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Makeda Thomas is decolonising dance

Friday, August 9, 2013
Makeda Thomas, dancer and choreographer at Napa. PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

For dancer and choreographer Makeda Thomas, the medium of dance is much more than an art form; it is a lifestyle. And in the ten years since she first introduced herself to the dance community, Thomas has redefined that lifestyle and also decolonised it. 


Thomas is the founder of the three-year-old Dance and Performance Institute—an international collective of dance and performance artists. The Institute curates an artist in residence programme, a Carnival performance institute and the New Waves! institute—a two-week intensive summer programme hosted at the National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port-of-Spain. New Waves! took place this year from July 22 to August 1 and included faculty members such as noted hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, Hofstra University dance professor Dyane Harvey-Salaam and Jamaican dance professor Chris Walker. The programme’s scholar in residence was Tony Hall. 


This year, Thomas also celebrated her 10th anniversary season with a performance of both new and old work at the New York Live Arts theatre in New York, USA. In the past ten years, Thomas has grown personally, her work has expanded its boundaries and her dance company has fostered and supported the creation of and discussion on seminal works of dance. 


At her 10th anniversary performance in June, Thomas debuted her newest work Speech Sounds—a work that “explores the significance of connectivities, differences, and tensions” as well as the “significance of the multiple disciplines engaged in the project.” 


The piece takes its name from a short story by the late African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler. She also performed some of her well-known pieces such as Los Colores, Freshwater and A Sense of Place. “The transition from the older work into the new work, I can see that I’m working more with improvisation. I see a definite thread with multimedia in general with text and video and lighting and costume design. These have moved from being secondary elements to being primary elements in getting the ideas across. It’s become multidisciplinary and highly improvisational,” said Thomas during an interview at Napa. 


“Company-wise some of the things that have changed, for one is that we’re not striving to maintain traditional company structure. I’ve been able to be satisfied with it being a pick-up company with a global reach. At my last show, I had dancers from Guadeloupe, LA, Trinidad, New York. The company functions much in the same way that the institute (New Waves!) does. 


“So you have all of these faculty members and dancers traveling from all over the world gathering in this place to achieve a set of goals that we’ve determined. There’s a self-determination to it in committing to do this in a particular way that challenges imperial and colonial discourses. We spend a lot of time talking about this kind of thing and about how to decolonise our process as artists, as scholars and teachers and as people.” 


Thomas also decolonises the Institute by opening the space not only to new ideas about dance, but also new ideas about issues such as work and parenting. Thomas is the mother of a three-year-old boy, Shiloh, whom she carried to residency programmes and workshops while she worked. 


Thomas refers to herself as an “active parent” and integrates her son into her daily operations. “This is an institution where people can parent without feeling unprofessional. 


Mothers are able to bring their children with them and this is especially important in the Caribbean. A lot of Caribbean spaces are multigenerational. We’re doing this by walking the talk and we have to keep talking and pushing people to be more open to these ideas. I don’t think there’s a person who I taught when I first had Shiloh who didn’t see my breasts,” she said. 


Over the next three years New Waves will be hosted in three different Caribbean countries—Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica. The shift in spaces is also part of the decolonisation mission. “If one of our primary goals is to connect the region culturally and through dance, it makes sense that we travel. It’s about movement. At it’s core its about movement and that includes physical movement of the whole entire institute,” said Thomas. 


She added: “It’s a way of connecting the region, which is so disconnected. In part it’s political as well. It’s also political to choose the countries that we’re choosing, especially Haiti. It’s a political, social and cultural alliance with the people of that country.” 


Thomas said the move will provide opportunities to dancers from T&T as well. “All the UTT students that have been part of the institute for the past three years will be coming with us. One of the main issues with artists who are trained in Trinidad is that they reach a certain point and there’s nowhere to go. There’s no national dance company. There are no full time dance companies. So you’re the best dancer in T&T and there’s no where for you to dance,” she said.



More about Makeda Thomas


Makeda Thomas is a dancer, choreographer and artistic director. She began her study in Brooklyn, New York with Michael Goring and Eleo Pomare and later received a scholarship from the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, The Paul Taylor School and Hofstra University where she earned a BA in Dance and English. 


She also holds an MFA in Dance from Hollins University. Thomas is a 2013 Creative Capital Grantee and was recently inducted into the Caribbean Hall of Fame. Her 2005 work, A Sense of Place was commissioned by 651 ARTS Black Dance: Tradition & Transformation. Her 2008 solo FreshWater was embedded into MIT’s Black Matters: Introduction to Black Studies and toured throughout the US, Mexico, Zimbabwe, and Trinidad. She has served as a Cultural Envoy for the US Dept of State. As a dancer, Thomas performed internationally with Ronald K Brown’s Evidence, Urban Bush Women, and Rennie Harris/ Puremovement.


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