INTERVIEW: Johnnie Cruise Mercer on plunge in/to 534
Johnnie Cruise Mercer is a dancer/choreographer and the artistic director of Johnnie Cruise Mercer/TheREDprojectNYC. As a choreographer Johnnie's work has been presented/commissioned by The Center for Performance Research-CPR, Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!), The Dance Place of DC, Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX), Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, Dogtown Dance Theater, Danspace at St Marks Church, Judson Church Movement Research, Greenspace, The Bolls Theater of Detroit. For Fusebox 2018, Johnnie Cruise Mercer/TheREDprojectNYC will present plunge in/to 534, an evening-length happening/ritual that is the first part of a four-year, eight-part memoir project that the company will premiere in 2020. Johnnie talked to Fusebox curators Betelhem Makonnen and Anna Gallagher-Ross about his complex relationship to contemporary dance, the political and historical impetus for creating his epic, generational project, as well as the sources and evolution of his aesthetic concepts.
Anna Gallagher-Ross: What are you working on right now? Johnnie Cruise Mercer: I am actually starting a new process, I am working to create, construct and premiere a two part epic in 2021 inspired by and commenting on the years 2000-2020. Starting last year in 2017, I began the four year process with a goal to map out, document and interrogate the concept/validity of the contemporary. The process is divided into ten parts, the first eight are individual process, rituals, practices, and exploration based on personal memories, reactions, and happenings; these eight parts are called process-memoirs. The final two parts of the ten will be the two epics mentioned above, constructed from the deconstructed material of the first eight parts. Using the personally fueled eight parts as the meat of the epics, my plan is to use other perspectives, and the inclusion of time to create an objective, yet emotional generational biography. Attached to the development of the millennial generation, I am hoping to spend the next four years analyzing and understanding my own and my generation's tie to the cyclical nature of history in American politics, human ego, and natural occurrences. So yeah it's a big project, takes a lot of patience and a lot planning! At the Fusebox Festival, I am sharing the first process-memoir! plunge in/to 534 engages the ritual of speaking to one's own Blackness and Whiteness. The process happens in somewhat of both a secular and non-secular space- almost like the club meets the church meets a theater meets a panel on micro aggression, meets a comedy show meets real life. It's quite a bit of an adventure...and will definitely shake anyone involved. Betelhem Makonnen: What is the number 534 a reference to? JCM: When I turned 18, I was finally able to go to clubs and 534 was both the address and the name of the club that I went to. It was actually the name of the straight version of the club. And then on Saturdays when it was a gay club, it would be called Colours. This was in Richmond, Virginia where I am from, which is the same place Charles O. Anderson is from, who is also showing work in the festival. 534 is what we all called it because we didn't want people to know our sexuality. So when I say "plunge into 534," it is a form of irony, I am actually saying plunge into the straight club that is a gay club. It is a huge, highly affected juxtaposition — you're entering into something that seems to be one thing but is actually another. And of course there are other dualities related to queerness, spirituality, and organized understandings of human religion, politics, and identity. So that is what 534 is, or was... well, it is kind of closed now. It closed recently actually, which sucks! It was the only 18 and up club for queer people of color in that area. It closed because it is in the neighborhood near Virginia Commonwealth University, which is where I went to school. The university is taking over that whole area honestly, the whole city actually. It really sucks. I mean, it was even a Black-owned business. I knew the guy personally who owned it. BM: So we could say 534 is the beginning of the history of your discovery, the awakening or the moment that leads to who you are now.
JCM: I think the age 18 or when you go to college or whatever happens when you are classified as an adult is a very pivotal moment. For me it was also going off to college and realizing that there was western-training for art. I didn't have classical training before I went to school for dance. I was a believer in dance teams and step teams, and praise dancing. I looked at dance as the way to go into trance, the way to engage with community. There was always a give and take, but then at 18 when I went into college, it changed. Dance became performance. It became giving a performance and just giving, giving, giving without the audience necessarily responding. So when I turned 18, going to 534 was like a thing in between me being in high school and me being in college and me understanding dance as a celebratory and communal happening and a performance event. That club represented an in-between-space for me. After I got out of high school and started dance training, I started to feel myself push away from the club. I started thinking, " Why are we dancing like this?" I began thinking that what we were doing in the club was not the proper way to dance. I remember that transition starting in the club, looking at people. Honestly, I look at it is as the beginning of my mind beginning to be colonized when it comes down to how I looked at movement. BM: Going back to Whiteness and Blackness and your mention of colonization, so much of what we call White culture has been influenced by Black culture. It not being acknowledged and just plagiarized is another thing, but the influence is there and it's undeniable. JCM: Exactly. As a Black artist I am required when I am quoting White artists to quote them, while as a White artist you may not have to quote a Black artist. That is an issue. But on my platform, I have to make sure I am doing my due diligence to quote and know the material I am using to construct what I am doing because that is what makes up my voice theoretically. And of course, my personal experience is tied in there as well. On the spectrum, process memoire: plunge into 534 has a lot to do with Whiteness and Blackness, because it is engaging Blackness as spectatorship and Whiteness as the specter, and how Whiteness pulls from Whiteness and how it mushes because of that. But it doesn't happen in a way like, " Oh, this is about this." I purposely created this ritual where it kind of flawlessly happens or happens at the snap of a finger. So more like, " Oh, did that just happen? " or " What is happening?" The ritual is almost terrorizing or creepy. The way the work is developing right now, it feels more like an exorcism or a conjuring. BM: Who are some of the choreographer and dancers on the outside that connect and resonate with you on the inside? JCM: I think that is a very important question. Thank you for bringing this up. I am now realizing that of course it is from the inside-out, but I can't ignore the outside — especially the artist that I work with and the people that I am influenced by. Charles O. Anderson is one, of course. He has a patience that I praise him for. He has figured out how to communicate when he is at the height of a certain feeling. Kyle Abraham, I remember watching his material while a junior in college and thinking, "Wow, this is something that speaks to me." It was the first time I saw on stage an intentional mix of a Whiteness and Blackness factor that undeniable could be heard by everyone. Ishmael Houston Jones and his work Them (1986), as well as his recent re-imagined work with Miguel Gutierrez, Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes From a Life and Other Works by John Bernd (2016), in honor of the artist John Bernd, who died in 1988 during the AIDS epidemic in New York city. Sidra Bell because she is just so awesome. I remember one day asking her, "So is this a work? Is it done?" and she replied, "It is never going to be done. It's just an episode." The way she thinks about her work, how she thinks about time, and how she doesn't limit herself to it. Aesthetically all of these people come into my body. I see them, I hear them. I feel them. It all goes into my body and becomes part of what is rumbling inside of me. It is almost like a permission. Because, I feel that the people that came before me literally given me permission or have opened up spaces for me to do certain things. There is a difference between quoting and plagiarizing. I believe in giving respect, and understanding fully who I am quoting to the best of my ability. That is what I mean when I say inside-out because I really want to look at the pieces that are in me and really question them. If there is a Kyle-ism in what I am doing, I want to know where did that come from? Why is it there? What is it saying? How much research did Kyle do to get to this "-ism"? What was he trying to say? And if I am going to use that -ism, that tool, then I want to use in a very respectful and fleshed-out way. It's interesting, because as you do the research you start to notice that this -ism, is another's -ism and so on and so on. And so I begin to study history and the cycle.
AGR: I wonder if you could talk about what it means to make a memoir. To me that is a really fascinating thing because we always think of a memoir as this written thing that fixes experiences in retrospect while what you are talking about seems like something more dynamic and fluid. JCM: So basically, I am selecting 8 memories or locations or feelings and digging into them. And each one is meant to be a corner stone of my personal experience and relates in some way in to the world that is being developed. It was inspired by the realization that when Trump was elected that we have four whole years of him. And I thought, I want to not make a work, I want to just process. I want to document. I want to develop an aesthetic for myself. The way that my company and I are engaging with this work involves red-tape timelines we have created, where every time that I make a process memoire, I put the date and the event on the timeline and everyone else in the company creates an entry in relationship to mine in the timeline. It's launching off of myself, but the company members are also making their own timelines. We are going through these process memoirs tying together our dates and the things that have happened to us in time, finding the similarities and differences depending on where we are in the United Sates. The goal is to jump around and plot dates and look at how we felt at different times. We want to look at our past, catch up with ourselves in the present and continue to document as we go towards 2020. And once we get to 2020, we can look at all the process memoirs, deconstruct them and make the two larger works that will serve as a generational biography. AGR: This is incredible. I am so excited about this project and its scale. JCM: Yes, I am excited as well. It helps on me on many levels. On a financial level, just knowing what is happening. But mainly on a social level, it helps me engage my relationship with my life, like with my mother and father, my friends, my neighborhood or New York city and how I engage with it all through time. It mostly helps me see how I engage with time in general — especially right now being twenty-six years old and knowing that this project will go till I am thirty, thirty-one. I am manipulating myself to see everything around me and understand that I am still growing and expanding, to realize that I have four years to work on something and understand that I can take my time. I don't have to make something right now. Even though, I have to admit that speaking about systems of making, creating capital and making products, it is very hard when someone asks what work are you making, " What is your work?" It is very hard, because you want to just sell your work, but I don't believe in just selling work. I think you can't escape selling, because we are in America, but at least I can sell an idea and a concept, instead of selling this work or this thing as me. I really don't know how else I could engage this time, especially artistically.
Photo credits (in order of appearance):
- Johnnie Cruise Mercer, plunge in/to 534. Photo: Marisol Diaz
- Photo: Torian Ugworji