“We enter a white space and fill it with an unapologetically black voice.”
The past had gladiator-filled amphitheatres; the present has singers and performers on X Factor. Today’s underground? Well, it has Christiaan De Donder-de Kort and Sedrig Verwoert—who, ironically, met in 2011 while competing on So You Think You Can Dance. Little did they know the show would give them not only exposure and contacts—but a bond for life.
“We were children, actually. On TV everything went so fast. No coaching, no support,” recalls Sedrig. Although they both graduated from Amsterdam School of the Arts, they both realized at a young age that the world of classical dance and ballet didn’t offer much opportunity—“I noticed I didn’t fit in that structure, there were not a lot of black boys dancing”.
THEY/THEM is the original and intersectional composition between the duo, against the normative tradition of a man and woman dancing together. “A guy is always supporting the woman. Why could two females not support each other? It’s always a prince and princess, and they’re white…” There’s only so many words to describe Christiaan and Sedrig when the only way to experience their art is to watch and feel.
When and how was the idea for THEY/THEM born? And how did it develop into an actual piece?
Christiaan: Over the years, we consistently had conversations regarding the topics THEY/THEM currently explores, and we’d also work with each other from time to time in the studio. Both in our private and professional lives, we’d find ourselves in the same situations. At a certain point, I was looking for answers and started searching deeper into all these intersections and how they affected me both emotionally and physically. In the meantime, I kept on trying to figure out who I was as an artist. The hunger to discover my own way of movement went parallel to the discovery of this intersectional system, and this made me realize that I had started working from a necessity different than the one before. I think that’s around when Sedrig and I met. For years, I had postponed this moment, because I felt like I needed time to understand who I was and what I wanted in order to collaborate with someone who’s especially very dear to me. Last May, Sedrig asked me if I wished to create a piece with him, and it all started from then on.
Sedrig: Personally, I believe that the piece was always already present. It was only about how to put the puzzle together. There were all the personal complications and situations, such as not having a ballet shoe in my skin color, there not being enough people of colour in the dance world or enough works that show diversity, and also navigating not being a fag on stage. In the midst of all these struggles, we found comfort in each other. We did research, educated ourselves and saw hope for a brighter future. That’s how we came with the idea to collaborate. Also, nobody ever put us dancing together—it’s like there is a taboo around seeing more people of colour on stage. So, we started this project on our own and according to our schedules. Mind you, we’re both full-time workers, and we also need to build the mandatory physicality. I believe we choreographed our first piece about 9 months ago.
THEY/THEM is a deeply personal performance but, sadly, paints a bigger picture about—among others—race and racism. Was it ever difficult for you perform the piece? (Is it always possible to channel emotions into art without feeling overwhelmed?)
C: I think being overwhelmed is part of the deal. I’d be lying if I said that performing the piece doesn’t have an intense effect on me. The reason why I find it important to create and dance this work is because it’s a safe space where Sedrig and I have an open physical conversation. If that’s where we can enter a safe zone, I’m willing to face whatever comes my way. The provoked feelings are fruits for the garden, as I would say. It’s also important that this kind of work is performed knowing what the bigger picture is and how many layers it has, both for us and for the ones who witness it.
S: For me, when I talk about the piece, I keep in mind that there are a lot of aspects to approach it from. You have the work, you have the dance, your partner and yourself. Nevertheless, it’s always an emotional journey, because it keeps on growing. I find “self healing” and finding the joy in the work confronting at times. I think I’m always a bit overwhelmed after having performed THEY/THEM, because it’s a very physical state you enter. The day after I always feel it—my body is in pain or I’m messy emotionally.
How do queerness and definitions of masculinity play a role in the story behind THEY/THEM?
C: Being a black male queer encompasses a lot of layers within itself. If you look at how you relate to that identity and how others, who can’t identify with it, relate themselves to black queerness, you discover a pool of answers with regards to every aspect of life. Just like in many branches of life, the arts are still a milieu that’s dominated by white cis males. The numerous situations and emotions provoked by that made me who I am today, and that’s what reflects on stage.
S: When it comes to dance, there’s no gender. Dance is a force. But still, people feel the need to see males and females even when it comes to dancing. Take ballet as an example—a guy is always supporting the woman. Why could two females not support each other? It’s always a prince and princess, and they’re white, with the image of the prince as a strong, manly character disengaged from his softness.
Could you tell us something about the soundtrack?
The music goes beyond. What a lot of people don’t know is that the choreography is not built on the music, and hence THEY/THEM may switch to any type of song. So, the answer is very simple—it’s a radio show.
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-THEY/THEM at Palais de Tokyo Paris ✨ On the 14th of March we will perform THEY/THEM at Palais de Tokyo Paris at La Manutention. An evening, curated by Miles Greenberg, where exclusively all-black produced and performed artworks will be presented. —————— During the month of March, La Manutention is hosting Miles Greenberg. Based between New York and Paris, this Canadian raises questions about identity, shifts and traumatisms through various explorations of the black, queer body in space. Self-taught, he has developed his own theory of movement and architecture, today resulting in an artistic form on the crossroads between performance, sculpture and new media. As keen on linguistics as he is on physical theatre (Ecole Jacques Lecoq), he follows logical systems that are non-linear and self-sufficient, and which are often best understood when they are connected with each other. His work is generally based on techniques inspired from religious rites and rituals,ranging from butō to the ballroom, new technologies or hypnosis. _____________________ Launched in the autumn of 2017, La Manutention is a new format which encourages exploration and experimentation, giving artists the opportunity to develop their practice and produce original performances during four evenings spread out over a month, allowing the public to discover their work and follow its evolution. -www.palaisdetokyo.com/fr/evenement/miles-greenberg _____________________ With the support of @MAC Cosmetics France. #theythem #palaisdetokyo #blackart #milesgreenberg #contemporaryart #paris #work #contemporaryartsmuseum #sedrigverwoert #christiaandedonder #lamanutention #queerart #sedrigverwoert #Blessings #2019 Pic by : Alexander van der Linden #France #Paris #savethedate
Would you say this piece was created for yourselves, for a certain audience, or both? As for the two of you, would it be accurate to describe THEY/THEM as empowering?
C: I think both. THEY/THEM is created by us and for us to have that mobile platform and safe space; to enter a white space and fill it with an unapologetically black voice. I find it important that people in the audience don’t simply identify with the topics but also with the performers. It doesn’t happen often that people go to see a contemporary dance piece and see two black men upfront and center. Up to this very day, there’s big underrepresentation of POC, also outside of the art world, and I’m sure THEY/THEM can create an empowering feeling for POC that see themselves represented on stage.
S: What more can I say… THEY/THEM is about life. With all the heaviness to our reality, it’s a celebration. We created it with the vision to raise awareness and contribute to the community. In a way, we as people being in charge of society, creating new perspectives and building new identities within the scene.
This somehow brings the concept of “nurture” to mind. What does that term mean to you?
C: I think it’s about looking for answers and being open to re-navigate your plan when necessary. That’s the moment when you start the process of self-nurture. I look at it as a process of evolvement with all its highs and lows. At the same time, it’s a transparent mirror that reflects where you are while being something you can hold on to. You just have to do the necessary work that needs be put into it.
S: For me, it’s an ongoing process. The beautiful part of it is that it puts an end to the “me, myself and I” sensation—that time when you hide and are afraid to express yourself, or maybe when you feel that you don’t fit in. THEY/THEM has also been the reason why so many beautiful young black dancers are approaching us, because they gave something that they can identify with. This giving and getting… that’s nurture.
Words by Lawrence Harrison
Photography by Florian Joahn