iona rozeal brown's live performance battle of yestermore features a wide range of influences including myth-based genres like Kabuki and Noh theater, as well as the “vogueing” made famous in the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s. This Performa commission will feature performances by vogueing legends such as Benny and Javier Ninja, along with New York hip- hop dancers Rokafella, Beasty, GI Jane, Lady Beast, SnowBunny and Mona Lisa. battle of yestermore will also feature live musicians performing an original score composed by the artist. Damien Davis, a student of Performa Director and Curator RoseLee Goldberg, caught up with brown to learn more about her performance.
Damien Davis: You told me a little about how you met RoseLee. Can you talk about how the commission came into being? How that collaboration started?
iona rozeal brown: [Salon 94’s] Jeanne Greenberg had kind of been checking me out. But she had been kind of circling. I finally got an audience with her when she came to my studio, and I started telling her about the idea that I had. She said, “You have to meet RoseLee.”
Next thing you know, RoseLee comes to my studio. I don’t know who she is, I don’t know anything about Performa. I just know that the woman that has a very cool gallery that I’m respectful of told me to speak to this lady, which is why I think I wasn’t intimidated by her. RoseLee was immediately interested in what I was talking about. She knew all about kabuki, and I could talk about kabuki all day. I love it, I’m obsessed with it, and I’m obsessed with [Bandō] Tamasaburō. So to be able to actually have a conversation with someone about kabuki, and have them get it…
I don’t remember really what happened, after that, but next thing you know, it’s a commissioned piece. And I’m like [gives surprised face] “Wait, what?”
So tell me about Bandō Tamasaburō.
This guy is my muse. My mom took me to see him. He’s a kabuki actor. He’s phenomenal. If you see it, it will prep you for what you’re going to see Benny and Javier do.
You’re doing this performance with Benny and Javier Ninja from the House of Ninja- we’re talking legendary Ballroom icons. How did that happen?
RoseLee again. I had just moved to New York. I’ve only been here a year, and I think I must have met RoseLee soon after I got here. And so somewhere between last June and December she invited me to the Performa office and we are talking about the project, and RoseLee says, “If you could have any dancer you want, who would it be?” and I said, Javier Ninja and showed her some footage. She was just as taken aback as I was when I first saw him. RoseLee said we’ve got to get him.
Esa [Nickle, General Manager/Producer of Performa], who is a magician… If RoseLee is the fairy godmother…Esa is the magic dust personified. So RoseLee looks at Esa and says we have to get him. In two weeks, Esa gave me a phone number. I was so nervous! I had been watching him as a fan of YouTube for years. Esa said, “have a drink, and then call him.” I knocked back a beer, and was so nervous because, like you, I saw Paris is Burning and my dream had always been to save up my little country money, bring my ass to New York and take a class with Willi Ninja so I could learn how to walk and talk and sit like a lady.
I’m not even fucking with you. I was like, I need etiquette training, I need someone to smooth out my rough edges, I’m going to go to New York, and he’s going to teach me how to walk in heels so I can be a lady.
And he was all about importing different styles of dance into the vogueing, in order to take it to another level.
Exactly. There was something about him that stood out for me, and that must have been it. So I always looked to see what Willi was doing. Oh, he’s teaching these chicks how to walk. I’m going to get me some heels, I’m going to go to New York, he’s going to teach me how to walk in heels … I just knew it. Then he passed away, and the thing about Bandō Tamasaburō, and vogueing, was that these were art forms that affected me so deeply, that there was no way I couldn’t have them [in the performance].
I didn’t know what was going to happen, it wasn’t like I said, "One day I’m going to do something about this." I never really thought that. Every now and then I’ll think back and think, “Oh that guy was amazing.” I didn’t think I was ever going to see kabuki again.
Well it only came to D.C. like two times, and then it never came again. I didn’t think I was ever going to go to Japan.
But you did.
I did, but I didn’t start thinking about that until graduate school, even as an undergrad. When I was an undergrad, it was the first time I read this article about the Japanese kids who were darkening their skin.
Or the black facers.
This was a trend that was really popular it the '90s.
Kehinde Wiley and I were in school together and he was like, “look at this…”
I still didn’t do anything about it artistically until I got to grad school. So it had been like three years until I had done anything visually about that. Which is what brought me back to the Kabuki. It was weird. I was looking at geishas before I started doing the blackface series. And I was looking at geishas for a very specific reason that I didn’t know at the time.
But that’s sort of a natural progression…
But if you saw what I was doing before that, it doesn’t make any sense. I was doing self-portraiture at the end of my undergraduate career, putting myself into well-known art historical images. That was sort of the jumping- off point for me. There was something about the way [a geisha] stood. I said to myself, "Who is this with so much pride…as a hooker?" I started really honing in on that.
I did a cross-country trip, from San Francisco to D.C. By the time I got to D.C. all I wanted to learn about was geisha. The reason being, if you have to be a hooker…
…You've got to be the baddest hooker out there.
[Nods her head] That’s how this started. The next move for me was the geishas. I understand that you shouldn’t romanticize the sex slave trade, I understand that, but if you have to do it, if you’ve got to be on your back - who knows how you got there - but if you have to, how you look is really what people are going to pay attention to.
It’s about finding this power in a situation where you feel powerless.
Exactly. And I felt like these women were powerful because “geisha” actually means “artist,” so they can recite any poem from any time period. They can perform any dance from any play. They play shamisen, koto, fan dance; this is all stuff that is memorized. That is badass. Fuck these housewives – I want to be this bitch, because she knows everything! She can tell you anything! She’s hanging out with dignitaries, talking about politics, [she] can recite a poem… She’s like Trinity from the Matrix. I’m trying to be that. And that has a lot to do with Kae’s situation. Kae is Javier’s character [in battle of yestermore] that leaves an abusive household. And because she’s been in an abusive household, she doesn’t know how to decipher between being treated well and not being treated well. So she’s fucked, for now. The story takes her through different things.
battle of yestermore will be performed at Skylight West as part of Performa 11.
*This is Part One of the Performa Magazine's interview with iona rozeal brown. Look for Parts Two and Three soon.