Leadership During Crisis: Jaamil Olawale Kosoko


‘Trying to escape a dated idea of what choreography means’


By Lisa Traiger

It’s Friday morning, but Jaamil Olawale Kosoko is tired. “Every Friday a dear friend and I work out together,” he said recently from Philadelphia where he is staying with his partner during the COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home order. Abs, arms, quads — everything is beat. He catches his breath. Working out is one way the Brooklyn-based performance artist, choreographer, dancer, poet and educator deals with this crisis.

The other way Kosoko considers cancelled performances, speaking engagements, rehearsals and classes, and the Black Lives Matter protest movement in response to the death of George Floyd, in his usually booked calendar is as an opportunity to pause and take stock. The Nigerian-American poet, curator, and performance artist originally from Detroit, aims “to push history forward through writing and art making and advocacy.”

“The intersectional grief that I’m feeling in the wake of so much deep loss is asking me to develop a more intimate relationship with the process of grieving, the practice of it, and what it's teaching me about human connection,” he said. “I’m trying to envision grief as a possibility to activate a deeper connection between myself and the planet. I'm grateful because my movement education is largely responsible for giving me the ability to move trauma and emotion and energy through my body. I know how to convert pain into beauty with nuance. This moment is asking us all to be emotional alchemists.” 

“I work in multiple disciplines from performance to film to poetry. I’m also an educator, so I teach often. I facilitate workshops and lecture quite a bit internationally — at least before the pandemic. I’ve been making work for about 15 years,” Kosoko said. “I’m at a place in my life trajectory now where I’m doing what I’m calling an internal audit. I’m going deep inside myself and taking this time to reflect and process all of the good work that we’ve done over the past several years. Hopefully that will give me some sense of how to move forward strategically in these very uncertain times.”

Kosoko’s latest work, Chameleon: A Biomythography, had been scheduled for a world premiere in April 2020 at New York Live Arts, but as the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters in New York — and around the nation — to close, plans had to change. Rather than a live performance, Kosoko and his collaborators reconfigured the work for the virtual environment, renaming it Chameleon: The Living Installments.

“It was my first time actually doing a proper world premiere,” he noted, for on the various online platforms, including Instagram and the gaming platform Discord, people tuned in from New York and Philadelphia, but also from Los Angeles and across the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Germany, Finland and numerous other European nations. The nearly 1,000 viewers were far more than NYLA’s 184-seat capacity.

Beyond numbers and demographics, Kosoko said Chameleon “was an experiment in community building.” It grew out of deep thinking and situational experiments he and his dancers tried in various countries over the past three years. One of his goals: “Making a work that was able to be adaptive … to exist in real space and time with the audience.”

Experimenting With Digitality

The earliest musings for Chameleon came from thoughts Kosoko shared at Dance/USA’s 2017 Annual Conference in Kansas City, Mo. He spoke about encouraging the dance field “to look more toward digital integration, while still holding true to the live form.” While he couldn’t have predicted the current global pandemic that’s closed theaters and studios around the world, his thinking at the time was prescient. Even just three years ago, Kosoko said that dance in digital and video forms “was very much uncharted territory in most of the dance and performance realm. It appeared to me that so much of the work was so deeply rooted in the sociality and embodiment and relationships of bodies in live space — and that’s beautiful. But there was uncharted territory in the field: an opportunity for one’s own brand or work to exist beyond what was happening on stage.”

At that time Kosoko was conceptualizing his Chameleon project. “I was at the very beginning stages of experimenting with what it might mean to integrate more technology and digitality more explicitly into my process. I’ve always been interested in confusing or complicating elements of digitality, reality and theatricality in my work.”

He added, “There was uncharted territory and opportunity there. I could see a lot of potential for growth and new ways of experiencing liveness and community, while not disregarding or turning our heads against the live form, but expanding what liveness really means specifically in dance.”

Chameleon, which deals with “the fugitive realities and shape-shifting demands of surviving at the intersection of Blackness, gender fluidity, and queerness in contemporary America,” had to be reconfigured for an online environment. Kosoko used three platforms simultaneously — YouTube Live, Instagram and Discord, which is utilized primarily by online gamers to share text, images, videos and audio.

“I found in Discord an opportunity to reimagine the platform and, present essentially what became a project in interactive pedagogy,” he said. “I was trying to escape this dated idea of what choreography means. And how does one think about the choreographic and digital space?”

Questions tumbled out: “Does choreography only have to exist on a moving body? Can a voice be choreographed? Can an experience or a way of thinking be choreographed? Much of the work was considering: What it means to tip it, to land in an environment, adapt to it and to create something that was the original intention, of course, but was also very much responsive to what was happening in real space and time in the room. I called this situational performance; that’s not to say that it’s any less choreographed. It just uses the material of liveness as another layer or indicator or means of communication.”

What Happens Now?

As an independent artist, Kosoko is looking for ways to rethink and reinvent. “I don’t have a large operation and donor pool. That means that I have to be a bit more strategic to look at other ways of hosting my operations.” Earlier in his career, he invested in becoming well-versed and competent in arts management, including a year-long fellowship at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “You can’t be a viable player if you don’t know the rules. I focused heavily on learning what the rules are [in the dance field].”

He continued, “I’m breaking them when I need to and continuing to be adaptive, exploring other ways of being in the world and making my work. I also know the value of black cultural production: It has currency. I know that much of the reason I’ve been successful as an independent artist is because of that identity.”

Asked for his advice to artists during this time of uncertainty, Kosoko said, “Do that internal audit. Let’s share what we learned. Let’s engage in the kind of collaboration and community building and collective advising and thinking that these times ask of us. As a field we have an amazing advantage in that we know how to create. Not only do we know how to create futures and invite people into those futures, but we also know how to literally choreograph bodies in space and time to realize that future. This moment is asking for a very specific kind of choreography that builds beyond the stage, beyond digital realms. It’s a choreographic proposal like none other. It’s one that requires a deep unity, a deep sense of care, mutual aid and support. We have to create a new world now.”

Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for publications including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week. An award-winning arts journalist, she is a former co-president of the Dance Critics Association and holds an MFA in choreography from University of Maryland.

Photos: top, Eric Carter; bottom, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko in Chameleon, EMPAC

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