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 dance artist Joshua Ishmon to discuss his roots in West African Funga dance traditions, overcoming the racially-motivated restrictions of access to education growing up in Gary, Indiana, and how his Chicago community helped him both cope and inspired his art as a response to the wrenching public executions of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. An edited transcript of the interview is presented here.
Michael Workman: Thanks for sitting down with me today, Joshua. You didn’t start out in Chicago, correct?
Joshua Ishmon: I’m originally from Gary, Indiana and started out in dance when I was 7 or 8 — started out in musical theater and West African and took my first ballet class when I was about 12. The company I dance with now, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater (DRDT), the directors had been mentors of mine since I was about 10, so when I graduated high school I was clear that was where I wanted to go. So I danced with their training company a few years and after that I moved up here.
MW: Was this an artistic interest that was rooted in your family history?
JI: Not at all. My mom was a banker. She worked for Chase before it was Chase, Bank One and First Bank of Chicago. She went through all the mergers and worked there 39 years or more. My dad—I honestly don’t know what he did when I was a kid. He did department store photography at one point, and then later on became a bus driver. So besides my mom singing occasionally, I didn’t have an arts family at all. When I was in elementary school there was a dance troupe that did this West African welcoming dance called Funga, and they came with a little song [sings] funga alafia ashé ashé—and I was so enamored with it. I was like, “I want to do this.” So, the following year I joined and that was the first time I got on stage. I was 8. I saw them when I was 7 and joined when I was 7, going into 8. And the first few things we did, they had just started a theater there at the West Side High School and the first musical they were doing was “Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat,” the old Donny [Osmond] musical. And so we were doing that and in Funga, what they did was they got the kids to lead it and they said they were going to get one of the kids who was smart to lead it, and I wanted to be that kid. So you yell out “Funga!” and you get to change the set for the rest of them. So, I got it I was so excited that I yelled “Funga!” so hard I lost my voice! So in the middle of it I was wheezing and I couldn’t get the word out and just kept on moving.
So, yeah. I was really clear back then about what I wanted to do, and really enjoyed being on stage. So my parents were very accepting of it up until I started to look at it as a potential way to make a living, in addition to the stigma that unfortunately follows around men in dance.
MW: It does seem to me now that there are a lot more people pushing back against that.
JI: It’s one of those conversations that isn’t had, and at the same time it’s hard to have it because of all the challenges that the homosexual community goes with to be like, “well, I’m a straight guy in dance,”…no one cares. Like, I’m a black straight male in dance. I’m an endangered species, really. Is there a fight that comes with that? Sure. But no one cares. It’s like, eh. I’ve got enough challenges with just being black. I don’t need that one.
MW: [laughs] Right? Well, and then, growing up in Gary. I’m from Indiana too.
JI: Oh okay, what part?
MW: Fort Wayne. Northeast. Our big claim to fame is that it’s where Bruce Nauman was born.
JI: Yeah, it’s a place that doesn’t really support the arts all that much. It does and it doesn’t at the same time. Where West Side was this kind of haven for a lot of the people who wanted to get into theater or just sing or act in plays they had, everything happened–they reviewed movies. The director of the guild graduated from my high school and so it kind of started that way, but it became an arts school in ‘88. It opened in like 1908. Almost literally the day it became an art school, it was on its way to closing. Word on the street was there was like a half million dollars worth of paintings in there that, when they closed the building, they did make sure to take out. It was in 2008 when they closed it and moved [the students] into another school and so now they’re in the William A. Wirt High School building. They’re in there.
MW: Right, it’s tragic and racist how they defund these school systems.
JI: How the government defunds these systems—I’ve never cared for the manipulation of curriculums. There are so many contributions of people of color that are never spoken about, and I was like, “I don’t get why we’re not learning about that.” Then they’re taking the money out of the system to make sure the information is even more limited. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
MW: So do you advocate dance as a way to address those problems?
JI: Dance is a way to address it but one thing I always say is I love being an artist because it lets me say whatever the hell I want with little to no context. You can’t lie in art. You can bullshit, but you can’t lie. It won’t stand up. And the thing about everything else is you can lie, and people will just go along with it. There has to be some truth, some substance even if it’s surface, there’s just something about it–so that’s something I’ve always enjoyed about the art, you use the vehicle of the art. I run the dance program at Purdue University’s Black Cultural Center. So the thing we always say is, “I know you’re not here for this. I’m not training you to be a professional dancer.” If you do that, fantastic. I’m doing this so you can face things that won’t usually get had in academic settings or collegiate settings that people care about their feelings and that’s the thing about dance where it can happen in the art. Dancers are brutalized, all the time. It’s normally not to their detriment. There’s a process around it, like what happens in the ballet world. When you talk about why you got a part or didn’t get a part, you get your truth without getting into your feelings about it and then get past that insularity. People are in their own worlds and there are so many environments where they don’t have to step outside of it. Even inside of dance, too. There are a lot of people who’ve only danced in Chicago and only know the Chicago dance scene and as long as they stay in Chicago, they’re all good. But the issue I usually have with Chicago, they love stroking their own egos and I’m like, “Ehhh, that thing you just praised was boring. It was incredibly boring!”
MW: Right? There’s a lot of that. Too much. But you can’t get people to talk about it. They want to talk about ticket sales instead. It’s sad. I read the piece you wrote for the Massachusetts Review using Charlie Chapman and the Little Dictator to talk about the shootings of Philado Castile and Alton Sterling as the basis for your work When Men… It was very moving.
JI: Yeah, this was right after, with those two happening within twelve hours of each other and they hit me so hard and I couldn’t tell you why. Probably, with all the things I’ve seen in my life, being from Gary and all that, seeing that video of when Philado Castile was dying—it was on live Facebook. His daughter was in the backseat—all the things that went wrong in it and all the people trying to justify it and probably the most comforting thing, right before I started making that piece, there’s a party that happens called Party Noire that takes place at the Promontory in Hyde Park. Beautiful place run by three beautiful, wonderful women. I remember walking in there, I remember thinking I had to get out and go somewhere with some good energy because I got to get out the house. And I walked in and it was so evident that was the reason that everyone was there because the whole community, at least as far as I could see, they all got hit by that. It was almost cathartic, it was healing for all of us to be in that space. I remember [after that], walking into the studio, and I turned on the music and 3 hours later, When Men… was done and every day was like that. I didn’t have any words to say, we were just doing it.
DRDT’s Summer Intensive/Emerging Choreographers Showcase takes place
July 21-22, 7:30 p.m. at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th Street, Chicago.
South African choreographer Fana Tshabalala completes a three-week residency with DRDT in July to create an American adaptation of his work INDUMBA, created to illuminate the spiritual impact of unresolved apartheid politics in his native South Africa. INDUMBA preview performances take place July 27–29 at West Pullman Park, 401 123rd Street, Chicago.
Tickets to both events are $25. For tickets and information, call 312-795-9777 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please send questions, comments or tips to Michael Workman at email@example.com. 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 Past Incapacities at Hairpin Arts Center on June 23, to “examine the parallels between physically integrated dance, movement therapy and advances in the disability arts movement’s parallel evolution from the new political awareness of ableism since the 1970s and ’80s.” Also, save the date for our Saturday, June 23 Dance & Artist Picnic Park Day Social w/Evening Cocktails in Horner Park! Bring a blanket, bring a basket and come talk art with our whole Chicago dance community.
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.