The Black Iris Project

Choreographer Jeremy McQueen champions justice through dance.

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Choreographer Jeremy McQueen’s Black Iris Project returns to Vineyard Arts Project through Sept. 2, wrapping up the Edgartown artist colony’s summer. The New York City collaborative will present new choreography at Vineyard Arts on Saturday, Sept. 1, from 7 to 8 pm. Since opening their season last June, McQueen’s work, “A Mother’s Rite,” made its premier at Marcus Garvey Park’s SummerStage. The solo was paired with another of McQueen’s politically inspired works, “Madiba,” an en pointe ballet honoring Nelson Mandela’s centenary.

McQueen created the unapologetically black-centric Black Iris Project in 2016 in order to champion social equity, justice, and education. Using the ballet vocabulary, with its rich history of narrative dance, thrilling technique, and synergistic musical choices, McQueen places himself in the center of the movement to expand the presence of artists of color in the genre. Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre principal dancer, in her role as curator, invited the Black Iris 14-dancer ensemble to perform “Madiba” with full orchestra at the 2017 Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America festival.

McQueen has comprehensive dance and choreography training and studied music from age 5. He finds inspiration in music, and is attracted to narrative choreography. McQueen says, “I’m interested in my work being accessible. I want to connect with the audience and community in a culturally relevant way. I choose stories that have significant historical realities, align with my political beliefs and the emotions they evoke.” It is important to remember a socially relevant topic, whatever its merits, does not make a good dance. Good choreography makes a good dance. McQueen weaves passionate tales with complex structures, surrounded by unique sounds. He makes good choreography while fulfilling the Black Iris mission.

Dance, notwithstanding ballet’s long history of “story ballet,” is not an easy form in which to tell a tale. It is excellent at creating emotion, implying narrative, or making abstractions. The famous 19th-century ballets like “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” and “Giselle,” use simple plot lines, standardized structure, and mime with fantastic music to frame the best of what traditional ballet contains: lovers, other-worldly beings, astonishing airborne feats, balancing acts, speedy turns, fast footwork, and gorgeous line.

Contemporary modern dance choreographers do capitalize on some of ballet’s best choreographic elements. Martha’s Vineyard audiences may be familiar with the work of frequent Yard artists David Dorfman and Patricia Hoffbauer/George Emilio Sanchez. They use movement, text, projections, and eclectic music and sound, successfully illustrating a nonabstract specific message, often through dreamlike chronologies. Arguably the world’s most famous ballet choreographer, George Balanchine, created narrative work, but he tended to work more in the purely abstract, as in “Symphony in C” or “Agon,” or implied narratives like “Square Dance” or “Union Jack.” Agnes de Mille, one of the 20th century’s most ingenious ballet storytellers, did so without using spoken word, as in “Rodeo” and “Fall River Legend.” Without being derivative, McQueen, so far, is inventing successfully in all of these worlds, balancing much of the best of what these four choreographers bring to the table.

Following a residency at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, McQueen used his first Vineyard Arts residency this past June to make multiple edits to his completed draft of “Rite,” radically changing a significant element of the work. Initially designed to use projections, McQueen, who wants this work to tour to all types of theaters, schools, and festivals, made the practical decision to cut the technically complex and expensive projections. After wracking his brain, he eventually substituted a recorded voice over the already chosen music, Igor Stravinsky’s four-hand arrangement of “Rite of Spring,” to great effect. Having an entire week to step back and view live runs of “Rite,” to think, dream, and revise, was an artistic luxury. McQueen used this gift of time and space from Vineyard Arts well. He finds gesture, facial expression, and energy as intriguing as the actual movements and spacing, and refined accordingly. McQueen searches his gut for what is working and what is not, the mark of a mature artistic ego.

During his upcoming residency, McQueen will be working on his new dance, based on the life of Harriet Tubman. As he did with “Rite,” he will make both a film and a live performance. McQueen will set a draft of the work at Alabama State University in Montgomery, using student dancers and a professional en pointe, playing Tubman. McQueen will be also be exploring the woods, as they play such an important setting in Tubman’s Underground Railroad journeys. He says, “I have music in mind as well, but it’s early days, and I know the process will evolve as I analyze research and studio sessions.”

McQueen’s projects have been funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Harlem School of the Arts, among others. He won the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s Choreographers of Color Award and was two-time finalist of the Capezio Award for Choreographic Excellence. McQueen has a sensible approach to the amount of work Black Iris creates, aiming to choreograph one new dance per year. This is a time frame many other choreographers, who often find themselves in a position of working too fast and too often, ought to be helped to follow. It encourages true creativity, thoughtful, rigorous experimentation, necessary revising, and hopefully, good choreography.

When discussing his commitment to the Black Iris mission, McQueen relates what he considers a central event in his artistic continuum. “I was at a Solange concert at Radio City Music Hall. The audience was entirely enraptured. Solange was in the zone. One of her songs had the lyric ‘You got the right to be mad.’ Those words encapsulated the energy in my heart, my soul, and my need to participate in change.” Collective grief, collective innovation, collective agitation, collective power. It’s what McQueen’s work is all about. In movement.

To experience the Black Iris Project’s excerpts of new work, attend their showing at the Vineyard Arts Project Saturday, Sept. 1, from 7 to 8 pm. Vineyard Arts Project, 215 Upper Main St., Edgartown. For information, call 508-413-2104 or email info@vineyardartsproject.org. Reserved tickets are available at ticketsmv.com/event.php?id=29984, or pay-what-you-can tickets are available at the door (all donations greatly appreciated).