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Dean Moss
Photographer: Mark Simpson Dean Moss in johnbrown

Choreographer Dean Moss talks about his new work, johnbrown

Dean Moss explores radicalism in his latest dance, inspired by the legacy of a 19th-century white abolitionist

By Gia Kourlas
The title of Dean Moss’s new dance, johnbrown, reveals much. The choreographer isn’t attached to the man, a 19th-century white abolitionist, but to his legacy.

What does the idea of John Brown mean today? For Moss, a daring, multidisciplinary artist, the subject of radicalism looms large. In the premiere, which draws on his own history as the son of civil-rights activists, Moss expands his cast to include five teens as production assistants; really, they are the dance’s filter. 

How did you hit on John Brown in the first place? Was the idea originally from Laylah Ali?
When we were working on [the 2005 collaboration] Figures on a Field, she wanted to do something about John Brown. After that piece, she said, “Maybe we should do something again.” I was working on Nameless forest [2011], and by the middle of that production, we started talking about John Brown to negotiate what kind of collaboration that might be. I was less interested in the man than in his radical behaviors and what I call his “radical compassion” and legacy. Then I saw that legacy as translating into things my father had been involved in, things I am involved in—so there’d be a personal/historical relationship, and activism could be brought in. All things could be the subject matter. So Laylah and I, starting in the places that we were starting and having work arcs that are a little bit different, ended up after the MoMA performances saying, “Okay, let’s not make it a collaboration anymore.” This is going to be Dean’s work and Laylah’s going to do some consulting. I think that was a really reasonable and good choice. She’s continued to be involved, and it’s just freeing. There’s less on the line for her and absolutely more flexibility for me. I learned so much from that series of work.

Are you referring to your collaborations with other artists?
Yeah. I learned how to be a director and how to step out and how to look at something and how to be flexible about ideas—about how we get to an idea. 

Was there something that made you want to break away from that collaborative pattern?
The first time I worked with Laylah, it was like, I’m working with an artist that’s really well-known; the visual-arts world is so much more valued than the dance world. 

Especially then, right?
Yeah. This time, I am much more confident about what I’m making. I’m much more confident about getting my ideas out and processing my ideas and that that process is going to result in manifestations that are every bit as interesting as the kinds of things she does. I felt like, Okay. I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve with all those collaborations with visual artists: to get to a place where my eye is comfortable figuring this out. That the process has been opened by that, and my eye has been educated. 

Tell me about this piece. What are you thinking?
First, I am adoring this piece. 

I love the idea of you working with teenagers.
The teenage thing! There are so many elements. There’s this conversation with the cast, and the interview with my father, which has become an elaborate 10-minute segment and so layered. I do the board dance [from 2001’s american deluxe] with Kacie [Chang] as a duet with my father talking. I have a moment where I channel Uncle Tom from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Spicy hard. I do that with Julia Cumming, who is an 18-year-old that I picked up from MoMA Teens. She’s a model. She’s curated a show. She has her own band called Sunflower Bean. Right now she’s doing a runway show for Saint Laurent in Paris. She’s pretty amazing.

And you met her at MoMA?
Yes. I started working with the teens there, and I hired her as this person that was in the cast, but who was on the border of the age group of the teens that I was bringing in as production assistants. She composed a song for the piece in relationship to the video in the work. The video is of Pete Simpson as John Brown; Okwui Okpokwasili as Frederick Douglass; and Tymberly Canale as Helen Pitt, who was Frederick Douglass’s second wife. She was a white woman. And Aaron Hodges is John Brown’s son Watson, who died at the raid of Harpers Ferry. Thomas Bradshaw wrote the screenplay, and it is funny and crazy.

What is so funny about it?
The text is totally irreverent and at the same time, it has charm, and the way it’s played is straight. I shot it from the shoulders up, so what you see are faces. It’s a bit like the opening sequence in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but they aren’t wearing anything from the shoulders up, so you just see the wigs and skin. It really is effective. [Laughs] And the teens have been really amazing.

Why did you want to use teenagers?
In the concept of the work, I find that I’m looking back on John Brown and that’s well and good, but if I think of the continuum of time and how you look back and revise ideas, or you look back with your ideas now about things, I didn’t want to be the end of that. I didn’t want to be the final arbiter. I wanted the teens to be this lens that the audience looks through, so they are my production assistants. There are five of them; they set up the space, they present the work. Generally when I’ve used audience members or someone from outside the core group in the past, we frame them; we make the work around their experience. What I’m interested in here is that they’re framing us. That you look through them at what’s going on onstage. By their mere presence and the activities they do, which allow them to comment, they color how you see the work and your sensitivity about what you’re seeing as an audience. For example, the irreverence of the video, which is harsh and adult—you’re watching them watch it. You are not only interested in the video going on, you’re interested in their reaction. Their witness of it grounds your reaction, because you’re thinking how these younger people, who may or may not understand all of the ramifications of that video, are taking it. What do they get and take from it? During the whole piece, they have that relationship.

How old are the teens?
Between 14 and 18. I’ve worked with a number of them. I’ve had a lot of residencies. There’s maybe one person who’s been there from the beginning. The rest have changed, and it’s really interesting. In Pittsburgh, I brought in four guys and worked with them—two were white, two were black. It was interesting to see how they reacted to the work and the questions they had.

Like what?
There’s a graphic moment where my face is in Asher [Woodworth’s], and I didn’t tell them about it ahead of time. I just did it. We were in rehearsal, and one of the black PAs just could not hold it together. He started laughing—so nervous. We talked about it after. More recently, and something that will be replicated in the premiere is that I have three women of color who are the PAs throwing confetti on three white cast members who have smeared themselves with a brown paste and there’s this sort of, is that celebration? Is that tar and feathering? And this unbalance, this weird circumstance that seems to ring true for me is interesting. It really says a lot in a layered and sometimes contradictory way: Is this a celebration? Is this a damning? I feel like I’m talking a little bit about accepted ideas of beauty and what beauty is and the whole piece turns on this integration—what John Brown wanted that was so radical was integration, the same thing that we ask for now. Complete, full, equal citizens not only under the law, but socially. So that seems to be the interesting and complex aspect of the work.

Why are the teens called “production assistants”?
I like the idea of that because it’s kind of what visual artists have—somebody who helps them make the work, and they help build props, they are physical in it, there’s some live video, which they control. They set up things and control what you see. I also like the idea that their performance is pretty limited. I’m asking them not to perform, not to be actors.

That’s how you typically handle outsiders in your work: They must remain naive.
Yeah. And in this case they are kind of initiated. They spend a few weeks with us rehearsing. But the job’s complex; they learn about it, we have to rehearse them, and they learn about what we’re thinking. They work with us and so by the end I feel like I’m inviting them into a radical circumstance and I want them to be as aware as possible of that.

That it is radical?
Yeah. And what do you think about that? I’ve been blown away. Their responses are so good! [Laughs]

Do you keep it racially mixed?
I have in the past. I think by the time we get to the Kitchen, it’s going to be racially mixed, but all women of color. I’m able to build these sort of rings. So you have Asher and me, and you have that relationship cliché—the white-man, black-man thing. And then you have the rest of the cast, which is white women. Feminism and being a feminist is what I see John Brown doing today. It would be [about] Malala [Yousafzai]—a person risking her life to proselytize equality for women, girls, education…It’s a really feminist piece, and I enjoy that.

You work well with women.
I kind of do better work with women. This is a bad comparison and takes it maybe too far, but I think the director Claire Denis works with black men really well, and I feel like when I have worked with a majority female cast, my work is stronger and I feel like when I’m making work on a majority female cast, I’m working with women in a way that I don’t see women working with women. I think this piece is really nuanced for that. I feel like I’m getting the best performances ever out of Kacie Chang, Cassie Mey, Sari Nordman—this is hard to admit, but Alastair [Macaulay of The New York Times] trashed my last piece on the grounds of the performances. It wasn’t the performers’ fault, it was my direction. And I took that to heart; these performances are so strong. And Asher is amazing. The frame is fantastic. It’s a great work, I think. I feel really good about the kinds of conversations the work manifests, and I feel stretched in my own performance.

Do you think you were hiding behind something before? You’re just speaking as articulately as ever, but very boldly.
I don’t know. I thought the value was in formalism. That you conceptualize something and you pull it away from itself. I think my collaborations made me want to go further. In my works that were really successful like [2008’s] Kisang becomes you, the circumstance became really important and how those performers dealt with real people became important. You start stripping away the formalism because that’s just getting in the way. You start creating an experience for the audience—an experience that builds and makes sense even if you don’t know why.

How does your father figure in?
About two summers ago, we had a conversation for three days about what he did and what it felt like to do what he did. And what was important to him about it.

As a civil-rights activist?
Basically his life, from before. As he likes to say, his father was a race man. He was a man who was interested in race. My grandfather had his own business and had moved up from Texas to Detroit to work in the auto industry and eventually he had his own business, so he talked about that process—about how my grandfather had no place for friendships with white people. They lived in a black and Polish neighborhood, so it wasn’t a totally segregated neighborhood and maybe because my grandfather owned his own business, my father was maybe a little bit higher up—maybe fully middle-class. He talks about coming out to Washington and the difficulties and your mother telling you, “Don’t go out there and be crazy—don’t give somebody a reason to do something to you.” On the other side, how do you hold your head up? That pressure. But my father has, let’s say, colorful language, and he’s truly a politician and proud of it. I don’t vote because of my experience with politics as a child. I just don’t do it anymore. One of the reasons I do what I do and got away from them was because it was a very big tree, and I had to get out from under that. Why did your father move to Washington? 
He was in the army, so he got stationed at Fort Lewis, and he made teeth, and this is useful for the piece: We talk at the very end of the sequence he’s in about teeth and about the fact that he made his own dentures and doesn’t actually have any teeth anymore after being this kind of radical guy that could really bite into things. [Laughs] It’s also interesting to see a person who starts out very politically radical but ends up mayor of the city [Tacoma]. It says something about the allure of power. We just wanted to be mainstream. We wanted to become part of society, not something extra. So to achieve what he achieved is what most of mainstream people really want—to be part, just include us. 

What turned you off so much about politics? 
Egos. I think it’s one thing to start out with the idea that you’re doing something altruistic for somebody else and for yourself, but then it becomes associated with you personally and that power and that ego about what you think and how it’s thought and how well you think about it in terms of, I’ve gone through this process, I understand and maybe you don’t, but let me educate you about it. That kind of thing. It just becomes so much ego. And you need that ego; like artists need their ego to make their work, politicians need their ego. But it’s very hard to get around it. 

Did you see that happen to your father? 
I was a kid. All I could see was that my parents were possibly more involved in something than they were with me. I was involved in politics while I was in Washington. I got to New York, saw the political setup here and said, I’m ambivalent to begin with—I just don’t need to go there. But local politics are about people, and do you trust those people? It’s really personalities, and it’s interesting for that reason. It also has its downsides. I love my anonymity. When I go to Tacoma, my father treats the city like it’s his living room. [Laughs] If he’s walking down the street and somebody’s garden is very nice, and he doesn’t know them, he has no problem going up and telling them what he thinks or if they’re doing something, what are you doing? He’s very comfortable there. He’s celebrating his 85th birthday next week. He got an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Puget Sound, which turned him down for law school. He has a street and a building named after him. 

Why did you want to do something so personal this time? 
The thing I like about dance is that you have to deal with presence. And presence is the thing you’re articulating with performance—your presence and the exchange of presence between you and the audience. So in this work, if I’m going to talk about radicalism and I really want to involve my past work—it references american deluxe—then I felt like I had to put myself in it. If I’m bringing in my father, I have to bring in myself as an element. Being able to focus on a historical white man who died for black people’s freedom allows me to talk about black and white in a way that I have avoided all my career. It opens that up for me, because basically I can talk about whiteness. I can talk about John Brown and his desire and use that desire as a reflection of the audience, of their better and worse natures. I can focus on that. I don’t have to focus on me. I can leave me still in a kind of vacuum. I make an outline of myself by doing the things that are hard—I build in this experience of John Brown, so then I can do a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I can put myself in that and also feel the pain of being in school and being called Uncle Tom. A lot. My parents moved to a white enclave of Tacoma. They weren’t downtown; I integrated my grammar school. My parents were out there doing the good fight. They had their support, but their kids were doing it by themselves. I was isolated early on. I had my white friends. When we go to junior high, busing begins. So all these black kids—I don’t know them. They’re not part of my social group. I don’t sit at the lunch table with them. They immediately start picking on me. So there was that, and that created certain kinds of wounds. So now playing that, going back and opening that up so I can be the subservient caretaker of this young white cast member who’s playing Eva. Julia plays little Eva. She’s 18 and I’m 60, and I’m wearing very little clothes with a kind of wreath on my head that makes you think of nature, noble savage, a little bit Jesus.… We sing hymns. And my singing is not good. It’s horrible! Thank God for Julia. She can sing. The work and all the performers in it has really upped the ante on what I want to accomplish through performance, and part of my opening up was I have to rise to that occasion. Now that I’ve been out of my work for a while and I’ve seen what one wants as an audience member, as a director, you have to rise to that higher bar. 

What do you want the work to accomplish? 
I want the work to be an experience for the audience that takes them through radical processes that have to do with John Brown, but that also draws parallels to where we are today. And I want it to be complex. I want it to touch on race, on gender, on generational aspects of how we receive information, how race, gender and generation change our perception of what’s going on. I don’t presume to have an answer. I don’t believe that you’re going to come up with what I come up with—your experience is going to be completely different, but I want a dense and interesting world in which there is no didacticism. It definitely hits that love/hate interdependency. And that’s the way America was and is. It’s also a great time to present a work like this. I think we’re very conscious of what’s going on socially. 

With Ferguson? 
Yes. There have been a number of incidents. Malala and domestic-violence issues and the social fabric of this country and the contract you have as an individual with the society—it’s all very potent and raw right now. All I can see is raw skin. Peeled, filleted and open. It’s just so present. I feel this work does that. 

If you are going for no affectation with the teenagers, how do you get them to re-create that quality when they’re not doing it for the first time? 
I wasn’t looking so much for performers at the beginning but visual-art people, because they don’t perform, they just do the do. We ended up getting a lot of performer people—actors, teens that were doing summer institutes, so there has been this, I’ve got to pull this down. There’s an amount of instruction that goes on about performance for the teens. Not only that they have tasks but that they have to do it a certain way; their job is best when it’s understood to be the lens, and that there is also a range allowed them. I understand that sometimes they’re going to look out at the audience and do something. I understand that there will maybe be times when they’re supposed to be quiet and they’re going to be a little fidgety and self-involved. I can build that into the work. And actually it is built into the work, particularly at the end. 

You spoke about bringing older work into johnbrown. What are you thinking? 
At MoMA, I was very early in the process and I used american deluxe, which was a much more personal work, but even then I knew it had this potential to be really political. I didn’t go there then, I couldn’t go there. So there are lots of touchstones to my own work in this, and as the work progressed, we started pulling that stuff out. Now a very little of it is still in it. You see within the work fragments of pieces of my oeuvre since Spooky Action [at a Distance, 1999], and it made it very interesting to have those in there and then this work goes much further. 

It doesn’t sound so much a departure to me as a continuation. How do you think of it? 
I think of it as a continuation, but with a kind of break. I definitely could see where Spooky action was a break from the past up to then, and then starting in 2005 with Figures on a Field—the collaborations. I feel this breaks through to a different place, but it touches back on all these things. It goes a little bit further, and that has to do with what you mentioned about the mask—the breaking of what I think of as the formal thing. I have to hide behind it, or to use this kind of language to get at this point, and now I find that I can use a different kind of language. 

Did being a black man in the largely white modern-dance world have an impact on you or on this? 
I’ve been a black person in a white world since I was a kid. 

That’s true. 
The masks are infinitely layered. When I started coming downtown and was working with Danspace and was on the advisory board with Tere [O’Connor] and John [Jasperse] and Donna [Uchizono] and all those folks, I had already absorbed and was continuing to try to absorb so much. I had fed myself on the idea that we should minimalize that racial thing. And the identity works that started percolating up in the ’80s were not so interesting, so there was no reason to go there. I look back at that time now and I go, Ohhh. It’s uncomfortable, because I had absorbed so much of it. I had no other understanding. I became the curator at the Kitchen, and I tried to curate all my friends over a long period of time and then the director said, “You have to go back and tell them no,” and they all got really mad at me and tried to get my job. 

Yeah. My feeling of isolation was set, and it allowed me a certain freedom to pursue in my own way and sooner or later come around to an idea of what I could do and what my relationship was to the world and what my freedoms are, and I think it’s been a great journey, but it’s been painful. Like everybody else’s. It takes awhile. And so now doing this feels so good.


Dean Moss presents johnbrown at the Kitchen Oct 16–25

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