Picture This Post (PTP) talks to Courtney Renee Cochran (CRC), a dancer and choreographer. With Picture This Post, Cochran explains her piece From cage teeth to jaw, a commissioned dance piece for the Guggenheim’s art series Works & Process. In Cochran’s words, From cage teeth to jaw is “dedicated to the thousands who have faced themselves, faced their pain, and are ready to stand in defiance against the face of hatred.”
(PTP) Can you walk our readers through the process of creating the piece From cage of teeth to jaw?
(CRC) Creating From cage of teeth and jaw was truly a collaboration of artists coming together to express a shared pain. My heart was broken, heavy and hurting after witnessing the build-up of racism directed towards Black people in this country supposedly based on freedom. Hearing the countless unnecessary police calls, seeing people being murdered and harassed for just being at home, witnessing Black people being spit on, set on fire, assaulted, and more; the horrors of the past back at full force. I couldn’t take it anymore. I reached out to my dear friend Ha Vo, the cinematographer of the project, and after releasing our frustrations we knew we wanted to create a piece that expressed the inner turmoil Black people endure on a daily basis. And though I know dance is powerful, I wanted to be as direct as possible; so adding spoken word, Lady Brion came on board.
What’s interesting is that although we had several conversations, the three of us worked independently. The movement came first, and without seeing it prior, Lady B wove together her words. And from our separate interpretations, Ha was able to create something powerful.
The spoken words are quite powerful in this piece — What do you hope this piece invokes in the audience?
My hope is that people gain insight into the everyday burdens Black people are forced to carry but are rarely able to express. That in the five minutes of watching the piece, they can step out of their skin and into mine. Then, maybe they can understand that our existence is a fight, not because we want it to be, but because there’s a large part of society that still views us as 3/5ths of a person whether they want to admit it or not. America has deep-rooted prejudices. No matter how many times people try to deny it or skew history, it’s still there. I hope they decide to open up their eyes and do something about it.
From your perspective, how has the dance community changed after George Floyd’s murder, and what work still needs to be done?
I believe the Black dance community has absolutely responded to the long list of injustices leading up to George Floyd and those that happened afterward. But, we’ve been producing this work. It is not new for us, people are just paying attention now. I do not, however, believe that the ballet community as a whole has committed to creating awareness through performance. Many have spoken about change and promised to elevate voices, but in the online seasons I saw, it was not reflected in the work.
I hope the dance community can truly admit the fact that it has built-in prejudice and do everything it can to become inclusive. It’s not enough to say you support dancers of color, we have to be able to see and feel the results. That means hiring Black staff, teachers, and choreographers. It means not asking Black dancers to whitewash themselves, but celebrate their skin and hair. It means making sure you are teaching to all body types and giving equal opportunity. And, if a dancer approaches the organization with stories of discrimination or feeling uncomfortable, believe them. Learn from the experience and make the organization better.
Can you tell our readers about some of your early experiences in the dance world?
My oldest sister was in ballet classes and I really wanted to be like her. I began dancing at the age of five and performed in my first Nutcracker with the Sacramento Ballet at six. I am from Sacramento, CA which is a diverse city, but not when it comes to ballet. In the studio I grew up in, there were only a handful of Black dancers there at the time, and I had seen only a few Black professionals on stage. So the combination of underrepresentation and being told multiple times that I didn’t have the right body type, led me to believe I didn’t have a future in ballet. It wasn’t until I attended the Alvin Ailey Summer Intensive at the age of 14 that I truly understood the legacy of Black dancers and how much of us are out there.
As a dancer, artist, and creator, what do you feel is your role and ability to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement?
As an artist and a Black woman, my role is to continue to show up in these places and be unapologetically myself—wearing my brown tights and brown shoes representing being Black in ballet.
Art is a reflection of society. It allows us to peer into the past, provides a glimpse into the soul, and gives us a perspective that we may have never known. We are, in a way, historians of the moment. So yes, we absolutely have a responsibility to step up and do something. Creators can reach audiences who may have never otherwise engaged in the discussion. Think of all the movies and music you’ve seen that gave you a different vision of the world, or the art and dance that have stayed inside your heart and mind. It’s powerful. And it’s why we do what we do.
Images courtesy of Courtney Renee Cochran
To watch From cage of teeth and jaw, please visit the Works & Process YouTube channel.
About the Author: Sabrina Lee
Sabrina Lee is a sophomore at Hofstra University pursuing a B.A. in Journalism. Raised in Orange County, California, she has been a gymnast, dancer, and coach. In her free time, she loves watching movies, eating Korean food, and practicing her poker skills. Sabrina's favorite place to be is in the audience of a Broadway show.