“It’s so easy in today’s world to build a wall between people based on differences. For Mirelle and I, with our differences, we decided to build a bridge.”
Black Velvet, an award-winning performance by Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins has already turned heads in cities across America and Europe. It’s now headed for Singapore in Binary – International Artists Showcase on 3rd and 4th August, in a performance that promises to challenge your perceptions on gender, power, sexuality and race. We caught up with Pitts, a Brooklyn-based choreographer, ahead of his upcoming showcase.
Hi Shamel. What excites you about bringing Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes to Singapore?
First of all, I came here for the first time in April to perform OCD Love with L-E-V Dance Company at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). I really love this country. I thought it was really attractive, futuristic and clean.
I also have an interest in bringing my work to audiences that haven’t had the chance to be exposed to this kind of work, or these types of artists. There are lots of blurred lines in Black Velvet: power, femininity and masculinity, race and sexuality. One could see this as something messy, but the work itself is choreographed in a well-designed way. There’s a lot of visual beauty and order in the details, as you might be familiar with in Singapore from the look of your city.
From this beauty, we allow space to make a mess; a beautiful mess. We can learn from it. There’s this sense that messiness means something dark or incoherent, but there’s actually a lot of colourfulness and beauty in the mess.
When you created Black Velvet, your dance partner Mirelle Martins, had never performed on stage. Was that a messy place to be in?
It was nerve wrecking. We came from such different places in relationship to dance. As you mentioned, Black Velvet was the first time Mirelle had ever performed on stage, while I had just finished seven years performing on endless stages as a dancer with Batsheva Dance Company in Israel.
In Black Velvet, we were trying to create a work where we were mirroring and matching each other. It was very challenging and I felt uncertain over whether it could be done.
How did you face those fears in the beginning?
Often when I have fears, I try to meet them with bravery. I had a strong belief that Mirelle had something powerful to say as a performer. It took a lot of patience to listen to what was inside of her. I gave her a safe space to research, learn and to grow very quickly.
It’s amazing what you can do when you can give someone this kind of safety net, and when you believe in another person’s abilities.
So somehow it unleashed magic?
Yes, Mirelle is capable of creating magic. It comes from a deep, deep place within her. Magic is such an interesting thing. You know we recently completed a series of Black Velvet workshops in New York in May. We’re bringing that workshop to Singapore in August and it’s about the efficiency of strangers becoming partners. In many ways, it’s the story of how Mirelle and I became collaborators.
What we teach is similar to Gaga, the dance style that I was trained in at Batsheva, in terms of listening to what’s inside your body, inside your partner’s body and what’s around us.
The workshops we’ve run so far have been really inspiring. It’s amazing to become inspired by others, especially with our differences. It’s so easy in today’s world to build a wall between people based on differences. For Mirelle and I, with our differences, we decided to build a bridge.
How did the both of you create this connection?
We met in 2013 in Brooklyn, New York. She was coming to New York from Brazil to do her first dance course ever, a Gaga Summer Intensive, at age 28. I was her teacher.
When we first saw each other, we had an instant connection. I really felt this from the first moment of seeing her. We saw something very deep within each other, almost like seeing a mirror of yourself. It was very instinctual, and I think she would say the same.
What we realised was that we had a lot of similarities. We’re both African American. That’s just something obvious that’s physical. We came from places and cultures where we found ourselves to be outliers and outsiders. While we’re very connected to our cultures, we’re also very connected to what’s inside of us.
Almost like soul mates…
A lot of people say that. It’s kind of true though. We’re soul mates artistically.
What happens in Black Velvet?
It’s a duet performance created in collaboration with lighting and video mapping artist Luccaa Del Carlo from Brazil. We wanted to create a space where we could both exist with our mirroring and also with our differences. Black Velvet has a consciousness, and a questioning about our ideas and concerns as people living in this world. It’s about how two people reflect each other, blurring titles and labels around colour, power, sexuality and gender.
Since Black Velvet, are you Mirelle working on any new projects?
Currently I’m creating my third project with Mirelle called Black Hole: Trilogy and Triathlon. It’s the final piece in a trilogy that began with the first work, Black Box, and second piece, Black Velvet, which we’re bringing to the M1 CONTACT Festival.
A Black Hole has this huge gravitational force. Everything within its parameters is absorbed into it. It exerts a strong pull in every direction. In the work of Black Hole, I am not researching or sharing the science of the phenomenon, but rather the “magic” behind this extraordinary force in relationship to the physical qualities of the dancing, the piercing precision of the lighting in relationship to the contained and condensed energy of the audience. And in this way, the audience would feel condensed and absorbed into the performance itself.
While Black Velvet was a lot about mirroring, in Black Hole, it’s not about Mirelle and I; ultimately, we want the audience to receive a lot more about themselves.