The Intimate World of the Performance Artist

The dancer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili takes the stage alone in her acclaimed work Bronx Gothic. But behind the scenes, things get a little more complicated.

Katie Posner

For Okwui Okpokwasili, performing is a very personal act. In the dancer’s most well-known piece, Bronx Gothic, she’s the only person featured, and as the choreographer, she has complete creative control over what she decides to present to the public. Alone onstage, Okpokwasili, 45, spends 90 minutes embodying the lives of two young black girls growing up in a world that “privileges whiteness” and leaves them vulnerable, as she tells the filmmaker Andrew Rossi in a recent documentary about the making of the piece. Her movements evoke struggle and pain: At various points during her performance, she isolates different limbs, breaking down and slamming her body onto the floor so only the sound of flesh and bone on hardwood is audible. Okpokwasili makes it impossible for the audience to look away, even at the most uncomfortable of moments.

Behind the scenes, though, putting together a work is a complicated process requiring many sets of hands. Rossi’s documentary, also called Bronx Gothic, follows Okpokwasili’s rehearsal and performance of that particular work: It’s an insider view into the creation and staging of a dance piece—blood, sweat, tears, and all. Currently touring the country, the film weaves together intimate practice-room moments with interviews in which the artist explains the ideas behind Bronx Gothic; it also follows her husband, Peter Born, the director for the live performances, as he gives Okpokwasili notes and debriefs with her backstage.

While no other collaborators appear in the film, in conversation Okpokwasili is quick to mention the numerous people who help her to build out her ideas. “There is a sense that you’re always finding partners and collaborators, advocates,” she says. “You’re putting things together piecemeal ... ‘Okay, so I have this covered in terms of these people, but now we’re here working on finding support, and now we’re also working on finding residency spaces or places to build the work.’” Okpokwasili has been creating and performing her own pieces since she graduated from Yale University more than two decades ago, and the collective ethos around which she has built her career as a dancer, choreographer, and performance artist encapsulates just how collaborative this corner of the arts world is—even when a single person end ups under the spotlight.

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Stories about art often focus on the end result: the work—eye-catching, awe-inspiring, troubling—as it’s presented to the public. Rossi’s documentary spends a significant portion of its 90-minute running time showing footage of live Bronx Gothic performances, for example. Yet, the back-end creative and production aspects that Okpokwasili speaks to me about continue to be the factors that most determine whether a piece ever actually makes it in front of an audience. Without collaborators who are able to help provide resources like rehearsal space, venues, and financial support, ideas would often remain just ideas.

Okpokwasili says she comes by her partners the usual way, via networking and simply putting herself out there—unsurprising in the world of dance, which is immensely interconnected. “A lot of support that I received I couldn’t have received if people didn’t know who I was or know what I was working on,” she says. “And they knew that because I had been in conversations with them while working with other folks that they had supported.”

One important person for the artist was the choreographer Ralph Lemon, known for his promotion of cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary performance. A friend of Okpokwasili’s, after attending a play in which she was acting, thought she would be perfect for one of Lemon’s pieces and introduced the two. That meeting led her to frequent collaborations with Lemon, which in turn helped Okpokwasili connect with others in dance, theater, and the visual arts. In particular, through her projects with Lemon, she was able to find organizations that provided residency programs and helped her to put up her first collaborative piece with Born, 2009’s Pent Up: A Revenge Dance.

Okpokwasili’s creative connection with her husband is clear. “He is the director and the lighting designer and he does the spatial design,” she says. “We work very much in a deep, deep collaboration. It’s nice to have him so we can bat ideas back and forth and figure out strategies.” Their relationship, both as a married couple and as co-creators, becomes one of the focal points of the Bronx Gothic documentary. “There are aesthetic choices that we made to try to facilitate this porous boundary between personas I’m in as the narrator and that you’re in as the person who’s watching,” Okpokwasili tells Rossi at one point, describing the input Born had on the piece.

To highlight that porous boundary between the performer and her audience, the film frequently veers back to Okpokwasili onstage: her fierce, percussive movements and her diaristic reading of texts, certain aspects of which are meant, she tells Rossi, to make the audience question whether they can “take on the pain” of blackness. For the first 30 minutes of the performance, she vibrates onstage to the point that her breathing sounds painful. Her body language is at once free—her limbs are loose, her torso is writhing—and contained. It seems as though she’s struggling to break out of the space on the stage she confines herself to.

Once Okpokwasili transitions to the spoken part of the piece (“Look up at the sky. Now ask yourself, Am I awake?” begins a section in which she embodies the young girls, repeating the question over and over until she bursts out with “Slap your face! Slap your face! You’re awake.”), her words lead the performance. She provokes the audience to consider, among other questions, why the sexuality of young girls is so disconcerting to adults. The movements of her face and body are as expressive as her words, bringing a tangible quality to the fear and pain one hears in her language.

The film also has the advantage of being able to show both Okpokwasili and the various live audiences for which she is performing, from the North American tour’s opening night in Milwaukee to its closing night in the Bronx. Audience members’ discomfort at certain moments is palpable, and at times you can learn more about what Okpokwasili is trying to do by seeing how the audience is grappling with what is happening in front of them. (One could, however, argue that the film’s lengthy focus on performance takes away from more time that could have been spent letting the engaging Okpokwasili talk. The brief glimpses of her life with her husband, daughter, and parents also provide a warm counterbalance to the weighty themes of her performance. But all of this seems to be cut just a bit too short to allow for more footage of her onstage.)

There are thoughtful flashes, though, into the difficult process that rehearsing and creating a piece like Bronx Gothic can be. “I’ll start with a question and I’ll start generating text,” Okpokwasili tells me, and that text is always changing, being reshaped and reauthored as she practices and performs. In the film, the viewer sees the performer reciting portions of the spoken sections of Bronx Gothic, playing with emphasis and phrasing. In one particularly memorable scene, she sits alone in an auditorium, saying aloud the line, “They’re gonna slap you so hard that they will decouple you from your genetic code.” Deep in thought, her brows furrow and she deconstructs the phrase: “They will slap you down through all the mothers of your mother.”

At the same time, viewers see the artist break down in tears as she arrives backstage after her final performance, completely overwhelmed by the experience of putting on such an emotionally exhausting work, one that attempts to bring the audience to a better understanding of the brown body. Okpokwasili explained some of the concerns that drive her to explore that corporeal form in an interview with Bomb Magazine last year:

Is there a place in performance to deal with a brown girl’s body as the site of innocence and desire? How can we all go inside the body, inside the psyche? How can I get people in the room to go there, even if I’m not asking them to move?

Rossi seems to have drawn from a similar place for his film, seamlessly transporting viewers into her world of motion and allowing them, often, to forget his camera.

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Bronx Gothic was a major success for Okpokwasili, winning her a 2014 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for Outstanding Production and allowing her to tour nationally and internationally. Now, the film—which Rossi, a documentarian who has been friends with Okpokwasili since college, took the initiative to create when he found out the 2016 tour of Bronx Gothic would be its last—allows her work to reach even further, as it finds new audiences, from Santa Fe to Oklahoma City.

But none of those accomplishments would’ve been possible had it not been for Okpokwasili’s motivation in seeking out people who could help her and being receptive to chances for fellowships and residencies. The piece “started with me … showing small pieces where I could, continuing to work on it, and being alert to opportunities,” she says. And by the time it was ready to be shared with the public, Bronx Gothic had benefited from the help of several different people and institutions, including a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Extended Life program, which awards artists residency space and financial support.

Despite Okpokwasili’s more widespread recognition from Bronx Gothic and the documentary, she still relies on a wide community of collaborators and supporters, including for her most recent piece, Poor People’s TV Room, which premiered in New York City earlier this year. While perhaps no longer needing to work odd-jobs for what she calls a “measly salary” to provide stipends for performers in her pieces or feeling as if she’s simply tumbled “into some lucky spots,” as she mentions she previously did, Okpokwasili nonetheless receives much of her monetary support via grants and commissions.

Specifically calling out the philanthropic arts organization Creative Capital for providing financial and advisory help to artists, Okpokwasili says it has given her “the tools to think differently or to try to move out a survival mode and move into a thriving mode. That’s kind of cliched, but how to really invest in yourself and your vision as an artist in a bigger and long-term way and not just project to project.” Without such varied sources of assistance, it would be almost impossible to get a performance off the ground. Because just as choreographing and writing are continual works in progress, so is the process of finding ways to bring them to the stage.