Welcome to KQED Arts’ Bay Brilliant, a series celebrating 10 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2018. Driven by passion for their own disciplines—music, dance, theater, visual art, performance, writing, illustration and more—these artists are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Whether directing theater productions, mesmerizing audiences with her acrobatics-based performance art or teaching pole dancing to queer and trans people of color, India Sky Davis redefines what people think when they think of "the circus."
Davis is the artistic director and co-founder of Topsy Turvy Queer Circus, the popular show that lights up San Francisco's Brava Theater every year in the weeks leading up to Pride. Davis and co-founder Indi McCasey have devoted the past three years of Topsy Turvy to a trilogy called Paradise, a three-part Afrosurrealist play about a fallen angel (played by Davis) who must navigate her way through mystical worlds to fix the order of the universe. An impressive feat of acrobatics and choreography, Paradise offers a moving story arc about reclaiming one's personal power.
Since its inception in 2012, Topsy Turvy has grown to become the foremost platform for queer circus arts in the Bay Area. Its cast is composed entirely of queer and trans people of color, and several of the cast members are also skilled sign language interpreters who sign while reciting lines and doing backflips. (No biggie.) And, of course, Topsy Turvy's acting and acrobatics are dazzling.
No matter her artistic medium, Davis' goal is to uplift her community, and the ultra-inclusive spirit of Topsy Turvy has attracted a huge, loyal and super-queer cult following—and sparked valuable conversations about access in performing arts spaces.
I've been to Topsy Turvy Queer Circus three times, and it's so incredibly inclusive. I love that you have sign language as an active part of the show. Has the popularity of Topsy Turvy shifted the conversation in other queer spaces, especially about access for people with disabilities?
I feel like in the queer community—at least my queer, black, brown community in the Bay Area—there's discussion and effort around making spaces accessible. Because there are people who have different access needs, I see more effort around having places that are physically accessible and also scent sensitive. But I don't see as many spaces that have American Sign Language interpretation.
Sign language is such a huge, ingrained part of the show because of Brandon Kazen-Maddox, who's an interpreter. He's one of the main performers in the Paradise series, and I've worked with him for over four years. He's a huge advocate for accessibility to the deaf community. He's black and queer, and he's the child of deaf grandparents, so he grew up using sign language. He definitely did a lot of work to make sure that the show was accessible for deaf folks. And not even just accessible, but actually taking sign language to the next level and being really creative in its use and integrating it fully into the show.
Also there's another person, Kevin Abrams, who came in during the second year of Paradise. He is deaf, so he was brought in as another interpreter and also as another character in the show. The interpreters are characters, and the characters are interpreters.
You have so many different kinds of media that are part of Paradise: there's dance, acting and acrobatics, and then the video elements and original music. What's your process of bringing the whole vision together?
It's always really collaborative because it's a huge project. When I got the idea to do Paradise, I wanted to also create a platform for brilliant artists. Even creating the story, I created the characters based off of some of the performers that had been in Topsy Turvy who are friends of mine that I've worked with for a long time.
And so I definitely talked with everyone who's in the show. I'm like, "This is what the character is," and then they collaborated with me to bring that character to life. The first year, while I was creating the story, Indira Allegra was writing and I was helping with some edits. We were both writing the second year. And then this year has been the first year that I basically created and wrote the story all by myself. It was a lot of work, but it was also a great experience.
There's people in the cast who are choreographing. I'm not doing everything: I'm giving direction. I'll do a lot of curation, I'll select music or even select musicians. Spellling did a lot of composing the past two years.
Here in the Bay Area, there's a lot of really amazing and talented artists. My joy—and also, I guess, my practice—is to find people I think are really talented and ask them to lend their talents towards bringing this vision to life.
That's a beautiful thing. So what compels you about circus arts as a storytelling medium?
I think what I like about acrobatic art and aerial dancing and pole dancing is that it's larger than life. For me, having a super wild imagination—and, I think, wanting to communicate things that are maybe ethereal or hyper-imaginative or fantasy or very surreal—these movement practices where you can transform into anything is really appealing and interesting.
I think that I personally have a lot of challenge around the history of American circus. But for me, it's a tool that I use to communicate these ideas and to bring fantasy and imagination to life.
You've worked in other mediums. Before Topsy Turvy, you were known as a dancer with your group Body Waves, and you've done photography and solo performance art pieces. Could you tell me about a couple of those?
Yeah. When I was in undergrad at Antioch College in Ohio, I did theater and film and dance. I did a lot of video work, so that's one of the reasons why every Paradise has had video in it and it's always a part of the story.
And then in terms of my solo work, I'm definitely pretty multidisciplinary. I just actually played [the underground music festival] The Multivrs is Illuminated last Thursday. For that set, I was using a vocal loop pedal and pole dancing in that soundscape. I had a duet with a friend; I was dancing in this light projection that reacts when you move, which a friend of mine who's a coder made.
I like to sing. I really like immersive environments, and I really love imagery. The projects now where I'm creating live soundscapes and dancing within them and working with interactive light is something that I've been doing for about a year now.
Before that, I performed in bars and nightlife and sometimes toured around solo. I had a solo show called An Angel's Manifesto right before the first Paradise opened [in 2015]. That was a dance show. I had an outdoor pole performance at Frank Ogawa Plaza at night in February that was just addressing violence towards femmes in the street and street harassment.
And then there was a photo component, which was a series embodying the different archetypes: one was The World from tarot, another one was like a water spirit in the desert. And that was a collaboration with a friend of mine who's a photographer.
I'm struck by how you use pole in this really beautiful and sensual way. How did you get into that practice, and how did it became such a key part of your artistry?
I started pole a long time ago, like maybe 2007, and that was with a friend who was a stripper who had a pole at home. This is before there was this pole studio craze. Maybe you could take a pole class at a sex shop, but it was not popular like it is now. Really, we were just kicking it and playing and teaching ourselves stuff. And we would just take out the pole when we were just having fun or having a party or whatever.
So that's when I first started. I danced very, very briefly right after I graduated from college at a strip club. Then when I moved to Oakland, I brought a pole with me.
I had just moved here, I was super broke. I was trying to figure out how I was going to make money during the day. And then I decided I wanted to teach a pole class for queer and trans people of color because that's just who I wanted to be in class with. It became super popular. I think it was as this popularity of pole dancing was coming, and also the specificity of the space was appealing. I had a lot of fun doing it.
I've pretty much taught that class consistently for the past six years. It has helped me a lot and has kept me in the pole world.
In the six years that you've been in the Bay Area, things have definitely shifted a lot. Are you feeling some of those effects as an artist?
Yeah, there's been a lot of changes over the six years that I've been here. I think the biggest change that I feel is just the cost of living, specifically housing. Ideally, I would have a different kind of studio space and living situation. That just isn't possible for me here.
I feel it just by so many people that have been displaced out of their homes and the rise of people that are homeless, living on the street. It's really intense, and is a huge problem.
What would be your ideal future for artists in the Bay Area?
That's a big question, wow. What I would like to see is for artists—black and brown and queer artists—to get more funding for their work. I would like to see affordable housing for artists, but I would also like to see affordable housing for everyone. I would like to see more equitable pay, like the disparity between how much people are getting paid is so astronomical because we live in this really intense tech industry bubble here where there's people that are making a ridiculous amount of money and then people that just can't afford to pay the prices that are out here.
I would like to see more planning and justice around racial equity and housing and access, and just a safer place, a safer community. Where people are prioritized and the land is prioritized and health is prioritized. Yeah, that's a big question.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.