Q&A: Cynthia Oliver

Danielle Georgiou interviews the dancemaker about her career and Boom!, which is performed at the South Dallas Cultural Center this weekend.

published Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Photo: Julieta Cervantes


Dallas — The arts community of Dallas has been very lucky to call Vicki Meek one of their advocates for nearly 20 years. Since 1997, she has run the South Dallas Cultural Center bringing forward the community’s needs for visual and performing arts, classes, workshops, and a performance space. But this year finds Meek retiring and turning the reins over to a new leader—and hopefully one that will not only continue her legacy, but expand it. Never one to leave quietly, Meek is going out with a bang, or should I say a boom, as her parting gift to her beloved city and Cultural Center is the Dallas premiere of Cynthia Oliver’s highly celebrated and critically acclaimed BOOM!, and the world premiere of a new multi-disciplinary work by Michelle Gibson, Takin’ it to the Roots.

First up in our two-part interview series with the artists is Cynthia Oliver. Invited by Meek and supported by a National Performance Network residency grant, this restaging of BOOM! begins the month-long celebration of Black Women in Dance at the South Dallas Cultural Center. A duet between Oliver and dancer Leslie Cuyjet, BOOM! features the two in a myriad of relationships—are they individuals, are they friends, strangers, family? Or are they reflections of themselves? Through choreography that loops upon itself and disintegrates into non-linear sequences, we find the pair exploring who they are, their histories, and their futures.

As Oliver prepares to bring her duet to Dallas on March 5, we asked her a few questions about her sources of inspiration, her motivations to dance, and what makes BOOM! tick. 


TheaterJones: How did you first find yourself in dance? Was there one moment in particular that made you realize that dance would be a large part of your life?

Cynthia Oliver: I come from a family that always danced, so dance was a part of the air I breathed. However, as a young person I thought I would become an architect or engineer. I was a visual artist and was working toward translating my skills into something I imagined would support me. But there was a mentor of mine who had engaged me in her dance company after school and had me teaching younger children on the weekends, and I think she always believed I would dance, and she was just waiting and watching the passion for it take over me. It finally did when I was in high school and about to go to college. Recruiters came to my school and I was all prepared to talk about my courses in drafting and calculus, etc., …but the dance folks won me over. They offered me a scholarship and said I would try and see if it worked out, and the rest is history. I did my undergraduate work at Adelphi University in New York (after my high school years in the US Virgin Islands) and went on to a dance career that has yet to stop. It’s my passion. 


What or who do you find yourself being inspired by?

I am inspired by my people. I am an observer and full participant in the fabulous lives we black people lead. I didn’t say “easy” lives. But we make something out of whatever we have and that something is always fresh, innovative, stylish, often humorous, and forever forward thinking—because we have to do so to survive. We don’t often get credit for the ways we think and adapt and innovate, but I am acutely aware of these qualities in us and our vast differences that make our cultures so rich. That is what perpetually inspires me.


How did you and Leslie Cuyjet first meet?

Leslie was a student at the University of Illinois when I first accepted a position there. I was taken by her—her quiet power, her intelligence as a mover and artist—which was evident even then, and cast her in everything I made while she was there and many works since. I believe of all the folks with whom I have worked, I have worked with Leslie the most. Each of my projects is usually very different and it is rare that I cast someone more than once. Twice is saying something. But I believe Leslie has performed in 3 of my professional works and many of the pieces I developed with students (which ultimately found their way into my professional material). 


What inspired you two to work together and perform BOOM!? 

It’s a long story, but the short version is that I was coming back to performing after a life-threatening illness. I was invited to create a short work on a program with a few other artists. I accepted the offer/invitation but had no idea whether or what I would be able to do again. So I had to be in the studio with someone I trusted, someone I could be myself fully, vulnerable, fragile, everything and anything with. And Leslie and I have history. She was that person. And we built this piece with all of those (and many other) attributes that bubbled up to the surface as I wrote the piece and explored its physicality. 


How would you describe BOOM! to a non-dance audience?

I wouldn’t. It is a piece to experience. It will resonate with the ways we encounter and negotiate life. It is two women doing that honestly and in their own particular ways. 


What do you hope an audience takes away from the performance?

That we are all just trying to deal the best we can.  


How did you first become connected to the South Dallas Cultural Center and Vicki Meek?

I met Vicki a number of years ago when we were both on the board of the National Performance Network. We jived as artists and she swore to me that one day she would bring me out. And here we are... 


What are you most looking forward to in presenting this work in Dallas?

Performing for folks who will know! The moment this piece begins, they will know and we will hear it and I welcome that. I welcome performing this piece for the folks. It is necessary. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Cynthia Oliver
Danielle Georgiou interviews the dancemaker about her career and Boom!, which is performed at the South Dallas Cultural Center this weekend.
by Danielle Georgiou

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