Age and Visibility in Dance

DISTILLERY interview with Kesha McKey and Scott Heron

The DISTILLERY is a residency program in New Orleans for performing artists crafting new work. The residency supports artist exchanges across disciplines, work in-progress showings free to the public, and bi-weekly “roundtable” discussions with visiting artists.

The mission of The DISTILLERY is to provide the means for mid-career New Orleans artists to develop their new work with resources, right here at home.

Following a roundtable, DISTILLERY Facilitator Emilie Whelan sat down with fellows Kesha McKey and Scott “Scotty” Heron—two extraordinary and radically different artists based in dance—as they interviewed each other about aging, visibility, and the audacity of an artist to set work on another’s body. Kesha is currently choreographing a work for three women about black female bodies in the South today set against the archives surrounding Saartjie Baartman. Scotty Heron, in collaboration with sound designer Brendan Connelly, is crafting a new piece in conversation with Martha Graham, Aaron Copeland, the Civil War, and the queerness of the clarinet.

a dancer outdoors
Kesha McKey in  Distorted Images. Photo by El-pive Photography.

With every part of my body, there is no judgment about what is dance, or what is beautiful, or what is the content.


 
a man working on music
 Scott Heron and Brendan Connelly in rehearsal. Photo by Emilie Whelan.

The following was audio recorded and then transcribed.

Scotty Heron: OK. You go first.

Kesha McKey: No you, please.

Scotty: OK—when you’re ninety, could you do what you do now onstage?

Kesha: (Laughing) Well, it wouldn’t look like it would look now! But, yes, I could get my points across.

Scotty: What would it look like?

Kesha: Oh gosh…more of me talking! (Laughing)

Scotty: I feel like I could get better and need less because there will be less physically.

Kesha: Very much so. Scotty, what inspired you to start making work?

Scotty: I ended up in the dance community in New York during the eighties and I was in everyone’s pieces. And then I thought, “Alright. I’ll make my own.” It’s a big fucking accident, like anyone’s life. I don’t know how I get to where I go. I was onstage in the fourth grade playing in band, and dancing. Why do any gay boys go onto the stage? (Laughing) Why do you get up onstage?

Kesha: Choreographing?

Scotty: Yeah. Why go onstage and do your work?

Kesha: I danced for others. You know, I guess I was never given the opportunity to set work on others, on the people that I was dancing with. Nobody asked. It was always like, “Oh, Kesha knows the choreography. She’s got it!” I became the go-to person to show other people how, well.” Other people were asked to create work, but I was never asked. And then there was the moment of me realizing, “Wait a minute, I do have something to say.”

Scotty: Like what?

Kesha: I was doing community work and suddenly it was important for me to tell the stories of what I saw happening in the city. Not just the social issues other people were seeing, dancing, and skirting around. Even when we see it in our neighborhoods every day, where are our artists who really talk about issues in dance, in front of the city? So I knew it was time for me to use my work to talk about the things nobody else wanted to address.

two dancers in rehearsal
Kesha’s dance rehearsal. Photo by Emilie Whelan.

I believe there is another plane that you ascend when you dance. I feel like dance is where one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities come out.

Scotty: You know the first piece I ever made was because of a friend of mine. I was at PS 122 and one day Mark Russell asked, “When are you going to make a piece?” And I responded, “When can I do it?” Yet, before anybody asked us—or didn’t ask us—we already made pieces as six year olds.

Kesha: (Laughing) Oh yes!

Scotty: I remember a beautiful, minimalist theatre piece I made. I had cars pulling up to a gas pump getting filled, and I made my family watch. And that was it! That was the piece: watching those little cars get gas.

Kesha: When I was younger, my family had a whole bunch of choreographed songs, dances, costumes, and a director. I was the director and I’d boss them around. (Laughing) “You’re here! Now, you’re there!”

Scotty: One year, my family made the Christmas gifts we gave to each other. My dad put skirts on spoons and gave them to me as puppets.

Kesha: If you don’t have a source—a core source—when you begin making work, what’s your first step?

Scotty: My first step of the process is going to the studio and making myself dance for an hour. I try to turn off my brain. This all comes from Deborah Hay. I try to be available and get into this place where every part of my body is just as intelligent as any other part. I commit to playing, and seeing. With every part of my body, there is no judgment about what is dance, or what is beautiful, or what is the content. Sometimes nothing will happen, or something will hit. I’ll mime yo-yo-ing and it will be genius! (Laughing) Once I go back to Martha [Graham] or Aaron Copeland, three minutes later I’ve forgotten about it and I am onto something new like yo-yo. But Aaron’s music is still on, so it works.

So many of the artist communities here in New Orleans are involved in social work: art as social work. And I’m always curious about Southern roots as such a big part of communities here. Even as a completely atheistic person, I see dance as spiritual, a ritual that accesses a place that’s much more. One of my big questions for you [Kesha] is where is social justice [in art], and where are you in that spectrum? Oh, I guess that’s two questions, or a lot of questions.

Kesha: Well, dance is definitely spiritual. I believe there is another plane that you ascend when you dance. I feel like dance is where one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities come out. Instead of ignoring those impulses, I lean into them. And I believe social change does come from our innermost vulnerabilities. The dancers I look for are ready to share their vulnerability. So in my process, we have to talk. I have to allow for dancers’ stories to be safe and heard so that they can actually access their bodies. They are not just telling the stories I set on them, they are telling their own vulnerable stories, which shine through.

Pause.

Kesha: Scotty, how do you see your body performing at age ninety?

Scotty: You know, I was just theorizing that the only way performing will ever make sense is if I dance until I die. (Laughing) If I get a little done every year, at some point I’m going to be four generations older than the children dancing. Then, I think there will be a connection.

a dancer on stage
Scott Heron in  Appalachian Spring Break. Photo by  Emilie Whelan.

 

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