Meet The Performers Exploring Race & Sexuality With "Black Velvet"
“Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes”, performed by Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins, explores the intricacies of what it means to be black in America and the world. The dance piece celebrates the many textures, beauty, delicacy, and strength that can be found within all of us. Shamel Pitts is a performance artist, dancer, spoken word artist, and teacher who met Mirelle Martins when she was his student. What started as a cup of coffee soon blossomed into an intense connection that would join the two as life partners in the field of art and dance. We sat down with the two performers to discuss their latest work Black Velvet, touring now; check out the full interview below.
How long have each of you been practicing dance as an art form?
S: I was always dancing. When I was younger, My mother would throw a lot of parties. I would be the only kid dancing all night with the adults. In school, I would choreograph the talent show hip hop dance routines. But I only started formal training when I was in High School at 15, which means that I’ve been practicing dance now for almost 18 years.
M: As Brazilian, dance was always part of my life, but as entertainment mostly. I started to see dance as a possible art expression for me after 2013. In this year, I was 28 years old and really unhappy with my work and my life at that time. So, one day, I was working until late night and I felt down in the staircase and broke my left knee. This was January and during the recovery time, that was really painful, I started to think in ways to pay more attention to my body. So dance comes to my mind like something to start to explore. When my knee got better, I was searching for a professional dance course to do during my vacations and found Gaga (thanks google!). So I went to New York City in August to do the Gaga Summer intensive and it was incredible 6 days that really changed my life. So powerful. I met Shamel and a language to express some things that words cannot reach. When I got back to Brazil I was fired from my work (thanks, ex-boss!) and started to do courses and experimentation in dance.
Where did the inspiration for Black Velvet come from?
S: Black Velvet was born from the many conversations and dialogue between Mirelle and I. It felt as if from our first encounter in 2013, the work and content of Black Velvet started to brew. Mirelle and I drew closer due to our similarities, and even closer through the shared intrigue of our differences. Black Velvet is a texture of material. The title has to do with a nuanced research and sharing of the qualities between Mirelle and I as well as the relationship to the viewer. Black Velvet can be a very soft and delicate material but also extremely powerful due to its ability to absorb light and how it reflects light.
M: The inspiration is our connection, that we felt so intense since the beginning. When we first met it was clear for me that finally, I found someone that has the interest to express in a similar way to me. It’s difficult to explain what does it mean, but it was a feeling that I was not alone anymore searching for new things to do, but had found a life partner. This [relationship] is really strong now, and the aesthetics inspirations to do Black Velvet I think came from this initial feeling between us. Black Velvet is also my first dance work for the stage, so I feel like this work is a rebirth for me and makes me a dancer.
What has the public reception to Black Velvet been like?
S: The public response to the work has been very engaging. Due to the combination of elements in Black Velvet – the subtlety of the nuanced, and emotional gestures of the choreography, the lighting source only being a projector, the coloring of Mirelle and I with bronze/metallic body paint, the kaleidoscopic musical arrangement, and the transformation of the ladder prop – the audience seems to experience something other than what they imagined. It’s something new for all of us and with that comes a deep moment of digression for the audience after the performance. I love to see the eyes and feel the energy of the audience after the show…something shifts, and the shift feels good.
M: It’s been really amazing. In the first shows we really didn’t know how the public would receive the piece, and I was really nervous if my lack of ballet training will be obvious [laughs] But every time we performed we got such nice impressions from the public, sometimes using the same words we used to create, sometimes bringing new perceptions that we didn’t imagine but that enrich our view. So, I believe it has been a nice and fruitful dialogue, specially now that we are performing in different cities.
When you first watch it, the piece is very moving and spurs a lot of questions about how you two relate to each other. How did you two originally meet?
S: Mirelle and I met back in the summer of 2013 in Brooklyn NY. She was taking her first dance course. I was her teacher. At the time, I was still dancing in Batsheva Dance Company, and teaching was still fairly new to me. Although I was in close age to the dancers, I felt very far from them personally and was only intrigued about being the best damn teacher that I cold be for them. Mirelle saw me, and I saw her. The connections seemed far yet familiar. After one of the lessons, she asked me to have a coffee with her, which turned into a glass of wine. It was the first of many. We talked about our histories, our beliefs, and views on art…a lot of questions came up. Black Velvet was a space to research and find answers to those questions… or at least bring up other options of things so that the perspective to our wonderings can shift us and hopefully others as well.
M: I think I already answered in the first question… And just to complete, in our last experiences traveling and living more together I believe we are always meeting each other in different ways. And it’s really a privilege – Shamel is so inspiring and generous, helps me, supports me and guides me in so many ways. The experiences we are creating together is like a dream coming true.
That’s so powerful. How do the ideas of race and sexuality play into the dance piece?
S: Mirelle and I are both African Americans
(her being from Brazil and me being from Brooklyn)
Yet, our experiences were different and are from different cultural and social codes of our upbringing.
We both experienced ourselves as outsiders and minorities of our cultures…
Yet we also felt ourselves as outliers to all the boxes and titles that were assumed of us; What does it mean to be a black, and especially a black woman, or a black gay man?
What space do we have in order to live fully,
without confining ourselves to the society’s identity’s crisis? We created a world in Black Velvet where we can both exist and thrive as we take care of each other. The lines between masculinity, femininity, love, color, all seem to blur. We take care of each other and there becomes enough room for both of us to Be…and this creates the oneness of our existence.
M: These ideas are part of our lives, part of what we are, so it’s natural to be part of the piece because we cannot hide it. It’s also so present discussion in our contemporary society that, yeah, we need to look to it. But in the piece we don’t wanna to point any subject beyond our own stories. It’s not a subject or a starting point of the piece, but are part of the architectures and archetypes that we wanna to explore.
Going off of that, the subtitle of the work is “Architecture and Archetypes”. How do structures and shape complement the message of the dance piece?
S: The subtitle of Architectures And Archetypes came up from themes that arose between us;
the systems that we are a part of, the systems that supposedly hold us up, carry us forward… and the view of our bodies through society and the objectifying of our “brown bodies” as one color, sort of speak… which is limiting and inaccurate… we started researching all of these things: its place and our place both inside and outside of them, and then we played with transforming these structures of systems (metaphorically) so that we ride them as we need in order to thrive then we realized that we actually need to break them down-re mold them – in order to rebuild them in a way that allows us to thrive.
M: Structures are also part of the life and in Black Velvet is important the idea of recognizing the structure we are inside of, but also as a living form. Structures can be stable but also can be broken and reconstructed. This is what interest me. I believe all human life is about creation and, doesn’t matter if the structure is “good” or “bad”, “big” or “small” – it always can be transformed, is also always moving. This is what interests me.
Images via Alex APT
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