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Okwui Okpokwasili is a star of avant-garde dance – and Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’ video. Her solo show ‘Bronx Gothic’ begins with a fearsomely intense feat of endurance as her whole body vibrates with twerk-inspired movements that summon up the tension of being a teenage girl growing up in the Bronx. The show’s last performance inspired an acclaimed 2017 documentary; after watching it, Young Vic boss Kwame Kwei-Armah persuaded her to resurrect it.
‘Bronx Gothic’ was a huge success in the US. Why did you retire it?
‘The last performance I did was in the St Peter’s Church complex, the church I went to growing up. It was such a perfect way to say goodbye to those characters – to leave them back in the Bronx. Also, the show takes a toll psychically and physically. It’s like sprinting really hard. When you’re done, your body’s like “phew”. I needed to breathe.’
Does that discomfort come from its closeness to your own experiences?
‘The piece is not autobiographical at all, but it is true that it’s marked with pieces of my life. Coming through adolescence is akin to being a reptile sloughing off old skin, and there’s something of that in my movements at the beginning of the piece. When I was writing it I was also thinking about novels like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”; that’s where some of the gothic comes in. As a young girl, we would send notes to each other during class. So I create this epistolary narrative as exposed by the notes between these two girls. It’s set in the mists of this underworld space that’s hidden from adults.’
Does it matter if people see the documentary before the show?
‘I don’t know. The live performance is a completely different animal. We’re all uncomfortably close and we’re looking at each other; there’s a psychic terrain that we’re playing in. Magic can happen, or nothing can happen – but there’s something about being next to each other, right?’
I guess I have to ask what it was like to work with Jay-Z on ‘4:44’?
‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t work with Jay-Z! I was in the video, but I’ve never met him. I almost didn’t even hear the music. It was very… secret. We had earbuds so that nobody else could hear what Storyboard P, the other dancer, and I were listening to. It’s funny seeing its afterlife because it’s like: yes, it’s a good song and Jay-Z is not to be messed with, but sometimes I forget that I did that.’
You’ve just won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, which is worth $625,000 (£493,000). Will that make a big difference to you?
‘Totally! It’s a MacArthur Fellowship grant. People say “genius” but genius isn’t technically part of the title. I’m just saying… but yeah, it’s this lovely, wonderful thing. Like having someone go: “What you’re doing, yes, it may be kinda weird, maybe some people don’t understand it, but take courage.” ’
‘Bronx Gothic’ is at the Young Vic. Until Jun 29.