Movement Matters is a monthly column by Michael Workman that investigates performers whose work intersects politics, policy, and issues related to the body as the locus of socio-cultural dialogues on race, gender, ability and more.
For this installment, we sit down with dancer Kia Smith to discuss the influences of jazz in movement, how generosity and family has informed her virtuosity as a developing dancer, and how the art form has helped confront the grief from her mother’s death at a young age. An edited transcript of the interview is presented here.
Michael Workman: I know you from your recent performances with Deeply Rooted and other companies like Red Clay you’ve danced with, but prior to that you were with Chicago Fringe Opera.
Kia Smith: Yeah, that was my first show with them. I was looking, trying to get opportunities and Missy Mazzoli, a relatively new composer, had composed Song From the Uproar, kind of an avant garde project. It was kind of a small space, done with a lot of costumes and props, but they’d never had dancers in one of their shows before. It was all about Isabelle Eberhardt, she was alive in the late 1800’s and she was a traveler and she died at a really young age, lived this very traumatic life and they wanted to make an opera about her; very tragic. She led a very interesting life and I enjoyed dancing for it. It was a little bit daunting. I’d never done something like that before, being in charge of all the movement for an entire opera. It had 5 singers and 2 dancers and I had to coordinate for everyone, including the singers—I had to find ways to coordinate with the dancers and find movement for them, which was challenging because they’re not used to moving.
MW: As a dancer by training, what brought you over onto the composition side?
KS: Yeah, I’m a dancer and that’s what I started in and I actually started pretty late. I didn’t get into it until I was a junior in high school but I just enjoyed moving. I started looking at my own stuff, because that’s pretty much what I’d always done and then I went on to get a Bachelor’s degree in dance and to work with different companies, and now I have a shows coming up in Paris, the University of Chicago and at Columbia College. That one we’re talking about [is about] the things women go through in life. Grief, heartbreak. Motherhood… My piece is specifically about grief. I’m interested to see how it’s all going to come together. My mother passed away when I was 14, before I started dancing. I’ve always wanted to compose a piece about that and I’ve never really had a chance to do it.
MW: How do you feel about working with such an intimate subject in such a public way?
KS: I almost feel like I can kind of hide behind the choreography. I’m going to dance it, I’m not going to be talking about it. I’m working with some other dancers and I haven’t talked with them about what it’s about yet, but it’s going to be a larger work one day—there are just 2 smaller pieces that I’m putting together for this show—but it’s a jazz set, and one section will be a duet, a male and female duet, kind of about their relationship, a love kind of duet and the other section will be about my relationship with her and her passion. It’s a little all in the works.
MW: You’re very focused on jazz as the center of your movement work.
KS: I’ve always been that way.
MW: Do you think the populist conceptions of jazz dance are problematic?
KS: There are these shows like So You Think You Can Dance—you know, all these talent shows, they make it accessible, which is awesome. I love that. But also waters it down a lot and makes people think it’s this other thing, that it’s so easy, and it’s not.
MW: Where does that come from for you?
KS: My dad is actually a musician, he’s a saxophonist… He’s a well-known Chicago musician who has played all over the world. I grew up listening to jazz and my mom was really into it but I also used to go listen to it at this thing called the Jazz Showcase, off of Polk and Dearborn. I would go when I was like 4 or 5 and my mom would take me in to listen. So, I grew up listening to it and my dad’s a musician and I love the music. It definitely—I didn’t start dancing until I was in high school but I always wanted to be a dancer—and I used to always dance to jazz music, I’ve always enjoyed moving to it. I think it has always been inspirational, it’s always been an inspiration to me. I love it to like it. I did a season with Joel Hall, they’re a jazz company, the Joel Hall dancers, so it has always been a part of how I do it. I’m comfortable improvising to it because I’ve been listening to it for so long. When I did the first show back in the spring, this one woman at the Q & A after was like, “Oh my gosh, you must have spent so long on this piece!” And I had to explain to her that I was improvising, that I was just comfortable with the music. So…
MW: It’s all about your history and familiarity with the art forms. So, what are your plans for the future?
KS: Eventually, I want to run my own company. I want to have a diverse company. I want it to be a rep company and I’ve always felt so strongly about having a diverse group of dancers, diverse backgrounds, diverse movement backgrounds, and creating a space where choreographers can have good dancers to work with. I’m also very concerned about the outreach part of it. When I was a young dancer, I was obviously able to get dance classes but I was able to get a lot of scholarships, like from the [Hyde Park] School of Ballet and August Tye, the woman that runs it, is super giving. She gave me so many classes and so I want to be someone like that who is out there giving people opportunities, on a sliding scale so you can still do it no matter how much you can pay.
Please send questions, comments or tips to Michael Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each Spring and Fall, as a corollary to the Movement Matters column, we also present a series of symposia and performances at different locations throughout the city based on topics developed out of and indexed from both the columns and live discussions.
Our next symposium is Invisibilia at Outerspace Studios on May 21, “convened to examine the topic of immateriality in art-making as a response to traditional power structures in the dance and performance art worlds, and how it arose at a time of the recognition of a pushback in social movements against ‘invisibility’ and erasure in the larger culture.” Each live event is filmed for adaptation to the Movement Matters web series, premiering in late 2017 on Open TV. Please join the Movement Matters Facebook page for information on additional forthcoming symposium, installments in our performance series, broadcast dates and times, archives of past columns, and to join in on future conversations.