Charlotte Street Foundation identifies the needs and fuels the evolution of an ever-changing multidisciplinary arts ecosystem, acting as its primary provocateur. We cultivate the contemporary, the exceptional, and the unexpected in the practice of artists working in and engaging with the Kansas City Art Community
Cat Mahari is a dancer on a mission. Her upcoming performance, Expectations of Violence/Rites due Spring: B-BAM! will explore local stories, rites of passage and questions about American blackness, featuring Mahari’s immersive theater and dance, musical arrangements by Hermon Mehari, and visual projections by Ryan Tenney. Audience members will be seated among the performers, creating an immersive experience designed to prevent the alienation people often experiences at the theater. In this interview, Mahari discusses her two-year process of creating her own techniques of presenting theater and dance, as well as the meaning of B-BAM!, which for her is less of an acronym than a personal mantra.
Where are you from?
A lot of places. My teenage years, which were really formative for me, were in St. Louis, and then I left and went to Miami. Before that I lived in Dallas, New York. The (UMKC) Conservatory was what brought me to Kansas City. And after that I went to graduate school in London.
When did you start dancing?
I was like, 5.
How did your dance styles evolve over the years?
I don’t know that they really evolved. It’s always been the same. I saw Baryshnikov and Alvin Ailey on PBS just like everybody else, but at the same time I was born in a culture where a lot of dance forms were done free — a lot of street things, breaking, and stuff like that, and even jazz, before you had to cough up hundreds of dollars just to learn it.
How did you learn?
You teach yourself and you dance with people. That’s how you learn. That’s how anybody learns. That’s how ballet started. The Moors came over and taught Southern Europeans. The Pavane and all those dance steps that people think came from France actually came from Northern Africa. That’s how it happens. People get together. They come up with some shit. And eventually it becomes a production of knowledge. There’s always pivotal figures. Louis XIV for ballet. Don Campbell with the Campbelllock. A number of unsung and unknown people for breaking.
How would you describe your own dancing? Is it a combination of styles?
You could say it’s a combination of styles. I have a couple of styles I know, but I would say my dancing is — particularly when I’m here in the studio — I’m doing whatever the fuck I feel like. Some of those things are straight productions of knowledge, or I’m dipping in wells that are clearly mine, and other times I’m just moving, you know? I just like moving, period. I don’t care whether it has a label or not.
Do you put on music when you dance?
If I’m dipping into a certain well, I might. If i’m locking I might put on some funk so I can just drill, or if I’m breaking. Sometimes it’s Rachmaninoff, or Charles Ives, who I really dig. Sometimes I don’t want to be overly influenced yet. It just depends on what I’m doing in that moment. I like moments of silence. Usually when I start off in the studio there is no music for a good hour. Just some time to center myself without it. Then I can play around with it.
So tell me about your performance. Why is it called “Rites of Violence / Rites Due Spring”?
Because when people perceive people of color, particularly black people, there is an inherent expectation of violence. It’s promoted through media, through culture, through all kinds of biases. You’re black, so you’re going to be more violent, in one way or another. That you are less stable and more bestial in some regards. Rites Due Spring is actually a play on Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring,” which explored different rites that came from various societies before the advent of modernity in Europe.
In this case, it’s an exploration of different rites of passage. You’re 21, you’re gonna drink… And then there’s rites of passage that have to do with blackness. You’re 16, you’re going to get pulled over by police, blah blah blah. All kinds of things happen, some of them horrible, but those are the rites of passage of blackness. The whole performance is an exploration of those rites of passage. It’s an immersive work based on an immersive theater.
How will the audience be immersed?
They’ll just be right there with the performers, buddy-buddy. We’re all sharing the same space. It’s call-and-response, not like a “Here you are, you’re in the set, now be quiet while we get on with the show.” I don’t dig that.
What is B-Bam?
Bam stands for “black American.” You’ll see “BAM” in a lot of different discourse surrounding the experience of blackness in the anti-black world in which we live. But for me it’s not like a set acronym. That’s just how I use it. B-Bam! That’s what it is. When I was creating this I was like “oh, snap! B-Bam is fucking everywhere.” Just buh-BAM!
Is there much of a dance community in Kansas City?
There’s a very interesting dance community in Kansas City. KC is so spread out, and even though people know each other, you’ve got to make the effort to get the hell out of your bubble. It’s easy to feel disconnected. There’s no dance industry here, but there is a dance community, and there are people and companies that are doing their thing however they can.
I think that holds true for a lot of different creative disciplines here.
I think it holds true for KC, period.
So did you bring in other dancers to take part in the performance?
Yes, I’ve got some dancers who I knew. It’s a small cast — there’s only about 6 of us — but it’s a strong situation. And then there’s the four musicians, and they’re part of the whole shebang as well.
What’s the rehearsal process been like?
I have a very unique system that I developed to do this kind of immersive theater work. To create these kinds of really finely honed, structured improvisations, it does take for a lot of rehearsal, but it also takes for a bit of freedom. I spend a lot of time by myself saying “At 7:03, this is what’s going to happen.”
Having a really strong creative approach and technique allows people to go deeper, because then they have something in which to explore. And then, for me, it’s about using trial and error to find something that’s repeatable, that you can take elsewhere and do in other cultures.
I do a lot of research so I feel real comfortable with how I’m going to explore the subject. There’s a lot of narrative or thematic development that I have to do on my own, and then I bring it to the cast. And so then the intelligence of the cast comes out. Not “This is exactly what you’re going to do,” but “This is what you’re going to explore.”
What kind of research did you do for this piece?
I was at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City for months getting local stories. I found out a lot of things I didn’t know about. Like, 18th and Vine was not the historic Jazz District, it’s 12th and Vine. But 12th and Vine was shut down as a way to create a stronger buffer between black communities and other communities. It was completely leveled, and now there’s a huge housing development. You read in the Kansas City Star (archives) about “redlining,” how it wasn’t a bad word or even considered an unethical practice to deny black people access to housing, education, resources, the ability to go where they want. And this is an article from 1972 or some shit. That’s not much older than me. (a more recent KC Star article, from 1999, details how these practices are less a thing of the past than one might imagine).
How do you think dance is uniquely able to communicate ideas or emotions to an audience?
I think it’s because everybody uses their body. We all know that our bodies communicate. This is just a way of taking the time to just center that.
When Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” opened in 1913, there was rioting in the audience, people flickering the lights and yelling. Are you hoping for a similar reaction?
I want them to be however they’re going to be. I don’t like immersive theater works where you think there’s freedom and then you get there and you’re supposed to just shut up. That’s not immersive; that’s a 3-D film. I always push the envelope in immersive works. You just have to be super strong with your cast, and the piece has to be mission-oriented. I’m looking forward to that shit. We’ll see what happens, you know?
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Expectations of Violence/Rites due Spring: B-BAM! is sponsored by the Charlotte Street Foundation and presented at La Esquina on Friday, April 10 and Saturday, April 11 at 7 p.m, with doors open at 6:30. Tickets are $10 at the door and limited to the first 30 visitors.
“Pavilionaires” is a recurring q&a series with current (and former) Charlotte Street Foundation Studio Residents. To take part, or to nominate someone, email Lucashwetzel at gmail dot com.