Acclaimed dancer, choreographer and educator Cynthia Oliver presents the world premiere of Boom!--a duet with Leslie Cuyjet--at New York Live Arts this Thursday evening. Yesterday, she put up with some of my "really provocative questions," as she called them.
EYA: Who are you? What elements make up who you are as a dancemaker?
CO: That's a question I've been asking myself since I was a teenager. For many years, I worked hard to think about it outside of what I do. In some ways, I am what I do in terms of how I move in the world. But first: a person, a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an artist. Not that the order of it shows any priority, but it's a humble mix.
EYA: What do you most value? What do you find non-negotiable?
CO: Being honest with myself, my relationships--my family, my friends--and being human and humane. Those guideposts in my work have never, ever led me wrong. They helped me steer the course of each piece clearly.
EYA: What challenges you?
CO: Fear. I feel like I push through fear every day. It's there. I acknowledge it. But I know that I'm not going to accomplish anything by buckling to it. I have to do what it is that's inspiring me anyway, and once I get on the other side of it, it's like a whole other world opens up.
I feel like fear has always been my biggest challenge. I'm not a very outward person, although I love people. I have some wonderful friends and enjoy social situations, but my husband is the real social butterfly. I am not at all. I push through that and see what happens. I feel that I have done okay with that.
EYA: Through what perceptual channels do you best perceive things?
CO: I think of my intuition as my strongest perceptual channel. I've learned how to trust it, listen to it and act on it. Because when I don't, I pay. I remember early on in my tenure [at University of Illinois], I created a piece with a large gospel group with the Black Chorus out there. I had never worked with more than five people in a piece. This was a chorus of forty-five. I was choreographing them and eight dancers.
The piece was called Whisper to Shout, and it addressed this very thing: I had started to realize that if I don't listen to the whisper, the shout was going to be a humdinger. The shout was going to kick my behind. So I had to attune my ear to the whisper and be much more sensitive and much more aware of the whisper. And that's just a matter of trust and not saying, Oh, no, I couldn't possibly be right with that feeling that I should act on. That's my strongest perceptual channel.
EYA: What audience would you most like to reach?
Honestly, I just want humans there. On so many different levels, I feel that the work can speak to a lot of different people. On the obvious level, yes, women audiences, Caribbean audiences, people of color. But at the same time, all of the concerns that I address--those that are both obvious and blatant and those that are layered and more subtle--are universal concerns that we all, as humans, negotiate. I want as many kinds of folks in the room as possible sitting right next to each other.
I think my audience is a reflection of my own life. I have always had a very diverse group of people around me. I grew up in an international community in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. When I moved to the states to be a professional dancer, that is something I continued. When I went to college, I found that the African American community in the states tended to be more segregated than where I came from. Not that there is not segregation there. But it's one of those things where you'd still see a lot of mixing, especially in those heady days of the '70s, when I was in high school. Less so now. It's much more polarized now [due to economic disparity, changes wrought by disasters such as Hurricane Hugo and other factors.] But at that time, it was very different. That's how I got exposed to a certain kind of experimental dance there, that breadth of experience across communities.
EYA: Do you need an outside eye on your work? Or are you able to be objective about what you do?
CO: I do both. I trust my own eye and my own sensibilities about what needs to happen--what kinds of sequence, what kinds of material, what kinds of language. And because I do a lot of research in the work, I trust that. I also strongly believe that none of us can be objective, and it helps to have a trusted eye in the room. The key word there is trusted. I make sure that the person I ask to come and watch, while the work is in that delicate state, is someone who can put aside their own aesthetic, their own agenda, and look at what I'm trying to do and ask me questions that will help me clarify what I'm trying to do, not what they want. I find that that combination--knowing when to bring people in, going back and revising, and then bringing folks in again--that's been really helpful to me.
EYA: What do you consider to be the most important qualities of a serious or professional artist?
CO: Openness. Sensitivity. A willingness to see beyond where you are and what your work is, to see the broader relationship to your field, to the world, to folks around you. Mostly, openness.
EYA: Why is dance your focus?
CO: The full embodiment. I actually didn't start out as a dancer. My sisters danced and, I think since I was the last of six kids, my parents just said, Go on with your sisters!, to get me out of the house.
I was a visual artist. My parents let me try a lot of things. I tried music. I was terrible at music. But painting, drawing, was my arena. I thought I'd make my living as an architect. I took courses in physics and calculus in high school thinking I was going to go in that direction. Dance was really a hobby early on.
And then I had this mentor who fell in love with me and I with her. She was from Kurt Jooss [the German choreographer] and had been in the Caribbean for decades and had a dance school. I would go there and study Afro-Caribbean dance during the week, and she invited me to start taking ballet and improvisation with her. Then she kept putting me onstage, and she encouraged me to move in this direction. And I loved it! I loved the physicality of dance. I'm a swimmer. So, moving on land was really nice too! She would bring dance companies to the island to expose young people to these companies. So, I saw George Faison's Universal Dance Experience; that really blew my mind. I saw a lot of different companies from Europe, South America, the Caribbean.
Recruiters came at the end of high school, and I thought, I really should do this! This feels like something I could really sink my teeth into. A big concern for my dad was, "How're you going to afford to live?" My mom--a brilliant artist and a seamstress--was different. She was like, "Take your wings and fly, girl. Do that art."
See the world premiere of Cynthia Oliver's BOOM!
at New York Live Arts, Oct 23-25.
Click here for details and tickets.
October 23 at 6:30pm: Come Early Conversation: Sequencing Non-Linear Narratives, choreographer and educator Nia Love discusses the creative practice of Cynthia Oliver
October 24: Stay Late Discussion: Her History - Her Present - Her Future, Cynthia Oliver and Leslie Cuyjet in conversation with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko
Cynthia Oliver’s work is the visceral evidence of an incongruous mixture of aesthetics. Steeped in the everyday sounds of black voices and bodies moving in time and space in the Caribbean of her youth, Ms. Oliver was encouraged to explore ballet, dance dramas and site specific improvisational experiments led by Atti van den Berg - a former Kurt Jooss dance drama company member/performer. All the while she absorbed both the informal and formal of the Afro-Caribbean dance canons in the US Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the region. These vastly differing experiences defined her childhood coming into art. Moving in this way led her to an eclectic career in New York City and abroad in the world of performance art and experimental dancing with folks as diverse as The Caribbean Dance Company, Theatre Dance Inc., the David Gordon/Pick Up Company, Ronald Kevin Brown/EVIDENCE and Bebe Miller. She currently performs in Tere O’Connor’s Sister and BLEED dance works. Oliver has studied and been a part of the black avant garde theatre world, performing in the works of numerous playwrights, most notably, Laurie Carlos’ White Chocolate for my Father, and Vanquished by Voodoo, and Ntozake Shange’s A Photograph Lover’s In Motion, also directed by Ms. Carlos; Greg Tate’s My Darling Gremlin; and choreographing for theatrical productions like The University of Illinois’ theatre company production of George C. Wolff’s Colored Museum directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon. Her choreography for theater has been performed at Minnesota’s Penumbra and Pillsbury House Theaters, New York’s La MaMa Etc., Syncronicity Space and Aaron Davis Hall.
Oliver has been creating dance works since 1991. A mélange of dance, theatre and the spoken word, her pieces reflect her background and interests, incorporating the textures of Caribbean performance with African and American sensibilities. Named “Outstanding Young Choreographer” by reviewer Frank Werner in German Magazine Ballet Tanz early in her career, Oliver has since received numerous grants and awards including most notably, a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award, two Illinois Arts Council Choreography Fellowships, a Creative Capital award, a Rockefeller Multi-Arts Production grant, NEFA Touring support, NPN Creation Funds, a CalArts Alpert Award nomination and a prestigious University Scholar Award from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is a Professor of dance. In addition to her performance credits, Oliver holds a PhD in performance studies from New York University. She has published widely and is the author of Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean (University Press of Mississippi. 2009).