CFA Student Profiles: Evelyn Israel ‘10

What follows is the third in a series of profiles of Wesleyan students by Alexandra Provo, ‘10, the CFA’s Arts Administration Intern. These students all have one thing in common: they became deeply engaged with one or more artists presented by the CFA. Sparked by the artist’s workshop, performance or exhibition on campus, they began a lasting relationship that affected the trajectory of their academic exploration. We hope you will send us your comments about these and future interviews.

Last week I sat down with Evelyn Israel ‘10, a dance major who spent two summers at the Summer Institute put on by Urban Bush Women, a dance company devoted to bringing “the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people through dance” from “a woman-centered perspective, as members of the African Diaspora community” who have performed twice before at Wesleyan’s CFA.

How did you first hear about Urban Bush Women?

When they came to campus our sophomore year and performed with Compagnie Jant-Bi (in spring 2008).

What happened after the performance? How did you become involved with the group?

The biggest thing that actually got me involved wasn’t the performance but was a workshop that Jawole gave the morning before I saw the performance. We really got to see her process [when she had] us think about our parents or our mothers and our grandmothers and made up some movements to go with that–I really appreciated that. The biggest thing was actually at the very end of the workshop she talked about how that summer they were having a summer institute for ten days that was about movement and about discussing democracy. I was in a sociology class at the time called “What is Democracy?” and I was obsessed with thinking about what democracy means for our everyday lives– not just in terms of voting–and I thought “movement, democracy, race–all together in one–this is exactly what I’m interested in.”

What was that summer institute like? What kinds of things did you do?

I was so excited when I found out about it and then by the time it got to the summer I [started worrying, thinking] “they’re a real company that dances for real, and this is going to be so physically challenging…” and then I got there and it was absolutely everything I could have imagined. The way that it worked was that in the morning we had three movement classes, either yoga or pilates, and then our next class was a community dance class, where each day we did a different African-based movement style (so hip-hop one day, New Orleans Second Line one day, and West African dance one day), and then the other class we had was an Urban Bush Women repertory class, based on moves they do. The morning really woke me up and was really strength-building, and that was really powerful for me. In the afternoons we discussed more, we had some presentations about what some things meant and we read some quotes and responded to them. In the afternoons we did more choreography…[for example], we would take three words that we were thinking about, from material we had read or something else, and make up a movement per word. Toward the end, in the last four days, the classes in the morning were shortened because we started creating more for the performance for the ninth day.

After this summer institute, how did you maintain contact with the company?

Actually, one of the things I did during the performance was me and four of the current or former company members had this little section that we had created together, so I had a really strong relationship with them…not as much with Jawole, but I had kind of really put myself out there the whole time…I guess part of that was really important to me to go back again the next summer.

How do you feel your contact with the group has informed your own practice as a choreographer and dancer?

The first Summer Institute is really something that has greatly informed my practice. Right now I’m working on a senior project involving thinking about racism, about the ways that whiteness plays out in particular, and how movement can be used to explore that. My belief in that as a strategy entirely came out of the first Summer Institute. One of the exercises that we did [in my senior project] in which one group talks and the other responds in movement comes directly out of the first Institute.

How do you see the work that you’ve been doing now, which has come out of this interaction, developing in the future?

Another thing that really came out of the first Institute I went to has entirely to do with this is the idea of working with my own community and fighting racism through working with white people as opposed to going into schools that have fewer resources. That’s also a really great thing to do, but I think there’s also a lot of work to be done in terms of raising awareness in white communities and communities with more money, which is the kind of community I come from. So that’s where this project comes out of, of wanting to work with white people and around issues that have to do with the white side of racism and white privilege. I am definitely interested in trying to continue that as a practice.

In a sentence or so, could you share the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from working with Urban Bush Women?

Working with my own community is one, constantly reminding myself to tap into humility…those are two really big ones. Also to honor and respect the kind of work [the company] does. I’ve been reading a little bit about the company and Jawole for my senior project and through that I’ve deepened my respect for their work and how long they’ve been doing it.