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BWW Interview: Olga El

Olga El is a writer, director, and performance activist based in New York City. Her company, The Kandake Dance Theatre for Social Change, uses dance traditions from around the world to create socially relevant work and engage audiences and communities. This year is The Kandake's fifth anniversary, so I decided to ask Olga some questions about the company's unique foundations and where she thinks it may be headed in the future.

Q. How did you first become interested in dance? Any major influences?

A. Both my parents worked in a regional ballet company in South Jersey before I was born and they had the opportunity to study with members of Philadanco and the Pennsylvania Ballet. They had been movers and shakers their entire lives (martial arts, fitness, street dance, jazz, etc.) so they threw me into dance classes when I was very young, probably about five years old.

I started out with ballet, tap, and jazz with teachers from the Mount Laurel Regional Ballet Company and a long defunct ballet school in my hometown of Woodbury, NJ. I still remember the agony of gaudy, sequin-infested costumes digging into my skin and too tight tights that didn't match my complexion.

I was only able to continue this training for a few years, probably because my parents weren't able to continue paying for it, and my little sister had just been born.

Dance influences? Probably Michael Jackson music videos for my pre-tween self.

By the time I entered high school I was doing everything but dance. I became a section leader in my high school choir, which forced me to quit the band. I was a theater nerd, an art-class nerd and the "editor" of my high school literary magazine. I say "editor" because I didn't really do anything as editor. I think my English teacher just instated me because she liked my writing.

I did try (and failed miserably) to learn "belly dance" from Veena and Neena video tapes as a teenager. My mother was full of grace from years on pointe and she loved dance in general, so she picked it up easily. I was easily discouraged and gave it up pretty quickly back then, but my mother says I was fond of hip circles, even as a toddler. I did have a great I Dream of Jeannie style belly dance costume as a child, complete with culturally insensitive, sparkly, face veil and everything.

Q. You come from a multicultural background. Tell me about that?

A. Thanks to the fallacy of race and the reality of racism, I identify strongly and proudly as an African-American woman but that's definitely not a monolith. My mother was born in Japan to a Roman-Catholic military family. My father was raised as an American Muslim. We recently discovered what little European ancestry I have is mostly Russian, Scandinavian and European Jewish. There's other stuff, but I find the Russian-Jewish thing most hilarious because I've spent most of my life telling people I'm not Russian, and not Jewish to a much lesser degree. People always ask me if I'm Russian when they meet me, because of my name. I hate wearing pants and I love wearing black, so I look like a Hasidic person in the winter.

There were lots of far Eastern influences on my childhood too. My first best friend was a Mandarin boy my mom used to babysit. She used to speak lots of languages thanks to her travels and a passion for culture. One of her sisters was married to a Punjabi man when I was a kid.

My dad was raised a vegetarian, gave it up as an adult, and went back to it when I was pretty young. A group of Buddhists and Taoists were the only other vegetarians for miles back in my day, so my dad became close to the families running vegetarian restaurants. One family in particular is like kin to me at this point. What people fail to realize is just how intercultural most culture is at the roots. It's amazing how many sciences, customs, and other cultural items can be traced to ancient Egypt and other ancient people. Modern science and archaeology trace all of humanity's roots to Africa.

Phenomena such as Western imperialism, colonialism, racism, and a "victor's" version of history convolute people's understanding of humanity.

Q. How did multiculturalism influence your dance training and understanding of dance?

A. I lost my connection to more conventional dance training when I had to give up ballet, jazz, and tap at a young age. So, when I came back to the dance world as a younger adult, my other life experiences were the angle from which I approached it. I also noticed that the conventional dance and theater worlds had a lack of diversity, and I wanted to counter this by elevating dance and people from around the real world.

Q. Do you see much evidence of multiculturalism in the dance scene?

A. I feel like I rarely see true diversity in the dance scene. More often than not I see a few token "non-white" performers in predominantly "white" companies. There are A FEW companies that have this situation in reverse, in which one ethnicity will have the numbers. Colorism is also a big thing. There's a very low percentage of dark-skinned performers of any ethnicity in the dance scene, and in mainstream entertainment in general, especially when it comes to dark-skinned women.

Q. How has the Middle Eastern culture impacted upon you as a person and artist?

A. Near Eastern influences are definitely all over my work and that stems from the time I spent heavily tied to the Mediterranean, North African, Middle Eastern and East African dance and music scene in NYC.

I was introduced to those communities when I started taking a belly dance class twice a week with my main teacher and mentor, Allisyn Swift, a second generation African­-American belly dancer. At 19 I took a week­long intensive course in North African and Middle Eastern dance with a master teacher and folkloric dance scholar named Morocco, a woman of Roma heritage.

I began performing in 2007 thanks to the Albanian master musician, Ismail Butera, who was then working on an East-­African/Zanzibari musical project with the renowned Haig Manoukian, Tiye Giraud, Rami El Assar, Al Sarah, and Michael Hess. Ismail wanted me to perform because he liked my teachers.

Q. You continued your higher education studies at Pratt? What did you study there?

A. I got an unreasonably expensive degree in writing.

Q. What did you do after graduating college and where did your dance education lead you?

A. By the time I graduated from Pratt, I didn't really want to be a writer anymore. An exception would be if the writing were connected to dance or theater. Like your typical, directionless, young person I floundered a bit. Good "writing jobs" were closed to me anyway due to a lack of experience, I had just spent four years and $^$*#@@%^&% dollars on something I didn't want to do anymore and breaking into another field without the expected background is never easy, especially in one of the most expensive cities in the world. So I didn't know exactly what I should do with myself.

I worked for a movement therapy company for a while, dabbled in personal training, and did a bunch of other random jobs. I did keep performing though and started forming my own troupes and events.

Q. In 2011 you founded The Kandake, a dance-theatre collective that combines social activism and community engagement with folkloric, modern, theatrical, and experimental movement. Tell me how this came about?

A. I got sick of the mainstream belly dance scene. Imagine the Vegas version of folkloric dances and then the counter­culture to that, which pulls from every "people of color" culture but has a very small percentage of people of color practicing it.

That's pretty much American belly dance. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE IT, but I just couldn't be stuck in only that anymore.

The scene also felt limited in how the dances are practiced. The mainstream belly dance scene tends to veer away from purely traditional and folkloric expressions of Middle Eastern and North African dances. Yet the few outlets for experimentation felt too codified, supportive of creativity but only to a point. That scene loves its tropes. That's not necessarily a bad thing, I just wanted more as an artist.

Choreographers such as Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey were pioneers for modern dance but also for dance traditions from West Africa and the West African diaspora. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of the most highly-regarded dance companies in the world. Dunham Technique is taught in top dance schools across the globe.

I don't see equivalents in the belly dance scene, or in most "world dance" scenes, and I want to. Through The Kandake I wanted to show that art based in folkloric dances can be just as cutting-edge, socially-relevant, "high-brow" or artistically "valid" as anything based in ballet or modern-contemporary.

My other reason for starting The Kandake was that I've always had an interest in helping people. I did a lot of self-created charity work as a belly dancer, but it didn't feel like enough.

Rather than be the rogue belly dancers forever, a Bangladeshi girlfriend and I just decided to do something else. Don't get me wrong, though. I'll still cut a Persian rug at a hookah bar given the chance.

Q. I believe Kandake is all female based. Why is that?

A. It's actually been pretty hard to find men to perform. Every major show has had men and other genders in it, but it's rare, mostly because men don't seem to come around as much for auditions.

Before the most recent production, most of our work included pieces written by all members of the collective. So anyone could contribute a piece about pretty much anything s/he felt strongly about. So it was never that we purposefully excluded men. There have been plenty of times I've had to call ex­-boyfriends to ask them to be in my shows. I'm still not above doing that. Always easier to blackmail someone you've seen naked. Kidding.

I think the earlier aesthetic of the group was still a bit tied to the "belly dance" world and, perhaps, that scared the men away. Even if, to me, the advertising and aesthetic for the group is fairly gender neutral, it may not read that way to a lot of men, especially considering the way a lot of men are socialized.

I imagine a group founded by women and inspired by ancient queens might also be a deterrent for guys. Though I think that's a pretty silly reason to be deterred, it's a side product of the world in which we live.

Ironically, the last show was very focused on "women's issues" but attracted more men on all fronts than previous productions.

Q. How do you go about preparing a performance? Do you ask a playwright to contribute?

A. I've always either done everything myself and/or in collaboration with the other collective members. For choreography, it's rare that I insist on controlling every move. I'm usually open to feedback from anyone. That doesn't mean I'll use it, but I'm generally open to feedback especially in the creation stages of a piece.

I give performers more or less input depending on the type of production and who's performing.

For example, if someone has a dance solo in a larger play, it's very likely I'll provide a skeleton with which to work, and the dancer will create the bulk of the choreography. Then we'll go back and forth until we both agree it works.

It's rare that I make someone do something they don't really want to, but it happens. I also don't mind improvisation if it works within a given piece. I'm the only playwright in the group so far, so I'm putting that damn degree to use.

Q. Kandake is very active in your community. Tell me about the community and how it interacts with the company.

A. We've actually gone all over the city and tri­-state area, offering free or low-cost events or workshops. We prefer to collaborate with organizations that serve marginalized aspects of the public. Some of our most exciting work in that respect was working with formerly incarcerated women and the children of sex workers.

Every show we've done that has taken place in the theater has been a "no one turned away for lack of funds" show, except when the venue wouldn't allow it. My original idea was to donate a portion of proceeds from every show to charity but that became unmanageable pretty quickly. Too much overhead, too many artist mouths to feed. However, I'd like to re­visit the idea as we grow and become more stable.

Q. Are you preparing anything right now?

A. Yes, always several things but our last production, 1001 Nights: Love Stories on Death Row (A Rock Ballet) is becoming a focus again. The script was solicited by a major Off-Broadway theater that happened to be the launching pad for a lot of shows you're seeing on Broadway right now. They made it pretty clear that it may be a while before they get back to us, but we're hoping to hear some good news!

1001 Nights... is also being picked up by a Hispanic director and theater company. So I'm super excited to see my show in Spanish!

Other than that, we're preparing for The Kandake's fifth year anniversary show and party, which will take place at the midtown Moroccan restaurant, Tagine, in June.

I'm working closely with a musician friend to plan some smaller shows, either leading up to or coming down from the anniversary party, but I've actually been purposefully not producing for the last few months. Instead, I'm making time to help build a stronger financial base for the group before embarking on any new, major projects.

Q. You're also a dance reviewer. How does your experience impact on what you've seen?

A. I purposefully try to see work by newer choreographers and directors and artists that identify as female, queer or people of color. But I also just love a good, cutting edge show.

Q. What kind of music do you use for your dances?

A. Oh boy, why did you ask me about music? I've worked with many, if not all genres of music. It depends on what feels appropriate for the dance but several pieces, especially my earlier works, were actually inspired by the music.

More often than not, I don't set out with a theme in mind. I hear a song and create a piece around it. Oftentimes it happens to be politically charged or perceived as such but that isn't always intentional initially.

1001 Nights... is one of the few examples of my work in which music was created for, or adapted to, pieces in the production and not the other way around.

I tend to mildly hate "show tunes," even in a good show. I wanted to create a show that had music I'd actually listen to on a regular day, not a "Broadway" day.

Q. Where do you perform?

A. The Kandake has performed everywhere from outdoors, to clubs, to downtown theaters, to big theaters. Pretty much anywhere they'll let us in.

Last year, we took 1001 Nights... to Dixon Place, Theater for the New City and the Jamaica Performing Arts Center. Individually, I've performed at BAM, Webster Hall, Lincoln Center and more with various groups and for various reasons.

Q. What can we expect from you in the future?

A. In addition to 1001 Nights... I'm working on two other dance-heavy "musicals." One will draw from Brazilian history (that of the West African, Portuguese and Indigenous South American populations), folk spirituality and the West African diasporic music and dance traditions that are culturally predominant in Brazil. The other is focused on an ancient East Asian aesthetic.

I'd like to see all three on the biggest stages possible but, ever a genre bender, I have no intentions of limiting my work to a stage.

Photo Credit: Nelson Cruz

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