoon. As the other students left class, Nia Love sat with Alonso and her translator discussing her dance training and the experience of being the only Black body in the room. Alonso invited her to study with the company. The ecstatic teenager spent almost two years in Cuba before her mother made her return. She learned Spanish, developed global friendships, and was introduced to the world of Afro-Cuban rhythms that have become integral to her movement vocabulary. Danza Nacional de Cuba, the contemporary wing of the company at the time, taught Love about “being present, powerful, loving, caring, about putting it all on the line.” They understood that dance was her spiritual commitment, her “priesthood.”

Love returned to the States and continued her dance training at Duke Ellington School of the Arts with new tools in her toolbox. She broadened her international lifestyle as an exchange student, and went on to attend Howard University and Florida State University, beginning her family along the way. She then became a second generation Fulbright Scholar, following in the footsteps of her father who had spent two years in Sweden and took her all over Europe between the tender ages of four and six.

A Polyrhythmic Existence

In 2001, Nia Love’s Fulbright brought her and her family to Ghana. She was supposed to arrive on September 11 but instead departed two weeks later on her late father’s birthday. As Love says, “My daddy was with me that whole trip!”

She went to Ghana as a research lecturer, but did not get much written research done. Bringing her family shifted her focus. She spent her days teaching and her evenings mothering--cooking dinner, cleaning clothes, fighting malaria, and everything in between. “That trip was more an experience for my children than for me,” Love reflects.

This role of mother is one that Love cherishes and respects, not only as a doula who has helped birth at least 40 children, but also as a mother-artist herself. When pregnant women, mothers, or single parents come to take her class, she offers them the flexibility of paying what they can because she understands the priorities of parenting. Love observes, “As mother artists, we live in the world differently. We can’t follow the prescribed way of doing things.” And her journey to Ghana shifted her own lines of priorities and risk-taking.

Traveling with family, particularly with children, there is no space to indulge selfish desires or fears. “I had to exercise my ability to show them my liberating mind so they don't have inhibitions built up by seeing me have an inhibition,” she says. When the children asked where to go to the bathroom, Love had to show them how to squat and relieve themselves in the dirt. “I had to be really open and really careful at the same time.”

With her children’s lives in her hands, she had to make immediate decisions about what risks she would take based on whatever information was in front of her. This is what choreographer Adia Whitaker calls a polyrhythmic lifestyle, balancing the risk-taking with the openness. And this polyrhythmic existence has colored Nia Love’s art-making as well.

Each Process is A Process

As her son Kojo gets livelier on his drums in the background, Nia Love shares painful tales of her early struggles as a choreographer. However, Love’s lessons have allowed her to integrate her upbringing among “Garvey-ites” (followers of the teachings and philosophies of Marcus Garvey), who examined race at every intersection, into art that exists in a so-called “post-racial America.” She developed an artistic practice that mines movement through a constantly evolving choreographic voice, informed by whatever is in front of her. Her polyrhythmic existence manifests in her polyrhythmic creations. She acknowledges:
“I never stopped talking about race, but I started being really smart about how to look at the paradigm and intersections of race. And because I started looking deeper into those intersections I was also able to look deeper into the intersection of composition, the way in which I mine material. How I get in it, open it, shift the lens of it. It made me rethink my own intersections, about the way I deal with a pervasive, very oppressive system–mentally, physically, spiritually. How I deal with it with my children and how I prepare them for a system that targets them, particularly my Black boy, how it targets him and his life. It's not dance for me. It's life.”
Love visits Kara Walker's A Subtlety
(photo: Onye Ozuzu)
Love continues to investigate these intersections through a worldview in her newest work, a five-lens project called “The Agricultural Body for the Post-colonized Body.” She began by traveling Tanzania where she worked with farmers and dancers in the rural and urban areas of Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest and richest city. That exploration equipped her with gestures and movements based on the swinging, throwing, and shoveling of agricultural tools.
Love and students of Fordham-Ailey's New Directions Choreography Lab
prepare for their January showing (c)2014, Eva Yaa Asantewaa
See InfiniteBody post.
Those movements informed her development of the second lens with Fordham-Ailey BFA students in the New Directions Choreographic Lab. She wanted to see how this agricultural movement filtered in a “technicalized body.” For five weeks she investigated who could color outside the lines and just how far they would go. She interviewed them about the communities they grew up in and looked at how their experiences aligned with their exploration and mining of the movement. And sometimes, she had return to “contemporary mode” to then break the lines:
“I would come into a phrase of African cultural movement, then I would swing it into another contemporary motif so they could edge it off. And then they could understand the intersection. Then they would bring to their mouth the question of how does that start, ‘because I got the swing out part, but what is that in between’?”
Then Love deepened the exploration by bringing soil into the studio. As they rolled around, ran their fingers through, and literally got down and dirty, she was able to further delve the lines and frames of every student in the studio.

As she approaches the third lens, she will return to Tanzania to learn to craft tools with farmers. And after that, well, she doesn’t know. Every process is a new experience. Love lets each process inform the next but also seeks to fully explore what’s in front of her. She describes:
“If I were to work with you, then you're bringing something else to my process. So now I have to meld my process into your process, because if I deny the process that's in front of me then I deny the information. So I can't think that it’s MY process, I have to think it’s A process, and each process is different.” 
And with that, Kojo offers a high-hitting, intricate drum solo. CRASH!


Nia Love is an established choreographer who has taught at educational institutions, universities and festivals throughout the USA, Africa and Asia. An American Fulbright fellow, Nia has worked in England, West Africa, Japan, France, Colombia, Cuba, USA, and most recently Tanzania. Nia is the Artistic Advisor for Tanzania's prominent dance institution, MuDa Africa, and has recently created work for the nationally acclaimed Ailey|Fordham BFA program along with creating and presenting numerous dance works throughout the world. She was also awarded two consecutive Suitcase Fund grants, an initiative if New York Live Arts. Nia has been creating work over the past 2-½ decades with at least 20 works under her belt and continues to conducts annual research in Tanzania, East Africa on Agriculture and Dance. Nia Love has joined forces with Marjani Forté to form Love|Forté a collective. They have received their 2nd year AIR at BAX and are proud recipients of the Mertz Gilmore Grant 2014. Love|Forté will be presenting their premiere evening-length performance/installation, Memory Withholdings, at the Pillsbury House Theater in Minneapolis, MN, this fall. Most recently, Nia is the proud recipient of the CUNY-Hunter College Dance Initiative 2014-15, a selected adjunct position at Queens College Dance Department, and Texas Women's University’s 2014-15 winter Guest Choreographer.

A. Nia Austin-Edwards (ANAE) began her dance training in Atlanta, GA, at Total Dance / Dancical Productions, Inc. She went on to major in dance at Tri-Cities Visual and Performing Arts Magnet High School and received a B.F.A. in Dance from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Nia currently performs with Brooklyn-based ASE Dance Theatre Collective and remains an associate member of Atlanta's Total Dance Company and Axam Dance Theatre Experience. In 2013, she started PURPOSE Productions--a company that supports artists and activists in the manifestation of PURPOSE-full work that seeks to unify and develop our world community. She serves as an editor and correspondent to The Dance Enthusiast, and shares more personal thoughts on her blog, Nia is enthusiastic about opportunities for movement to be a lens for viewing, redefining, questioning, challenging, living, loving, and anything else.

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