Artists Reach Out: Raja Feather Kelly - Gibney
Week of July 13, 2020
Making space for

Artists Reach Out: Raja Feather Kelly

A black man in a neon green light dancing in a box.

ARTISTS REACH OUT: REFLECTIONS IN A TIME OF ISOLATION

Senior Curatorial Director Eva Yaa Asantewaa dreamed this series of interviews, Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation, out of grief for her work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance.

“In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there’s no distancing around what we still can share with one another—our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I’m glad they’re part of our beautiful community, and I’m eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.” – Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Senior Curatorial Director

This interview features Raja Feather Kelly, artistic director of feath3r theory, and Gibney 2016-17 boo-koo Resident Artist.


Raja Feather Kelly is a choreographer, director, and the artistic director of the feath3r theory and New Brooklyn Theatre. A three-time winner of the Princess Grace Award, Raja is the 2019–2020 Randjelović/Stryker Resident Commissioned Artist at New York Live Arts, an inaugural Jerome Hill Artist Fellow, and a 2019 Creative Capital awardee. He is a current fellow of HERE Arts, the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, and a Creative Associate at The Juilliard School. Over the past decade, Kelly has created fifteen evening-length premieres with his company the feath3r theory as well as directing and choreographing extensively for Off-Broadway theater in New York City. In 2019 he was nominated for the 2019 Lucille Lortel Award and the Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Choreography. His choreography has garnered a 2018 Breakout Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF) and he is a 2019 SDCF Joe A. Callaway Award finalist for outstanding choreography (A Strange LoopFairview), Dance Magazine‘s inaugural Harkness Promise Award (2018), and the Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography (2016). He was born in Fort Hood, Texas and holds a B.A. in Dance and English from Connecticut College.

Black and white photo of a Black man elegantly posed in a dress.
Photo by Maria Baranova.

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

“CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT”

So much of my work has been affected and on so many fronts. It’s devastating. I have had work cancelled until August. That includes: three full performances, five workshops, two week long residencies, and numerous teaching gigs, and this is aside from my ongoing rehearsals with my company. I am a freelancer; still and always, right? So in some ways, I know what it’s like for things to get cancelled and to be postponed, but in this case, I can’t even plan for the future because so much is uncertain. It is scary, but also, I am a workaholic; I haven’t taken a break since my Junior year of college, no joke. I mean, I had a wedding last year, and I started a show the day after. I work. I came to work. It is a large part of my identity, and it’s shaken.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

“EVERYBODY MUST HAVE A FANTASY”

I can’t even begin to really nail down how I got involved, but I believe it had something to do with the coming together of two things for me: getting out of myself and getting out of my town. It has only recently felt like a kind of “practice” that I could identify. Everything I have participated in up until now has been a following of my interests and a fear of boredom, death, or crime. Watching television as a child gave anchored time for me; making dances as a teenager gave me a purpose; memorizing poetry gave me solace. What was extra-curricular, growing up, became a study through college, and now performing, teaching, choreographing, and directing is a hopscotch game between the career box, a business box, and the box of artistic practice.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

“DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?”

I practice Storytelling. That is my main interest in all that I do. It requires what is most important to me: the process of using fact and narrative to communicate something to your audience. And while some stories are factual, some are embellished or improvised in order to best explain the core message.

As a Storyteller of my own creations and also a realizer for others’ stories, my mission—or what I envision—is to challenge my audience and collaborators to collectively interrogate and celebrate our shared relationship to human empathy and personal ethics, but specifically, as they are as expressed in and distorted by popular media. You know I love me some Popular Culture.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

“IT IS NOT WHAT BUT HOW”

What I care about most seems to change more often than I can keep up with. Somehow, however, having a practice holds me to a kind of integrity that surprises me and keeps me in line with my vision, and my vision, in many, ways represents a kind of humanness that I care about most. Courage, Empathy, Curiosity, Determination. This kind of totem allows what I care about to shift, but my approach to them does not waver.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

I assume you mean, “the world we have now” as in the state of the world we are in now and that which will forever change who/what we are and what/how we do (it)? The impact of the ___________ (I can’t bear to say the C word, either of them.) Anyway, as you can see, I have a mantra for almost everything I think about. Like a good title, a little quote or mantra can certainly lead you forward. My approach to this time, which I secretly feel has a lot to teach us—particularly to appreciate life more—my mantra for this time as it relates to my practice is:

“LIVE THE WAY YOU WANT YOUR STORY TOLD…
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“OR FAIL TRYING”

Briefly share one self-care tip that has special meaning to you now.

Do nothing, until something makes you do it.

 

 

To read all of Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s Artists Reach Out interviews, visit infinitebody.blogspot.com.

 

Top photo of Raja Feather Kelly’s Ugly, photo by Maria Baranova.