Brooklyn-born dancer and choreographerShamel Pitts returns home with his recent work BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes.The piece, which played to sold-out houses in NYC and around the world in 2017, is the second installment of the Black Series and a follow-up to his autobiographical solo Black Box (“gem-like” – DanceEnthusiast). The multimedia-infused BLACK VELVET, choreographed by Pitts, is a product a of two-year collaboration with his performing partner Mirelle Martinsand lighting designer Lucca del Carlo.The work will be performed May 9-12 at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Fisher/ Fishman Space.
Who is Shamel Pitts?
A performance artist, choreographer, conceptual artist, dancer, spoken word artist, teacher. I have been a company member of Batsheva Dance Company for six years, touring with them around the world. Upon leaving the company in 2016, I embarked on creating my own work in collaboration with other visual and movement artists. So far, I created three evening-long works which constitute a trilogy: a solo BLACK BOX; a duet BLACK VELVET with Brazilian-born dancer Mirelle Martins, which we’re touring now and will be performing at BAM Fisher in New York in May; and the newest ensemble piece BLACK HOLE which just had its American premiere in Atlanta last month. I share my time between performing and teaching Gaga classes internationally.
What drives you to create?
My passion is to create is my passion to say something through the collection, arrangement, and play of ideas, concepts, and structure. My new drive to create is not only the work itself, but the platform that the work constitutes towards the visibility of other artists and collaborators
What made you decide to become a freelance artist? Do you miss company life?
While I was dancing at Batsheva, I realized that I started to engage myself in many other activities and creations outside of the company.And this had nothing to do with my unhappiness or readiness to leave Batsheva. Yet, there was so many other things and avenues that I started to go towards. At some point, things became too overloaded outside of the company. Batsheva is such a strong and beautiful base, and I felt that if I needed to give more space to other passions that I had to clear the base for more things to fall in place.
How do you stay in shape as a freelance artist? Could you give concrete examples of exercises?
Honestly, I haven’t stopped moving since leaving Batsheva. I’ve been teaching Gaga all over the world, staging Ohad Naharin’s repertory with many dance companies and institutions, performing with Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s LEV Dance company, creating my own work, and collaborating in other works of colleagues and friends. Dancing every day keeps me physical and connected to my body, conscious of how it shifts. I remember having a meeting with Michail Baryshnikov at BAC, in 2017 I believe. I was waiting for him in the offices there, and he came in with his dance clothes on and with his dance “toys” (roller, balls, etc.) We left the offices and quickly ended up in the black box theater at BAC. Just him and me, with a ballet barre set up on the stage. I just sat on the stage floor, watched Misha move as he asked questions and shared some stories (with lots of humor and intelligence… and with some expletives thrown in every once in a while.) He was warming himself up! And not because there was a show later on that day. He was doing this because, as an independent artist, you learn discipline. You practice it. Especially if you want sustainability in this field. And Misha is the most exemplary artist of sustainability and passion for dance. He also shared with me this 7 minute workout routine, which has become part of my daily regimen on tour. I do this at home… or – in hotel rooms, to be more accurate…as I don’t have a real, stable home now.
What is the hardest part about your job?
The most challenging aspect of being independent is the many hats that I have to wear everyday. Mostly the administrative hat! I usually do 2-3 hours of emails every day before leaving the house, before heading to rehearsals. It becomes… a lot. A lot of skills that I had to learn by doing. I sometime fear that I have to constantly work (intensely) to put out fires before they start, but with not enough water. Yet I’ve gotten better at it. And I’ve realized that I needed to ask for help. HELP!
What is Black Velvet?
Black Velvet is a texture of material. It has a “soft feel” yet it is very powerful in the way that it absorbs light, energy, without projecting it back. Black Velvet shares its capacity to be both vulnerable and with power…it’s empowering! The performance between Mirelle Martins and me has a lot to do with our undeniable connection. When we first saw each other, we really SAW each other. And from that first glance, it’s been a long-term partnership of immense depth… love at first sight, so to speak. Black Velvet has to do with the efficiency of strangers to become partners!
Black Velvet, Black Box… What is Black? Why black?
For me, it’s interesting how we see things… and as an artist, I feel a responsibility to research and share concepts that are potentially unseen. For example, most people only see the word “Black” in the titles of my works; I see the two words together that are inseparable. They merge and become one word for me. “Black” is usually referred to when something is negative, mysterious, cryptic, or unknown, like a black hole in space. We tend to label bad things black. I would like to shift this power dynamic towards titling of these unknown nouns and I would like to amplify the brightness, colorfulness and beauty in black!
Would you share a big mistake you have made in your career?
Challenging question. “Mistakes” seems so finite to me, with no fluidity. I can say that I have been so passionately driven towards what I do artistically that I have lost some very close friends/family/collaborators along the way. This hurts. I take these situations as lessons learned and I feel that I have gained a larger insight about matters of people, life, and art… the bigger picture of things. As I am very familiar with “loss”, I am constantly “missing”. But life flows – dynamically – more than a concrete mistake.
Do you think that being Black has had an effect on your professional career?
I think that being Black has had an effect on my career. I think that using the word “black” as part of the title in all three works in my “Black Series” has had an effect on how I am perceived as an artist. Most of my career happened abroad in which I was one of a just a few – if not the only – Black person/African American in the company or environment. I always felt “seen,” or that I was being observed. And as a performer, I didn’t mind the attention, except that I’ve learned that I had to constantly challenge situations beyond their appearances. Sometimes, that meant using my words. Example: Once in Tel Aviv I walked into a theater to see a dance performance. And someone said out loud: “Oh, the alien has landed!” And she laughed, thinking that it was a kind of endearing compliment as she adored me. I then sat next to her and said, “I know you didn’t meant it negatively but to say ‘the alien has landed’ is ALIENATING.” She apologized and tried to compare me to Michael Jackson, Prince, Freddie Mercury, and so on. And then the show begun. As a performer and someone who choreographs, visibility is a powerful key to unlock the doors of nuanced effects towards being Black, queer, and all other alternatives.
What is something that you wish you could change the dance world?
As we move into this technological/virtual reality era, I would like to encourage people – and the dance world – to continue to support and value live art. There is something irrevocably profound, life-changing, and irreplaceable that happens when one experiences a live performance, whether in a theater, or on the street. This real life experience can not be replaced with a digital one. #SupportLiveArt
Something you hope to still achieve? Or your dreams for your work?
I really hope to create infrastructure! There are so many amazing artists and collaborators that I have been fortunate enough to work with. I feel a responsibility to create sustainability for them, for us. I wish to have the financial means of support to keep going with a newly formed strong base. Maybe this will will be in the form of a company, or a collective, or a performance tribe! Either way, it is my dream to have a deeply rooted structure, so that we can fly further with creative longevity.