Black+Disabled+Dance = A Black HistoryMonth Interview with Choreographer, Barak adé Soleil On Legacies Within Intersectionality and Art

PNNscholar1 - Posted on 08 February 2016

Leroy Moore
Photoo by Erika Dufour
Barak adé Soleil makes dance, theatre, and performance art. An award-winning creative practitioner, he has been invested in engaging diverse communities throughout the US, Panama, Europe, and West Africa. Barak is the founder of  D  UNDERBELLY, an interdisciplinary network of artists of color, and recipient of the prestigious Katherine Dunham Choreography award given by NY's AUDELCO for excellence in Black Theatre. His directing, performing, and process speak to the expanse of contemporary art; utilizing techniques drawn from the African diaspora, disability and queer culture, post-modern, and conceptual social forms. 
As a recipient of a 3Arts/University of Illinois at Circle Residency Fellowship, and  2015 Chicago DanceMakers Forum Lab Artist, Barak is developing what the body knows: an expansive project focused on the complex intersection and legacy of disability and race. Other recent projects include: 
lower(the)depths, a galvanizing interdisciplinary theatre project developed within Montreal's diverse community, and the black | body, an independently curated series  of transgressive art by black artists from across the diaspora. Barak is also presently the choreographer-in-residence for Rebuild Foundation.
In 2015, Barak was invited to be the keynote speaker and performer for Middlebury College's noted Clifford Symposium. He also exhibited an archive of performance art works entitled: TRIPTYCH: CYCLE, presented in durational cycles of up to 3 hours at Evanston Art Center and University of Chicago's Arts Incubator. Newcity named him as one of the "Top 50 players" of the year.
2016 marks Barak's 25th anniversary of being involved in live arts.
LEROY: Hello, Barak. BARAK: Yes, hello.
LEROY: I'm so glad to be interviewing you. Where have I been? I only recently found out about you and your artistic work. So thank you for doing some awesome work. You know, it's funny: I first read about you when you were collaborating with another Black, disabled dancer called "Wheelchair Dancer." So fill us in about you, your ideas, and your work.
 Barak adé Soleil: OK. And thank you, Leroy, for this opportunity to speak with you. I've come to really respect what I've heard about you and read about your work. So congratulations on all the things you’re doing!.
LEROY: Thanks.
BARAK: So I have been working in performance for close to 25 years. Actually, this year will be my 25th anniversary.
LEROY: Oh, wow.
BARAK: And through this all, navigating the performance world, I've encountered many challenges and many joys. My work initially focused in on the experiences of Black people, of the African Diaspora. I utilize those traditions, those legacies in my creative work. That's primarily been dance, but also includes theater and performance art. I actually thought that I was gonna be a classical Shakespearean actor when I first entered the live art world. That then shifted to dance, beginning with traditional African dances of the Diaspora including Caribbean, Haiti and finally contemporary post‐modern technique. In the last nine years, when my disability emerged, I honed in on performance art as a vehicle to maintain my body‐centric work. I also tuned into actively incorporating community organizing into my practice and began to do community engagement work. Recently i returned to making dance. And I did this because I invested in reframing notions of the body, and how this disabled body could truly inform my creative work.
BARAK: So having excavated and interrogated the black body, the racialized body, it was now about offering the same interrogation of this disabled body. And I began to find ways to explore that. That exploration for me let to reconnecting with Axis Dance Company. It's a company I had known about since like the mid‐90s ‐ actually was thinking about dancing with them ‐ but now coming to them as a disabled person, a disabled artist, and actively use this body. There’s the body I cultivated and built in a particular kind of way, and there’s this body I’m living with now.
LEROY: Yeah, yeah.
BARAK: Ultimately it’s searching for truths. And so I find myself now, deeply in it, deeply being present, reframing, honing my practice, with the nuances and the intersections of disability, race, along with other self‐ identifiers. I'm looking at what it means when all these different parts of ourselves are truly present and engaged in informing the aesthetic.
LEROY: Tell us more about D UNDERBELLY. You talk about it a little bit, about your interest around the African Diaspora, and how does that relate to Black, disabled artists?
BARAK: That's a great question. When I began D UNDERBELLY, my disability was not as pronounced, or as clearly understood; acknowledging that i recognize my disability as something once invisible, now being more visible and apparent. At the time D UNDERBELLY first emerged, it was in response to being in a particular city. I was in Minneapolis, actually, and it seemed like I was in a void, that there was no aligned aesthetic within the arts community that really was about looking at “African‐Americana” through the lens of diasporic performance. And so I embarked on building a network because I wanted to build a community. I wanted to build a community of dance artists, of theater artists, of visual artists, of musicians.... I wanted us to come together and create a space where we could begin to really investigate, honor, acknowledge our legacies as Black people, as people of color in america .D UNDERBELLY’s name references the underbelly of a slave ship, what comes up from that particular experience, what has passed on to us, and what is its residue? D UNDERBELLY set into motion a reframing of history in America as black folk, going through this profound migration ‐ the Middle Passage ‐ and acknowledging that ancestral connection; recognizing that I'm here because of others who persevered through that experience and endured this displacement. You asked about Black AND disabled. I think one of the real challenges is talking about disability within the black community. What it may mean to identify as disabled within an expression of Black folk who’ve endured this traumatic legacy as a people.
LEROY: Yes, yes.
BARAK: Due to the legacies of the middle passage and slavery, Black people have had to become stronger than strong in order to endure what they had to endure. So I feel that oftentimes when I bring up this identity of disability within Black community, they're like well, why take that on? It’s like Kunta Kinte getting the foot chopped off, you just keep on going.... Yes, We are strong people. and we can also be disabled. It’s connected to our dances, the profound ways our bodies as broken or disabled build the movement that moves us even when we don’t acknowledge it.
LEROY: Exactly. Oh my god. We definitely have to work together. Oh my god. Totally. That's always been my writing, from high school until now, knowing that we were there in the beginning. And I also learned that what's called the buck dance came from those ships where Africans were tied to the ankles. So it caused disability, and the dance is called the buck dance. But it really came from our disabled ancestors dancing. It's just amazing how we were there in the beginning.
BARAK: Yes, yes.
LEROY: Oh wow. So your work, does it touch on social issues that involve you in your community?
BARAK: I'm sorry. Could you clarify what you mean?
LEROY: Yeah, does your artwork, does it touch upon social issues that are happening now in your community, in your Black community, in your disabled community?
BARAK: I think it does, and I think it is part of my creative challenge. I am a post‐modernist. I'm an artist that deconstructs and looks at things. I work from a place that is aesthetic AND I work within community; seeking to be in tune with what's culturally happening and relevant. This is currently The Black Lives Matter movement, the continued violence against Black and Brown bodies. It is also the continued invisiblizing of disabled folk, of systemic exclusive spaces that only welcome or engage certain types of bodies. My work pushes against those systems and injustices by re‐centralizing bodies (black, brown, disabled) and their authentic representation within the framework of live art culture.
LEROY: Yeah, right.
BARAK: I deal with the impact and residue of legacies that continue to oppress or violate or denigrate us. Within those legacies, there is ALSO beauty, there is determination and a resilience.
LEROY: Wow. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York‐‐I grew up in New York‐‐what changes have you seen in and outside the artistic world?
BARAK: In relation to anything in particular or just?
LEROY: Oh, with your ideas now being Black and disabled. What has changed?
BARAK: that's a great question. Again, wow.
LEROY: I know for me, being from New York, growing up in the '80s, when I go back there now, it's like wow. You know? It's totally different.
BARAK: it is different. I think part of the difference involves the lens. I was raised in Chicago. I'm now back, and the lens is so different from the lens I had 25 years. it is connected to my evolved creative aesthetic. I'm experiencing the city through the lens of disability, through the lens of having traveled internationally and nationally. I’m experiencing new neighborhoods. when I was growing up, there were neighborhoods that, as a Black person, you were not to visit. And I'm navigating them now, in crutches or wheelchair, and it’s different. The city is slowly working to make everything more accessible. I flew to New York this past Fall, and was concerned. It was not as accessible as Chicago. to get around means mostly ascending or descending stairs. I mean I love NY but accessibility? it’s like parkour for folks with disabilities trying to get around on public transportation.
LEROY: Yeah, yeah.
BARAKA: So that's something I recognize as deeply are informed by my disability. i also just recognize that in the field of art, as an artist who primarily works in dance, I see more slight opening for disabled dance artists. A sliver. I sat on a panel where I was literally having to speak about why we no longer use the terms like "handicapped" or the medical model but a social model for defining those with a disability. Looking again at aesthetics, wanting a nuanced understanding with respect to the disabled body and how it moves. that there is an aesthetic! there's a rigor. To move beyond the place where people are no longer say, "Oh, wow. I can't believe that they could lift their leg!"
LEROY: [laughs]
BARAK: In shaping a form you recognize, just as any dance artist might recognize, that if you acknowledge the dimensions of the aesthetic and not just the “line”, you are recognizing the truth of the aesthetic coming through. Then it’s not about looking at someone with a crutch, but HOW they are moving...
LEROY: Yeah.
BARAK: I recognize that my art world is implicated in this misunderstanding of an aesthetic when it comes to people of color, gender.... And so often, in the art world, we think we're much more nuanced and more sophisticated, we're beyond that, but we're not [laughs].
LEROY: Yeah, what a rich conversation. Thank you so much. Anyway, the question about we see a lot on the news about Black, disabled men from Special Education to police brutality to prison, and it's kinda alarming that I don't see enough of plays that deal with Black, disabled men or Black, disabled boys. I'm so glad that you're out there doing that. I'm wondering, in the future, would you ever think about doing a subject around Black, disabled men?
BARAK: Absolutely. I'm glad you're bringing this up, and one of the things is acknowledging that there are Black men with disabilities in the media’s eye who are being violated. I think it's one of the things that comes up that we don't wanna talk about. This is the intersection i’m keenly exploring at this moment.
LEROY: You definitely have to meet Patty Berne from Sins Invalid, I think you two would definitely hit it off. Well, thank you so much. This has been so excellent. I'd been dying to interview you. Hopefully, in the future when you're back in the Bay, if you have a show back in the Bay, I would love to go to it, support it.
BARAK: Well, thank you. I would love to think about ways in which we can have creative exchanges across the cities.
LEROY: Exactly.
BARAK: We're artists, we're connected, anything can happen.
LEROY: I think I will be in Chicago. My book is out. It's a poetry book around Black, disabled issues, and I've been talking to Sandie Yi and other people from the university there in Chicago. Hopefully in the springtime, I'll be there.
BARAK: All right, let’s stay in touch. Thank you Leroy. LEROY: All right. Thank you. You take care.


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