IN CONVERSATION | Women’s work and embodied heritage | Sunni Johnson interviews Danielle Deadwyler + Bella Dorado
ISSUE 1 : FLESH
Bella Dorado + Danielle Deadwyler | An interview
SUnni johnson INTERVIEWS two atlanta-based dancers. on losing your mind at the club, the body as storage center, and a feminine approach to “Fuck what they are seeing”
In the underground arts world, dance often holds an enigmatic space. Even amongst the most bewildering of musical and visual arts, avant garde dance relies little on defined lines of communication; a dancer’s movement is seen through an unfiltered lens for an intense, reactive, and personally intimate interpretation by each viewer. Two Atlanta dancers, Danielle Deadwyler and Bella Dorado, are standouts in transmitting experience and emotion to a physical plane.
Danielle Deadwyler, who received her Master’s of Arts in American Studies from Columbia University, has danced in many professional as well as independent productions. Her foray into acting as well as producing over the past decade includes features on the Oprah Winfrey Network and bolsters strong feminist themes. Bella Dorado is the Artistic Director of Latinx collective Ni Aqui Ni Alla and is a well-respected choreographer and dancer in Atlanta’s underground performance art community. In 2018, Dorado was given the Atlanta’s Emerging Artist Award from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and the Idea Capital grant along with producing a performance commissioned by the High Museum.
Deadwyler and Dorado use their platforms to choreograph, facilitate, and participate in group works which focus on inner engagement and social vulnerabilities. As they note in our interview, transcribed below, Atlanta’s movement community is mostly female-centric in leadership, with plenty of room to express “the other.” They strive to enrich their peers, whether on stage or in the audience – to support identity rather than marginalize it. With fluctuating ratios of personal and political, these dancers fluidly use the body as paintbrush or weapon.
One thing, however, is clear: their work is meant for healing. Dance allows processing, connection, dissonance, warmth, and growth – a vision of the medium met with refreshing enthusiasm by these women.
In a joint interview, Deadwyler and Dorado reflect on the body, vulnerability, community, and the feminine divine.
SJ: Do you feel you’ve invented your own methods and approach in your personal works, away from the educational base you sprung from?
B: Definitely. There was a period around college when I first started choreographing and making my own work, I was very much doing it in the traditional manner. I had grown up with the idea of how dance is created, how it’s presented, where it’s presented, that kind of stuff. I think those ideas were useful and practical to my journey at the time, but I started to feel dissatisfied with traditional modalities of creating. I felt stuck for sure, and knew that it wasn’t working for me in the way that it used to. I moved from that space and was finally able to say, “Oh, this isn’t how I want to create,” or “This isn’t the space I want to create in anymore and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be that way.” Once I was able to pinpoint that, I started gearing myself up, figuring out different ways to approach. That’s really when I felt that my work started to authentically sound and look like me. I noticed, too, this is when things started going better for me in various ways. I think people were also connecting to the fact of “this is something Bella Dorado has to say.” Not to say that I have the most valuable thing to say in the world, but it is always interesting when a unique voice is being given to you.
D: I got away from dance as a formal professional practice in the pursuit of theater, film, and television. Dance became more of a spiritual practice. I was going to the clubs and just losing my mind and loving that – and missing being a part of a professional experience at the same time. Realizing in the club that “this is my style! My body feels more fluid and happy. I can take more chances in this space,” gave me a need to incorporate more of that into the stuff that I do.
It was probably about six years ago, I was taking steps to experiment with performance art and then choosing sides in that knowledge. I was playing with multiple mediums and feeling the movement quality of my life. Dance was the first medium for me, so wanting to bring that back and figuring out how to fuse that new acclimation, that’s where the innovation came to play. Figuring out that I don’t want to do it on a stage or in a structured choreographic manner, and instead play outside in public, using it with social media, engaging the community. I think the innovation, for me, comes with different mediums that inform my relation to activism.
B: I can relate to what you’re saying. The basis that it’s not socially accepted as a “valid” form of dancing, or not a particularly safe approach when looking at it from the fine art world. But you don’t have to necessarily lean on training, and it’s really up to our sensibilities. When I started realizing who was my tried and true community, the people I want to show my work to, the people I want to make my work for. I can dream what I am doing and drop it into this space where everyone feels comfortable.
There are so many barriers when you’re dealing with underserved communities and when you are talking about arts and accessibility. It’s not just about money, necessarily, or where the shows are taking place and in which venues. And especially when you’re talking about dance and you’re trying to engage a community that isn’t really that tapped into the arts. Some dance really kind of freaks people out if they don’t have any experience with it. Dropping that high-brow fine-arts situation to a place where the community already is, where they feel comfortable - they are open, ready to receive - I think is a really cool, radical way to approach the situation.
D: Yeah! And even at times restructuring the way you feel about performance so that you can be more sensitive to the needs - where the performances are, for example - is legit comfort. Some people are just not interested in going to the places where we want to perform. We’re hoping to come out of ourselves, and pay our knowledge to the community. Those who embrace it do, and for those who don’t it’s like “okay, alright, goodbye”.
SJ: How has the Southeast specifically affected your work?
D: I am born and raised in Atlanta. I’ve lived in New York and Vancouver for a few years at a time, but I wasn’t doing my work the way I am doing my work now. You have these metropolitan experiences, but you want the flavors to truly inspire you and your own personal narrative, and the narrative that you knew or saw growing up. You feel underrepresented.
My work is deeply entrenched in being Black and being a woman and looking at the labor of those bodies. And that Southern aspect is very reflective of my mother’s, of my grandmothers’, and informed by achronistic archival research in folx who are my peers, who are womxn, who are working and are here. I’m interested in something that I can touch and the people are multigenerational. I believe in bolstering folx that you see everyday. My work is definitely informed in a Southern rhetoric and community.
B: I’ve travelled, but I’ve only really lived in the Southeast, and I’ve never really created in any other environment long-term. I know now that the way that I grew up in Tennessee really informs the work I’m doing within the Latinx community: a need for community and identity that I grew up missing because the city I grew up in in Tennessee is very White and segregated. I didn’t have that community growing up. Moving to Atlanta was huge for me. The community here is really big and so receptive and open and welcoming. It was one of those situations where I didn’t know exactly what I was missing or how much I needed it until I had it. And still, working with that community in a part of the country where we are still very segregated and devalued, I would definitely say it has informed a lot of the work I am doing now.
SJ: Jane and Emma was just released in October. Danielle, has acting expanded the ways in which you can express and experience identity?
D: Oh, for sure. When you are hired, you come in with a certain history and a certain understanding that informs the way you develop a character, the identity and the movement of a character. Dance is an immediate communication. You know what a movement is before you can interpret what language is. Language has to be deciphered. Movement is instantaneous. You know if someone is messing with you or not. You know if someone is embracing you or not. It’s just a feeling, whereas words, language – it has all these mysterious, enigmatic qualities to it even if a person is trying to be direct. Acting is a way to get to our identities, but it’s a little more difficult. Even in acting, film, theater – everything else is helping you to tell the story. Everything else is a form of movement that supports the building of the identity and experience of the character. Dance, you don’t need nothing else. You have the body, it can do all that you need.
SJ: As far as dance as an industry, do you feel you’ve experienced pressure from the all-seeing male gaze that tends to affect womxn in the arts performing in a public arena?
B: I haven’t felt the effects of that really strongly or detrimentally, but I’ve never worked in a commercial dance setting, where I think that would be more of an issue. The dance communities that I’ve grown up in and am working in have really been strongly fostered, supported, and led by other womxn. Aside from any personal hang-ups or trauma I’ve carried with me throughout my life that sometimes enter the work I create, any work I’m creating and when or what I’m being allowed to do, I’ve been really lucky to not have experienced that to my detriment, thankfully.
D: Yes, I would say that personal dealings with “the gaze” are more prominent than actually dealing with the meat of the industry. We are choosing who we want to work with, and if they are not people who are challenging themselves and understanding the zeitgeist and social climate – do you really want to work with them? I’ve been interrogating my own work, trying to subvert the notions that surround and inform certain male gazes. I’m constantly having an engagement with hip hop, and definitely in my past work and video work have been trying to say “Fuck what they are seeing, fuck what they have been seeing in regard to female bodies,” and as of recently, trying to do it less in a masculine approach and more in a feminine approach.
SJ: This makes sense, especially in relation to a spiritual connection to dance, something that feeds the soul. Do you feel that spirituality engages with feminine energy, or may be a means to empowering oneself as a woman, in your respective works?
B: Every major work I’ve done has been a really big shift for me personally, moving forward from it. In my last four pieces, I have truly been understanding and seeing, “This is how I deal with my shit. This is how I work through it and heal.” I’ve definitely had many a late night dance session where I couldn’t deal with my feelings in any other way than to dance about it. And what’s cool in the group pieces I’ve done, collaborating with multiple movers, we’ve talked about how it’s also been a healing process for them as well.
Something that’s really important for me when I’m creating is that, yes, I am coming from a place of wanting to talk about some issue, or work through some specific problem of my own. But when I’m collaborating with other people, there very much needs to be their own story as well. Those times when my dancers or the people I’ve worked with have had experiences of healing and moving forward because of the work that we’ve created together, that’s really powerful to me, too. And then also with audience reactions: how they perceive the work, how that affects them, how they leave feeling changed by it or feeling differently about their own situations. That’s the power of artist performances and the art of dance: it can be a shared feeling and experience. It’s really amazing when you can hit that universal note, and everyone can walk away feeling differently about what they have personally experienced, but through the vehicle of someone else’s experiences.
D: I think that’s the difficulty in being performers, because you want to get to performances but you have to go through process. The process can be fluid, it can be staccato, it can be all these things, but at least for me, I’m always trying to get to this moment of no tension. I experience it in dance, and in all the different mediums. It is a moment of nothing. It’s hard to even use a term that defines it, because you are in and out. And I think that’s the divine feminine. It’s not a moment of doing, it’s just a moment of being. It lacks ambition, it just is, and I think that’s the chase of it. Even in Bust It Open, a piece I did last year with frequent collaborators, who are actors, who are dancers, who are visual artists, like Bella was saying, everyone comes with their own thing and you’re not trying to impose wholly over what their artistry is. You are collaborating. That feels really good. That is a divine feminine quality. You’re not trying to be this militaristic structure over creating the work together. It is an interlocking appreciation of each other and of the intent of the work. That’s the lead up, the process to whatever the performance is that you are doing, where you can just be.
The divine is just to be in the presence of the interlocking nature of value of all the parties who have come to give and to receive. It’s a mutuality that I am always trying to seek, together. You have to come towards with something for the audience, too, because they are just as much part of it as the people who have been preparing. I saw Bella in Sanctuaries and Fortresses with Anicka Austin at The Bakery and there’s an energy – a palpable, indescribable something that occurs - when you are in it, everyone else is in it, and no one is trying to ambitiously take control. That’s what divine feminine feels like to me.
B: Yeah! I think that the qualities of community and vulnerability are kind of the goals in dance and performance, and those are very feminine qualities. And yeah, that’s where I see the ritual of it, too. There’s mystery in it that I value a lot.
SJ: How has the utilization of your body as a vessel of expression particularly helped you explore your identity regarding heritage and gender?
B: Dance as an abstract language requires distilling the meaning of a word/idea/concept down to its physical form. You have to find the meaning where it lives in the skin, in the muscles, the organs, the bones. For me, this contemplation of physical thought begins with establishing how to express an abstraction through movement instead of words, but it must go deeper into the “why am I expressing that in this particular way?” We store everything in our bodies. All our experiences, pain, trauma, ancestral history. It's all just under the surface of the skin waiting to be accessed.
D: I personalize my practice so much, being a mother, a black woman, laboring in the various modes and mediums that I do, utilizing my body - the categories of selfhood and my literal body. My work has enabled me to embody my legacy of womanhood: the history of labor throughout my lineage, maternal primarily, and how it stacks up within a national scope; a reimagining of the womxn identities that reared me and what it felt like and meant to be them doing work with their bodies; and an imaginative labor of synthesizing these histories with my ongoing crafting of self, to actually apply to my own personhood. It’s influenced me to challenge what was and envision and innovate what benefits my body and the times now.
B: Movement and creation has always been a way to work through my issues, my questions, and as I’ve gotten older, my heritage and roots have become more and more important to me. So my artistic explorations have shifted more consciously in that direction as well. Now I am very conscious of how my gender and heritage are intrinsically tied to what and how I create, and movement as the vehicle for that exploration has allowed me to push past the intellectualization of those concepts and get down to where those concepts live and manifest in the physical body.