Surya Swilley MFA in Dance, Adjunct Professor at Temple University
Crash, boom, rewind! My head was spinning, heart was racing, and I felt my adrenaline rushing at warp speed. Rehearse, rewrite, polish, go back, and repeat!
What is the intention? What did you mean by that? Let’s revise. Repeat.
I experienced a whirlwind of emotions, and wasn’t exactly sure of the extent of the labor that would go into producing an evening length concert.
I remember in the spring semester of this year, (January 2019) I began rehearsals and had no idea what I was doing. I was forcing myself to enter the studio with this idea of using a table as a prop, but had no idea how to be in collaboration with the table to get my point across. I experienced a significant amount of frustration while trying to verbalize to my dancers what my vision was, but the reality is, I wasn’t sure. The only thing I did know was that I needed to get moving towards generating a show. It was arduous.
I was influenced by several vignettes inside of black history and protest in the United States to develop “Between the Intervene”. Not that I interpreted these events as dramatized episodes towards freedom, but I recognized the choreographic protest inside of historical spaces such as lunch counter sit-ins, how black children navigate what can be an anxiety provoking experience while sitting at school desks, and the trauma inflicted onto black consciousness and black body while sitting behind the wheel in a vehicle. All of this, while knowing that one’s hands need to be placed on the dashboard to be visible in the face of police. These are the historical and contemporary notions that influenced the work, but the lens through which I decided to share the choreography was through honesty, and that was rooted in my truth inside of being a queer black woman.
While developing this work, I came out. I reckoned with my truth inside of my gender expression and sexuality, and it freed me to embark on a more truthful journey inside of other things. It is interesting how the development of this work, and my coming out contain a parallel inside of the timing. I was influenced by the freedom of transparency as I deepened inside of the work, and what emerged from this was a very fervent connection to telling my truth and working with my dancers so that they would be empowered to dance from an authentic place. I think adding my personal anecdote/truth inside of the mix not only help to bring the show to a cohesive understanding for me and the audience, but perhaps it allowed people to see that sharing one’s truth as an individual on stage, while working in collaboration with a group of dancers can be done, and can be done without any burden. I hope to showcase freedom on a variety of levels. My intention in everything I do is to liberate and empower.
My goal after graduation is to fly. I am harnessing my wings as a dance entrepreneur, and artist activist. Some tangible ways to see that are through my work as new adjunct professor at Temple University, through my partnership with the Center for Racial Justice and Education, and as I launch my own dance company in the summer of 2020.
It feels good to be done with the thesis concert, even though I know there’s so much more for me to dive into. I am ready for the challenge, and I am excited to see what comes next. What a rewarding experience this work came out to be. It’s my hope that even more reward will come, as I know that the next phase of life and career is filled with nothing but infinite possibilities.
In August and September, I had the pleasure of working with Awilda Sterling Duprey. She was Temple University’s featured artist for the annual Reflection and Response Commission. The Afro-Latina artist heralded as “a national gem to the people of Puerto Rico”. Her piece began a conversation exploring how Hurricane Maria devastated her homeland of Puerto Rico. As an improviser, she challenged us to re-create this feeling of hysteria. She asked: how do you honor the story of those lives affected by this natural disaster?
We entered the process by studying the traditional dances of Oya, an warrior deity whom is often represented through hurricanes. We also engaged in improvisational exercises to strengthen our awareness within the work and held critical discussions about these issues. Sterling Duprey recognized dancers as active participants in the creative process. This is an idea that I will ultimately take into my into future endeavors. Often times, choreographers ask dancers to perform movement without giving any context. Awilda’s process creates intentionality and dynamic performance quality for those involved.
This kind of teaching method fostered cognitive development as the dancers were also creators. This democratic approach was student centered and did not aim to make only Awilda’s voice present the work. However, this was overwhelming at times! There was not a clear structure until the weekend before the show. As a choreographer, I learned to incorporate a healthy balance of decision making and play. Not only in choreography and improvisation but also the creative process.
I also was able to witness Awilda transform Conwell Dance Theater to an imaginative space, catapulting you to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. She worked with a variety of disciplines such as photography, video, sound distortion, and props. This multimedia artist cultivated a nostalgic atmosphere. This presentation of the work was well received by the audience. She approached “space” beyond the standard of Laban’s Effort Actions often used to create textured qualities movement. Awilda abstracted physically space in order to reimagine the theatre past the normal visuals. She urged us not limit Conwell’s physically possibilities. This taught me how creating a space for the audience, is just as crucial as, how a dancer navigates space with their body.
Awilda is in her seventies, yet always has the most energy in the room. I believe her age gave her grace, style, beauty and wisdom in her movement. Rehearsals were filled with laughs and giggles. She greeted you with a warm hug at the beginning of every rehearsal and made sure each dancer was heavily involved in the process. This sensitivity encouraged me to work harder because I realized she cared about our general well-being. I believe Awilda’s expectation of creativity and freedom caters to a more seasoned artist. Over all, I am honored to have known and danced with this formidable women.