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BWW Interview: Christopher Rudd Talks Developing WITNESS With New Victory LabWorks, Addressing Racism in Art & More

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Christopher shares how Witness came to be, how he shaped the work for young audiences, how he hopes his work will foster discussions and connect one another & more.

BWW Interview: Christopher Rudd Talks Developing WITNESS With New Victory LabWorks, Addressing Racism in Art & More

Dancer and choreographer Christopher Rudd is a prolific creator, blending elements of contemporary ballet and contemporary circus to speak to relevant social issues within his works. The founder of RudduR Dance, a 2019 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow, and a New Victory Theater LabWorks Artist, Rudd has been the recipient of The New World School of the Arts Alumni Foundation's Inspiration Grant, and has been awarded grants from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, New Music USA, American Dance Abroad, Career Transition For Dancers, Harlem Stage's Fund for New Work, World Learning Global Development & Exchange, U.S. Embassy Burkina Faso, and Arts Envoy.

Rudd's most current work, Witness, was developed as part of New 42's New Victory LabWorks program, which provides artists the funds and support necessary to help bring their work to life with the support of artists, educators, presenters and producers.

A work of art Rudd has been working on since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Witness has been reimagined and shaped for young audiences, addressing the topics of race in America, white supremacy, and combating racist ideologies in order to help affect lasting change, while facilitating conversations through art.

Witness launched digitally on June 15th as part of the Guggenheim's Work & Process program.

Watch below!

We spoke with Christopher Rudd about how Witness came to be, how the work has changed over the years, how the piece has been reimagined through his collaboration with LabWorks, and more.


How was Witness born? When did you know that you wanted to create this piece and what did the early process of bringing it to life look like for you?

Witness was inspired by the murder - and the release of the murderer - of Trayvon Martin. I found myself in a place where I finally was able to not have to get back to ballet class, and before Trayvon, and before that time in my life, every time a natural disaster would happen, I would always have to detach myself from it in order to get back to ballet class, really train, focus on getting better as a dancer. And roughly while I was practically retiring, I saw an unnatural disaster that I could speak to, and that I wanted to speak to, and I felt passionate about speaking to it. So, I conceived a work that is intended to, not pass blame, but instead show a reality that people are not conditioned to see, to really open a dialogue on the challenging issues of race in America, and frankly, race throughout the world.

The early days of trying to bring this work to fruition was really hard, to be honest. It was really hard because I had spent a lot of my life concentrating and focusing on being a performer, and I had yet to prove that I could speak with dance my own words, versus interpreting someone else's. I hadn't yet started honing the skill of stage-crafting and adding theatricality to dance, and I had not started to play with bringing the world of contemporary circus, and the world of contemporary dance together the way I had imagined it, while I was a dancer. So, it has been a fairly hard journey to walk, but every challenge is an opportunity for me to hone the skills more and really shape what I believe Witness should be, and how it should be told. So, while I'm grateful for all of my successes, I do look back at the hardship and the millions of rejections that I've gotten over the years and appreciate that as well.

How has your relationship to the work changed over the years as we've watched our cultural landscape shift, and we've watched police brutality against black people continue, and we've lived through the pandemic, and the George Floyd protests?

I am affected by the world. There is no way around it, I also watch what's going on, and I also lived through the pandemic... One of the things that I'm really grateful about with New Victory LabWorks is the part where we actually get to share what we're making with the age range that we're hoping to target, and listen to their comments, and questions about what the works are, and the things I'm nervous about with the work, it's really beneficial. Kids don't lie! So, they'll tell you one way or the other if you're on the right track! Frankly, I'm also tired of seeing harm done to black bodies, and the dancers that I'm working with are tired of seeing it done, and to have to portray it after the past year, it's really hard. So, while I believe in the necessity for the work to be created and presented, and for it to start the conversations that need to be started, I am taking great care to make sure I am taking care of the people who I'm working with. And the people who watch it.

I've employed an intimacy director to help the dancers come in and out of character, making sure that we're doing as much as we can to emphasize their own self-care and their rituals to make sure that they're not being overwhelmed by the topic, and then go out into the street and experience the things we're talking about with the work. I'll be honest, I have love/hate delusions of grandeur when it comes to this work, because I'll see something on the news and I want to run away and go to an island and live a life of solitude, and then I'll see something, and that will reinforce the reason why I'm making the work in the first place. It's really unfortunate that the work was inspired by Trayvon Martin six years ago and I'm still living in a place where I'm looking for the means to finish the work, and that's six years of living with this topic. And living with this topic has been its own kind of bittersweetness, I am really looking forward to finishing the work and starting to do the presentation of it because creation is its own beast.

What was it like working with New 42, how did your work and the process grow thanks to the resources there?

I remember my first meeting where I was a finalist for LabWorks, and them just explaining the depth in which they would be supporting if I was chosen, it just felt so amazing. I felt like up until that point I was out on a ledge by myself and teetering on a stormy day! And it felt like there was a group of people who wanted to help and keep me accountable for my own dreams and goals for myself. The life of an artist is hard, the life of a solo artist is hard, the life of a one-man company is hard, and it felt like I had a team at my back. Sometimes [that meant] even just taking a phone call and letting me vent! Sometimes giving me a stage or a space to play, and room to make mistakes, and room to find what was truly appropriate for a moment, it's actually quite a miracle. I chose New York because the infrastructure to make dance was there, but it was the first time that the infrastructure to make dance felt like it was truly supported in a way that understood the totality of what it means to make dance.

What does it mean to you to have been able to reimagine this work, or shape it, specifically for young audiences?

The truth is, I didn't really consider the appropriateness of age in my art-making prior to my relationship with New 42 and LabWorks. I often had student showings of my work, but it was like they were watching something that wasn't meant for them. And being able to make sure from the ground floor that the work I'm creating is appropriate for the people who take over the planet once we're gone was something that really opened up my mind to not just the way I make Witness, but it opened up my eyes to the way I made Touché, I made sure that I would be okay with my children watching it at all ages. I really made sure that even if it was something new for children, it wouldn't be something that was inappropriate. That one parent can make a decision to censor my work, but when I looked I my work, I made sure it was something I would be proud to allow my kids to watch. It's not something I considered prior to LabWorks, even though there were often times my work would be in front of kids! I would be like, "Okay, here it goes! Let's see what happens!" Consciously making it appropriate for them really brought in my ability to speak to more people.

I do want to make sure that while I'm reimagining it for kids, I'm not dumbing it down for kids either. It's the same thing with my creation of Touché, it wasn't that I changed anything about the way I create work, or what I say, or how I should say it, but being able to justify it should I be questioned. Coming up with those answers during the creation really allows me to consider the fact that the world is bigger than the intended audience, or the world is bigger than an adult audience, the world is bigger than what I had previously thought the world was before. It's interesting because there is a combination of LabWorks broadening what theater for young audiences is, and me broadening what theater for young audiences is. I'm really happy that I've never been censored, or I've never been told, "That's inappropriate." The question is always finding the audience for the work versus changing the work for the audience, so not reimagining it, but just opening and broadening the consideration, and why.

What are your thoughts on how people are currently exploring the topic of white supremacy and racism in art, and what do you think other people can be doing to help facilitate those conversations in art?

The truth is, understanding our own limitations is great. Knowing that I don't have the language for this moment, or knowing that I don't have the language or the skills for this, but looking for the people that do to help make the work better? Or, broadening the lens of which the work is created from, is I think what I recommend to people. But, right now, we're all living through the same time period. We're all seeing the same things in the news. We're all witnessing the same truths right now, which is rare. Being able to say to oneself, "This is where I'm at today, who are the people that can help me get a little bit further in my own understanding of what white supremacy is? And "Who is the intended audience?", "What are some ramifications of saying one thing versus another?" I feel like we could do better as artists by allowing more people into the room, and not in a way that just allows them to be there, but in a way that actually gives them voice. Actually listening with an open mind versus waiting on your turn to debate what you are hearing would do a lot towards making sure that the work itself is more valid, that it resonates more with a broader sense of people, finding that universality in the work itself, and making sure that it speaks to people that you can't even imagine that it speaks to. Because frankly, there are more of us than we realize on the planet!

What is your ultimate hope for Witness? What do you hope that people take from it?

I want people to see the work, have a conversation, feel what it is to be the people in the work, and I want them to start a journey for themselves that I can't even imagine. Of course, I would love to win awards and for it to be a financial success and a 'blockbuster hit' and whatever, but I'm really excited about the potential growth it can have for us as people. The more work resonates, the longer it will sit with you, and I hope that longevity proves that I can change the hearts and minds of people and how they look at themselves, how they look at race, or how they look at their relationship to fellow humans. My takeaway from this past year is that no lives matter. If you look at our reaction to the pandemic, our relationship to our fellow man is not one that we really think, "Yes, this person's life matters, we really need to take care of them." It's just that black lives matter least. And I'd love to create a work that changes that, that helps people know that we need to change that. That's my hope. My wish is to better the world through dance, I have a few things I want to say while I still can, and that's definitely one of them.


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