• Interview
  • Ballet

Extant, on what is hidden between the appropriate and the inappropriate

Choreographer and associate artist Jermaine Maurice Spivey on Extant,

Fri, Mar 17, 2023

Filip Van Roe Extant dressed R 2023 DSC5953

Over the past 15 years American choreographer Jermaine Maurice Spivey has made a worldwide career as a dancer, for instance in works by choreographers William Forsythe and Crystal Pite. With these two mentors, Spivey shares a triple bill this season.

'With Extant I want to investigate what has permission to exist on an opera house stage. What is considered appropriate or inappropriate in the arts, music and dance for these kinds of venues?’

Jermaine Maurice Spivey

What does the title Extant mean to you?

Jermaine Maurice Spivey: Extant literally means existing, still in existence, but also essential or present. For me, the term really touches on the themes motivating the performance. Together with the artistic team and the dancers of OBV, I want to investigate what has permission to exist on an opera house stage. What is considered appropriate or inappropriate in the arts, music and dance for these kinds of venues? A second related theme is appropriation. In art-based practice, when we apply elements from another context or even another culture, what is the boundary between borrowing, referring to, inspired by and appropriation? We will work with these research questions in the coming period in both musical and choreographic work sessions involving composed improvisations. The movements of the dancers, the sounds for the musical score, the fabrics for the costumes: all the elements do already exist in one way or another. I hope through the creation of this work that we can elevate them, subvert them, magnify them and put them in a particular context to demonstrate a unique perspective.

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Photo: Stig De Block

You collaborate with Kenyan electronic music composer KMRU and American costume designer Marquet K. Lee. How do the themes of subsistence and appropriation translate into their work?

'For his electronic composition, KMRU draws on field recordings of sounds he records in the opera houses of Antwerp and Ghent, ranging from whispering voices to the drip of a crane or the hum of a machine. The sounds of those buildings become musical material that he incorporates into his composition. He also searches music history for voices I believe are rarely or never heard on the opera scene - think Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Brandy, Mariah Carey or perhaps Otis Redding or Luther Vandross - which he then samples. A third element is an investigation with opera singer Justin Hopkins into the possibilities of his voice. I'm interested in Justin's take on how his voice is viewed, approved and consequently organized for the opera context. Are there perhaps parts of Justin's voice that are not typically heard in this type of venue? During the performance, KMRU will use his electronic composition to dialogue with the performers live on stage, with the dancers themselves also using their voices. I am extremely curious to see what all these distinctive voices bring about in the opera space. How will they affect the piece and my choreographic structures, as well as the audience's perception?

At the moment, the costume design is the most advanced, simply because the studios at OBV had to begin their work earlier. Marquet chose to upcycle denim. He created various designs with jeans, usually a fabric for everyday wear or workwear, and certainly not a fabric you would dance in traditionally on the stage of an opera house. Denim can be quite restrictive and uncomfortable to dance in. In the studio, we will also rehearse with denim as an element to create resistance in the movement of the dancers. Freedom of movement will be limited, but this will force us to look for different possibilities.'

You use the word appropriation. That term also has political connotations as in the #metoo movement and Black Lives Matter. Is it meant that way?

'I don't think you can take the word appropriation out of the political sphere. I don't consciously engage in activism, but I'm aware that maybe artists are participating in activism when what we are doing is questioning or challenging existing norms and perceptions. Appropriation is an important theme. It's necessary to say that it hits a political nerve because it is deeply connected to the root source of what many movements like BLM are endlessly combating: Systemic Racism. It motivates on every level in every industry the decisions about what is safe, appropriate or not. Who has access or not, and to what. Especially within the art world, systemic racism operates in a more covert way, because 'artistic freedom' and the pursuit of artistic expression can be used to justify forms of discrimination and prejudice tied to traditions seated in problematic customs.'

Preview portret Jermaine Spivey8 2223 EXT Stig De Block
Photo: Stig De Block

So it's also about who gets to be on stage? Who gets to speak?

'As a person with a black or brown skin color, you often feel like you cannot just be yourself in these spaces, or if you do, you could make someone else feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. My experience is that you too often feel you have to undergo a kind of metamorphosis, depending on who you talk to and what that person needs from you. But internally you are fighting against that impulse to transform. This ties in with Extant: your actual person is always there, no matter how much you embellish or adjust your outward presentation. I think it’s about who gets to lead and build culture. Who gets to organize how we practice art making and co-working. It's about equitable compensation. It's about true diversity as the default and not in addition to.'

Discover Pite/ Spivey / Forsythe

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