In June, when the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic really sunk in for the dance community, a new wave of selective police brutality drew and riveted global attention on a second pandemic: rampant racism. It was then that Charmaine Warren, with Kimani Fowlin and Nicholas Hall, founded Black Dance Stories (BDS). Every Thursday evening Black dance artists shared their stories in a public Zoom forum. Now, months later when media attention and programming in reaction to the moment has waned, Black Dance Stories continues to do the work. These conversations are not momentary trends but represent a vital and ongoing commitment. To conclude the August program, BDS presents choreographer nora chipaumire’s new animated score [another] township manifesto (2020). Through it, the Zimbabwe-born artist probes the politics and possibilities of the digital form. The Rail caught up with Warren and chipaumire to find out more.
Gillian Jakab (Rail): Charmaine, could you tell me the birth story of Black Dance Stories?
Dr. Charmaine Warren: In truth, it is all about the artists. And I'm lucky that I have comrades who have said yes. Because of the double pandemic, the impetus was to bring my Black comrade artists to the forefront.
Rail: And how did you connect with nora about her new film, [another] township manifesto?
Warren: Because nora is nora, and she said, “This is what I will offer you.” We're lucky.
Rail: nora, you've made a dance film before, Afro Promo #1 Kinglady, in 2016—
nora chipaumire: I don't make dance films; I make works that live in the medium of film.
Rail: Thank you, that's an important distinction.
chipaumire: Yeah. They're not film captures at all—things captured on film. I'm very sensitive about the English language and how it addresses all manners of things, including the work that we do. Including the way Dr. Warren is being so humble in her major efforts to create a platform for artists talking to artists in a time when institutions are simply asking Black artists for Black content and not really addressing anything. Of course I said yes, after some nudging, in recognition of the work that that takes and in solidarity with the ultimate goal: mapping our futures together.
Rail: Could you say more about how the work lives in the medium of film, or rather in the digital realm? Did you start working on this project before or was it a response to the pandemic?
chipaumire: It's something that was a result of the pandemic, as everybody was scrambling to figure out what to do and how to do it. To circle back to the idea of works on film as opposed to just the capture of something, I mean, this is something that I've been interested in forever. In fact, I came to America thinking I was going to be a filmmaker. So I continue to be excited and intrigued by the power of image construction. [another] township manifesto was an opportunity for me to think about what the digital platform could offer us as a way out, so to speak. The digital platform is quite different from film. The idea with this, and why I was keen to share it with Dr. Warren and her platform, was to kind of put into gear this question of documenting yourself—you're home doing whatever, n'importe quoi. We have to think about editing, about choreographing, about different ways in which to narrate a story, knowing that it can only be viewed in these small frames of the iPhone, or of the iPads, or maybe, if you're fortunate, on a computer. How to think in that very tiny square? For me, beyond that, I’m thinking about how to continue to radicalize a space I would like to occupy and even deal with its inherent coloniality, its inherent whiteness, in terms of power. So the digital platform offered an opportunity to really be discursive about this moment and how to use this medium.
Rail: Yeah. Wow. I look forward to seeing it.
chipaumire: Well, I'm not saying it's genius [laughs]. It's just that I'm so glad that Dr. Warren said, yes, because, you know, a lot of us are being corralled to talk and talk and talk, and it's like, we've been talking since 1640! We've been talking and clearly nobody's listening. If I've ever been angry, I'm at my most angry right now, and I just didn't want to engage in pleasantries. But I have love and respect for Dr. Warren and what she does and she's been in my corner for the longest time. So how do we find ways in which, as time goes by, we continue to converse?
In some ways, it's through these dialogues between artists—herself included, as a performer and as a critic, a writer, a thinker.
Warren: I love you, nora. And [another] township manifesto is genius for me; I've watched it at least three times. So there [laughter].
Rail: I feel honored to speak with both of you and hear about this deep admiration you have for one another.
You brought up the centuries and centuries that people have been having these same types of conversations—about racism, colonialism, life and death. I'm curious if either of you have any thoughts on the history of art, and dance in particular, as a tool for activism and the fight for justice for Black lives. And what continuing to have these conversations means right now—if there's anything you hope people can take away from these discussions as we move forward.
chipaumire: Dr. Warren is a provider of a space—a safe space, an uncensored space—for us to continue the conversations. It's important that these spaces start to emerge and hopefully not get infiltrated as other safe spaces have eventually been.
I don't know my answer for myself. I don't know. I'm recalibrating this question I hear: “what's the takeaway?” I think we also need to start coming up with different kinds of questions. You know, there's no fucking take away. We've been dying. We've been sold out forever and ever, and what's the takeaway from that? It's gonna happen again, it will continue to happen, so I feel like maybe we can reorganize that question to go through it another way.
Rail: So we need new questions and can't accept old answers.
chipaumire: No, no, no, no, we can't. We can't do that. I feel extreme loss after such a fever and energy, now that we are already back to the same old, same old. I agreed to do the interview with you, because I think the Brooklyn Rail has a kind of a communist past, which I love—
Rail: Phong [Bui] and the Rail comrades will be so happy to see you say that.
chipaumire: [Laughter] But also in respect and in solidarity with the work of comrades, like Dr. Warren, and what they're trying to do. So, if we keep saying, no, we can't participate—first of all, that's against my kind of manifesto to always participate. But we need to figure out ways in which our participation helps; we can't use the same modes. You know: “there is a new platform, let's just do the same media rigmarole and then on to the next thing.” We just can't do the same old jive, you know?
Rail: Yes, and that kind of meaningful participation, that kind of imagination of new modes, must take a lot of work. I'm curious, Dr. Warren, about everything and everyone that goes into Black Dance Stories. You work with Kimani Fowlin, Nicholas Hall, Cynthia Tate, Tony Turner, and Gabe Dekoladenu. What's the collaborative process like, with both your co-curators and the artists on these Thursday evening Zooms, which are so moving each time I tune in.
Warren: Well, I don't do this alone. And the reason nora agreed to be part of it is because of community. Kimani offered to help; Nick is a 2020 dance graduate, so he's got nothing ahead right now. I believe in facilitating connections, because networking is great. We've got someone, a brother who's going to build our website. My husband [Tony Turner] designed our logo and so on and so forth. It's community. I'm glad that I was able to convince folks to come along, but it's not me. Everyone has been working very hard. I'm just so happy that we can take this one action to support each other and strive toward—I want to quote nora—“solidarity in mapping our futures together.”
Black Dance Stories streams live on Zoom, every Thursday in August at 6 pm.