For the graceless lot that is–in our loose estimation–95% of the population, dance seems a thing as utterly confounding as flight, say, or ordering coffee in Latin. The mind does not comprehend, the body does not cooperate. It represents, by any measure, utter impossibility to most. When in the presence of a real dancer, those lucky few for whom movement seems as second nature as breathing air, we stare on, less with envy than with deep admiration. We stare on this way at people like Chris Emile.
A Los Angeles native,Emile is one of four founding members of No)one. Art House, a contemporary dance organization that puts on, in their words, “movement-based artistic experiences” across the city. (Most recently, choreographer Samantha Blake Goodman put on a performance at the Getty Museum.) No)one, launched in 2014, also happens to be one of the only black-run operations in the country. They have been celebrated for their diversity, both in race and in body type. It is a welcome departure from the wasting and porcelain visage so often associated with the form.
The work that No)one puts out–in the shape of their performances and the many workshops they offer–is a departure from the classical. Here, bodies writhe and contort to some unseen inner compass. ForEmile, and likely those who are drawn to the organization he helped create, movement is an extension of how he feels and thinks. He is not bound to timing or space or established expectations. It is freedom. To watch him is to secretly wish one that one day you yourself will be so bold to allow your inner self to be put on display. Until then, you watch.
Below, we talk to Emile about life as performance, finding inspiration in discomfort, and leaving room for miracles to happen.
Former occupation and your most notable memory there:
I’ve worked at movie theaters, restaurants, and a few clothing stores in L.A. and New York, but I think my favorite was American Apparel (RIP). It was in Santa Monica, really close to the beach. We would smoke and drink all day. I’d talk to girls on the phone during shift–and many other possibly incriminatory pastimes. All in all, a great time.
Your first experience with dance as a child:
The first time I saw Michael Jackson perform I knew I wanted to dance. He lit me. My mother also took me to a performance of Lula Washington’s company. A man performed a solo with Afro-diasporic movement and modern influences, and I knew then I wanted to study dance.
What did your parents do for work? Were they interested in the arts?
My father is not in my life. My mother worked on presidential campaigns in the ’80s, worked at USC in the financial aid department, and taught pre-school for a number of years, among other things. My mom is not an artist. She never played music in the house growing up. She did, however, take me to see many films and live performances, from puppetry to dance to music. She exposed me to a lot, and I know the variety of what she was showing me has stayed with me ’til this day.
What was your introduction to dance?
I went to a performing arts elementary school and studied at the Lula Washington Dance Theater. I loved training with Lula because she exposed us to all dance techniques. The school was attached to her professional company so we were basically being groomed on how to behave and perform like a professional from a very young age. Also, the fact that Lula’s company was a concert dance company and not a commercial dance entity like many of the other dance organizations in L.A. gave me a deeper sensibility for movement and how it can be seen and consumed.
Do you remember your first performance?
I don’t remember my first performance. I think when you know you are born to perform, stepping out of your house is a performance. I hope that doesn’t sound cliché, but it’s real. We are all performing all of the time… especially in L.A. I think artists [here] are just able to turn the volume up on it a bit more noticeably.
What is the most difficult aspect of choreography?
I think self-judgement is the most difficult for me. Always comparing to who you see has value in your field. I’ve been trying to not think so much when I choreograph and just go with what feels most natural to the picture I’m trying to create. If it feels inorganic, I’ll immediately shift.
Describe to me your process of creating a choreographed work, from idea to completion:
Hmm. Well, lately, I’ve been mainly commissioned to conceive choreography that can be built into/onto something else, be it an opera, a sculpture, or specific architectural structures. So, if it is a choreography in an architectural space, I will view the space, allow my brain to take in its shape and vibe, and then begin to brew on what I think would be most impactful with bodies.
Once I think I’ve got a handle on what I’d like to see in the space, I’ll begin to work with dancers on the idea and develop movement. There are usually a few trial runs before the completion of the work. Most recently, my organization, No)one. Art House, was asked to show work at The Getty Museum. We decided to perform in the fountains. A lot of the movement that we developed in the studio didn’t necessarily translate as well in the water, so there was a rearranging of the original concept to allow the physical space’s limitations inform our work.
It is always an exchange. Being flexible is really important in choreography. You can have a million ideas, but sometimes reality is not always in alignment with your thought process and you have to be able to adapt.
Where do you feel the most inspired?
I think being uncomfortable is pretty inspiring. My brain will try really hard to get me back to being comfortable–observing all of the crazy thoughts it will come up with to rectify a situation that I’ve put myself in. I try and do things that make me uncomfortable every so often. I always learn something. Even doing things you know you don’t like, just to see if your brain will behave differently and make you comprehend the situation from a new vantage point.
What do you eat for breakfast?
It’s different every day. Sometimes I don’t eat ’til like 12 or 1 p.m. Sometimes I’ll have oatmeal or some egg dish in the morn if I’m really hungry. I used to dance every day full out ’til like 12-ish without food, so I think my body’s just used to being really active without food, but I’ve been trying to change that habit ‘cuz I’m not sure if that’s healthy.
What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?
“Typical” does not exist in my world. Some days I am working on three different projects at once, some days I have nothing to do for weeks at a time. I’ve been trying to give myself more tasks that I can do daily to try and bring some regularity to my life but it’s hard. When you can wake up one day to an email from Solange’s people asking you to help out, it’s hard to not leave room in your life for more miracles to happen.
What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m creating a trio that will go up in September responding to Haegue Yang’s piece, “Strange Fruit,” at MOCA. I’m creating it in two weeks, because as of July I am in residence at the Vineyard Arts Project with a number of talented dancers from Germany and all over the U.S. I was offered the residency earlier in the year, and put out a call to see if people would be interested in working with me out there to develop some new material. Over 100 people wrote back to my crazy ass! So yeah, I’m really excited to meet these new artists and develop whatever it is I do for a week in these beautiful facilities. After that, I’m heading to NYC to teach for one of my best friend’s programs called MOVE NYC, which is a tuition-free dance summer intensive for high school students with world-class mentoring and performance opportunities. I’m really looking forward to teaching in NYC for the first time, and sharing information with these young professionals that my friend Nigel and his partner Chanel have nurtured and uplifted in such a special way.
Composer or musician you would love to score one of your choreographed works:
I’m obsessed with Kelsey Lu. I would love to work with her one day. I’ve reached out to her on a few projects but the timing’s never worked out, but hopefully one day! I also really want to perform in an old cathedral–something really grand and with loads of windows. I love the aesthetic of the church I grew up in, but I’m sure L.A. has some pretty special ones that I haven’t seen yet.
What book/ film/ performance/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?
I saw two pieces by Kehinde Wiley recently at the Skirball Center and that really blew me away. It was the first time I understood why people sit in front of paintings for hours staring. It was something else. He is a master.
Movement is ____________:
What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
To “stay fluffy.” My dance mom Karen McDonald would always say that to us. I’m very moody and emotional and I wasn’t aware of it for a long time. But once I got a bit older, I realized that my feelings didn’t own me. I was in control. So just always reminding myself to stay light or unencumbered by circumstance really helped my interactions with others and, ultimately, my relationship with myself–though it is an everyday quest to achieve maximum “fluffiness.”
Word of advice for would-be young dancers?
Do everything. See everything. Talk to everyone. Copy until it’s yours. Protect yourself. Love yourself. Actually, “love yourself” is the real one. I didn’t understand that if you don’t feel divine while you are moving, then what is the point. And reaching that place comes from love. So make sure you love yourself first–before you ask anyone else to.