Aaliyah Christina: an interview by J’Sun Howard

image by: Marvalace Garrett

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After writing my response to Bellow curated by Aaliyah Christina/Catalyst Movmnt and being impressed by Lather. Rinse. Repeat.|Fall. Climb. Release., I thought it would be a good idea to interview her. I asked Aaliyah when it was that we first met because I couldn’t remember. She said it was when she was dancing in Darrell Jones’s faculty piece at Columbia College. I can’t remember the circumstance that brought me there, but I do remember a shy Aaliyah. Even though the shyness is still there, I see Aaliyah’s maturation as a dance/performance curator in Chicago taking her far, and hopefully way beyond what she does now. So, I sent Aaliyah interview questions about curating, Catalyst Mvment, Black Coffee and Raw Sugar and more. Go ahead and dig in:

  J: Why do you choose to work as a performance curator?

A: I’ve been to so many spaces for black and brown queer millennials in the city that showcase some really dope Chicago artists and I’ve noticed there’s not a lot of dance at these curated events. And if there is, it’s the same movement vocabulary saying the same thing. Of course we have places like Links Hall or the Dance Center of Columbia College, but often times white artists remain at the forefront or at the very least an older crowd with some diversity in culture that can sometimes feel a bit stuffy (read: elitist). No shade, tho. I love a lot of the people at these places. But I honestly want to focus on this growing artist-scape coming from Chicago-based black and brown movement artists in their 20s who aren’t even close to feeling like they’ve figured it out, yet. Of course, everyone at any time can be at that point where they don’t feel like they got “it,” but there’s something to be said about my generation who just wants to shout, scream, and create, but doesn’t always have a place to call home or even an organization they feel they can trust.

J: As an emerging curator, how do you position yourself in Chicago’s dance community?

A: To be quite honest, I am a still student. Graduating doesn’t mean you’re done learning. Learning spurs a lot of my goals and initiatives. If I can’t learn anything from it, then what’s the point of even doing it? I guess I put myself right at the center of everything. Chicago’s dance community stretches as far as the city’s burgeoning neighborhoods, yet everyone remains so close in proximity. I sort of feel like I never have enough time or even resources to see everyone and everything so I kind of create opportunities for myself. I try to curate moments or events where I can put all of those I’d love to see or know better in one place. Access. I curate for all of us to have access to each other. On the other hand…That feeling of living in the margin isn’t always bad. I kind of find myself on the outside looking in in certain instances which causes me to create an opportunity I would have never expected. I guess you can call it a little selfish, too. Lol. I bring these artists together so I can essentially view them for free (sometimes) because I’m poor. But don’t get it twisted! I never stray from supporting my peers with my money.

J: Describe your curatorial approach. Is there a specific theme in which you are most interested? What do you want people to leave with from a event you put on?

A: As I said earlier, some of our dance events in the city can feel a bit stuffy and sadiddy if you catch my drift. Catalyst’s first evening length show, Lather. Rinse. Repeat.|Fall. Climb. Release. came at a perfect moment. All of the artists dug in with these ideas of self that all kind of centered around catharsis. Felicia Holman at Links Hall actually pointed this out to Keyierra Collins and I when we initially told her about the entirety of the show. It stuck with me and I ran with it because it held a lot of importance with the sociopolitical climate at that moment as well as where we all were in our own lives. With this theme in mind, in addition to mantras of self-care and self-discovery, I wanted to invite the audience into this same headspace. Ever since, I’ve been married to this sort of code to have the audience experiencing the vulnerability and raw energy of the artist while not stepping away from their own. With that being said, I’d like folx to leave with their souls in their mouths and their hearts in their stomachs. I want them to leave full.

J: What are you reading now that informs your approach?

A: I don’t do a lot of self-help reading — much to my momma’s annoyance — but I am extremely observant. I try to turn every situation into a lesson; both negative and positive. Working on Elevate Chicago Dance with Shawn Lent, Ginger Farley, Peter Taub and Cameron Heinze lent so many learning moments. Because I was the youngest with the least experience I paid attention to their attention-to-detail. I listened closely to the decisions and logic they were applying to different moments. I also asked them questions to understand myself and what I was even doing there. I did figure out some things that I wouldn’t want/like to do in the future.

J: How did Catalyst Movmnt start?

A: Catalyst Movmnt started from a basic need. I needed to see more movement artists who looked like me creating and performing. I needed to see more emerging, underexposed movement artists like myself creating and presenting work. My time at Columbia College Chicago kind of stirred the belly of the beast. Some would call me an artivist (activist/artist), and I agree, sometimes, to an extent. As a freshman and sophomore at the Dance Center I noticed most of the student shows barely highlighted students of color. Of course we existed, but we barely performed on the Dance Center stage. I also couldn’t always relate to the movement vocabulary and narratives in a lot of the dances. There was also a lack of dark-skinned folx on stage as well. This isn’t all to say that The Dance Center at Columbia College Chicago was a discriminatory place, far from it actually, but representation matters. It mattered most to me at that time especially with my own struggles with my identity as an African-American queer femme person. Unfortunately, because of our schedules conflicting with our schooling and other things, my collective of friends who called ourselves dancers couldn’t really come together like I wanted. So I put Catalyst on a backburner.

J: Where do you want to take Catalyst Movmnt? What do you think is the primary challenge in curating performance in Chicago?

A: I’ve been asking myself this exact question so much over the last few months. I guess this will have to be unanswered in short. I have so many questions of my own: Do I want it to stay in Chicago? Would I like it to reach out into communities beyond my own vision? How can I cultivate relationships and maintain them? Sometimes my personal struggles with depression and anxiety get in the way of me pursuing new curatorial projects. Moments of tug-of-war between quitting and continuing happen often. My feelings intersect with wanting to please my peers and mentors and also wanting to stay completely honest (or “authentic”) to myself. Then that also transfers to “what the fuck even is authenticity to me?” It happened especially during the development of the Black Coffee and Raw Sugar series. I had no funds, barely any artist interest/response, and almost no time. Shit got uninspiring. Rent is due (every month). I gotta eat (every day). My job was trash (every second). I guess my situation isn’t necessarily unique in terms of artists juggling multiple projects trying to remain artsy and whatnot while also supporting ourselves in this capitalistic, draining swamp of a city. Everythang’s expensive.

J: Tell us more about the Black Coffee and Raw Sugar series at Outerspace. If funding wasn’t an issue, what’s a program you have been dreaming about you’d produce?

A: Black Coffee and Raw Sugar (BC|RS) was a series I created to highlight more black and brown artists on a regular basis throughout the summer. But I posed it as an expo of sorts that showcased both movement artists and entrepreneurs offering their products/services. I modeled it a bit after some of the other events I frequent around the city as seen at Party Noire and other pop-up parties. Unlike the DJs, musicians and/or visual artists being at the forefront, I wanted to center the focus around dance and movement. All attendees were discreetly directed to watch dance, then dance and buy products from vendors during scheduled breaks. For the most part, it ran smoothly. The first iteration also gave dance makers the chance to opt-in for audience responses and/or feedback. The interaction between artist and audience created a truly intimate space. I acted as both host and DJ. (lol) BC|RS is kind of my baby I’ve been dreaming about since graduating college. I would like it to grow into a staple for emerging black and brown Chicago dance makers and artists. I want to be able to pay them while also being able to put on a good time for all in attendance with vendors, DJs, black-owned restaurant caterers. I also want to incorporate different themes for each installation.

J: Which artists are you looking at now and hope to curate? And why?

A: Right now, I’m really interested in rallying my fellow Columbia alums. Everyone has been creating and working and doing the damn thing. I have this idea for a reunion with different graduating classes. These alums include Tia Greer, Solomon Bowser, Hannah Santistevan, Destine Young, Chloe Grace Michels, etc. It’s amazing to track everyone’s journeys and see how our shared education has taken on multiple outcomes whether that means some of us work in administration, dance for a company, make dances, or curate.

J: What was a recent event you attended that made a lasting impression on you?

A: I don’t know if you would consider this recent, but back in March at Co-Prosperity Sphere a short film premiered with the foreground of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This is Bate Bola (by BEIJA FILMS with Brazil and London based filmmakers Ben Holman and Neirin Jones). Ben Lamar Gay and Africans with Mainframes performed a set before the screening. They filled the space with spellbinding music, singing and sounds. It introduced a healing in the space that I don’t think a lot of in attendance knew we needed. It became especially apparent at the opening of the short film as the face of the late Brazilian activist and politician, Marielle Franco appeared on the dark screen in black and white showcasing her short life — July 27, 1979 – March 14, 2018. She had just been assassinated a little over a week prior. Her face remained on the screen for what felt like hours. Chants rang out all around the room. Folx clapped for her. Many sang for her. We all wished her a peaceful rest after such a tumultuous tragedy. The film then indulged the joys of the planning and execution of a sacred tradition in the communities on the outskirts of Rio. Not many outside of these communities are aware; they’re often seen as violent rivalries between opposing gangs, but they spend all year making their elaborate, breathtaking costumes, choreographing their passion fueled dances, and curating days and nights their elders and youth can remember until the end of time. They bring hearty competition and art into marginalized, impoverished communities in which Brazilians from the capitol don’t even pay a second thought outside of the propaganda they see on the evening news.

J: What’s upcoming for Catalyst Movmnt?

A: Let me get back to you on that in about a month.

J: What are 3 dope things people should checkout in Chicago, elsewhere and/or online?

A: Hmmmm. To be quite honest, I’m a heavy homebody on days off, BUT I always recommend a good wind down with a Party Noire day party centered around queer black and brown womxn across the gender spectrum. I always get my life! Everyone should also hit up Ms. Evelyn at Evelyn’s Food Love in Washington Park on the Southside (black-owned). It’s near my place. Tell them Aaliyah sent you and you might get an extra hushpuppy. Then, of course, if dance is the mission, Links Hall and the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago (my alma mater) are some of the best places to dive right in. HOW COULD I FORGET!? The Sweet Water Foundation! The beautiful farm that I call home only a few blocks away from my apartment. I love the people and land there. Everyone should plan a visit; especially when the Sun’s high in the sky.

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Catch Aaliyah’s choreographic debut (tonight!) since graduating from Columbia College at the Co-MISSION Festival of New Works Dec 6-9 at Links Hall at 7pm! 

Catch J’Sun Howard’s work in the upcoming ECLIPSING Festival curated by Amina Ross late January/early February. Programming information will be out soon.