Janeill Cooper grew up dancing her way around New York City. She learned elements of step and dance at daycare, enrolled in the Edge School of the Arts at age 7, studied at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School, and learned from the Martha Graham School and Ailey School—all before heading to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts (UArts).
“I’ve always been jumping around and moving,” she explained. “Always been involved in music and rhythm and movement.” Now, after a season dancing professionally with Ronald K. Brown / EVIDENCE, A Dance Company, Janeill is moving more into choreography with her piece after the credits, which will be presented by BRIC this week.
Janeill is currently part of the BRIClab Residency, a commissioning and residency program that offers local artists time and space to explore and expand the possibilities of their work in music, dance, theater and multidisciplinary performance. Janeill describes after the credits as a dance piece that questions how we navigate the intersections between trauma, identity, and personal histories as recorded in the physical archive that is the human form.
In this Q&A, we talk to Janeill about her choreographic inspiration, the importance of highlighting artists of color, and how NYC has influenced her work.
What drew you to choreography?
Growing up, I definitely never thought that I would go into choreography. I always wanted to perform and be on stage—which is still true. But at UArts, the program there is unconventional in the sense that they are creating artists and not just dancers. A lot of the classes that we had—like composition—really challenged what I thought dance was, and what I could do in dance. During those classes, I started to realize that I enjoy making work.
What inspired this piece, after the credits?
Honestly it started out very simply: I’ve never developed anything with only men. Additionally, I had come to a place where I was fully interested in working with people of color (POCs) only because that feels really important to me at this time. I had also been exploring the whole issue of trauma while I was in undergrad, so I just continued with that idea and asking those questions.
Why is it so important, now especially, to feature three men of color in this piece?
There are so many answers to that. For me, as a black woman identifying person who is working with three men of color, there is often a gap in the battle that I’m fighting in my identity and what a man may be experiencing. But there is also importance in understanding that we can all be in the same room and have a shared experience and voice with each other and be heard. In terms of what I’m sharing with an audience, it’s also important to increase visibility in this space. There are so many ideas of what a black man is, what men of color are, and they’re all misconstrued and distorted. It makes it difficult for people with those identities to live. So I’m trying to give space for them, but also undo those ideas that people have about this identity.
In the description of the work, you say, “We are often exposed, but seldom seen.” When do you feel the most seen and how does that play into this piece?
I think I feel most seen in a space like this: sitting with a person and feeling like you’re being listened to. Or when you share a moment of genuine touch with someone, a hug or something that feels like really human in connection with another person. In the creative process, I work to facilitate structures that allow that; not force it, but make it inevitable for those moments to happen. When this work was first done, the dancers were all strangers. I knew all of them, but they didn’t know each other. So that added an additional layer of opening up and becoming vulnerable with bodies that are foreign to you. It is possible [to be seen in that scenario] and we can try to apply that more and more every day.
What have been some memorable dance performances that you’ve seen or danced in? What has stuck with you?
One of the most memorable—because this is what made me decide to pursue a dance career—was in high school seeing Ailey II. I saw them my sophomore year at City Center, and I thought, “Oh yeah, I’m going to pursue dance professionally.” That is a big one for me. And then seeing Ronald K. Brown / EVIDENCE, A Dance Company at The Joyce. That was another moment when I said, “Yup, I’m doing that!” And then a couple months later, they posted auditions and I went. Definitely magical for me.
How does growing up in a city like NYC impact your work and influence the piece you’re developing?
This is a really tough place to be. I’m super thankful to have grown up here because I credit it to who I am as a person, but it is hard. This is such a high volume, high stress, crazy, all-over-the-place city, but at the same time it is filled with so many magical and special moments that are exclusive to here. Growing up and getting to see that, my work reflects those tiny magical moments. I enjoy zooming in on maybe one or two people out of the mass and hearing their story. That is how New York has influenced me.
A work-in-progress showing of after the credits takes place Thursday-Friday, November 15-16. Tickets are still available.