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Marc Bamuthi Joseph on His Artistic and Cultural Influences in “/peh-LO-tah/”

Inspiring and insightful poet-performer uses life and artistic experiences to create connections and inspire change.

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Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Photo credit: Bethanie Hines)

[avatar user=”Courtney Marie” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Courtney Marie, Critic[/avatar]2017 TEDGlobal Fellow and one of Dance magazine’s “Top Influencers” of the year, award-winning poet-performer, Marc Bamuthi Joseph brings his new performance work, /peh-LO-tah/, to the BAM Harvey Theater from October 18-21, 2017 as part of this year’s Next Wave Festival. This powerful, futbol-inspired work highlights the connection between dance and sports and explores the larger cultural and societal issues that have plagued our world for decades. Through his experiences and art, Joseph seeks to create a larger platform for conversation and uses performance as a vehicle for change. had the honor of speaking with Joseph before /peh-LO-tah/ premieres to discuss the worlds of dance and sport; his experience traveling to South Africa before the 2010 World Cup; and the call to action for all generations, but especially to inspire hope for the youth. I read a beautiful quote that the two places that you feel free are inside of dance and after scoring a goal on the soccer pitch. Can you explain how these two worlds have shaped your pathway and life’s work?

It’s been life-affirming for me to have this kind of proximity to the arts and the belief I have about our responsibility as human beings to pay it forward.

I’ve very much an embodied person – I go to occasions, moments, or memories, because there’s a viscerality in experiencing a kind of charge. Freedom is such an abstract concept, and I think that there’s all this rhetoric around freedom or independency, but I don’t think we can know something unless we experience it in our bodies. When I think about freedom, it is more about what’s embedded in my personal experience and not something I’d read about in a book. Dance and sports have given me the opportunity to experience a breakthrough and connect these abstract concepts to a lived moment and as that’s played that out in my life, I’ve sought to find occasions to extend that same feeling to others – making a face for public conversation where we indulge in these concepts together. It’s about feeling access to others’ joy or to be in common space or have common ground of a shared narrative. These things create community and a sense of bond and create living, breathing avatars for us to connect to our own joy. I hope through performance, I am able to help others connect to the same in their own bodies and experiences.

TS: /peh-LO-tah/ explores social justice through soccer. How did your time visiting South Africa before the 2010 World Cup open your eyes to the separation of investment?

I grew up in New York in the 1980’s and 90’s and was really moved by the personage of Nelson Mandela’s freedom struggle and that the iconography of that struggle combined with my New York upbringing was really captured by the artist, Keith Haring. He has this iconic image of a large figure being tied by a rope to a smaller figure, with the words “Free South Africa” underneath and I had that poster in my room and it has served as a  metaphor for me of what freedom could mean – taking place around the personage of South Africa from apartheid to Mandela’s release and the establishment of the African National Congress (ANC) and Mandela becoming a president of the country. While that was going on, I was very conscious of the shade of my own skin and how the color of my skin would in many cases, provide a legal pathway in South Africa for my own exclusion from the franchise. In South Africa, a kind of legislated white supremacy was the norm for decades.

When I got to travel there in 2009, I was realty struck by my own relationship to all of the politics, juxtaposed against the preparation for the World Cup. The World Cup, for the last almost 100 years, has been an opportunity for the entire world to come together in celebration for a sport that binds us together. I was really moved by that juxtaposition. Here’s a country with a legacy of legislated exclusive and racist policies and practices preparing to welcome the entire world to come celebrate together. It was both moving and fascinating to me. At the same time, a lot of things they were doing to prepare were in my opinion, reinforcing some of the economic legacies of apartheid, because the investment wasn’t being made in the common person, but in stadiums and high-end structures that weren’t impacting life on the ground in South Africa. That tension between a country that legislates prejudice welcoming the world to experience a game that many of us use to access freedom in our bodies and the economic imperatives connected to both of those, felt like a fascinating place to begin examining my own role – both in politics and this search for freedom in my own body and this sport that globally networks us in a way that few other phenomena do around the world. That became the launching point for /peh-LO-tah/ and the piece literally dances around all of those swirling ideas and centers it in my own story of being a father of two.

A scene from Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “/peh-LO-tah/” premiering in New York City at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, October 18 – 21, 2017 (Photo credit: Bethanie Hines)

My kids are 15 and 12 and are moving from being super cute to something a bit more perverse. As my son turns 16, he becomes a kind of body that we stereotypically cross the street to avoid. If he was walking with four or five of his friends down the street in Oakland, they are more likely to be perceived as threats now than they were five years ago. That reality becomes very clear in all of our lives and I wonder how to recenter safety and build the kind of world where he is not perceived as a threat. All of those things happening framed by a futbol story is /peh-LO-tah/.

It’s definitely deep in the sense that it’s personal, macropolitical, it’s intensely physical, and it’s kind of cornered or anchored by these two things that don’t necessarily get put in play together – which are sports and art.

TS: What is your process of choreography as they relate to the movement patterns and how do they amplify the connection between dance and sport?

I’ve been playing soccer and have been exposed to soccer longer than I have been exposed to dance. Both of these things are part of my kinesthetic and the biography of my body. I can’t really recall a time where I didn’t play soccer and I’ve been dancing since I was at least ten years old. It’s actually not super far-fetched when I watch a soccer game, it looks like choreography to me. I trained for dance in some ways as an athlete would train for sport, I really connect to the similarities more than the dissimilarities. In terms of the literal transfer, our choreographer Stacey Printz did a great job of identifying some tropes that are consistent in both soccer and the kind of cultural universe that we traverse. There are elements of hip-hop, samba, South African gumboot dancing, Haitian folkloric movement – all of these inform the choreography. Moving forward, without being hyper-literal, I think that’s proven to be a really transformative experience for us and also makes it very clear and legible for audiences watching the piece. If our written and spoken language is literal, dance gives us allegory and metaphor and the synthesis of the two – – spoken language and body language — helps to communicate the ideas in a very powerful way.

TS: In today’s world, art represents more than an escape, but has the power to transcend and create important conversation. What do you feel the call to action is?

I definitely think there is a call and a charge around empathy and the way that we see one another. There’s a final vignette that’s been a consistent invocation of joy and where we locate joy in our bodies and biographies and among one another. I do think part of the call is to find one’s own joy and locate it in the personage of the other, which is one of the hardest things to do. It’s hard to name your own sense of joy, and really hard to locate that sense of joy in somebody other than yourself. I think that’s what /peh-LO-tah/ is asking us to contemplate: Where is the joy in the other?

TS: Is there a specific hope for the younger generation?

If we have any hope at all, it is in the younger generation. They are the reason we create the work that we do, in the hope that they will do it a little better than we have. We’ve made a whole curriculum called Impact that can be used as a complement to /peh-LO-tah/ for high school age and undergrad students. /peh-LO-tah/ has a way of looking at positions on the soccer field to contemplate these macro issues. We ask the winger on the field to explain John F. Kennedy’s Moon Shot Speech. We ask the midfielder to explain Black Lives Matter. We ask the goal keeper to explain gun control and I think one of the cool things about the curriculum is that it leverages sports to have a mini poly sci class and I hope that it’s something that young people take to heart – – there are many ways to access and animate our own education and that can be through art or sport. When the world doesn’t give us the tools that we need to properly examine it, we can create and build our own metaphors. 

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