NEW YORK CITY
Click Here for More Articles on NEW YORK CITY

BWW Interview: MONSTAH BLACK; Becoming a Fabulous Creature and Processing, Part I

Monstah Black.
Photo Credit: Sylvain Guenot

You know how some people are effortlessly glamorous even when they are meeting up for a simple chat? The describes Monstah Black with whom I met a month ago to discuss his upcoming show at Dixon Place, "HYPERBOLIC! (The Last Spectacle)". The show premieres on July 8th and runs on the main stage of Dixon Place through July 23rd. At that point Monstah was just finishing up on the final version of the show so it was the perfect time to check in with him and to learn about the genesis of this piece.

Full Disclosure: I briefly worked with Monstah at Williamsburg Movement & Arts Center in 2015 before he had to return full time to his artistic duties as the Resident Artist at Dixon Place. It was good to see him again. Monstah is a handsome black man with impeccable style even when he is lounging and taking it easy. He and his husband, Manchild Black, are legends in the club and music scene. It seems that once a month they are putting on an amazing show at one of the city's hotspots, and of course they have their popular weekly podcast as well. On this day,

The Illustrious Blacks.
Monstah and Manchild Black
Photo Credit: Charles Meacham

Monstah was clad in casual rehearsal garb accented with a fabulous hat and the satisfied smile of someone who'd just finished a productive four-hour work session. The tragedy in Orlando had just occurred and was impossible to ignore.

Monstah Black:
Thinking about Florida.... It really stopped me in my tracks when I heard about it. And I had all these reactions but then also thoughts of- just thinking... Thinking we've come so far and yet we haven't. Like, how could we have come so far and all of a sudden be set back to a place that we just really don't need to be re-experiencing.

Juan Michael: Like cavemen.

Monstah Black:
Yeah. Like cavemen. Exactly. So that came into my head. And then I started thinking about like, "What does that - how does that affect where I am in creating what's happening? How does that affect my work?" Particularly because what I'm creating this time around is not so much being - it wasn't inspired by any kind of social, political-. You know? I didn't start out that way. And I made a conscious decision to come into the residency and to use it as a place to build to something that's coming from a place of creativity. I just wanted to create something that's fun and fun to look at and entertaining and with laughter and colors and spectacle. Because I'm coming from creating "The Cotton Project", which emotionally was

Monstah Black
"The Cotton Project"
Photo Credit: Charles Meacham

really draining for me in a way that I didn't expect. But I gave myself the challenge of building cotton ball costumes. Mentally and emotionally and spiritually, what that took me through to thread cotton balls was a trip. So I found myself at Dixon Place on the floor, lying on my back for weeks before I even allowed myself to start to move a little bit because I was like, "I don't want to start from where I always start. I want to find something different. I don't want to- I don't want to be inspired too much by outside information." I wanted to see if I could channel everything from a place - where it's coming from when I find stillness. So, that residency started in May of 2015 and throughout the residency I would say the first... the first seven to eight months was literally me- pretty much by myself alone in the studio space. Video taping myself; playing around with phrases; thinking about- taking moments of stillness to think about where my mind was going; and that ventured into thinking about death. Thinking about disasters, catastrophes, and also thinking about cults. I thought about cults. I thought about mental disorders.

JM: Any particular cults or mental disorders?

Monstah Black:
Well I started going down the road of narcissism and being interested in "what is that" and how does it look. So I started doing research around that. And it's interesting that a lot of that also played into the fact that I was taking time to look at Facetime or Instagram and being inspired by cyberspace and people posting their sh-t online. You know what I mean? And then me going into the mirror of my dressing room and being like, (He affects an almost whiny voice as if he were a petulant teenager) "What am I doing? Who am I? Oh my God! Narcissism. This is crazy." You know what I mean? So that sort of thing-

JM: Registered.

Monstah Black:
Registered in terms of what was happening to me in the space alone. And then somewhere around- I don't know, maybe it was October or November- I had a meeting with Dixon Place and one of the questions that came up when I started talking about the things that I was imagining - someone just said out of the blue, "Oh, so you're writing a script". And one of the things throughout the process of being alone that came up was that I needed to allow myself to go along with things that I was afraid of or things that I've never done. Just challenge myself to do things that I don't usually do when I have a performance. So when they said, "Oh, you're going to write a script?" I said, "I guess I'm going to write a script." I've never written a script in a dialogue sense of the word script. I've always written scripts like-.

JM: Actions.

Monstah Black:
Actions! Different action pieces and like movement and quality and things like that. But it's never been people actually talking to each other. So that was definitely something where I was like, "I don't know how to write a script." I'm not even really a conversationalist at all. I'm totally socially awkward. So for the fact that I'm going to sit here and write things for people to say didn't really make sense at all. But I started by just kind of listening to conversations on the street and just kind of using that as the diving board to send myself into whatever crazy world or whatever that it would take me in. Then I decided, "Well I need other bodies to work with". And that came about because throughout the beginning of the residency I just felt the need to be able to step outside of what I'm creating for the first time. I've never not been in something that I've created with the exception of like- I can't say that that's not what's happening when I go on a visiting guest artist residency to- like a university; of course I'm creating work and I'm leaving it alone. But stuff that's kind of an opportunity for me to really just sink into it- . I'm usually in it.

Johnnie "Cruise" Mercer in air & Joey Cuellar on bed
"HYPERBOLIC (The Last Spectacle)" by Monstah Black
Photo Credit: Peter Yesley

JM: Yeah.

Monstah Black:
So that was my next challenge that I wanted. Was to be a director/choreographer on the outside of it and not be inside of it. I decided to enlist the help of a dear friend, Ashley Brockington, to be there with me as I'm basically experiencing the challenge of "Okay, now I'm being a director and I have a script and I'm not sure about what I've written. I don't even like what I've written. But I'm starting here because I want to grow and I can't grow by doing the same thing that I always do." So Ashley came in and I decided that I wanted to use the performers. We had an audition and I had six performers. And I would say early on in the process the sixth performer ended up getting another- a day job that needed him all the time and rather than look for someone else I was like, "I'm going to do it!"

We both laugh

Monstah Black:
So now I'm in it. Which is a whole other can of worms that I've opened. Because I set the tone in terms of wanting to be the director and having a script by throwing myself inside of it-.

I make a face at this. This seems overwhelming.

Monstah Black:
Yeah. I can't really do both at once. There are times where I'll step out and be alone with Ashley and be like, "Bong, Bong, Bang, Bang; this is what it should be". That still happens. And I feel like somehow, being inside of it allows me to access how to do that on the outside. Because things started to crystallize once I was in the place of the performer. And realizing, "Oh wait a minute. You don't know what should be here or where it's coming from or what the motivation is in order-", you know. So that was one of the things that's helped me understand how to direct some situations.

JM: Well it's like you've had this gestation period where you were dealing with a lot of ego.

Monstah Black:
Yeah. A lot.

JM: And then someone gave you a drop of inspiration that you ran with. Then someone fortuitously dropped out- it's like giving birth.

Monstah Black:
Yeah. The interesting thing is, it's a little bit of a double-edged sword because I'm sinking into it and I'm recognizing that more needs to happen. But because I'm juggling, I'm thinking about all these different- I have all these different hats that I put on at different times and I will be honest with you that there are moments when... What I'm noticing is that the choreographer is the last hat that I'm wearing.

JM: Mmmmm.

Monstah Black:
And so, working with performers who are generally dancers first- I think that I might be right to say that it's probably been a little frustrating not having me bust out a bunch of stuff for them to do sooner. Because- I don't know where it's coming from but there's been a bit of resistance from me to just go "This is what it is- I'm hitting here, here, and here. And go!" You know what I mean? But thankfully I have Ashley on the outside constantly reminding me that, "There needs to be some choreography right now. You guys need to be dancing here. You need to be thinking about what's happening in this moment and there needs to be a phrase here." So that's an interesting thing that's happening for me right now because coming out of this whole experience, I want to take a look at that. What does it mean for me, why am I- why is choreography the last thing now? And actually the music, the music actually came first.

JM: Oh.

Monstah Black:
I started with- I got the music and then as I was developing the script, I would take pieces of the script and do them over the songs that I created. Which was good and bad because I was also shaping the texture of the vocals and the way that they should be said- like the rhythm of the vocals, which earlier on made it more challenging for the performers because when they were learning stuff they were actually trying to match up exactly to what I was saying. Now we're to a place where it's like, "You've heard the way that I did it. We've all been inspired by it. Now I'm removing the vocals and we're going to find it in real time."

JM: Within themselves.

Monstah Black:
Within themselves. And sell it. So, yeah. All of this is to say that this particular residency has been me exploring what my process should be in the future. I'm going through a process to figure out what works to get from point A to point B for me now at this point in my career. Because I've created a lot of work but it's all come to exist in different ways. And I've also had quite a lot of improvisation throughout my career. Improvising in groups and improvising solo. And there's always choreographed phrases within my improvised solo work and a structure, but I leave myself the freedom to explore and find new things throughout the performance- by leaving enough flexibility within the structure so that I can also learn something from mistakes that happen. You know what I mean?

JM: Yes.

The Cast of "HYPERBOLIC (The Last Spectacle)"
Created by Monstah Black
Photo Credit: Peter Yesley

Monstah Black:
With that being said, the level of improvisation that has been left up to performers in this piece - because we're getting closer, the little bit of nervous... It's like, "Wait, what's happening? What's happening here?" But I also know that because this is their first time working with me I feel like that nervousness will start to go away and they'll be more familiar with like- "Oh I know what I'm doing, and I know what I'm doing here, and to get there I can take this and that to get there." It's going to be okay but there's still a little bit of-.

JM: "Tell me what to do."

Monstah Black:
Tell me what to do. Yeah. It's an interesting place to be.

JM: Where does the need not to be in control come from? For instance, I would say "Don't make a decision that I did not give you."

Monstah laughs at this because he knows that I am a Type A control freak.

Monstah Black:
Yes. You know what? "Where does that need to not be in control come from"? It probably comes from... well, a number of things. Meditation, Buddhism, and Yoga influence. It probably comes from club culture. The freedom of the dance floor in the club. It comes from a desire to- for myself to personally be able to let go sometimes of what's happening in my thoughts and just let my body take over. It comes from- There's probably a bit- there's something in me that recognizes the strength in allowing people to discover themselves within something. To create this organic- to help it with being more organic. I'm glad you said that though because even with you saying that - the way that you just said it, what did you say? "I am someone who would say, don't-

JM: Don't make a choice-

Monstah Black:
"Don't make a choice that I did not give you." I think that, honestly my next challenge after this residency will be to create maybe a five to ten minute piece - not like a show - where I say just that. That's where I need to grow. And I feel like giving myself that challenge with something smaller will probably help. It would help to have that tool. I think that tool is a very good tool to have as well. And I say that in hopes of finding a sense of balance. Where I know I can go into that toolbox or I can pull back and be like, "Do what you want". You know what I mean? But that tool that you have is the one that I need work on.

JM: That's interesting because you came here with the decision to try things differently and what did you do? You spent time in isolation "not doing" and letting things happen because there has been a formula. But even with these new things that you are trying, you are still relying upon things that come from you naturally. That's a blessing. It's interesting how we make things work for ourselves.

I speak about my own creation process, which is with a set of one on one solos that are then thrown together as a group with the prompt "Do not crash into each other". The movement is set but the direction is up to the performer to figure out and negotiate.

Monstah Black:
That's interesting that you say that because when I first moved to New York I found myself creating duets because there's no time to get everyone into the same space.

JM: And you're normally in the work as well.

Monstah Black:
Yeah. So it was about all the duets that were created at different times and then the whole show was put together without anyone ever seeing what the other person is doing but it all makes sense and flows together. There's a through line.

The Cast of "HYPERBOLIC (The Last Spectacle)"
Created by Monstah Black
Photo Credit: Peter Yesley

JM: Are the performers in "Hyperbolic" all new to you?

Monstah Black:
Mmm hmmm.

JM: Is there a difference in terms of generation for these new dancers and people you worked with before?

Monstah Black:
Yes, because I made a conscious decision to not work with people of my own generation for this show whereas before the works I was creating were pretty much with my peers. Everyone was from my generation or the generation right after me. But now pretty much everyone in this show is a millennial. Which I hadn't really thought about. I haven't said that. I know it but- actually that's a lie. I can't say that I didn't think about that-.

JM: But you didn't articulate it.

Monstah Black:
I didn't but there have definitely been moments where I would say something and they didn't know what I was talking about and it was like, "Oh."

JM: You know the cabbage patch? "What?" Hahahaha!

Monstah Black:
Yeah. So then that turned into sending Youtube videos and stuff like that. So it was like, "Oh yeah. That happened." So this is referencing.

JM: Do people know their history or where they're coming from?

Monstah Black:
Within the cast, they're not so bad. They generally know where they're coming from but there are moments where they don't know where something is coming from. And that being said, they're thinking about where they are currently; what's happening out there in the world. Whether they're seeing Beyoncé doing something or whoever. Those things that are being referenced or the things that they're being inspired by, they don't realize that those things are coming from-

JM: Beyoncé's "Get Me Bodied" music video is literally "The Rich Man's Frug" scene from "Sweet Charity" taken point for point and-.

Monstah Black:
Transplanted right into it.

JM: Is that inspiring or frustrating?

Monstah Black:
You know what? I'm going to say it's inspiring. Actually there is a part of me that likes to nurture and teach, so when that comes up, there is an excitement that comes- I get excited by that. Like, "Oh I can share that with you" or "We can go do that". I'm finding now that a few of the cast members are like, "Oh we need to experience that. Let's go do that together!" And that get's me excited because I haven't done that in years, but sure I'll go do it.

JM: You've been in New York for a while- longer than I have been.

Monstah Black:
Mmm hmm.

JM: You've actually seen the real transformation of the city. Are their still vestiges of the world that you grew up in or is it all the closest approximation of someone else's interpretation of what you experienced?

Monstah Black:
I would have to say what I've been experiencing for the most part up until- I would say for maybe the past ten years... that that world doesn't really exist (anymore), but I also know that I'm guilty of being a little lazy in terms of going out there to see if it's still existing. I started recognizing particularly in this year that the bubble I've been in for the past ten years, and when I'm thinking about this, I'm thinking about the club world/club scene because I feel like that's a big part of where my movement is coming from even though all the modern and release and ballet training is all in there because it's what I've come from -

JM: It's how you were raised.

Monstah Black:
Yeah, it's how I was raised. But the club is still strong in there, so there are very specific ideas around what those clubs felt like in the 90's. To me right now it's so... I want to say that it's so- well dance music became so popular and (with) so many styles of dance music and different pockets of "Oh, well I like this style of dance music; and I like this style of dance music; and I'm going to go over hear and listen to the harder stuff; and I'm going to go over here and listen to the more soulful stuff" and so all these different communities all over the city basically means that you're only one type of person here, and one type of person here, and one type of person here. That is the element that I feel like, I would love to see - I would love a place where everyone is all together. And literally a place where everyone is all together! Not a straight place that is "gay friendly".

JM: Mmmm.

Monstah Black:
That's different. Not a straight place that is gay friendly where you have a sprinkling of gay people who all look straight and you can't really tell. Like, the old school mixture was "Oh my God, everyone is partying in the same place. It's all good!" Straight, gay, whatever- trans. It might be everyone was in the same spot because there weren't a whole lot of places to go to. Or to hear a specific kind of music, I think. You know what I mean? And when I talk about a specific kind of music I think- when dance music started to branch off and turn into like all these different styles of dance music, that's when it started to break up and split probably as well.

JM: Do you replicate that? A place where people can all "be" in the same place?

Monstah Black:
I think that we try. I think that when my husband and I were doing parties before once a month our intention was to create that space where everyone could come. And it's not that we've stopped doing it. I think that now that we're not doing an ongoing party, now we're trying to create that when we perform. Because it's a fine- I think that it's a blurred line. I think that we're trying to turn it so that basically our performances are parties. We'll perform but it's also at night and because we're creating party music - with the exception for some songs that we're building that aren't party music - I think that we are trying to create that vibe. Something that everyone can be entertained by and let themselves go and not have any sort of- a sense of boundaries. A space where everyone can be themselves. You know? I think that's also- what makes it challenging is that people- getting to the point of making people realize that that's what's being created. Because automatically whatever your promotion is someone can look at it and say "Oop! I'm not going to go do that!" But that's not really- well I don't know. So that's something to think about: How do you promote something? I guess it's just all about... I guess it just goes back to exposure. Because if enough people all across the diverse demographic know about it, you're going to end up with different types of people in one space.

JM: And it's not going to necessarily lead to branching out or cults. Like the opposite of the "Tower of Babel". Because this is such a new experience for the cast members are they all approaching it like, "We're all in this together" or have they formed groups?

Monstah Black:
I think they're all in it together actually. It's an interesting place that we're in because everyone in the cast really likes each other. So a friendship developed early on because we're all on the same page. Maybe it's too early to be able to tell. Maybe, once the piece is being performed and we take it on tour that's when . . .

JM: "You're not rooming with me!"

Monstah Black:
Right.

Talking with Monstah was an absolute joy. He speaks openly and honestly about his art, his influences, and his place in the world. I can't wait to see the culmination of his residency at Dixon Place: "HYPERBOLIC (The Last Spectacle)". The show opens on July 8th, 2016 7:30 PM as the centerpiece of The Hot Festival at Dixon Place.

Editor's note: Check back on July 14th, 2016 to read Part II of the Monstah Black interview.

Related Articles

From This Author Juan Michael Porter II

Before you go...

Like Us On Facebook
Follow Us On Twitter
Follow Us On Instagram instagram
   
popup