While many dance makers have embraced the idea of staging their work in non-traditional venues, I have presented work almost exclusively in the traditional theater setting. Yet, over the past few years, my choreography has been graciously supported and encouraged by my continued relationship with the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. This partnership has been a wonderful way to challenge myself as both a performer and choreographer.
I have become more adept at presenting pieces in spatially challenging areas. My dancers have had to avoid power outlets in the floors, wall displays with alarms, spaces with very unconventional dimensions, even museum patrons unintentionally walking through performance areas. This keeps us all on our toes and gives the work a fresh quality.
On the other hand, we were provided with marley when needed, a beautiful sound system, and adequate seating for the audience. The challenges were merely a part of the fact that the original intention of the space was to display static works, rather than moving ones. Yet, this presentation shapes the work in exciting ways. It also challenges me to view my choreography with a new eye for staging.
Usually, I choreograph pieces for a theater stage and I decide the form, length, and content. At the museum, each piece was commissioned for a specific purpose with a program or exhibit in mind. I conceived, shaped, and adjusted the pieces in consultation with the museum staff. I was initially intimidated by this framework, but have come to enjoy the freedom within the structure. My pieces have become more robust as a result and have included lectures, video presentations, and extended question and answer sessions that have worked well for the museum setting.
My first piece, Langston Suite, was a dance for three women. It was a half-hour piece, and I crafted it around the African Diaspora, the main premise of the museum. My next piece, Sweet Nina, was an educational performance for children with vocalist Kwama Thompson. We danced and sang with the enthusiastic children in an interactive context, teaching them about black history, through a call and response format. This performance coincided with the Free Family Days held in museums throughout the city.
Most recently I choreographed My Life as a Bird, a piece about jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. I sought not only to celebrate the life of my favorite jazz musician, but also to link this performance with the art on display. The performance coincided with the Jazz and the Fabric of Life quilt exhibit at the museum. We staged the work within the quilts, which amplified the piece’s energy and vibrancy.
The single most valuable outcome of these experiences has been increased and varied exposure for my work. I believe that performances in non-traditional spaces are vital to building new audiences and increasing interest in dance. I have loved working in a non-traditional space and creating dances that are historical, contextual, and tell a story. This coming February, I will present a piece on the 60s Black Power Movement to augment the 60s exhibit coming to the museum during Black History Month.
After the shows, my dancers and I distributed surveys and had a question and answer panel with the audience. We found out that many of the attendees had not known about the shows in advance. Most were walking past or passing through the museum and were drawn into the piece. These spur of the moment viewers are of great interest to me as an artist. Many of them were from other states, even other countries.
This audience could not have attended the same performance in a conventional setting because traditional theater does not encourage this type of spontaneous viewing. In this way, new audiences can discover dance in a setting that fosters a serendipitous opportunity to enjoy both visual and performance art. I think the kind of exposure that dance can have in spaces where people are allowed to enter and exit, to experience and share, to view with a different lens, are all situations that can help our art form grow and evolve.
Jetta Martin graduated cum laude from Harvard University and performed professionally with Ronn Guidi’s Oakland Ballet, the Mark Foehringer Dance Project, Push Dance Company, Liberation Dance Theater, David Herrera Performance Company, and the Natasha Carlitz Dance Ensemble, among others. Performance credits include Joyce Soho, ODC, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and the Egyptian Modern Dance Festival in Cairo. Jetta’s choreography has been featured on both coasts and has been commissioned by the Black Choreographer’s Festival, Dance Mission Theater, Museum of the African Diaspora, and Stapleton School of Ballet among others. Currently she is on faculty at Brisbane Dance Workshop, East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, and The Ballet Studio. She is the administrator for Western Sky Studio in Berkeley and a writer and editor for Conscious Dancer magazine.
Photos by Corey Wade of the piece My Life as a Bird. Dancers: Coral Martin, Jetta Martin, and Travis Santell Rowland.