When I ask Brooklyn-based choreographer and performer Ogemdi Ude how she’s managing to prepare for four performances at once, she corrects me: It’s actually five.
This month, Ude will perform a trilogy of solos—Dig, Hear, and Sing—at Abrons Arts Center, her first major New York City commission. She won’t have to wait long for her second major New York City commission: Her I know exactly what you mean will premiere at Danspace Project a month and a half later, as part of their 2022 Platform: The Dream of the Audience (Part II). And, from March 21st to 25th, she’ll present a work-in-process of Living Relics, a collaboration with photographer Sydney Mieko King, at BRIC.
The logistics of such a line-up would present a challenge to any artist, Ude included. But otherwise, this is just how she likes it. “My brain is really fried if I’m not switching things up,” says Ude, who also works as an educator and a birth and postpartum doula. I spoke to Ude about her many upcoming performances, “feeling big and working small,” and how she uses language to expand the body.
Lauren Wingenroth (Rail): How has it been working on all these shows at once?
Ogemdi Ude: My brain is always going off. I'm an Aries. And I have a lot of starts. And I have a lot of middles—it's hard for me to finish. So when I was looking at the year ahead, knowing I was gonna have all these different shows, that was something that I really prized. I do this thing where I’m making up something, and I don’t necessarily know what I made it up for. I’ll just sit and be like, “Okay, attach it to something.” And then I take a Post-it note and write it down, and then post it on a project board—I have five big white sheets of paper in my living room right now where I’m mapping out every piece. And sometimes there’s crossover.
I just try to organize my thoughts as best I can, and sometimes create arbitrary rules like: This is a piece where I do more talking. So if I have this general idea about talking, maybe I just put it in here. Or, for one piece, I know I’m working with a group of dancers. If I have this movement that feels super technical, then I'm going to bring it to that work. I’ve been doing a lot with language recently, recording myself on stream-of-consciousness rants to finish the scripts for the three solos. And I’ll listen to it back and be like, “Oh, I thought this was for one piece, but I’m actually gonna move it to this other one.” And so just trying to take a second to put something out, step back, look at it, question whether or not it's meant for the space that it's in, and then move it into the scores that feel more aligned with it.
Rail: For the Abrons commission, what made you want to do three separate solos?
Ude: I get really bored really easily. It's not helpful, because I'll start with an idea, and it's hard for me to stick with it. In my day-to-day practice of going from teaching to dancing or going from rehearsal to doula work, I find a way to pour bits of myself into different cups. It was also just a particular challenge I wanted to set on myself. It felt like these ideas are coming up in what feels like incredibly different, but still correlated, containers. So, can I give kindness and grace to each of those containers?
Rail: Do you consider the three works a trilogy?
Ude: They're a trilogy, because if I'm working on them at the same time, they have to be. And even though the Danspace group work is very different from the Abrons trilogy, when I’ve written about it, it’s with similar language because what’s in me is always going to be in me, and it’s going to come out in a couple of different permutations. And so I definitely do see them as a trilogy—a trilogy I would never have the energy to perform in one evening. And it feels like it’s pushing me to try not to put everything into one work. I think opportunity in New York feels so slim, because it is slim, that we think, “These are all of my ideas and I need to put them out.” If I have a space, I need to put every single idea I have into that space. I have a huge tendency to want to do that, but this format helps me split those ideas up. And to be a bit more kind about it, because then I’m like, “if I didn’t get to it here, I’ll get to it in another one.” It helps me to feel big, but work small. And that’s something I grapple with a lot, because I have intense feelings, but I like accessible work. I like work that you can step into without needing to pull apart every single thread.
Rail: What are some of the threads in the three solos?
Ude: They are dealing with: How can I find coping processes and rituals for experiences of grief? And how can I grapple with the memories, the pieces of people that I've lost in all the bits that I still have? And what is this continued relationship that I have to grief in my day-to-day: in the ways that I present myself as a person, in the ways that I interact with celebration, that I engage with milestones, and that I try to move forward?
The name of this project comes from an essay by Suzan-Lori Parks, called “Possession.” In it, she says she's calling on Black theater artists, and pushing the pursuit of history making, as in like, create your own stories. She writes, “Locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.” That line always really held on with me, and the waves of me trying to dig and listen and then mark down have asked me to grab on to different materials, and have asked me to look at the same thing, perhaps through a couple of different lenses. And so with the first piece, I'm working with paper and crayons, and just really feeling like, “How do I mark the space that I'm moving through?” The second piece, I'm working with projection and live feed. And then in the third piece, I'm working with myself, I would say, and working with sound in different ways. A huge connection point is always going to be language—my theater background informs my use of language and my relationship to devised language as well. Language is always the thread—I move with language, I dance with language; it’s essential to find an extension of my body, because I feel very limited in my body, for reasons I can explain but also can’t explain. So language has always been supportive in that, and I can dance with the language—the words can be broken up and parsed apart, and the way that I move my mouth can transform how it sounds, the tone, the vibration, the texture of it. Language is such a beautiful shapeshifter, and the way that it comes about in my work in these three solos is with attention to those shifts of shape.
Rail: Tell me about the Danspace work.
Ude: It's based on a poem by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, where she mentions “the dream of the audience.” Part of me has really thought about the way I’m presenting myself through the tales I tell about other people. So I say, this piece is about lying. And yes, it’s about lying to some extent, but in a lot of other ways, it’s about the stories that I pull together to have a more coherent understanding of who I am. And I also ask, continuing the thread from the Abrons pieces: What are the ways that I try to bring a person back through telling the stories that might not be completely true, out of a desire to make the person and their impact and my experience of them true? Who is this invisible audience that I feel I have to prove my grief to, or I have to prove my relationship to or my cultural bond to or my lineage to? And how do I put together something that I then share with that invisible audience that makes me feel a little bit more grounded in my truth?
Rail: What does that movement look like?
Ude: Oh, it’s fun. I come from a background of majorette dancing—that was the first dancing I ever really experienced. That thrusting, and super presentational and just grooving coordination is exciting, and something I’m continuing to work with. And I really love to work with the mouth, like what weird faces and shapes we can make with it. We’re moving together a lot, and just finding a groove and a bounce with each other. We’re using a lot of trap music and music out of Atlanta from the early and mid-2000s in a way that we feel really connected to. And we’re just finding these ways to root into this belonging to each other, like, I’m going to turn on the song, and I’m going to just vibe with my friends. The movement is a mixture of that desire to just vibe with your friends, and to be the nastiest version of yourself that you try to perform in the mirror but that you don’t necessarily know yet how to put in front of other people.