Being Seen: An Interview with Leslie Cuyjet
Posted Jun 3, 2021
By Tara Aisha Willis

I became aware of Leslie Cuyjet well before we actually met, and possibly before I even first saw her dance. As Black dancers within New York City’s mostly white experimental dance scene over the last decade or so, “which so often found her cast as a black dot on a white stage” (as reads the description of Leslie’s new choreographic work Blur), we’ve both experienced discomfort and attenuated feelings within the unspoken racial dynamics of casting and creative processes. When those “black dots”—on stage, and across studios and theater lobbies—are few and far between, it’s easy to spot each other in advance.

Officially, our paths have crossed many times: For several years, we were both part of the roiling masses of dancers in various site-specific works by Kim Brandt, a past Open Call artist. In 2015 I had the chance to co-write a piece about a duet Leslie was in by choreographer Cynthia Oliver, the first time I remember seeing her dance in something that directly addressed race and cultural identity—Leslie and Cynthia’s shared Black and Caribbean American backgrounds, in that case. We performed together in What Remains starting in 2018, a work choreographed by Will Rawls in collaboration with poet Claudia Rankine, in which the all-Black cast of four performers make our shared interior and intimate experience of living felt onstage using voice, movement, text, and sound. I’ve come to know Leslie as an artist whose conceptual thinking works its way to the stage through deft, full-bodied physical practice, and who brings an open fearlessness and decisive precision to each new angle or proposition in a rehearsal process.

In early May we connected over video chat to gossip and compare notes about our experiences in the dance world, but mostly to talk about how Blur is moving her practice to new places: how she’s approaching her process differently in the pandemic era, how her history as both dancer and dance-maker complicate her sense of self, how she’s turning her focus inward and outward at once, and what it means to put her body in front of an audience again, now.

Tara Aisha Willis:
You’ve done so much solo and duet work in the past. I’m curious how you see your own body showing up in this new piece. When I ask that, I’m asking about your physical body, and you as an author and a subject.

Leslie Cuyjet:
I think a lot of it was coming from… Obviously as a result of the pandemic and thinking: what can I possibly do with the resources that I have? And all I had was 10-by-10 space in my apartment, and myself, and my computer. My piece for Open Call is a solo, though I really wanted it to not be a solo. My original proposal was to have four or five other performers. But I wanted it to be specific to the experience that I’m talking about, which is feeling invisible in the world. And then of course, with the pandemic, it was very hard to start talking about that, when we’re all invisible, when we’re all basically hiding in our homes. So, then it translated to my body and that’s where I decided I wanted to work with a costume designer, Mio Guberinic, or have some kind of visual elements that would give a representation of my body that wasn’t necessarily my person. I guess in wearing that costume I can also be author and subject at the same time, which I hadn’t thought of before. How do I become a representation of myself to further blur and obfuscate the explicitness of a Black body performing?

I’m thinking about the point you make in the description of Blur about being the lone Black body in the past, the one performer of color, against the white landscape. And then I’m thinking about your conversation with Angie [Pittman, published on Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence blog] and how there’s a type of casting to have diversity in a mostly white cast, and then there’s another type to create Black space. And either way there’s these pitfalls, right? And power dynamics. What does that mean for you as both the maker and the performer? You’re casting yourself, almost. What’s your relationship with yourself in making this work?

“I can also be author and subject at the same time…”

It really feels necessary. It feels personal and private in this way that is healing for me. And these years of not asking myself, “Do you need healing?” Not asking myself, “Is this okay?” What’s being asked of your body as a performer and as a dancer, with or without consent? Have you been taking care of yourself? And I feel like me, first of all, I love performing because it gives me a channel or access to a purpose for being many different things I can be; I can be raw and wild and nasty, and embody something that I maybe wouldn’t in my everyday life, and that’s also healing. There’s some writing for the piece that I’m not able to share yet because it feels very private… I’m not sure how much text will be legible in this piece. I’m not sure if I just want to go ahead and spread it out there with the intention that it’s more about the sonic landscape of these words and the charged melody of the rhythm.

[Choreographer] David Thompson said, the other day, “you got to have the forest fire for the forest.” Sort of like that. You got to have that moment of destruction in order to have creation, and that’s what I feel I’m finding in making work. I’m able to break down these constructs that I’ve learned through being a performer in other people’s work, and really just try to experiment with new methods of making, new ways of performing and new ways of accessing this space and myself. That’s therapy. I’m performing therapy.

What are some of the strategies that you’re using? I’m struck by how you build structure and pattern, layers of text and movement. I’m guessing with improvisation and set material, with speech versus song, bodily shape versus gesture, and persona. I’m curious how you’re approaching that, and does it feel like it’s more about one thing or another, or a certain palette: sequence and layering, or physical or emotional states? How do you feel like your toolkit is coming out?

I’m trying some new things here because throughout the pandemic I still have been practicing [the improvisation framework called] Authentic Movement, which has really been helpful and especially healing for literally breaking dance habits, getting in touch with impulse and what is coming from myself as opposed to what I’ve been doing in my patterns. That’s been a guiding force in the past two years of my making. I love repetition. I am not afraid of repetition. I’m not afraid of drilling it into the ground. I think that’s because of this thesis of, “I need to be heard but I’m constantly confusing the thing I’m trying to say.” And because it’s scary to be explicit.

A lot of this piece is based off of this communication with the sound designer, Brandon Wolcott. He has this recording of me reading this text that he’s going to be layering with my own voice; it’s going to run through a midi-player to make different sounds with the melody and the timbre of my voice, and mixed with other sounds… And we’re playing with different methods of communicating through these pops and jolts of legibility and illegibility.

One section we’re calling the “anti-performance,” in this section I don’t know what to do in front of people but I’m attempting to not perform. It’s a section that has something that feels very risky and not for anybody else but me, which also falls in line conceptually with reclaiming performing… Being witnessed by… I don’t really know The Shed’s audience members, but I’m guessing people who go to experimental dance performances—it’s a mixed bag. Probably mostly artists, probably majority white, you know? All that’s sort of churning in my brain: “How can I make this mine?”

“Part of my life’s work is to confuse that narrative: that because I am Black, I fit into one role or one path…”

And it’s also so full of contradictions, because that is also totally our community, or one of our communities. And the way that it feels to live onstage in those precarious situations as a dancer, as the only one in the room, or whatever it is, also being in those spaces is a choice that you make as a dancer and you take on. So it’s like, there’s this “frenemy” dynamic.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

…With yourself but also with the audience.

Part of my life’s work is to confuse that narrative: that because I am Black, I fit into one role or one path and I can only do one thing, I can’t fuck with abstraction, and I can’t have an anti-performance and also not call it political. And yeah, that’s in everything that I try to do.

You mentioned opacity and exposure in terms of your body or subjectivity, but I’m also curious about any exposure or hiding or revealing of the piece’s construction and making, its structure. Or infrastructure.

Aside from my Open Call performance, I’m working on another piece right now, which is only that. I’m calling myself “the technician” because I’m literally only activating the mechanism; a bunch of video projectors. And it’s still a performance, but I’m able to be in this technician embodiment which is very, very different.

And for Blur, especially with this costume… Mio was like, “I think your costume is going to be… My inspiration is a scream.” And I was like, that’s amazing. He was talking about water, like when you scream into water; the ripple being a texture, or like sound reverberating water. We talked about a mask that has quills coming out… It’s very grotesque and interesting.

And I love that there are going to be extremes in the sound and in the costume so that I can take a break. So that I can take on this technician embodiment and not have to worry so hard. But yeah, I don’t think that’s fully been figured out for this piece. It’ll be interesting to get it in front of an audience and know how that feels.

“There’s just so much unknown, but I do feel like audience is the last piece of that puzzle.”

How has your thinking about audience changed because of your experience with Covid-19 or just with the literal parameters it has imposed?

Half the time I wasn’t even in a studio this past year. So it was mostly sitting at my desk. I was doing a lot of writing. I was doing a lot of video. The Shed and I had a long conversation about just doing a video installation. But even with that, I wanted it to be time-based and I still wanted some sort of activation… Not necessarily a beginning, middle, and end, but some way that my present body would be represented. I don’t really know what the exchange with an audience is, especially now. I don’t know if audiences feel comfortable. I don’t know if they remember. There’s just so much unknown, but I do feel like audience is the last piece of that puzzle. It’s the punctuation. It rounds it out, gives it color.

Because I know, even in doing Authentic Movement: I’ve done it by myself, in a room with my eyes closed and running into walls. I’ve also done it where there’s one person in the room, and that changes things. Just one pair of eyes in the room changes how my heart rate is faster; I’m thinking about them; I’m thinking about what they’re seeing; I’m imagining what they’re seeing. It changes the whole landscape. I am just really excited to have that punctuation, that vivid experience of being witnessed and really being seen.


Tara Aisha Willis is a Chicago-based dancer, PhD candidate in performance studies at New York University, and associate curator in performance and public Practice at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Willis performed in a collaboration between Will Rawls and Claudia Rankine and in the “Bessie” award-winning performance by The Skeleton Architecture. She has held a NYPL Jerome Robbins Dance Division Research Fellowship, is an editorial collective member of Women & Performance, and former co-managing editor for TDR/The Drama Review. She co-edited the first dance-focused special issue of The Black Scholar with Thomas F. DeFrantz (2016) and the performance writing book, Marking the Occasion (Wendy’s Subway, 2020), with Jaime Shearn Coan. She was the founding administrator of Movement Research’s Artists of Color Council and a member of the phase 1 working group for “Creating New Futures,” the Covid-19 responsive guidelines for ethical dance presenting.
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