For Seattle dance artist and choreographer Nia-Amina Minor, art-making is all about the invitation: a gesture; an opening that blooms outward from its center; bringing in voices from the past and present; from the audience members seeing all kinds of dance vocabulary unfold onstage to the dancer on the Marley in a master class, breathing in and out.
That’s the motivating impulse of To Gather, two weekends of dance and performance at On the Boards this October. Curated by Minor and fellow dance artist David Rue, the program brings together big-name out-of-town performers and highlights Seattle’s own deep bench of performers, all while drawing on a rich dance history, a long-running collaboration, a commitment to centering Black and brown performers past and present, and an ongoing inquiry into what it means to share space and make art in community. “It does sort of blossom out in this way,” said Minor. “It’s much more than it is about the two of us. It is really about this invitation.”
One of those invitations went out to Maurya Kerr, whose dance company tinypistol is based in the Bay Area, but who has her own ties to Seattle: She was trained at Pacific Northwest Ballet. “She’s a dancer that I’ve admired and revered for a very long time from afar and have built a relationship with,” said Rue, who was particularly drawn to the way Kerr interrogates Eurocentric norms in classical ballet—a big deal in an art form deeply rooted in white supremacy, rigid gender roles, and a culture that often normalizes abuse and perpetuates diet culture. Kerr’s work centers Black voices, said Rue, “in a way that is resistant and also very vocal.”
To Gather will also bring in Bernard Brown, who founded the LA-based dance company bbmoves in 2014 through a lens of social justice, and with whom Rue shares Minneapolis dance roots. Brown and Kerr will “be paired with local Seattle-based artists on the same bill,” said Rue, “and I think that that really comes back to this idea that we all have the potential to be connected and sometimes it takes the invitation to make that gathering practice happen. And I’m just really excited to see what will come of the process.”
Most arts communities draw on personal relationships, but To Gather incorporates these ties intentionally into an iterative, ongoing process of collaboration. The foundation of it all is the robust friendship and collaboration between Minor and Rue themselves, initially sparked when Rue was commissioning artists to bring dance into Seattle Art Museum’s gallery spaces. At SAM, he invited Minor, then a company member with Spectrum Dance Theater, to perform a solo for the exhibition Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, featuring work challenging the unbearable whiteness of canonical Western European art history.
“I was like, ‘Nia, I trust the beauty that you bring into the space,’” recalled Rue. “And there’s an image in my mind that I will never forget: It’s in front of a painting called ‘School of Beauty, School of Culture.’”
This was the site of Minor’s solo: a painting by Marshall depicting a beauty school filled with signifiers of Black culture and community, from an autographed Lauryn Hill album cover on the wall to the distorted head of a Disney-like white woman, a sendup of racist beauty standards and a deep-cut art historical reference to Hans Holbein. “It’s to this day one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done and look at what it’s led to,” said Rue. “Here we are.”
That first collaboration led to more: During the pandemic, Rue, Minor, marco farroni, and Akoiya Harris started having conversations about how they could build on their personal and creative connections. “How do we work collaboratively?” said Minor. “How do we bring our voices together and share in authorship of what we’re doing? And Black Collectivity came out of that.”
Black Collectivity, a project from Rue, Minor, farroni, and Harris, resulted in A Practice of Return, “a celebratory archival practice” offered as part of Velocity Dance Center’s 2023 Made in Seattle festival. The project combined workshops, performance, and film in a look back at the lineage of Black dance artists in Seattle, finding a catalyst and forebear in dancer and choreographer Syvilla Fort. A student at Cornish College of the Arts in the 1930s, Fort was a contemporary of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and her work served as inspiration for two weekends of performance—“a response from us as contemporary artists to this history,” as Minor put it.
A Practice of Return was a deep, ambitious project, one that required “about 18 months of research and planning,” said Minor, out of which “came continuous conversations between the four of us... how can we continue this practice, and how do we also provide opportunities for us to develop and grow as artists?”
To Gather was one answer, and Minor hopes it won’t be a stand-alone event but an ongoing inquiry into the ideas she and Rue first discussed as they developed the vision of Black Collectivity, one with the capacity to inspire even more artists, and even more creations rooted in community. “The idea that we had was this vision of gathering,” said Minor. “What does it look like to invite audiences and artists to gather together and to move into a relation that is in the spirit of gathering?”
Minor and Rue don’t know what collaboration or further inquiry To Gather may spark, just that, if their previous projects are any indication, it will, making space in the process for new work, and for Black and brown creators and performers to thrive alongside one other. “A mantra that we had during our first process was: We have this one star that’s amongst a constellation,” said Rue. “So how do we all shine within those stories? Which I think now is leading into To Gather... we’re thinking about how can we bring individual voices all together to sing one collective song? So we’re trying to really, conceptually have Black and brown artists twinkle in the cosmos.”
See To Gather at On the Boards Thursday-Saturday October 5-7 and 19-21. Participating Seattle dancers include Akoiya Harris, Benjamin Hunter, Cipher Goings, Symone Sanz, Jade Solomon Curtis, Milvia Pacheco Salvatierra in collaboration with Naomi Macalalad Bragin and Emma Njuguna. Tickets are available at ontheboards.org.