Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many choreographers. Here’s what Raja Kelly had to say.

1. What influences are important to you and your choreography?

Raja Kelly © Hope Davis
Raja Kelly
© Hope Davis

It’s really hard for me to pin-point any one or two influences, without feeling they would stand above another three or four. My list goes on. That said, I don’t feel that just everything is an influence. 

For each work, or for each different part of a work, the influence could be different. However, I can say that nothing is arbitrary; every moment and every movement comes from or pushes forward some important or meaningful idea. These ideas are important to me...

Why people come together and how people fall a part. This is the philosophy behind the feath3r theory. 

Paying homage to Andy Warhol, Anne Sexton and Cinema. I think a lot about Andy Warhol, why pop culture was so fascinating to him, and why it is so fascinating to me. It repeats, it changes and both masks and reveals our inner desires and core values – popular culture can be so extremely superficial that it takes a real poet to notice how subtly sad, beautiful, and human it is. I’d like to be that poet. Anne Sexton is that poet for me. When I read her poetry things somehow click into place for me – even if the picture is abstract, all the pieces are there. I am encouraged and empowered when I read her work, it allows me to be confident in showing audiences the way I see the world. That’s where Cinema comes in – whereas David Ives says “its all in the timing”, I think that for performance art it is all in the framing. I watch a significant amount of TV, movies and people on the streets and it’s incredible to me how situations evolve, how many different sides to a scene there are – that choosing one makes all the difference. 

These are the influences and ideas that are important to me, but they don’t show up as themselves necessarily when I am inspired. Right now I am sitting in a cafe, there are 3 people here besides me, there are two sets of full sized windows adjacent to the entrance of the door, the music is terrible and there is a lot of traffic outside, just now a girl began to scratch her arm and then I looked at her, she smiled and now our legs are crossed in a similar direction. There is a woman outside of this cafe, sitting as if she is facing me at a Thai restaurant, she’s outside. I will think about this for hours and hours, the architecture, the possibilities of this moment, who we all are, and where we are all going, or not going. The temperature and how I want to see the ‘real life’ scene played out. Are these people here or just in my mind? I want to know... like that Christmas song... Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? It is possible that this is where art is born. 

Raja Kelly © Aitor Mendilibar
Raja Kelly
© Aitor Mendilibar

2. What (if anything) do you want audiences to take away from your choreography?

I am not sure yet what I want audiences to take away. I know that while they are there I want them to have an experience that they wouldn’t have anywhere else, in any other way. So I guess I want them to remember that.

I think that the performance starts the moment you start talking about the work. So for me, from that moment until the moment you start talking about your next work is the lights up and light down of any work I create. 

It would be a lie if I didn’t say that I want people to know that the work they are seeing had something to do with me – that somehow I was involved, yet then again, I also believe and trust in this quote that I read at least once month:

“Art is the finger pointing to the moon – if we are lucky, the finger disappears.”

I am learning to trust that the ideas, philosophies, images, etc that I put into a work are legible and effective. 

Raja Kelly © Tim Summers
Raja Kelly
© Tim Summers

3. Is there a piece of your choreography that you are most satisfied with? Why?

I wouldn't say no, but I can’t say yes. I need to keep making work. I remember once telling myself that I should pre-title all of my works with Attempt#__  just to keep track. It would look something like this for my latest works: 

Attempt#9: the feath3r theory presents: Anne and Andy stage a film 

Attempt#10: the feath3r theory presents: 25 Cats Name SAM

Attempt#11: the feath3r theory presents: Anne Sexton’s Knee Song

Attempt#12: the feath3r theory presents: Andy Warhol’s: DRELLA (I Love You Faye Driscoll)

I believe that I am trying to figure something out: how people function, being able to recreate what it is I experience on a day to day basis, the conclusion of an essay, movement that evolves right before your eyes, how beauty is discovered, how anger grows, why racism still exists, are there any new genders, what happens when we run out of stamina, what it means to be a person, why language serapes us, metaphors we live by, why art is different from just living... the list goes on. 

I am satisfied in that without one work I couldn’t get to the next, but not satisfied completely, and that is what leads me from one work to another. That said, there are moments of choreography that I recycle from one piece to another because, maybe, I have found a way to say, experience or communicate something that I could never say better in any other way. 

4. How important to your choreography is your relationship with the dancers who perform it?

This is probably the most important aspect of everything that I do. It starts with a who. I don't necessarily like to perform my own work – so when I can find performers who trust the way I do things, it feels remarkable and gives my choreography an engine. 

How a performance is performed is extremely important to me. To be convincing, I believe is a real challenge. The “who” gives the “what” life. 

I look for dancers who can think... I look for dancers to can listen and interpret without disintegrating the original idea. At the same time, I need strong personalities to shine through. I don’t want to watch a performance that looks like someone doing what another person told them to. It should feel as if the choice they are making is as good as if they had come up the option themselves. 

I really put forth an effort to cultivate great relationships with the artist that perform my work. It makes all the difference.

Raja Kelly © Eliot Eliot
Raja Kelly
© Eliot Eliot
5. When you’re creating a new piece, how and where do you begin? What do you enjoy most about the process?

I studied English as a second major to dance in college and I have a very particular relationship with words. They are very very important to me. I feel in a lot of ways, when I am thinking about a work, I begin to write obsessively about it. 

The act of writing doesn’t always land on a page, but it is also how I am organizing my thoughts. 

I need to create a language about the work, so that I have a way of talking about it, and this is so fun for me. It’s not a secret language, however it is not the most common way to use words – but dance is also not the common way of moving, so it feels good. 

When I run out of words, then I can start to move. 

When I run out of ideas, then I can start to question. 

When I look around and I want someone to hear what I have to say, I raise my hand — and while I have your attention i’d like to explain myself with this music, these people, and these moves. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? 

6. How is making dance works changing? Where do you hope choreography will go in future?

I think creating and presenting work it is truly becoming a test of will and desire. There seems to be a lack of resources everywhere for creating work, paying dancers, and gaining value behind what you do and how you contribute to culture. Then again there are people doing it. I know them. 

I am in the place right now of figuring out what it takes to find the resources and support to make the work I want to make. This includes: loyal dancers, technical skilled technicians (versus wonderful people just figuring it out as you go along), administrative support, moral support (encouragement to make the work you want to make and not be dictated by limitations of finances and resources). Otherwise, I think all work starts to look the same. Everyone has the same limitations and is left with the same resources. I’m tired already. 

But maybe, that is just where we are... in a DIY culture where being an artist means going on a scavenger hunt and making the best out of what you have or can get. Or should I be demanding that I do it my way or no way? What does the work become about versus where it started? For example, I want to share this idea with the world, I want to entertain and enlighten, criticize or communicate versus “look what I did with these dancers who were willing to work for free on saturdays in between brunch and dog walking, with this set Ibuild out of found objects in the botanical gardens lost and found. Oh, and I did the lights and costumes myself.” While they both have their appeal to me, where are the opportunities to contribute, in a model thats is open-ended and the work can have a life of its own? 

Raja Kelly © Photo: Andy Toad &  Design: FranÇois Leloup-Collet
Raja Kelly
© Photo: Andy Toad & Design: FranÇois Leloup-Collet

I have hope though. When I started my latest work, thefeath3rtheory Presents: Andy Warhol’s DRELLA (I love you Faye Driscoll), it was to be the beginning of a 3-year residency with an institution that then went bankrupt just before my premiere. I felt I had no choice but to make sure the work be seen. I asked the Invisible Dog, and they had no idea who I was, just an emerging choreographer trying to get some work out there. They took a chance and our relationship has grown because of it. I feel really supported by them and they happen to like my work. 

I don’t feel that I actually understand how difficult and challenging it’s going to be, if I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to continue to make work, with the support I need and want to do it, but I am ready and willing to take that on. 

In the past couple of years, it seems that “it’s who you know” means more and more each day. Presenters and artists seem low on funds, so presenters need to have artists that will bring patrons. Is this true? I think this influences artists decisions on what and how to make a work, what art would look like... I am not sure if I agree with this model, but it seems to be true. 

I can’t imagine how things will be in the future, I am hoping for there to be fairness and opportunity for any and every kind of artist to share their work. ​

 

Raja Feather Kelly is a company member of David Dorfman Dance, Zoe | Juniper, Reggie Wilson/ Fist and Heel Performance Group, RaceDance, PEARSONWIDRIG DanceTheater and also performs with Tzveta Kassabova and Paul Matteson. He has had the pleasure of performing in the work of Christopher Williams, Colleen Thomas and Dancers, and Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion through the première of THE RADIO SHOW, which received a New York Dance & Performance (BESSIE) Award. Kelly has been a guest artist at New York University, The University Of Virginia, Memphis University, University Of Florida, Dance House In Melbourne, AU and most recently a guest lecturer at the University Of Maryland, College Park, and a guest choreographer at Princeton University. Kelly’s work has been shown at Dance New Amsterdam, Triskelion Arts, The Center For Performance Research, Velocity Dance Center and The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. 

Kelly was a Co-Producer of The Summer Dance Series Roof Top Dance. He is a contributing writer for The Dance Enthusiast. When not touring or performing, Kelly manages Race Dance and Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group. Kelly holds a BA with Honors in Dance and English from Connecticut College.