Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Art and life collide in Nicole Klaymoon’s works of dance and documentary theater. She welds street dance, music and spoken word to illuminate issues of social justice. Her work pairs startling imagery with gripping, sensual soundscapes concocted by collaborators like d. Sabela Grimes, and vocalist Valerie Troutt and her band Mooncandy. With a wit that is sometimes poignant, sometimes lacerating, Klaymoon avoids polemic in pursuit of ambiguous, messy truths.
Her racially diverse company, known as Embodiment Project, spins stories -- the dancers’ own stories, as well as those of tragic figures in recent history (Michael Brown) and of formidable change-makers. Among the voices etched into the soundtrack of Klaymoon’s most recent production, titled Seed Language, are those of former Black Panther leader Ericka Huggins and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.
She is also crafting a new play based on Healing Justice, a soon-to-be-released documentary by Shakti Butler. Both the film and the play, which Klaymoon has christened Ancient Children, examine ways in which restorative justice can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
Straddling the concert dance world and the street, Klaymoon pays tender homage to a mix of dance forms -- even as she defies their traditional underpinnings of race, class and gender.
Who has been an influential mentor?
Rennie Harris has been my mentor for over a decade. I remember he told me something like, “If you want to create your own company someday, you should create work as a solo artist first.” I took his advice and I learned that performing and touring alone was a way to prove to myself that I am not entirely dependent on others to fully realize my vision.
How do you choose your dancers?
It’s not just about the movement aesthetics -- though that’s an important piece that I look for, that they’re versed in multiple street dance styles -- but there also has to be a shared intentionality. This intention is to harness these dance forms as social change, and also to deepen our own healing. We traverse our personal memory material, and often times things that we are taught not to talk about.
From a neuroscience perspective, all behavior (and movement) is based in memory and experience. So our movement expresses what has been repressed, hidden or silenced within us. As a dance-maker I source my inspiration from the unseen narratives that each dancer walks with. It is specific kind of artist who is called to this work.
Seed Language continues to evolve. How do you shape a piece of documentary theater like this?
A dancer-actor interviews an individual and studies their idiosyncratic gestures to try to embody their story and spirit on the stage. We create monologues from the transcribed interviews and then I use movement to represent the subtext or the complex emotional world of the character.
What drives your latest project, Ancient Children?
What’s funded in the dominant paradigm, in the concert dance world, tends to privilege dancers in their virtuosity -- not necessarily in their tenderness, in their vulnerability, or in those often grotesque, dark corners of our psyche.
The worlds that we traverse -- as a dance company rooted in change-work -- are really separate. You’re either making community-based social justice work, or producing “classical” or “technical” art in fancy theaters, which are euphemisms for “Euro-centric” (in both narrative and form). That’s the binary which Embodiment Project aims to challenge. We take street dance styles out of their traditional context and reinterpret them as concert dance.
One way that we bridge these worlds is by throwing the first ever free-style hip-hop battle at the Oakland Museum of California. Maintaining access to our work and presenting in both S.F. and Oakland is very important to us.
The Bay Area is fertile ground for artists. Yet it is also hostile -- it drives some artists out to cities that are cheaper and perhaps more in need of innovation.
I have a lot of unprocessed grief around witnessing San Francisco become a whole new city, and seeing so many artists and people of color displaced by the influx of affluent white people. San Francisco is becoming an extension of Silicon Valley. There is a mass exodus of the soul of this city as the high cost of living forces out arts spaces and organizations that have fostered emerging artists.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
We are in a country where a woman is raped about once a minute, and beaten about every 12 seconds. Statistics prove that one out of every four women has been sexually abused.
My ideal future for Bay Area women artists is to support each other to challenge the age-old silence that fuels this rape culture. To nurture one another and to create more spaces where we can tell our story. More spaces where we can use our art to change policy; to impact people in positions of power, and individuals who can hold our stories with great care; to use our creative talents to release the toxic shame of generational gender violence that so many of us carry in our wombs. I want to make and see art that is so steeped in humanity and skill that people who are defended against these issues can’t help but pay attention.