Dallas — Last weekend marked the official retirement of longtime arts advocate and South Dallas Cultural Center Director Vicki Meek. For nearly 20 years, she worked toward improving and providing space for the community’s need for diversity in the visual and performing arts. As a sort of parting gift, Meek designed a monthlong celebration of Black Women in Dance at the South Dallas Cultural Center. The first offering was Cynthia Oliver’s BOOM!, and next up is the world premiere of local choreographer Michelle Gibson’s Takin’ It To The Roots.
The second installment in our two-part interview series is with Gibson. Takin’ It To The Roots was co-commissioned by the South Dallas Cultural Center and the Ashe Cultural Center in New Orleans, and includes original music by Brent Nance and Jason Davis, videography by Bart Weiss (see video above), and a script by local playwright and Steinberg finalist Jonathan Norton. We talked to her in anticipation of the premiere March 25-27 at the South Dallas Cultural Center Theater.
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?
Michelle Gibson: I was born and raised a preacher’s daughter in the AME Church, and it was my father’s hope, I think, that I would learn how to play the piano and possibly become the pianist for the church. So, my mom put me into piano lessons for about two years…but during that time one of my mom’s coworkers invited us to her daughter’s dance recital, and after that, it was all about dance for me.
Now, mind you, I always loved to dance and would always be the kid that would cut the rug at a family gathering, party, or any place I heard music…but as I watched those young dancers at the recital, I said to myself, “I can do that!” I begged my mom to let me go to dancing school. Knowing my dad would not approve she secretly signed me up, and the rest is history!
What do you find yourself being inspired by?
I’m inspired by people’s emotions toward what they see and feel, the compassion felt when art is viewed, the stories created and shared through art, the testimonial place art lives in one’s soul, the moments people find themselves surrendering to: beauty, pain, fear, joy, love, and peace. When an audience member is moved in spirit by what I do and feels connected, it inspires me to continue the therapy sessions.
How did the concept for Takin’ It To The Roots first come about?
The work is really rooted in my New Orleans African-American experience. Growing up in the midst of historical African-American communities in the Algiers and Uptown areas, and steeped in the music associated with both gospel and jazz, I found myself attracted to these movements. As I grew as an artist, I started to explore how the Second Line music and dance really manifested in my work. By 2009, I formally defined my choreographic style as the “Second Line Aesthetic” [relates to the second line in New Orleans parades] and started to isolate and work within specific movements like bucking and tipping. That same year, I started work on my MFA in Dance at Hollins University/The American Dance Festival at Duke University, and my thesis allowed me to keep researching and exploring these ideas. And now, here we are with Takin’ It to the Roots, a performance associated with my thesis and one that choreographically traces movements from Africa through the Caribbean into the Congo Square New Orleans.
The work is extremely collaborative from the original music created by Brent Nance and Jason Davis, the video work from Bart Weiss, and the script from Jonathan Norton. And how as the collaboration been so far?
My Lord! My Lord! So, let me first just start by saying that collaborative work is truly a challenge when you and four other people have to maneuver your personal and professional schedules to get the work done. I have had the opportunity to work with amazing artists on this project and I’m so thankful for this experience. An experience that has taught me so much as it pertains to allowing my own personal vision the space to grow and embody other creative minds to help and support my work.
How important is text/dialogue to you in crafting this work?
Text and dialogue was very important in crafting the work. Jonathan Norton, my dramaturg, and I had a billion and one conversations and meetings when creating the work. I did not realize how truly difficult it was to narrow down an idea that is so rich and full of historical content as it pertains to my city and my artistic voice. It was very hard as we shifted from thought to thought. I had so much to say but had to narrow it all done into an hour and a half! I almost pulled every piece of the little hair I had out! But it taught me so much, and hats off to Jonathan Norton!
You have worked at the South Dallas Cultural Center for years and have a great relationship with Vicki Meek. How has that relationship grown or changed while working on this piece?
Wow. I don’t know how are where to begin…I’ve been with Mama Vicki Meek and the South Dallas Cultural Center since 2006, and I’m getting watery eyes just thinking about it. I arrived here in Dallas in 2005 after being tossed out of my home by Hurricane Katrina, and I didn’t know a single soul. But Mama Vicki Meek opened her arms and embraced me. After Katrina I was in a very dark and bitter place, and honestly, I had no desire to make art anymore. But Vicki and the SDCC family allowed me the opportunity to find my rebirth again.
What do you hope an audience takes away from watching Takin’ It To The Roots?
I have always found that to be a very interesting question because I feel that not only is it the responsibility for the performer to give but also important for the audience to do the same as well. Giving to be open to the unexpected. Nevertheless this work is not a performance piece but a communal ritual. I don’t necessary want to audience to sit and watch me perform because within the Second Line Culture there are no observers. Everyone is apart of the impulse of spirit and that is what I hope that audience members allow themselves to open up into the space and feel their own personal, cultural, and spiritual impulse.