BWW Dance Interview: Jeremy McQueen

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Founder and Artistic Director of The Black Iris Project, Jeremy McQueen is an award-winning emerging choreographer. A 2013 recipient of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago's Choreographers of Color Award and two-time finalist of the Capezio Award for Choreographic Excellence, McQueen's work has appeared at Jacob's Pillow Dance's Inside/Out series (in 2012 & 2013), Dancers Responding to AIDS' Fire Island Dance Festival, the Young Choreographer's Festival, and more. McQueen has appeared in the Broadway National Tours of "Wicked" and "The Color Purple", in addition to the Metropolitan Opera's productions of "Die Fledermaus", "Aida", "Les Contes d'Hoffmann", and "Don Giovanni". McQueen has taught ballet for ABT's and Ailey's educational outreach programs. A graduate of The Ailey School/Fordham University B.F.A Program, he's trained as a scholarship recipient with American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and Alonzo King's LINES Ballet.

Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to interview Mr. McQueen.

When did you first become interested in dance?

I actually fell in love with music, dance, and theater all around the same time. When I was about eight years old, my mom took me to the San Diego Civic Theater to see the national touring production of "Phantom of the Opera." We sat in the last row of the balcony, so high that binoculars were available to rent. I loved everything about the experience, from the grandeur of the plush red seats to the elaborate costumes, lights, and scenery. It overwhelmed me with inspiration, and from that moment on I told my mom that I needed to be a part of "this adventure" someway, somehow, whether as a musician in the orchestra pit or a performer on stage.

My parents never tried to discourage my artistic interest and stressed the importance of being well-balanced. In order for me to continue studying the arts outside of school, I had to do well in my academic subjects. It was just the motivation and balance I needed, and believe it really set the stage for my career. In order to truly thrive artistically, you need to have strong reading and writing skills as well so you can thoroughly communicate your artistic goals and knowledge.

What were your early influences?

Growing up in the church helped to shape the trajectory of my artistic self. I sang in the church children's choir, was a youth usher board member (which was organized much like a choreographed dance number), and read various poems and special announcements. I also performed excerpts on my violin or flute for various special services and occasions.

Tell me about your dance education?

Growing up in San Diego, the majority of my training took place at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. I had a teacher and mentor, Donald Robinson, who has been very influential to my career and upbringing. He instilled in me so many valuable lessons, teaching me how to be disciplined, but also taking the value of responsibility and accountability for my career. He didn't just teach us how to tendu and plié, he showed us how to navigate through life, especially as a minority, and for that I will forever be grateful. The lessons he taught me continue to resonate in my life on a daily basis.

When I graduated from our magnet school, I went on to study dance at the Boston Conservatory for a year. It was a really great learning experience, but it wasn't the place where I ultimately received my degree. The experience taught me so much, helping to give me a greater sense of independence. At the end of my freshman year I decided to transfer to Fordham University, so as to be able to take part in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program. I graduated on schedule in 2008 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance Performance. The education at Ailey/Fordham was unlike any other that I've ever experienced. It was the first time that I was training with so many black males that looked like me and often were much stronger dancers. It pushed me in so many ways, giving me new opportunities to gain experience in auditioning before I actually needed a job.

Living in New York City was a huge wake up call and reality check. In San Diego I was a big fish in a small pond, and securing lead roles and solos with little competition was very easy. In New York, I learned there was still a long way to go.

One thing I loved about New York City while I was in college was the chance to repeatedly observe the New York City Ballet and dream of the day when I could create my own unique ballets. Look out, George Balanchine.

Through it all I had to dig deep and remember the lessons that my family and teachers like Mr. Robinson had taught me: I needed to believe in myself and stay focused on my goals. Ailey/Fordham students are held to such high expectations, not only in the dance/artistic classes but also academically. We had a full academic load at the university that reminded me of my youth when I was held to the high standards my parents had instilled in me, making sure my arts and academics shared center stage.

Tell me about your experience with Joffrey Ballet of Chicago's Choreographers of Color Award

The experience of receiving the Joffrey Ballet's Choreographers of Color Award is one that I'll never forget. It was very challenging, but at the same time it was extremely rewarding. This is where I choreographed my first ballet, drawing a lot of inspiration from George Balanchine, en pointe.

I had applied for the award in its initial year of inception, but didn't get it. As one who doesn't easily give up, I reapplied a couple years later and was one of three recipients that year. As part of the application process you had to submit a written "pitch," describing the type of work you aimed to craft. This time, my pitch was much more evolved, inspired by a painting I had seen by Georgia O'Keeffe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was a connection between the beauty of this painting, my mother, and the other black women in my family who helped raise me. The painting spoke to me just as "Phantom of the Opera" did. From there I just started writing and thinking about how I could bring this painting to life but through my own eyes.

I also found a new mentor, Pierre Lockett, who was a dancer in the Joffrey company for many years before becoming artistic advisor and a mentor during my time in Chicago; and a new friend, Nardia Boodoo, a black dancer who performed the lead my ballet, "Black Iris."

From that experience I realized two things about myself: 1) That I truly loved ballet and desired to choreograph more ballets, and 2) That I wanted to bring black artists together to chat about our lives and connect with one another to offer inspiration and support, just as Pierre, Nardia, and I all connected to share our experiences.

What made you decide to choreograph?

Movement and choreography have always been huge aspects of my life. After "Phantom," my mom continued to take me to see touring productions that came through my town. We always bought the soundtrack, and I remember putting it in my boom box, locking myself in my tiny bedroom and dancing my heart out.

I used to beg my mom to take the camcorder out and video me as I danced and improvised to music on the radio and some of my favorite songs for hours on end. If I ever got tired, or couldn't think of what step to do next, I would keep repeating the same step until I thought of something else I could try. But I didn't stop there. I essentially had created my own TV show. I would take one of my dad's tablecloths and drape if over the mantle of the fireplace to create a backdrop. I even took the lampshades off the lamps to create better lighting. I was a one-man show.

As I got older, choreographing helped me find myself, providing some much needed comfort when needed. While I was in college I really latched on to my composition classes as an outlet to express myself individually. Kazuko Hirabayshi, my choreography mentor, was my teacher during my sophomore and junior years for dance composition. That is when I really fell in love with choreography and started to understand it not only as a craft but a way to share my experiences. Kazuko, who recently passed away, really encouraged me to continue finding my voice and exploring new types of music and movement qualities. To this day, I continue to thank her for all of love and support that she showed me. I would not be where I am right now if it were not for her endless support and encouragement.

Any choreographic influences?

Many. One that immediately comes to mind is Twyla Tharp and her production of "Movin' Out." It was one of my favorite musicals, because it was the first time I had really seen both of my passions (theater and dance) meshed together in this fashion. Alvin Ailey has also been a huge inspiration. The way he was able to create such authentic and creative works, as well as an innovative organization for black dancers to fully express themselves, served as a motivation for developing "The Black Iris Project. "

How do you go about choreographing?

My choreographic process is determined by the set of limitations that may be presented to me before I start creating. I don't possess a formulated way of working, having learned that flexibility is necessary. Sometimes you are given a very short time to create something or need to work with space or cast limitations.

I learned to work quickly on my feet and to trust my instincts. By doing that I feel that I can problem solve situations very quickly. I try not to get married to an idea or concept mentally before I get in the room with the dancers. I often am commissioned to create works for dancers I've never had an opportunity to observe in person. I prefer not to watch videos of the dancers before I get in the studio with them. I find that it actually makes my process more difficult, as I may start to make judgments about the dancers that will not actually be the case. I'm very energy sensitive, and I pick up on so much, be it positive or negative energy. These things also play a factor in my mental process and what I create. Despite everything, when I'm in the studio on a deadline I go into a zone that can't quite be described. It's fully engaged and focused but really intense, as I'm often racing with the clock to finish the work. In retrospect I always love the outcome, even if I have to completely divorce myself from it for a substantial period of time.

All of my works are very musical. I grew up studying music, so if I have the piece selected before I start the work, I will listen to it over and over again until I feel I could play each instrument's part by heart.

You were a two-time finalist for the Capezio Award for Choreographic Excellence. How did this come about?

I applied for the Capezio ACE award through an online video submission process. While they receive several applications each year, my work, among 14 other finalists, was selected to compete for the award in NYC. This provided me with lots of exposure and support from Capezio, as they have been a kind clothing sponsor to me for various projects that required assistance.

You toured in "Wicked" and "The Color Purple." Can you tell me about those experiences?

These two shows were completely different experiences but both memorable. "Purple" is a show I never thought I would ever do, thinking that I was not a god fit. My experience with "Wicked" was different. As soon as I saw it while in college, I knew that I wanted to be in it. It gave me a similar feeling of seeing "Phantom" as a kid. "Wicked" came along during a period when I was feeling very lost and confused about my career. I didn't know where I was headed, having been to a number of auditions and not getting jobs, as well as dealing with the demands of being in college. I auditioned for "Wicked" about nine times over the course of a few years before I was hired. Either there was someone else they liked better, or the part that I was right for wasn't open. Regardless of all the rejection, I continued to attend the auditions whenever possible. The last time I went in for "Wicked" I was heavy into performances at Radio City Music Hall. I was feeling pretty comfortable with getting to be onstage every night, making good money and getting to sleep in my own bed, having just been on tour with "The Color Purple." When my agent called and said the "Wicked" casting directors asked to see me at another private audition, I was completely hesitant at first. I wondered why I would invite possible rejection into my life, especially when it was going so well. But deep down I knew I would regret it if I just didn't go. After all, it was my dream job. I went to the audition and was notified hours later that I booked it! I remember crying in pure ecstasy on the sidewalk in the rain in Chelsea. My wildest dream was actually coming true.

"Wicked" was amazing, but the two experiences were very different. In "The Color Purple "I was surrounded by an abundance of love, support, and people that looked just like me (Black.) "The Color Purple" was my first Broadway tour, giving me the opportunity to obtain my Equity card. I was also one of the youngest cast members in the show, but I never felt alone. There were always cast members looking out for me and showing me the ropes, providing me with many lifelong and meaningful friendships. "Wicked" was a huge obstacle course, but I continued to navigate my way through it daily. I practically cried my eyes out every night just in disbelief that I was even performing in my dream show. But after dancing about 135 performances over a seven month period, I decided to leave the show. I was 23 years old, had achieved the chance to perform in my Broadway dream show, was making really great money, and getting to tour the country. At the same time I saw how being in the show affected others. Some of my cast members became jaded, focused more on their bank accounts, developed large egos and seemed to lose sight of why they pursued the arts in the first place. Traveling in an environment like that is hard, and it was here that I often did feel alone. There were only four black people in the entire touring company: one female dancer, one female swing , our wig supervisor, and myself. I did not feel the supportive and positive energy I had previously experienced. To help keep my spirit balanced, I would go out and teach dance classes at local dance studios and performing arts schools. Sometimes, I would teach two classes on Saturday mornings before heading to the theater to do two performances that day. And then I would get up on Sunday and repeat it all over again. But it was what I needed to keep me humble and focused.

The coolest thing was getting to walk into a room full of students and telling them that I was in "Wicked." To this day I love seeing the way peoples' faces light up with excitement. It reminded me of what it was like to be that eight year old sitting in the theater, at the same time providing me with a strong driving focus of how my career was not just about me, but how I could uplift other people through the arts.

What about the Metropolitan Opera. How did you get there?

I got my contract with the Metropolitan opera in a similar fashion, as I did with "Wicked." Over many years, I went to a number of auditions and got cut. You can never let not getting a job or getting a job validate your talent-- that's what propelled me to continue going back to these auditions and seemingly face constant rejection. I actually was not even originally cast for the production in which I made my debut. Someone had gotten injured during the first week of rehearsals and had to drop out, opening up a spot for me. Upon receiving that phone call, I was dumbfounded. It was the day before Thanksgiving. I didn't have a job, I barely had any money, and I really needed work. I started my job at the Met that Monday immediately following Thanksgiving, and I went from being unemployed to being gainfully employed between the holidays, the most expensive time of the year! Dancing at the Met was another amazing and eye-opening experience. Again, I was one of very few black dancers at the Met and knew I was blazing a trail for other black dancers who will follow in my footsteps. That first season I was cast in one production and later cast in three productions for the following season. I was so overwhelmed with joy for the opportunity to dance on such a historic stage and be a part of the African-American lineage that has performed there. It is my dream one day that I will get to see my choreography performed at the opera house.

Some of the dancers, including myself, were not offered a contract in that season to follow. While it was sad to lose an opportunity that provided me with so much joy, I felt that it was time for me to move on. I started to think more about the projects that I had started to think about before, reevaluating how I could help to make a difference and allow my experiences not only create more opportunities for myself, but for others. I started to think more about the ballet that I created for the Joffrey Ballet, "The Black Iris." I wanted to do a classical ballet with sets, costumes, dramatic lighting, and an almost entirely black cast of dancers.

Did you dance for the Ailey Company, since you are a graduate of their B.F.A. program?

I did not dance for the company. Studying in the school does not directly feed you into the company. For myself, by the time I reached my senior year I was just so ready to get out and explore the dance world that staying within the organization was not a desire. I really valued my experience and training in the school, but in many ways felt very stifled. I wanted to go explore a little on my own and be able to develop my own sense of individuality. Ailey gave me such world-class training, but I felt like I needed to look like my counterparts in order to be successful. While it was an amazing three years, I needed a break. I am back at Ailey now and currently teach for their Arts in Education department. Many of my classmates are in the company, and I always tell them that I'm living vicariously through them. I love seeing all the great work they're doing all over the world. Do I think I will ever dance in the company? Nope. But perhaps I will get to choreograph for them one day.

I'm very interested in hearing more about "The Black Iris Project." Tell me about it?

"The Black Iris Project" is a collaborative of emerging black artists from various mediums coming together to create new and relevant classical ballets, as well as doing arts education outreach in the community. I wanted to create a tight collaborative that brought together those "token black dancers" to talk candidly and provide inspiration about our various experiences dancing in the United States and around the world. I'm a strong believer in giving back and being able to help the next generation. What we often know of classical ballet are European based fairytales and fables, such as "Cinderella," "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," etc. I really want to create ballets that address contemporary society and the diverse group of individuals that are in America right now. There are so many topics that need to be addressed, from racism to politics, that our young people need to learn about. I feel that creating ballets that are rooted in black history and the black experience is something we can do to add to that dialogue.

I'm interested in your thoughts about diversity in the dance world, as we hear so much about it.

We are in a period of great change right now, and I think it is so important for us to have conversations about diversity and its lackadaisical appearance in many facets of the arts. It really is something that I feel needs to change. We can't just put black dancers in roles that were created for white dancers and audiences. We must also share more concepts and stories that are told onstage to provoke more diverse audiences to take an interest in what they are seeing. One of my goals and missions is to help young people see the importance of the arts. They may not become an artist themselves, but they might become an art supporter or will be someone that can help open a dance studio, or provide funding.

What can we expect from you in the future?

It is my goal that "The Black Iris Project" will continue to grow and be able to bring in various collaborators from all around the world to create new stories.

In addition to our debut season at New York Live Arts in late July, we have a number of performances and community-based projects in the works for this summer. In April of 2017, we'll be presenting a work at The Kennedy Center Opera House as part of The Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America season. Beyond that I've got some things written down in my journal for the future, but I'm not ready to chat about those just yet. You'll just have to wait and see!

"The Black Iris Project. Photograph by Matthew Murphy."

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