A Conversation with Choreographer Anna Myer
Interview by Alexis Schroeder March 2010
I first met dancer/choreographer Anna Myer as a student in her ballet class. Soon thereafter, I learned about a project she was working on called Street Talk, Suite Talk with her company, Anna Myer and Dancers. The piece addresses issues of conflict and violence, the coming together of diverse communities, and personal growth and transformation. It is best described as a full-length rap opera in two complementary, yet very different acts. Street Talk, Suite Talk has been developed through a collaborative process involving Anna, seven young poet-rappers, seven dancers, composer Jakov Jakoulov, and violinist Mark Berger. Advisors to the project include Anthony Toombs of Project Joy and Robert Macy from the On-Track Initiative, part of the Center for Trauma Psychology. While the company was still in rehearsals in March, after seeing just Act I and part of Act II, I sat down with Anna to learn more about the work. Street Talk, Suite Talk premiered May 14-15th at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston, Massachusetts.
NPi: Can you tell me about Street Talk, Suite Talk? What it’s about and how it began?
Anna Myer: It’s a spoken-word, rap opera with contemporary dance, violin, and poetry. It’s a piece that gives voice to what’s going on in our city with our youth and in our community. It overlaps all sorts of things, and it’s a real collaboration.
Personally, I think I struggled with having a voice [growing up], and dance by default has been my voice. Looking back at my work, I realized what my pieces were about. It’s been invaluable to me to have that self-expression, getting that out of my body and into some piece of theater. Also, from a very young age—I don’t really know why—I’ve been very interested in and concerned about racial issues. In the ’50s and ’60s there was a lot of stuff going on you would see on TV. Martin Luther King was my hero. My high school closed down for a month because of racial riots—this was Cambridge Rindge and Latin. It was an amazing time. Things were really changing, people were speaking out. I don’t feel like that is happening anymore.
I woke up one morning after seeing a movie that was very moving to me about a school teacher working with inner-city kids and thought, “This is what I want to do. I want people to have a voice…” I remember asking one of the poets in Street Talk, Suite Talk to just write me a poem… He wrote this poem and said it changed him. But it was like chasing poetry; it moved him to another level in his writing. And another poet—he talks about his family, his dad, and the dysfunction in their home. So these poets are talking about real stuff going on that I think many people can relate to.
We did a show in Roxbury at Hibernian Hall last summer, and our videographer turned to me and said, “Anna, you should see the difference in these kids…” And now, some of the poets are even taking part in a little bit of choreography on stage, which I never thought they’d do. One of my dancers—she’s white—said to me, “I never thought I would be hanging out with, and literally hanging on to, some of these kids who in my life I would never meet otherwise.” She said it transformed her. It opened a door for her she didn’t know she had shut. All the cast members have become close and familiar with another and with our composer, Jakov Jakoulov, too.
A friend of mine called me up after a recent performance and said, “I really saw a difference between the first performance and now—the coming together of these people and how moving that is.” He said, “They’re right with you. I can feel that.” I noticed it that night, too—this cohesion that’s been inching along. We trust one another to push each other a little bit. I went to Europe with some of these kids last summer: two rappers, a few poets, a violinist in his 30s, my husband who was 66, me, two others in their 40s, and a 19 year old dancer. We all stayed in an apartment in Edinburgh and had a blast, which totally blew me away.
The other thing that’s great about this project is that it grabs attention from all ages and walks of life. I want people from both sides of the tracks, so to speak, to see and hear the issues that plague our city, communities, and our youth. We did a show for 600 school kids. The violin began, and I saw them sink into their seats and thought, this is not good. Then it started, and they were riveted for an hour. One young black student raised his hand at the end and said, “How do I get to dance like that?” If I ever get a boy to [ask this] at all, I’m happy. And we bused white people into The Strand Theatre because they don’t go there. We had an audience of white people, Asians, Hispanics, black people, people who had never heard rap, people who had never seen the violin or contemporary dance. Everybody liked it. People were moved by it. The teachers said they had never seen a group of kids so engrossed.
AM: Well, I think violin is incredibly sad, incredibly moving, and I don’t think there’s anybody who could hear it in the background and not feel that. Originally, when I thought of this, I wanted just the lone violin and the lone rapper to see what that [would feel] like, how alone that [would be]. The dance is kind of like a Greek chorus to the poetry. I’ve been thinking about it and fusing it that way. It’s also great to make a dance from material [given to me by these poets]. I take the poets’ words and literally make movement out of them. I think the dance helps explain what’s going on inside for the poets. It certainly comes out of these poets in their language, but it gives the audience a visual and says, here it is again.
One of the things I wanted to do with this piece was say, ‘see it, hear it, feel it, there’s no way you’re going to get around it. Feel it.’ I think these art forms, in an odd way, are complementary to one another other; they cross-pollinate in every sense of the word. Street Talk, Suite Talk unites voices and art forms. It’s about rising from urban violence and chaos to personal redemption and social harmony.
NPi: When I saw the performance, after the first act, you spoke about how Street Talk, Suite Talk has been a real collaboration. Can you tell me more about how you’ve worked with the different artists involved?
AM: I give movement. Then I say, OK, make it bigger, move it, jump it, read the poetry, hear it, understand where it’s coming from. I give dancers license to take material and put their own personalities into it. And every once in a while when I’m running this thing, I get stuck, and a poet or dancer will say, “Well, what if we do this?” or “I have another poem you should hear.” They’re pushing to [get more involved], which is great because they feed off one another.
NPi: What is it about dance or the arts in general that creates possibility for people?
AM: Most of my work has emotional content. I want people to feel. I don’t think we feel enough in this country, which also makes us not see either. I think this piece opens doors for everyone. For teenagers, it opens doors in a way that affirms them, which I think is really important. In their schools today, they have none of the arts in general. I don’t know what I would have done without art. So I think it opens that door to say, what can I do that might help invigorate my life, change my life, make me want to live and be full?
NPi: What’s been the most fun part of all of this? or the most interesting?
AM: It’s all been fun, but it’s hard work. There’s so little time because there’s no money. The stress is that it’s hard to get the work out, to get it done. The other really hard part is getting the poets to come to rehearsal on time [Laughs]. They have a different sense of time than the dancers. The most fun for me is becoming close with these people and sharing our passion for self-expression and art.
NPi: How do you hope to change people’s perception of the world, or what’s going on in our culture right now, with this work?
AM: I have a plan [Laughs]. We’ll see if it happens. But my idea would be to go into communities, perform this show in schools or community centers and just perform the first act. Then soon after perform Act I and Act II together in a church or a theater. A church would be ideal because then we can have live organ and it’s about community. All the students would come from the schools where we have performed already and mix together. Students from rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. They would all sit together, all feel the same thing in that room because we do all feel the same things.
Once we bring it to schools, I want to bring facilitators with me from those cities to have discussions, to talk through those issues [the show explores]. I want them to ask, how is it that you step outside of your circle when you need to do so? How is it that you step out of dysfunction and have a functional life? How is it that when you step out, you fall back? you stay on track? How do you find a mentor, find something you’re interested in, find somebody out there who can help you do the thing you’re interested in?
NPi: I remember when you described the piece to the audience between the first and second act, you said there are going to be moments when people fall back and slip back into old patterns in their lives. Why do you think this is?
AM: You’re still you. You still have that family. You’re still you. I would like to talk with kids about how to change. How to hold on to who you are and get what you need to move forward, to take a risk, to learn something new, to grow beyond yourself, to not be scared—stuff I’ve had experience with. And I’d love to do things at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury to get dance going and do poetry workshops. We have to do workshops in the cities. I was thinking of doing a mini workshop with poets and young kids. Kids can make dances with their hands, with what they’re feeling… We could teach kids how to do a mini Street Talk, Suite Talk of their own.
NPi: What would you like others to know about Street Talk, Suite Talk that they may not be able to find on the website or in a press release?
AM: That it’s not just about what’s going on in the inner-city. It goes beyond that. It’s about change. It’s about self-expression and change. It’s about mixing people up.
NPi: With all of its challenges, what keeps you continuing on with this work and with dance?
AM: A colleague of mine saw the performance early on and said, “Wow, this isn’t done. You need to go further.” I just listened to him and started doing, and I guess I just really want people to know that they can have, too. That they can change and they can have. I am so lucky in my life that I have changed. I don’t think everybody knows this about themselves. But, you take a risk in your day, in your life, and it just fills you. I want people to know that [they can take that risk].
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First photo by Charles Daniels Second photo by Julie Kukharenko