The music roars disturbingly loud, white noise drumming on furiously. Two ever-so-graceful bodies glide on stage, the feeble light slowly focusing on their muscular forms as they push and strive, embrace and break apart. Their shorn heads and similar build make it almost impossible to discern between the pair of dancers. Are they female or male? Are they fighting or making love? Are they winning or losing? Does it even matter? This ambiguous, magical duo who enjoy both provoking and moving their audiences to tears are artists Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins. Their show, “BlackVelvet,” is a heart-piercing exploration of gender, race, identity, love and friendship, now arriving to Israel for two performances, one in Tel Aviv and another in Jerusalem.
We spoke to the pair about their bold attempt to break barriers in a creation that refuses to fit the traditional mold of modern dance and has already stunned viewers in the United States, Sweden and Germany. Shamel Pitts is a performance artist, dancer, spoken word artist and teacher. He hails from Brooklyn, New York, but spent what he calls his “formative years both as an artist and as a person” in Tel Aviv, where he danced with the Batsheva Dance Company.
“Once, while I was living in Tel Aviv, Galit Reich, producer of my first solo work titled 'Black Box', was talking to me as I was shaving my head. As she watched my black hair hit the floor, suddenly she said: ‘Wow, it looks like velvet!’ I laughed and answered, ‘Yeah, black velvet.’ There it was,” he recalls fondly, explaining how the name for the show initially originated.
“Black velvet can be a very soft and delicate material but also extremely powerful due to its ability to absorb light and how it reflects light. We were passionate about the piece’s reflective quality,” he adds.
Pitts’ partner, or mirror image in this hauntingly intimate celebration of the body, is Mirelle Martins, a Brazilian performance artist and art producer. The two met and became artistic partners in 2013, when Pitts started to teach her in New York. Martins attended a course Pitts taught on Gaga - a therapeutic dance language invented by the renowned choreographer and former artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, Ohad Naarin - and realized that she had to continue to explore this new artistic medium.
“In Gaga, a lot is said about how our weakness can be our strength. This concept really helped me during the process; to believe that even with the lack of formal, technical training I had something to offer and to share. The process was to find this power inside me,” Martins says.
“When I came to work with Mirelle it was her first dance class, which means she didn’t have any prior experience in the studio, with a dance process or performing on stage. I was coming towards her, meeting her there, but from my perspective at the height of my career as a dancer,” Pitts recounts.
“That was scary, confusing, it made me unsettled and unsure. But what I was sure about was that this woman, this being, Mirelle - she had something to say and I knew that I had to help her articulate her voice through dance, and that meant for us to find it together. Those fears that we had in the beginning are no longer there.”
While BlackVelvet places a strong emphasis on the black identity of both of its performers, Martins says that she doesn’t view it as the main theme of the project nor as the message either of them would like to convey. “Black,” she says, “is not an issue or a subject. It is our lives, it is what we are. I don’t need a political flag or a hashtag to say ‘Hey, I’m inside the black cause,’ but instead I have to live my life as a black woman in this contemporary society.”
Pitts concurs. “Our intention in BlackVelvet is to share our connection, and we’re both African American, so in that way it becomes about race, but it is not about race,” he says.
“I’m very excited to bring this work to Israel because I’m very excited to come back home. BlackVelvet was born in Brazil [during Pitts’ residency there] but was conceived in Tel Aviv. During my time with the Batsheva Dance Company we had choreographic workshops, and while I was doing some of them I started playing with the ideas that evolved into BlackVelvet.”
Musing about his beloved city and its approach towards race, Pitts says that he finds Tel Aviv “to be very diverse, open and generous." He continues: "I think that partially, my presence there has hopefully aided towards acceptance of others because I felt very much like an ‘other’ in Tel Aviv and I felt very accepted at the same time,” he continues. Having established that the show is not merely about race, Martins is also quick to quash the notion that because she and Pitts dance naked the artwork is overtly sexual. “Because we are half naked… because it is a man and a woman together, people assume we are a couple, or that we are representing a romantic story. These are merely assumptions. Understandable, but still assumptions.” Instead, the artist explains, the two set out on a journey to “blur and play a little bit [with] these assumptions, these archetypes.”
“Our society is over-sexualized and I feel that it is really a restricted point of view to interpret the naked body simply as a sexual instrument, that sex is the only act possible with it. Guess what: it isn’t!” Martins laughs. “That’s what we researched, investigated and wanted to share with this work. There are a lot of similarities between us in the way that we both can play between femininity and masculinity, we draw those lines and push those lines - not necessarily to make a comment on sexual orientation or identity or racial identity,” Pitts elaborates. “It’s more about the fact that we all have more similarities between us than differences.”