You describe your professional life as having “journeyed from a career as artist-performer to writer-scholar, from practitioner to observer.” How did this journey begin for you?
As I state in my narrative resume, “the two developments are driven by the same passion for the performing arts and my belief in performance as a highly charged, sociopolitical phenomenon.” I believe the journey began even before I realized I was pursuing it. It was who I was: an African American girl who wanted to be a dancer (for as long as I can recall), loved books, loved sketching, loved school (where my shyness could be hidden by academic achievement) and, at some point, became aware that being Black was not the default setting for being American.
Recently, I came upon a paper I’d written for my high school English honors class in which I explained to my teacher that what I see as a problem in the US is the way “the Negro” (the terminology of 1958, when I wrote this) is treated. In a social studies class, I wrote essays pleading the case for abolishing capital punishment and for statehood for Hawaii. This radical adolescent spirit was nurtured by my circumstances: growing up in Harlem, an ethnically diverse community in the 1940s/50s; going to integrated NYC schools in Washington Heights (the white neighborhood north of Harlem); and sharing honors classes with a handful of African Americans and a majority of Jewish kids, many of whom had lost relatives in the Holocaust. (In fact, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, attended the same junior high school as me. Their adopted father, Abel Meeropol, wrote the words to the song “Strange Fruit.”) Thus, I wore the cloak of social/racial consciousness as closely as my love of dance, and from adolescence onward continued to merge dance and social activism.
What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?
It must’ve been seeing the original Broadway version of West Side Story, sometime in 1959. I would have been barely 17 years old and a freshman in college. The ticket was financed through a philanthropist who also paid for my ballet classes. Perhaps two years before, I’d seen my first stage performance: the ABT production of Petrouchka, with John Kriza dancing the title role. The Stravinsky music, live ballet dancers and, not least of all, snow falling onstage all worked to ensnare me in the beauty of live performance. Nevertheless, it was West Side Story’s contemporary tale of interracial love, an illicit affair, jazz music, and dancing that made me simultaneously hot and cold: ecstatic to see onstage something that seemed to represent my aspirations and limitations all in one piece. This, too, certainly contributed to my “performance as a measure of culture” philosophy.