(Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

In the dance piece WILD: Act One a young boy dons a beige prison jumpsuit with the word “superpredator” etched on the back. Prison guards have just confiscated the pencil he used to journal his thoughts and frustrations. Left with scraps, he uses torn pages from his notebook to create paper boats. Gradually his drab cell is overtaken by his own imagination where he is traversing seas and celebrating the adventure with his body—even if it exists only in his mind. It’s a moment that should elicit thoughts of creativity and innocence to the audience, both of which are routinely stolen by the juvenile system. 

The Black Iris Project, a ballet collaborative founded in 2016 by dancer and choreographer Jeremy McQueen, carved out its own space in the ballet world as a home for authentic and often heart-wrenching stories about Black life and history. McQueen’s goal is to expand the idea of what ballet looks like, how audiences connect with it, and the messages it conveys. WILD, a four-part film series that explores youth incarceration through dance, was inspired by those close to McQueen who have worked in the system, stories and photographs of youth who are currently or formerly incarcerated, as well as the classic Maurice Sendack book Where The Wild Things Are

During a trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Alabama, McQueen recalls being struck by a Richard Ross photograph of a young boy in an ill-fitted prison jumpsuit that hangs off his small frame. The boy looks around at the cell he’s in and stares at the marked up wall. Those etchings made McQueen think of all of the young people who had lived inside of those walls over the years, but one particular sketch seemed to evoke Sendack’s story.  

“The one thing that stood out to me the most was the words, ‘North or Nothing,’ and it had a spaceship next to it,” McQueen recalled. “This is that idea of this young boy looking at these walls and really dreaming and visualizing himself beyond his current circumstances, beyond these cinder block concrete walls that physically hold him back, but his imagination in his mind is limitless.”

With WILD, McQueen provides a snapshot of the experiences of over 16,000 incarcerated youth in juvenile detention centers nationwide and the over 48,000 young people held in facilities as a result of some criminal justice system involvement. The first part of the series, “Overture,” was released in November. The second part, “Act 1,” premiered March 15 and will be available for streaming through April 4. 

Prism spoke with McQueen about how the project came together, the obstacles and opportunities that came with choreographing this work, and what audiences can expect in upcoming installments. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Tamar Sarai Davis: There are countless experiences and elements of life inside the juvenile detention system that you could choose to explore in a project like this. Some of the scenes you chose to depict were the prevalence of sexual violence and the experience of a family member visiting a child while inside. How did you choose these scenes and what went into that decision-making process? 

Jeremy McQueen: In a lot of the research that I had done, which was a combination of personal interviews with both people who work in the system, as well as with young adults who were in the system, and also reading a ton of books and works of art that were shared with me that young people in the system have created, there was one book in particular, Juvie Talk by Richard Ross. It’s an incredible book that has portraits of a number of youths, but with each picture or each portrait, there’s a story that’s paired with it. He spent over 10 years going to juvenile detention centers around the country, interviewing and photographing kids. 

I’ve unfortunately never been able to actually go into a detention center and visit or see it for myself, or interact in person because of the pandemic. But being able to have such clear vivid visuals, as well as a story from their heart and soul about whatever it is that they wanted to share, or however they felt open to share with him, was just so beautiful. I started to really see common themes, and one of [them] was sexual abuse. Whether it be sexual abuse, mental abuse or physical abuse, abuse was a common theme about this whole thing. The hardest thing to incorporate was the sexual abuse given the fact that I wanted to both be authentic but also be sensitive about how I addressed it, how I photographed it, and making sure that my dancer and my actor were comfortable and safe. It was a very, very difficult and challenging process that I nearly talked myself out of every single time. 

(Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

I think a lot of times we as Black people find ourselves conditioned to look at things with a white gaze, or making work for the white gaze. I notice this a lot specifically within the ballet world, which is a primarily and historically a white-led art form. I think as a kid growing up studying dance and ballet, it’s always been in my mind to vie for the authority and approval from essentially white people or the people who have the power, who are generally white. And so, throughout this entire process, I had to really kind of stop myself and say, “No, this needs to be told and you can do this.” We can’t just make work to comfort. You know, the only way that we can really create substantive change is to get down and dirty, to get gritty and to have those uncomfortable conversations about what we saw. 

But those were very common threads—abuse of some sort, feelings of loneliness or abandonment, the feeling of hopelessness. These are children who at the end of the day just want to be. Many of them really understood and acknowledged that they may have made a wrong turn somewhere, but that situation shouldn’t define who they are for the rest of their lives. A lot of how I chose to incorporate certain themes really depended on what stood out to my spirit from the research I saw.

Davis: In 2016, writer Kaitlyn Greenridge penned a beautiful piece about The Black Iris Project for Elle Magazine. She writes that in your work, “the Black body is not in pain; it is not a problem to be solved. It is celebrated.” In WILD, you’re depicting life within a system that routinely characterizes them as inherently problematic. How did you ensure that your characters were not lost to that caricature, but instead were humanized? 

McQueen: It’s such a challenging question to answer because so much of my work is really based on instinct and understanding the human connection. In terms of humanizing people, I think it takes a level of intimacy and a level of openness and understanding. We did a lot of character development, and so much of that backstory we created essentially created a real human with complex emotions and feelings [by asking] who his mother, his father is, where they’re from, where they were raised, are they immigrants? All of those things we tried to really create in a very visceral way so that the character itself would feel very robust. In terms of humanizing the character for an audience perspective, I think that really was led by just the agency to understand or being able to share a range of emotions and feelings. [Black people] are not a monolith, but giving the license to allow someone to be seen and to express themselves really humanized the work that we’ve created.

There’s one particular number called “Shelter” and the chorus has the words “these walls can talk.” That particular scene has those photographs from Juvie Talk [projected onto the walls of the young boy’s cell]. All of the voices that you hear are read by dancers, but those are actual interviews, words, and stories shared by each of the young men who correspond with those pictures. And then I invited about 12 dancers from around the country to be a part of our film and contribute in their own choreographic interpretation of each young man’s story and picture. So even the movement that you see on the screen [is because] each dancer choreographed their own movement, directly inspired by a picture and a story that they selected. So for me, it was more about wanting to share a story and the range of emotions.

Davis: That incorporation of photographs and different media made me think about the possibilities that film provides that the stage may not. Can you speak about some of the challenges and opportunities that arise when telling stories through dance via film versus the stage? 

McQueen: So outside of a pandemic, the stage was always my first love. In terms of live theater and being able to feel someone’s energy in the audience, to hear them breathe and feel the breath, you get to experience it in a way that there’s no cuts, there’s no camera angles, and it’s from your vantage point. It’s always been my mission to make our work as accessible and especially as affordable as possible so that people, specifically Black and brown communities, can be engaged with our work, be able to see themselves, and have their stories told in this fashion.

(Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

The first film that I created was called A Mother’s Rite in 2018. It was originally commissioned for the stage, and [figuring] out how to reach a broader audience I said “You know what, let’s also make a film adaptation.” So we filmed in Langston Hughes’ House in Harlem, and it has a very, very different feel but both are super impactful. By doing it in an actual home, you have the walls and doors, the windows, you have so many more contextual things that you can see and touch and feel versus on the stage. It becomes a lot more abstract: there’s no walls, there’s no doors, the principal dancer is literally surrounded by a rectangle of white roses and that serves as her home. 

I didn’t really feel like I was limited or that there were challenges on a surface level [creating work for film]. Film really broadened not only my reach, but [also] my ability to contextualize even deeper the various elements that I wanted to show. I essentially created this as if I were making it for stage. The goal is that when theaters reopen, WILD: Act One will actually be able to be performed on stage as act one of the actual performance, there will be an intermission, and then what will be part four of our film will be act two. So people will be able to come to the theater and see the entire show as an actual performance to have both experiences.

Davis: Similarly, almost the entire film takes place within the young boy’s cell which is shown as a small rectangle. In one number, the principal dancer is handcuffed and has shackles around his ankles. Can you speak about the experience of choreographing for such a tightly confined space? What did you have to keep in mind in order to maneuver around that? 

McQueen: I feel like I’m able to grow exponentially when I place limitations on myself, and as an artist, we have lots of limitations. I’m always working on a shoestring budget; I feel like I never have enough money to feed myself and get the work done that I want to do. So it’s always me trying to figure out creative ways to get it done without having a multi million dollar budget. But within the [limited] amount of space that we have, that’s also part of a choreographic tool. When you take away someone’s ability to use their arms or use their legs in a dance, you really push the boundaries of what you can do and say and how far you can go with that work. I had already done that with A Mother’s Rite where I had created her home as a rectangle on stage—from the moment the dancer stepped on stage, she never leaves the [rectangle] for 40 minutes. Now, the space itself that the young boy dances in [in Wild] is significantly smaller than that of A Mother’s Rite. This space is 8 feet by 12 feet deep. I wanted to make it 8 by 10, but I needed to leave some room for our videographer to be able to maneuver and still have a dancer in it as well. Space was not really so much of a hindrance. It was more of an opportunity. I [wondered] how creative can I get with this space, utilizing not just on top of the bed but also using underneath, trying to really creatively bring to life something interesting and authentic with just the bare minimum of space possible.

Davis: This work already includes Overture, which was released in November, and now WILD: Act One. What can audiences expect for the final two parts of this series?

McQueen: The next part is going to be called Entr’acte, [which] is usually the interval between act one and act two. So the entr’acte is slated to take place in May and it’ll be a live socially-distanced bike excursion through the Bronx in small groups of about 20. We’ll be traveling to five different locations where we’ll get to see four different dancers who will share with us a story of an actual youth who calls the Bronx home and has been involved in the justice system, really elevating their stories of what home is to them. And then Act Two, which is the fourth installment, will be slated to come out in mid-September.

I have no concrete idea of what the fourth film looks like. I’m really letting my research and engagements with various youth dictate what that looks like. I’m leaning toward it being about restorative justice and showing what a world could look like without prison. That was just something that hit me recently through my research. I’ve shown the problem, now let’s talk about ways that we can better support young people, especially taking steps to reforming and rebuilding this system as a whole.

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is the criminal justice staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.