Dance In Conversation
LARISSA VELEZ-JACKSON with Mike Stinavage
Since I clasped hands and danced with an elder named Marta during the dance party that ends Zapatografía/Shoegraphy, I’ve kept an eye on the choreographer: interdisciplinary artist Larissa Velez-Jackson. On an afternoon threatened by thunderstorms, we sat at a street café and spoke about injury/healing, working-artistry, and her Star Crap Method as components of her past products and ongoing processes.
Mike Stinavage (Rail): What’s your summer been like?
Larissa Velez-Jackson: So far this summer, I’ve been rehearsing the piece performed in April at Movement Research at the Judson Church. Right now, I’m working with four dancers and we’re looking at healing as a particular subject in my Star Crap Method improvisation practice. I generally take a few years to work on projects, and we are on year two. It’s familiarizing a new cast with this practice and looking at this totally different piece that can be created from the Star Crap Method that has care, ritual, and healing in the forefront.
I’m also slowly getting back to teaching. I teach Pilates in Boerum Hill, so I’m slowly building up my teaching practice as I’ve been healing from a very intense back injury. This year, I’m figuring out how I can slowly get back into my dance and teaching practice, but with a lot of boundaries and care around what my body can do. It’s not very glamorous—it’s very slow.
Rail: Understandably so. Are you moving with the dancers?
Velez-Jackson: No, it’s funny, because before understanding what my injury was, I was in and out of the work—I would try and then I would get injured. It was a lot of trying. I’ve set up the work where you can exist in it in the ways that you want. So the work does support injury and a certain level of disability on any one day. Now, for the first time, I am totally outside, but if I become well enough to participate inside of it, I feel like the work can support me in doing that. I mean—even as you direct a rehearsal and lead a vocal warm up, the body is still implicated.
Rail: Could you elaborate on your improvisational Star Crap Method?
Velez-Jackson: It’s definitely for dancers in particular. It involves change, movement for sure, and a certain way of approaching movement that constantly reforms your relationship to the moment, because [otherwise] what you’re doing becomes static and known. There’s a very life-like, ever-shifting, permeable quality to the movement that’s self-guided by the dancer. When you fatigue from movement, how can you still be active as a performer? There’s a lot of speech about the moment as it unfolds as well. Speech about what you’re carrying with you from the day or personal history—an unravelling of some aspect of self that you’re discovering in the moment. You can also speak about the moment as it’s happening through song. Then, once we get into the actual performance, there’s a lot of care about how you’re composing the space and props. The poop emoji is a very prominent sort of character—
Rail: —the what?!
Velez-Jackson: [Laughter] The poop emoji, the little furry pillow. It’s a real Star Crap Method symbol that represents the root chakra, the foundation.
Rail: Ah yes! From the Judson Church performance.
I’m curious to know how the dancers learn your methodology. Do you set the method on a completely new cast of dancers, or is it learned collectively through the dancers that have history in your practice?
Velez-Jackson: The latter—there’s a lot of history. There’s the history built around each other’s approach to the practice, so it’s a layering of experience after experience, then from it being performed live, it gets really charged. I’ve had interesting experiences workshopping [the Star Crap Method] within an educational setting—this summer, there’s the International Interdisciplinary Artists Consortium at Earthdance in Massachusetts where I’ll workshop and test it out again. Those moments have been definitely sloppy and wild, and that’s been interesting to see. I hope to make it as open and precise as it can be.
Rail: And thinking about Zapatografía/Shoegraphy, that was a recent piece that was very demanding, physically.
Velez-Jackson: So that piece, I never shared at the time of its performance that I was deeply injured during its two-week run. Me being injured was not part of the content of the work per se. A week before the show, I could barely bend down—my back was that bad. I ended up hiring Talya Epstein as the White Shadow figure to help me bend down and tie the shoes—to be my assistant. I knew that there was a character from my past works that could totally support me in being in the piece and Talya was able to do it. She’s so familiar with my improvisational style that I was confident we could put it all together.
Rail: That’s amazing that you were able to see through the show’s run, though somewhat horrifying at the same time.
Velez-Jackson: [Laughs] Eh! Oddly, I got stronger and stronger through the whole thing. I would do a half-hour chakra meditation lying on my back with crystals. The whole thing. What’s interesting is that none of that is known. You didn’t know, right?
Rail: I didn’t, no.
Velez-Jackson: The Star Crap Method has shifted into an opportunity to reveal all the crazy healing processes the body needs to do the thing that you’re doing. I’m happy that you recognized how active the performance was. I do believe that it took an incredible amount of skill to hide how injured I was… to get through it in a way that was safe. And I got stronger.
Two weeks after the show, once I tried to return back to work and physical therapy, my spine fractured. They took an MRI and a tumor had been growing in that vertebrae, compromising the whole bone. At that point, I almost had surgery. I went into the ER with extreme pain. As it turns out, radiation was a much better course for dealing with this tumor. Supposedly this tumor has a high suicide rate. Here I am [points to her abdomen]. I wear a brace and now I am in a tricky moment [in which I’m trying] to wean off the brace. I really think about [Zapatografía], and think about how vulnerable I was. And with the cast of elders who were in it—when I do work with elders, I take it very seriously to provide a place of care for them, so they’re comfortable and well supported. Theater can be harsh and chaotic; I try to soften that for them.
Rail: Zapatografía, as well, was filled with humor, and that’s something that can be difficult to convey with extreme injury. On the note of the elders, their integration into the work was something that struck me. You’re welding together your employment as a teacher in senior centers and your artistic practice—something I find that many artists resist, deny. And as I heard on your Bessie podcast, you identify as a working artist.
Velez-Jackson: I am constantly trying to honor what’s actually happening. It’s like—we are all involved in [gainful employment], but it’s not glamorous so we can’t talk about it when we talk about the high art we are making. I tend to dispel a lot of that and reject hierarchies in that way. It took me years to get comfortable to take that step and say I am a teacher.
There is this amazing opportunity to be on stage, which I think of as such a beautiful and phenomenal privilege. So how can I invite the people with whom I work as a teacher to cross over and enter this whole other experience with me? Sometimes it’s the confidence and the trust to pose the question and see it through. That’s where my teaching skills helped me to realize that I can do this with a lot of reverence and respect and care for these people. [Pauses] All these things take a while.
Rail: The presence of the elders says a lot about the group dynamics that you carry in the classroom and the trust that you establish.
Velez-Jackson: And beautiful families get created. What’s been really cool is that in both of the pieces where I’ve worked with the elder group, they’ve maintained connections with each other that I’ve helped to initiate. It’s lovely to see these things carry on after the performance.
Rail: This type of practice also includes many people in the NYC dance world who may not otherwise be there. There are many familiar faces at dance events. It’s amazing to add new ones and integrate these folks into NYC performance.
Velez-Jackson: I definitely love how it changes the landscape of the audience. To me, that’s what feels very fruitful. Because of who is in the work, I am creating this different community. Also, how does the work maintain its purity and integrity, and sometimes with the humor that it has, which is very layered humor—how can the work maintain its rigorous humor and still invite participants as they are? The work doesn’t have to shift, or dumb itself down, or change. That’s important to me.
Rail: Is this something that happens naturally for you, or do you find yourself having to modify according to your participants?
Velez-Jackson: No, for example, when Zapatografía was first performed at the Bushwick Starr in 2017, the Ridgewood elders had not seen my solo until the tech run. I was literally like, “They could hate it. This could be a complete and utter failure.” And they were laughing and having such honest reactions to it—sometimes boredom, sometimes looking at their phones—and that was the authentic humor that I was looking for, the real reaction.
Rail: Another layer of improvisation, perhaps…
Velez-Jackson: Totally. Exactly that. I think when something is alive like that, people are dealing with a level of conflict—conflict is not the right word…
Rail: Negotiating their role in your work?
Velez-Jackson: Maybe, more so that than “conflict.” For example, a very sweet man in Zapatografía, Manny, would always be like, “There [are] too many shoes!” “This is boring, ah man, I gotta check my phone!” To me that’s exactly the kind of interrogation of art I want to accomplish. I was doing a minimalist operation with putting on shoes, taking them off, and making a sculpture out of them. So to go through that operation and have this elderly man on stage who you can watch get bored is a very important moment. His and everyone’s honest reaction is more exciting to me than writing a script. At this point, I can’t imagine setting choreography with language. I can’t imagine landing on certain words and sticking to certain words.
Rail: In terms of your current work, you mentioned a focus on health and healing?
Velez-Jackson: Yes, we’re looking at the foundations of certain healing rituals. The first year we worked on this, I had just been certified in sound vibration therapy, and so I was lugging these giant bowls to and from rehearsal. By year two, when I literally couldn’t carry things around, I had to realize that this was no longer possible. Now I’m turning to the building blocks of these rituals and superimposing them onto the improvisation. The work prompts the dancers to consider their own relationship to healing.
Rail: I imagine that’s a very intimate process.
Velez-Jackson: It’s super intimate. And that’s been one of the interesting things about working with a new cast. I’ve had to come up with ways of initiating intimacy without being like, “Let’s have an intimate conversation!” You can’t just be like, “Okay—”
Rail: [Laughs] “—tell me your secrets!!”
Velez-Jackson: EXACTLY. “Time to reveal everything!” [Laughs] But overtime, there are ways to introduce intimacy with certain prompts, proposals, and exercises. The situations that I propose might feel like an exercise at first, but really get the juicy information flowing. Overtime, I start to formulate questions about how all these exercises get pieced together. How do I navigate all these pieces? I’ve landed on a bunch of amazing exercises that exist separately.
Eventually, what will happen is that the dancers will fall into these exercises in various patterns that will never repeat—that’s what generally happens with the Star Crap Method. But there must be some way to understand how to fall into those exercises since there are five different people falling into their own separate trajectories. All of our approaches around the improvisation subject may differ and become blurry—for example, are we having a conversation about the improvising or are we actually improvising? This is where it gets intimate as well.
Rail: Do you record your rehearsals?
Velez-Jackson: I used to. I used to record the whole thing and watch it all back. In the process, I’ve accumulated a whole lot of hard drives. But lately, as I try not to carry stuff, there have been all these amazing moments that are just for the ether. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve filled so many hard drives, that I feel like I’m hoarding all this content.
Rail: And in the upcoming months?
Velez-Jackson: In August, I’m going to Massachusetts to the IIAC, which is developed by Peter Sciscioli. There is a sort of residency artist collective for the first few days, then the second part of the week is all workshops. Those are lovely moments for me to actually test out and—what you were asking me before—introduce these concepts in a two-hour workshop that people can explore through the things that I’m doing. Then, I always try to make a wild ballet that’s falling apart to a score that I’ve created.
Aside from that, I’m working on a podcast with my husband, Jon, who I have a band with, Yackez. We’ve been dealing with a lot of health stuff in the past couple years, me more so this year. Our podcast is another way to talk about healing and self-improvement and how to navigate being an artist going into middle age. Our band and the podcast stand very separately from my dance work, but there is overlap.
Rail: And the piece that you performed at Movement Research at the Judson Church?
Velez-Jackson: We will work on that this summer and for the next year. We will premiere in the Chocolate Factory, most likely in its new space, in 2020 or 2021. And this fall I’ll be working with Claire Fleury, who has costumed Yackez for many years. She will be working on a fashion show for dapperQ in early September at the Brooklyn Museum. I will be working on the choreography for her runway show. Very body positive, very queer—not your traditional runway show. And in July I’m participating in the Women in Motion Salon at Soundance Studio in Williamsburg.