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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Artists Reach Out: J'Sun Howard

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody


J'Sun Howard


J'Sun Howard
(photo courtesy of the artist)


J’Sun Howard is a Chicago-based dancemaker and has recently been awarded one of the inaugural Esteemed Artist Awards from the City of Chicago Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and is an Asian Cultural Council Fellow, a Links Hall Co-MISSION Fellow, a Ragdale Foundation Sybil Shearer Fellow, 2017 3Arts Make A Wave Awardee, and 2014 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist.

J'Sun's choreography has appeared at venues such as Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Links Hall, DanceBox (Kobe, Japan), Ruth Page Center for the Arts, Sonotheque, Lincoln Square Theatre, Insight Arts/Center for New Possibilities, Epiphany Church, Rumble Arts, California Institute of the Arts, Oakton Community College, Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery, Patrick's Cabaret (Minneapolis, MN), Danspace Project (New York City), The Arts Club of Chicago, California Institute of the Arts (San Francisco), The Art Institute of Chicago, Center for Performance Research (NYC), Detroit Dance City Festival (Detroit, MI), New Dance Festival International Festival (Daejeon, South Korea) where he won Best Dance Choreographer 2019, and World Dance Alliance Asia-Pacific’s International Young Choreographers’ Project (Kaohsiung, Taiwan).

J’Sun has performed for several choreographers including Malcolm Jason Low, Asimina Chremos, Sara Wookey, Paige Cunningham-Caldarella, Selene Carter but most extensively with ongoing collaborators Darrell Jones, Damon Green, and DJ Justin Mitchell in their research of (e)feminized ritual performance, which received a 2013 Juried Bessie Award for Hoo-Ha (for your eyes only). J’Sun has been commissioned by Northwestern University, Columbia College Chicago, World Dance Alliance, and The Art Institute of Chicago. Additional awards include Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist grants, City of Chicago DCASE Individual Artist Program grants, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation USArtists International.


Damon Green in J'Sun Howard's
Working On Better Versions of Prayers
(photo: Stephanie Toland)
Solomon Bowser and Dedrick "B. Banks" Gray
in J'Sun Howard's aMoratorium
(photo: Kiam Marcelo Junio)


Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

Yes, I had several projects affected by the pandemic. I had to cut my Asian Cultural Council (ACC) fellowship short. I began my four-month residency at DanceBox in Kobe, Japan on February 1st. I was supposed to stay until May 30th. I started a new work I am calling The Righteous Beauty of the Things Never Accounted For, which is about the built environment and spatial politics, how Black and Brown bodies negotiate and perceive space, as well as ecological and Japanese aesthetics. Additionally, I was undertaking Noh Theatre lessons, and planning the next round of exchanges between dancers/choreographers from Kobe and Chicago.

Mid-way through my ACC fellowship, I would have gone to the dance seminar Holding Common Ground: Pathways to Cultural Exchange in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. At the seminar, I would have collaborated with a Vietnamese storyteller and puppeteer Linh Valarie Pham on new work, facilitated a Vogueing Aesthetics workshop, been one of the panelists on cultural exchange, and mentor one of the participating Vietnamese artists.

After leaving Japan, I would have flown straight to Plovdiv, Bulgaria to show my recent choreographic work, aMoratorium, at the Black Box Theatre and Dance Festival. And once I returned to the United States, I would have headed to a six-week summer residency at a university.

I am fortunate that these engagements are postponed and will happen as things become safe to do. I am looking forward to getting back to Asia to continue researching and developing Righteous Beauty.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

Growing up, I always wanted something physical like martial arts or gymnastics. Since I was a bigger guy, everybody said I should play football. I was great at it but was not interested in seriously pursuing it. I loved dancing but did not understand—at that time—it was something I could make a career out of. I mean I would record the 80s and 90s videos and learn the choreography from them.

In middle school, I participated in a talent show and did my first solo ever to Aaliyah’s “One In A Million” (still my favorite song to this day). When my high school transitioned to a magnet arts one, I did not pick dance as my major because I did not feel welcomed by the clique of dancers in the program nor I did feel supported enough to go that route. I went into the creative writing program.

At graduation, I decided that I would go to college (Columbia College Chicago) to study dance. It was one of the most important decisions in my life. I would not be where I am today if I did not take that leap of faith.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

I want to be fluent in other languages, so I have been practicing Japanese and brushing up on French. I have been writing more. I hope to have a poetry chapbook manuscript completed in the coming months. But the main thing I have been practicing is slowing down, which I think is some sort of rehabilitation, allowing time to open and see what it reveals.

The last few years I have been going nonstop, and this has made me appreciate slowing down by watching clouds float by and cast their shadows, listening to the different species of birds make their calls, watch flowers bloom, cook amazing meals, spend time with my mom (I am in my hometown of Chattanooga rather than Chicago right now), do little rituals like having tea every morning, prayer, and and and...

I have been so present in my day to day that I have not been envisioning for what is to come. In this slowing down, I can do the envisioning. I know I am ready to get back to Japan and continue the work I was doing. Outside of my window right now, kids are flying a rainbow kite. It makes me think of the serial poem “If I Never See A Rainbow Again” about making wishes and desires I started in rehearsal at DanceBox. That’s my envisioning—-if I never see a rainbow again.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

In my artistic practice, I am building multi-dimensional, emotionally immersive experiences with care to practice freedom, especially in how Black and Brown people navigate it. I care about peace and freedom. Slowing down feels like a modality for practicing it (which is in the vein of rest as reparations.) If I never see a rainbow again, then I am going to have to create it myself. That is the care I think all of us are dealing with right now albeit alone or with loved ones. It is a spiritual practice that transcends the world we have now.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

I do not think my practice functions within the world we have now. I mean if it does, it does through the potentiality of futurity, especially when going back to “normal” is not an option. I guess I am asking how can this isolation be radical to mean something other than isolation? What is ontological about all of this? What are our alternatives? I reread this poem--”Dream Where Every Black Person Eats A Cloud”--I wrote when thinking about the world and futurity.

Additionally, I have made a conscious choice not to participate in all things Zoom...not because I do not want to connect with family, friends, other artists, and like-minded people. I find this is an important opportunity to dive into one’s internal cosmology and resurface anew shining brighter than ever.

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DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.

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