Grant Recipients Merce Cunningham Award Dance 2021

mayfield brooks

mayfield brooks looks upward, laughing, wearing a gray sweater a white brick wall.
Photo by Brett Davis.
  • Dancer, Vocalist, Performer
  • Born 1970, Hartford, CT
  • Lives in Brooklyn, NY
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  • Additional Information
  • improvisingwhileblack.com

Receiving the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Merce Cunningham Award has been a game changer in my career as an artist and I cannot begin to express how important FCA’s support has been for my creative development. I never fully believed that life as an artist would be possible or even sustainable, but the community of artists who support FCA have a keen and indestructible faith in the power of art and for that I am deeply grateful. I am a believer!

- mayfield brooks, December 15, 2021

Biography

mayfield brooks is a movement-based performance artist, vocalist, urban farmer, and writer. brooks teaches and performs practices that arise from Improvising While Black (IWB), their interdisciplinary dance project which explores the decomposed matter of Black life and engages in dance improvisation, disorientation, dissent, and ancestral healing.

brooks performed Improvising While Black (IWB): Dancing In The Hold at Gibney Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center (2018) as part of the dance series Gathering Place: Black Queer LandingDancing In The Hold included an interdisciplinary workshop for Black artists, two evening-length shows, and a six-hour movement installation with a procession to the African Burial Ground in downtown Manhattan, NY.

In 2020, their multi-year, interdisciplinary solo performance project Letters To Marsha with Viewing Hours (a diptych) was presented in Brooklyn, NY by JACK in partnership with Mount Tremper Arts. In Viewing Hours, brooks lay in repose under 40 pounds of compost asking audiences to witness the weight of live decomposing matter on brooks’s body, and to consider reparations. Emerging from the compost they performed Letters To Marsha, a dance based on three years of brooks’s written love notes to legendary Black transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. Letters To Marsha with Viewing Hours (a diptych) was supported by a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, and the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

brooks’s other performances include: Viewing Hours: A Discourse for dance decomposition and choreographies of breath at Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, Germany (2020); Entropy’s Garden and Viewing Hours at The Kitchen, New York, NY (2019); iwb: glossolalia in the flesh at Annie May Swift Hall, Evanston, IL (2016); and Improvising While Black (IWB): The Wreck Part 2 at University of California, Davis, CA (2014). They are the recipient of residencies at Abrons Arts Center (2020), Center for Performance Research (2020), Kaaitheater (2020), Works on Water (2020/2018), and Movement Research (2017). As a performer, brooks has collaborated with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Meg Stuart, Moriah Evans, Mary Pearson, Karen Nelson, Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir, Jo Kreiter, Keith Hennessy, and Seth Eisen.

They received a B.A. from Trinity College, an M.A. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, and an M.F.A. from the University of California, Davis. They also studied contemporary dance at The School for New Dance and somatic practices at Moving on Center School for Participatory Arts and Somatic Research. brooks is the editor-in-chief of the Movement Research Performance Journal and is part of the Movement Research teaching faculty.

Artist Statement

My approach to composing movement is a process of creating versatile, improvised choreographic structures. Architects that have to deal with earthquake-prone terrain have to imagine structures that move with the earth, and this is similar to how I choreograph with improvisation. I call this process Improvising While Black, or IWB. I see my movement practice mirrored in the archive of ancestors lost to the Atlantic Ocean's Middle Passage and Black lives lost due to anti-Black violence. My story is their story and Improvising While Black is about honoring stories that cannot be told. The seed for IWB sprouted out of my own personal experience of being racially profiled when driving while Black in San Francisco, California. After this experience, I committed to practices of dance improvisation that explore disorientation, dissent, disorder, wildness, rest, and repair work—to claim reparations as a creative process and methodological approach to movement. Over the years my day job as an urban farmer gave me additional language to describe repair work as a choreographic process of dancing and farming. I call this process de-composing dance and choreographing breath. Like an ecology, Improvising While Black continues to evolve as a process that moves in relation to other organisms, environments, and events in order to conjure ancestral healing with human and non-human ancestors. Everything that I create, choreograph, and envision is under its umbrella.

- December 2020

A bird's eye view portrait of a person's face with their eyes closed. The rest of the image and their body is covered by a variety of colorful flowers and greenery. A cob,blueberries and pears are placed next to their face.
Performance still from Letters To Marsha with Viewing Hours (a diptych), at JACK, Brooklyn, 2020. Photo by Johanna K. Wilson.
Two performers dressed in long silver gowns lean on each other's back, each of their hands extended upwards. Surrounding them are small pebbles and to their left three glass vases with white flowers inside.
Performance still from Improvising While Black (IWB): Dancing in the Hold, at Gibney Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, New York, 2018. Performers: mayfield brooks and Mlondi Zondi. Photo by Scott Shaw.
Black and white image of a person covered by a mettalic colored foil, laying on the ground. Their eyes are closed and their face is contorted in pain.
Performance still from Letters To Marsha with Viewing Hours (a diptych), at JACK, Brooklyn, 2020. Photo by Johanna K. Wilson.
Image still of a person laying down on a big table. Their body is engulfed and hidden by a variety of colorful leaves and flowers. Underneath the table  dead black leaves have been scattered.
Performance still from Letters To Marsha with Viewing Hours (a diptych), at JACK, Brooklyn, 2020. Photo by Johanna K. Wilson.
A performer dances by themselves in an empty space. A glimmering metallic silver scarf hangs from their neck forming different shapes by their movement. Behind them a marble structure stands on the wooden floorboard.
Performance still from Untitled, at Judson Memorial Church, New York, 2018. Photo by Scott Shaw.
A person dressed in metallic silver performs while lights shine on them.
Performance still from Improvising While Black (IWB): Dancing in the Hold, at Gibney Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, New York, 2018. Photo by Scott Shaw.
A  performer dressed in long silver gown their shoulders raised as their hands stick to their side. Surrounding them are small pebbles and three long glass vases with white flowers inside.
Performance still from Improvising While Black (IWB): Dancing in the Hold, at Gibney Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, New York, 2018. Photo by Scott Shaw.