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ON PERFORMING ART AND PAYING HOMAGE TO NINA SIMONE

By : Jessica Hernandez

10 min read




In this interview by Jessica Hernandez, Founder of VLA DANCE Victoria L. Awkward offers insights about the company’s most recent production For Nina. Article photos by Olivia Moon Photography. You can see For Nina on November 30th, 2023 at Hibernian Hall (8pm) and December 16th, 2023 at the Multicultural Arts Center (8pm).




You describe For Nina as a “thank you letter.” Can you tell us more about how you came up with the concept for this work? Why was it important for you to pay homage to Nina Simone—a prolific artist, musician, and activist?


This show pays homage to Nina Simone not as a singular celebrity idol, but rather as a Black woman who came up against binary limitations in the public perception of her work. In response, we’ve utilized collective structure and emphasized displaying many emotions at once in order to reclaim that which Nina Simone was denied—communal care, mutual support, humanity, accountability, and self-love.


In the creation of For Nina, I’ve noticed parallels and affinities between myself and Nina Simone. While Nina Simone’s reality was far more famous than my current one, I noticed a connection between how our outward appearances of being “high functioning” diminishes and even renders our internal and external struggles—i.e. dealing with the effects of racism, mental health issues, and emotional regulation—invisible.


I see Nina Simone as someone who, yes, had severe emotional challenges, but also as a person who was aware of and spoke out against the harmful systems we have in play. She got caught in between the worlds of fighting for change while sadly denying her own physical and emotional care. This show is a reciprocal gift to Nina Simone and to us, the performers, because it is a space where we can explore our vulnerability alongside our power—perhaps a space for us to explore vulnerability as power. It is also an experience that holds space for our humanity. We are brilliant and iridescent because we acknowledge that we are carrying multitudes. It is also an experience that holds space for our humanity. We reflect upon our individual journeys as a conduit to tell a larger collective story. I know I am worthy and talented because I am alongside my worthy and talented community members. We are those things because we support each other to be our best selves. And we know our best selves live a non binary, unlimited existence.


In the description of the piece, you write: “We exhale to remember, we perform to call in. Performing art uniquely positions a person to look for and embody freedom.” Can you say more about this? What are your thoughts on performing art as a practice of – or a desire for – freedom?


Performance art asks participants to be fully aware of their bodies because they must engage with their physicality while navigating shared spaces and being aware of their surroundings. This provides a lived experience of embodying self as well as communal and environmental awareness.


In this manner, performing arts do not just provide a space for people to explore different versions of themselves, but also to imagine a world on stage that could be better or more caring than the worlds we inhabit now. If we can cultivate this type of care and understanding in a performative sense, we can also build these worlds within our lives. Knowing that everyone has the power to affect their respective lives and the lives around them is Freedom. This is stepping into your power.


As Nina Simone said, “the job of an artist is to reflect the times.” Ultimately this notion plays out within the performance of For Nina and is also reflected in the VLA DANCE mission: cultivating communal care as a conduit for Freedom.


Can you tell us more about your collaborators and those involved in the production process?


For Nina features set designs by Mikayla Williams, lighting by long-time VLA collaborator Elmer Martinez, vocals by Desiré Graham, piano by Hua Ye (Jane), and guest youth dancers including artists from Jo-Mé Dance Arts Company II. Alongside the designs and performers you’ll see on stage, equally as important are those who helped support our show off stage. This year VLA DANCE has focused on spreading leadership to all of our core company members to: de-isolate leadership, increase personal agency of all artists involved, and create clear boundaries for the various hats artists often don. This show gave an opportunity to practice our new operational structure.

Company member Aliza Franz was rehearsal director, where they supported with choreographic generation, performative throughlines, and feedback on storyline. Sasha Peterson worked as dramaturg and utilized research on Nina Simone and her understanding of VLA contemporary technique to ensure the performers stayed within our intended storyline and delivered an impactful performance. Our tech support, Theophile Victoria, helped with communication, construction and transportation pertaining to the sets.


Desiré Graham is a performer, director, dramaturg and arts administrator from Harlem, New York. She sings to connect to a past that is not just hers, but a history of many. She writes to reconcile the shade and the sun. She collaborates in a constant search for those who also feel the tug to be elsewhere. Desiré has worked with Double Edge Theatre, Speakeasy Stage Company, Yo Soy Lola, and Teatro Chelsea as an artistic collaborator. Most recently, she was based in Tuscany, Italy as a company member at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards (a.k.a. Theatre No Theatre) for 3 years. Currently based in between New Haven, Boston, and NYC, Desiré commits to the cultivation of artistic spaces that foster transparency, active listening and anti-oppressive practices as a requirement. Desiré’s experience with comedia and the Grotowski method inform her understanding of movement as important within her singing practice. This made it easy to thread a throughline between my dancing and her singing within For Nina. Further, Desiré has developed a way of performing that prompts in me a sense of afro futurism as it calls back to traditional vocalization practices while also infusing contemporary ideas. Desiré is the ideal candidate for For Nina because she is confidently invested in the way she performs and is not imitating Nina Simone, but rather similarly to Nina Simone, displaying both vulnerability and power.


Jane is a pianist born and raised in Urumqi, China. After earning a bachelor's degree in journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, she moved to the U.S. to pursue her dream of classical music. Studying on full scholarship, Jane earned two M.M. degrees in Piano Performance and Collaborative Piano at Kansas State University and UMass Amherst respectively. Wonderfully framing For Nina, Jane’s classical understanding of the piano enables her to adjust for Desiré’s vocal needs and my dancing in real time.


What can we look forward to from the dance company and how can we support your work?


We hope this is the first installment of For Nina and that it will return in 2024 and beyond. Our ultimate goals are to increase the live musicians, the length of the show, and to tour For Nina beyond Boston. Additionally, VLA DANCE is returning to an old show entitled IN THE SPACE BETWEEN that celebrates stories of Freedom through a BIPOC and Queer lens. This project is in collaboration with The Theater Offensive. We also offer weekly classes and other engagement opportunities. People can engage with us at vladance.com or on instagram @dancevla.



—Jessica Hernandez





Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #164 December 2023

 

Check out all the art and columns of December's Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass




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