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AN INTERVIEW WITH DANCER CHOREOGRAPHER MARIA MITCHELL

JUNE 19, 2007
Special for THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
© Amir Bey, 2007
Maria Mitchell in Berlin
A poster from a collaboration DVD that Maria had with John Betsch on drums, Roy Campbell, trumpet, flugelhorn and flutes, Barre Phillips, bass
Maria Mitchell, from a performance with the cellist Nyoka Workman, March, 1998 at The Bronx River Art Center and Gallery
THE NEW TIMES HOLLER! INTERVIEW WITH MARIA MITCHELL

HOLLER!: What are your dance and performance concepts and philosophy?

MARIA MITCHELL: My dance concepts are forever shifting. I approach every project with a sense of discovery and wonder and each project has a life of its own. Subsequently, a project may stay with me for years. On the other hand, the idea or concept of a project may be as fleeting as a summer ice storm. Growing up in the Mid-West you occasionally see a summer ice storms that cover every twig of a massive apple tree. After the storm, the tree is encrusted in ice for just one day. A Michigan summer ice storm is a glorious site, but you can bet that by morning of the following day there will be no trace of that storm. The effects of a summer ice storm can either devastate young apples or cause those same apples to thrive, thus yielding an abundant crop. I find that a performance is as fleeting as that rare Michigan summer ice storm and, conversely, the creative process is for me is the equivalent of being inside of the heart of a rare summer ice storm. So an important aspect of my creative process is to avoid praying for predictable rains. When I am inside of the creative process I try to keep my senses open to expressions that when presented to an audience, allows me to connect with that audience as Michiganders connect with that unique and interesting summer ice storm phenomena.

HOLLER!: What do you feel is the purpose of your work, is it personal, political, social, or..? I ask that question because some artists see art is being political.

MARIA MITCHELL: My view of art was shaped back in our hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is home to University of Michigan, known to the outside world as a progressive small university town. But, as you known Amir, prior to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the small African American community that we lived in was isolated from campus life and the benefits that the university environment afforded. With the advent of affirmative action in the late 1960’s, the predominately white student population experienced an influx of students of color. University of Michigan students who were social work or education majors interfaced as student teachers (in the public schools) and social work apprentices (at the area community center as well as in the public schools). When the African American university students interfaced with the young African American students the university students successfully politicized the younger students. When scholars, performing artists, writers and accomplished visual artists who were a part of the African Diaspora came to the university as invited guests, they made a point to either invite the African American community to events sponsored by the university and billed as “Open to the Public” or the invited guest would arrange to make special presentations at our local community center. Some guests would, at the urging of African American university student teachers, give talks at the area Junior High and High Schools. The presence of both the university students along with the aforementioned special guests had a profound and lasting effect on me. I was one of those fortunate students/community members who attended many events on campus (including dance classes and lectures). In addition, I was invited to travel and perform with various University of Michigan student performing arts groups. I also had the unique opportunity to spend evenings among African American women who would later make significant contributions to the literary, performing and visual art worlds. Those evening conversations informed my dance studies and later my choreographic perspective.

HOLLER!: How has your dance evolved?

MARIA MITCHELL: One’s own evolution is difficult to assess. My hope is that my exposure to life and other world cultures has assisted in my evolutionary process as a dancer, choreographer and a human being.

HOLLER!: What kinds of performance projects is Black Pearl Dance Company engaged in?

MARIA MITCHELL: I have put Black Pearl Dance Company on a back burner for many years now. This does not mean that I have forgotten about the company; neither have I abandoned the idea of presenting literature from the African Diaspora in dance theatre form. As a teaching artist, I continue to use literature to create works that afford children the opportunity to explore literature from a movement perspective. When I work collaboratively, I find myself creating a physical story line that is fueled by the music. Another residual from my early life with women writers is a love for writing. For years I have included my own writing in my dance work.

HOLLER!: Tell us about your collaborative work with multi-instrumentalist and writer Joseph Jarman and others.

MARIA MITCHELL: My work with Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins, and Tom Buckner was centered on the work of French Sculptor Alain Kirili. We made two International performances together. The first was in The Museum of Modern Art in Grenoble France. This collaboration was with Jarman, Buckner and I in cooperation with an exhibit of Alain’s sculpture. The second collaboration included Leroy Jenkins and the Dogon singers and dancers in Mali, West Africa. This collaboration was an off -shoot of a long standing collaboration between Kirili and the Dogon sculptor Amahiguere Dolo. I also worked with Joseph on a project that he created based on his Buddhist practice. That concert was presented at Merkin Hall.

HOLLER!: You recently performed in Sicily; what was the situation there?

MARIA MITCHELL: Sicily was a wonderful experience. I was invited by my longtime collaborator Terry Jenoure to be included in her all women’s project entitled “Bejeweled”. This project is a mixed media (spoken word, music, visual art, dance film) that has evolved over the years. The project was born in the mid 1990’s and at that time the group included males and females. Initially, the project lived under the name of “Jesus Laughs” (using the Spanish pronunciation of the name Jesus) and was performed at Columbia University. After several performances of “Jesus” at other venues, Terry revisited the project as a trio that included Terry Jenoure, flutist Margaux Simmons and I. The group preformed in 2005 at Vision Festival X under the name “Bejewelled”. Terry then created an autobiographical project called “Lydia on the Top Floor” (an all women’s project), which was presented at U Mass Amherst in 2006. In 2007 Terry joined me in Dortmund, Germany for the International Women’s Film Festival Konzerte & Jazzfilme beim Internationalen Frauenfilmfestival Dortmund co-produced by Ebba Jahn. (Ebba is the filmmaker of the documentary film “Rising Tones Crossing” which documents the 1981 Sound Unity Festival. For your readers who don’t know, the Sound Unity Festival, conceived by the late German bassist Peter Kowald, was the mother of the Vision Festival). The 2008”Bejewelled” performance at the ETNA Music Festival in Catania marked the third incarnation of the “Bejewelled” project. The performance group consisted of Terry Jenoure-violin, Kim Clark-electric bass, Jin Hi Kim-komongo, and Maria Mitchell-dance. The performance was well received.

HOLLER!: Are you finding more work overseas?

MARIA MITCHELL: In recent years I have worked both as a performer and an Artist Educator in Europe and Africa. There are several planned performances and projects in Europe and Mexico for 2009 and 2010.

HOLLER!: What are your long-term goals, personal and professional?

MARIA MITCHELL: My long-term personal goal is to strengthen both my immediate and extended family and my long-term professional goals rest on the building of a stronger family connection.

HOLLER!: Would it be worthwhile for artists to create and maintain their own venues, or would it be better to leave that to people who have the expertise and finances for it?

MARIA MITCHELL: God Bless The Child…
We all know that in the 21st Century as in the centuries that proceeded it, artist have had to wear many hats and I don’t see that aspect of the artists life waning. I am seeing younger artists coming into the field who are business minded and have, during their college years, taken business courses. Because of this these artists are better equipped at securing opportunities to present and protect their work. Conversely, because the Internet provides an open window into artist ideas, unlike in previous years, art is becoming more formulaic. Perhaps if artist had their own venues, venues that were self sufficient, there would be less need to seek out funding from individuals, foundations and other funding sources that award artists for staying inside of the mold. Artists creating and sustaining their own work…now that's evolution.
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