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Preview: Wexner Center Presents Virtual Premiere of Raja Feather Kelly’s ‘Hysteria’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Preview: Wexner Center Presents Virtual Premiere of Raja Feather Kelly’s ‘Hysteria’Hysteria - Photos by Kate Enman
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During the pandemic, choreographers and dance organizations have created some of the most consistently exciting and vibrant work in new media. 

Raja Feather Kelly, a poet-choreographer-performer, came to this new landscape uniquely positioned for the times and challenges. His company, the feath3r theory, identifies as a dance-media company, and he’s won “Bessie” awards and a Choreography Fellowship for the Center for the Ballet and Arts at NYU, but also a residency at Kickstarter. 

I spoke to Kelly by Zoom, the same day he was presenting at New York Live Arts’ virtual gala, about Hysteria, a remarkable, mixed-media work the Wexner Center is partnering with other arts organizations to premiere on June 2.

Kelly was in the midst of his New York Live Arts residency last year when things locked down, forcing the cancellation of Wednesday, an intriguing adaptation of Dog Day Afternoon he and his company were working on. Working with his partners at New York Live Arts, Kelly realized the nature of the project – already involving a filmed component and an installation, using the NYLA glassed-in lobby – would be a perfect fit.

Kelly said, “One of the pillars of the work that I make is, ‘Do we make culture or does culture make us?’ That’s something we’re always questioning.”

Hysteria has its roots in an earlier Kelly production, Ugly. On the genesis of Ugly, he said, “I had been interested in, I guess, confronting this question of what ‘nuanced,’ looked like for Black subjectivity. I realized that there were a lot of labels that I used for myself, but not that I had heard often, in, let’s say, seven years before that. So there was a lot of ‘Blackness, queerness, Blackness, queerness,’ and I felt a little bit like I wasn’t seeing myself, although I use those identifiers.”

“There’s a lot of trauma,” Kelly expounded. “There’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of violence, there’s a lot really painful social justice. While that’s true, I also think there can be more and additional ways to talk about the Black experience. When I think about my life or my experience, it doesn’t show up with those words. There’s something more abstract about the way I think about my experience. There’s something more in the finer details. How can I put out something in the world that I want to see? How can I engage in the conversation differently?”

Kelly went back to his college studies of not only dance but poetry.

“Where it’s not as finger-pointy,” he said, “It’s not as necessarily clear, it’s more questionable.”

He built a narrative about an alien reflecting the popular culture he’s consumed.

Once that acclaimed piece – the New Yorker said, “Ugliness here stands as a metaphor for a kind of social erasure, belied by Kelly’s own silken performance style, which melds seduction, irony, and, at times, a touching vulnerability,” – was in the world, Kelly felt like he wasn’t done.

For Hysteria, Kelly said, “‘Well, what if I try to remove all of that? Now that I’ve studied it, now that I’ve made a piece about it. What’s at the core and what’s there, and how would I want to express that? How would I want to give information about what that is and try not to use language that already exists, media that already exists or not?’ I realized I make a lot of collage work – if I pull a clip from this news article and a clip from this music, and a clip from this TV show, and I put them together, it starts to create a different kind of essay. That’s what I like. That’s what I turned to and became more interested in.”

He went back and talked about the pop culture habit that fed Ugly and Hysteria, going back to college – the first time he’d ever had a cell phone or computer.

“I feel somehow very proud to know that at this point in my life, it’s still more than half of my life that I had without a computer and a cell phone,” Kelly said. “But when I went to college, I did become pretty obsessed with like, ‘Oh, well, I love dance. And I love theater, but now I have a cell phone, and now I have a computer, and research is faster, and research is deeper, and research spans more than I could do in a library.’”

“And also,” he chuckled, “things that I wanted to watch as a child, but couldn’t, like reality TV and movies. I would sit with my laptop and not go to sleep, and watching all the things that I wanted to as a child, now as a young adult. I discovered that it was important to me to be an artist that used whatever, I used to say to people like, ‘I’m a by-whatever-means-necessary artist.’”

Photo by Kate Enman

Kelly takes that modernist quality of direct reference and deploys it with uncanny precision and a sense of joyous surprise. As he said, “Sometimes in a dance piece if I want to reference media, I’m not sure if I’m interested in coming up with some abstract way to express that. That became really important to me, is being able to use whatever was most, whatever would tell the story in the best way, to use that. I found that dance theater and media were the ones that I was most, I guess, attracted to, and felt a kinship with.”

An obsession with Warhol led to further revelations for Kelly.

“I was like, ‘Oh, advertising is the work. You have to do your own advertising because that’s when the show starts.’ That’s when people start talking about it, it’s the ads,” he said. “Once I graduated college and I formed my own company, that’s something that one, as a job, ‘Oh, I’ll build websites. Oh, I’ll learn graphic design. Oh, I’ll do advertising and marketing for people.’”

He took that sense of advertising as the work and used it to expand the experience of the work.

“Oh, I’m going to make this show. If we start advertising on May 5, and the show is not until August 25, actually the show becomes much longer [than] if I say the show starts on May 5,” Kelly said. “It starts with how I talk about it in advertising and marketing, that’s actually a continuation of the show. And in every work that I do, for better or for worse, we intend to do our own marketing. As it’s an extension of our practice.”

That begged the question of, ‘Without the usual signposts, where does the work ever end?’ Kelly said that’s come up in discussions with friend and colleague Christy Bolingbroke, founding executive/artistic director for the National Center for Choreography at The University of Akron.

“She often asks like, ‘What is the first access point that someone will have with your work?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ I really haven’t stopped making one work since I started in 2009,” Kelly said. “I’m trying to keep up with my own work. If I make work that’s about popular culture, my understanding and my study show me that popular culture recycles every 10 days. So I’m always behind.

“In an effort to keep up, I continue to keep making because it’s studying and making and research. That all becomes a part of the process, or product, as it were. So if I think like, ‘Oh, hi, you’re being introduced to my work,’ you enter on that day, at that moment and that time. Then you can play catch up if you’d like to, or you could catch the wave and go forward.”

Kelly’s curiosity and empathy extends to his collaborators on Hysteria. He talked about the unique choreography and deriving process with photographer Kate Enman.

“Much of our work usually starts with a studio shoot, and that’s how we build the aesthetic,” Kelly explained. “Then usually I’ll take those photos from Kate, after we build a world on camera, and I’ll study those photos for quite some time, like, What’s happening and what do I feel? In the way people use improvisation, I use that, but it gets documented by photos, then I take those photos and I’m like, What’s the story I think I was trying to tell? And then I’ll make choreography from that.”

The rest of the Hysteria team, which Kelly spoke of with the same empathy and curiosity he brings to every facet of his work, included Laura Snow (media producer for the New York City Ballet and the longest-running f3eather theory collaborator), of whom Kelly said, “She was [the] primary in thinking about, at the beginning of actually creating Hysteria, ‘How can this not be a documented performance or a video, but an actual film?’” As well as others including Broadway conductor and musician Remy Kurs, additional cinematographer CJ Ferroni, photographer Kate Enman, and lighting designer Tuce Yasak.

New York Live Arts founder Bill T. Jones and associate artistic director Janet Wong said of Kelly, in awarding him the Randjelović/Stryker Resident Commissioned Artist (RCA) fellowship, “Raja is simply unclassifiable, driven by discipline and something akin to a belligerent attack on the commonplace, the mild, the uncommitted… One leaves a performance of Raja’s infected by his curiosity, love of craft, and just plain outrageousness.”

We could use some more of his brand of curiosity and outrageousness at all times, but especially now.

Hysteria premieres June 2 at 5 p.m. with a live Q&A after, and streams through June 18. To view and for more information, visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/raja-feather-kelly

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