Jaime Shearn Coan interviewed CDI artist Johnnie Cruise Mercer live as part of Writing About Performance, an undergraduate class Coan is teaching at Queens College this semester. Mercer has been in residence at York College’s Performing Arts Center in 2017-18, and will be presenting on the action of black&white there on May 11. Some excerpts from their March 8, 2018 conversation on what “dance” is, training, and the ever-thorny question of social engagement via art:
Jaime Shearn Coan: The first time we met as a class, I asked everybody to share one experience they’d had with dance, because most of us here do not come from a dance background. I was wondering if you could tell us about an early experience you had with dance or movement that was pivotal—or your experiences with dance as a young person.
Johnnie Cruise Mercer: I never really fell in love with physical movement, or dance. I actually fell in love with the socialization of dance, with relationships in dance. When I was very young, my first introduction to movement was through communal happenings. So, it was stepping, it was praise dancing, it was hip hop, and hip hop as a team. I do remember, my first time engaging [dance] was in fourth grade. I was very awkward, and I didn’t know how to socialize, I didn’t know how to talk to people, or my peers or anything. I just kind of sat in a corner, quiet. I had my first music class in fourth grade, and they introduced us to gospel music. I decided, with my sister, and a couple other friends, to make this dance. We just repeated the same four things, which I mean, in Western or academic composition, we call “motifs.” But I didn’t know that, and it felt so good to be able to socialize with them. We made the whole dance, and one of the teachers was like, “Do you want to perform it?” And I was like, “Perform, what is that? What do you mean perform? We’re just doing it together.” And that’s how I got introduced to performing.
JSC: In the dance world, we always talk about training, and that’s kind of a loaded term. You mentioned early experiences that were more about socialization. What are your feelings and experiences around training, in terms of formal, informal—
JCM: That’s a good question. Whew! You know, I don’t even know what training means anymore, because there’s training in everything.. I was getting training in step, and I was getting training in hip hop earlier on, and then I got into voguing. The training in voguing was intense, because its not like you go to a ballet barre or sit in a classroom—it was just like, in the living room. I mean, there’s a whole bunch to it, but in the living room pretty much, essentially, yelling at each other. [laughs] But classical training, or Western training, academic, whatever you want to call it—ballet, modern, I didn’t start until I was 18. And that was a huge—it actually was one of those moments where I realized a lot of things—gender, race, everything. When I engaged dance in college as a dance major, it made me wake up, because people were telling me, “Well, that’s not dance.” I would go into the college and I would improv, and they would go, “Well, you need to be more creative.” And I’m like, “I am being creative. I am—shaking my ass, that’s being creative.” [laughs] “And I’m doing it faster than I did earlier!” And they’re like, “No, this kind of creative. Think outside the box.”
JSC: Or think in the box.
JCM: Or think in the box. And it was this weird thing where I did feel enlightened, when I got [training]—because I think I’m also not just talking about ballet training. I always entered through compositional lenses. I really loved choreography from the beginning. My parents would come see these pieces I would make in college, and they
wouldn’t understand anything. But they understood everything I was making in high school. So it was weird, because they told me it was universal, but it never really caught the eyes of people who I grew up with. I engaged in classical training there, and composition, and I was pretty much forced—literally forced—to train in ballet and make ballet the most important aesthetic for me to use in college.
JSC: So at what point did you then shift away from saying, “Actually, I don’t think ballet is the most important thing?”
JCM: It was my senior year of college. I got really, really, really, really, really bored. When I started choreographing, I was really going through it and using every single tool. They would give choreography assignments and I did them just to prove that I could do them. It was like a challenge, it was fun, it was like the capitalist system. Honestly, I outdid myself over and over again, and I just got really bored. I went and studied with Charles Anderson in an apprenticeship. Charles Anderson believes in kinetic storytelling, which is his way of connecting storytelling and African American, or African-based dance forms through the body. So he made up this whole codified thing. I studied with him, and then I came back to school my senior year.
After that, I kinda went into an incubator stage for one year, because I’m pretty young, I graduated in 2014 from school. So I took a year in Richmond, to just go back home, and stay home, and say, “Okay, what is home?” And engaged the fact that I was HIV positive very fully that year, and just made work about that first, cause I felt like that was something that was so big to me, that if I couldn’t say that, then who cares about race, because I wasn’t even able to engage it, I was so dark and involved in myself. So after I did that, I really started to talk about deconstructing, decolonizing—but then also, reconstructing, and recolonizing. If I decolonize all the way, then I’m no longer myself, because I’m African-American, I’m still American, that’s my opinion. There’s only but so much decolonization I can do before I don’t exist anymore mentally, and I go crazy.
JSC: How does the world enter into the work you’re doing, in making performances? You made a work that was directly engaging Black Lives Matter, right? What can dance offer, or get at, in terms of social engagement, that other art forms can’t? How do the experiences, the daily experiences, of company members and events that are happening in the world enter?
JCM: Social change, I think, comes—you have to have emotional shifts, or understanding, in change. When I actually go through something on stage, people actually go through something. If I’m just going through space, people are going through space. If I’m standing still, people are standing still as well, watching me stand still. And so, one of the most important things for me, when you’re engaging social change, is to actually go, and take myself—and the artists I’m working with, they take themselves—through, in movement, a constant process. It’s similar to vogue, and that’s where it comes from—you’re actually experiencing it and figuring out what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and its ancestral ties. The energy of me producing a movement, it creates aura, it creates waves—so all of a sudden, you feel what I’m feeling. Because I’m actually feeling it, and I’m actually processing it. I’m actually figuring it out. I don’t know it, and that’s that thing too, where—it’s not improv, it’s freestyle. Improv and freestyle are different.
JSC: Can you clarify?
JCM: Yeah, so freestyling in the African-diasporic context is when you see someone, a hip hop dancer, or a breakdancer. They have certain steps. They know what the music is, they’ve practiced those steps so much that they can recycle the steps—it’s like advanced composition. The brain is moving so fast—it connects all these things so quickly, and it makes this effortless thing, that’s just like—how? I believe in that freestyling thing, I believe in that feeling of processing and figuring out as you’re moving—still having a set thing, and then actually figuring it out so that it creates joy, actually joy. It creates actual sadness, or anxiety—it creates it because you’re actually experiencing it as you’re doing it. No matter if you know it or not. There’s never a moment where you should do it and just know it. So that’s important to me. And that’s my way to engage in shifting emotional states so that social change can actually happen. If you see me actually experience what it feels like to be black, and you feel it, then you can get it. You may not go, “Oh, that’s what it’s like to be black,” but you go, “Whoa, what is that feeling? What is that—ah, I don’t like it.” You know what I mean? And then we can have a conversation.