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Longing on a Large Scale performance artist NIC Kay in conversation with Jareh Das for X-TRA

NIC Kay: radical self-fashioning, movement, and site-responsive performance

NIC Kay uses their nonconforming Black body as a site. Refusing the normative biological terms classify­ing bodies, they create freeing performative spaces on screens, stages, in streets, and on paper, exploring a range of themes intersecting with Black lives, histories of dance, and representation in fashion to pursue a Black radical politics. Kay moves beyond aesthetics by bringing the otherwise unaccounted for experien­ces and practices of queer women of color, gender nonconforming, and other nonnormative bodies into view to reveal the intersectional politics of freedom’s meaning. Specifically, Kay’s works argue that the temporality of Black freedom always bears the threat that the unfreedoms of the past will carry forward into the present. For [GET WELL SOON] you black + bluised, pre­sented at Abrons Arts Center in May 2018, Kay choreo­graphed a series of vignettes incorporating sounds, movement, and tableaus using the familiar expression “get well soon” as a point of departure. In pushit!! (2018–ongoing), Kay explores emotional labor and the barriers of race, class, and gender—both historical and present—that limit the possibilities of Black bodies taking up and holding a space, like the stage. The performance explores interactions between the performer and audiences, moving beyond the stage and into the public realm. Unfolding as a response to varied sites, Kay’s performances often take the form of street processions. The works are driven by the question: Can resistance be choreographed? Kay then adopts improvised gestures to challenge notions of turning up, understanding, and witnessing performance work in front of an audience.

My conversation with Kay, which took place via WhatsApp video call and email between March and June of 2020, stems from an introduction to their work by Nana Adusei­-Poku (Kay’s partner), in 2016, and was more recently prompted by the February 2020 publication of Kay’s first book, Cotton Dreams. This handmade scrapbook of sorts uses collaged texts and images to unpack the history of cotton and the American slave trade while con­necting it to cotton’s use and distribution today. Our conversation delves into their interest in exploring the nuances of Black lived experiences, asking urgent ques­tions about the invisible mechanisms at play in oppressive histories and how that relates to architecture and movement. We have edited the interview for length and clarity.

JAREH DAS: You trained as an actor. When did you arrive at performance focused on movement?

NIC KAY: I’ve made the most of the positions I’ve found myself in, and I think it’s important to understand what your skills are and not miss where there’s an opportunity to grow. I initially wanted to act in plays, but I soon realized that audi­tions weren’t going to get me the kind of work I needed to grow as a performer. So, I started to develop ideas for one­-per­son shows and became what some might consider obsessed. I persistently chased these ideas from various angles based on the skills and resources that I had at the time, which included styling and collage making. Seeing as I was never some­one who could work fast, this one-­per­son show process took me longer than I could have imagined. I began working with clothing in relation to the body to explore how to create a character physi­cally, and then I started making collages as a way to visualize scenes and to deter­mine settings. I must mention that I don’t make clothes, but I approach how the per­former is dressed as an integral part of performance making. Style choices reveal dimensions of a person or place that words often omit.

When I was invited to perform solo in New York City for the first time, I did what was most comfortable, which was danc­ing, despite my other explorations. And I continued to do all the other things, interacting with clothing, collaging, scrap­book making, and of course moving. This was and is the scale of my practice.

Later on, when I lived in Chicago, I became more concerned with the theat­rical aspects of the process, and I figured out how to choreograph by looking at vid­eos of myself freestyling, which I had been sharing online. I am not a trained dancer, so I didn’t feel that I had the skills or the techniques to choreograph and remember movement for an hour­-long performance. I used the computer and these videos to choreograph, which became an experi­mental performance script that fluctuated between coherence and incoherence. This way of documenting what were improvi­sations allowed me to remember where I needed to be. I believe the final perfor­mance was theater (although people from the theater world might not be consider it so), in the sense that it could be thought of as singular and unified, originating from a distinct set of social practices aimed at portraying aspects of human life.