Do we make culture or does culture make us? This is the question that inspires Raja Feather Kelly to explore pop culture through dance, theatre, visual art, and a lifetime of curiosity. Kelly, a self-described “Warhol-obsessed, Black, Queer, Drama Queen” debuts his West Coast premiere of UGLY (Black Queer Zoo), a solo that is “part dance theatre, part pop-culture collage,” through Washington Ensemble Theatre’s GUSH Series at 12th Avenue Arts March 5th through the 16th.
The New York Times has described Kelly “the hot dance master of the moment,” as a maker of “imaginative dance-theater excavations of pop and queer culture” and the “go to choreographer for Off-Broadway shows.”
When asked to describe himself though, Kelly demurely offers a shrug: “I make work to figure those things out.” The things he says he does know to be true, however, are that he’s from Texas, moved in high school to New Jersey, and studied English and Dance at Connecticut College. He also performed his first solo in Seattle at Velocity Dance Center in 2012, a work named after Andy Warhol’s coloring book of cat illustrations, 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy.
In fact, Kelly has had distinct and formative connections in Seattle, performing for six years with zoe | juniper, a Seattle-based dance and visual arts company. Kelly laughs as he recounts his “audition:” an emailed video his mom recorded of him dancing in a parking lot to Michael Jackson. Though that didn’t exactly get him in the group, his same creativity and talent did years later when he met, then re-met, Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey at multiple dance festivals.
Though a really funny story, Kelly’s video audition for zoe | juniper also seems to get at the core of his artistic philosophy. “I’m not going to let anyone tell me no,” he says, “I don’t audition. I’m going to find an alternative.” Kelly brings that mindset with him into everything he does. He’s intentional around deciding for himself what success means, careful to not subscribe to other’s definitions. “I don’t know if I think I’m successful,” Kelly challenges. He even questions me when I say he’s “made it.” As I stumble my way through listing his undeniable accomplishments, Kelly refocuses the conversation, “I’m honored to do as much as I can,” but ultimately “you have to force your own way,” he says.
And that’s certainly what Kelly does. Following his own way has led to amazing, boundary-breaking, award-winning art. At the center of his creations is Kelly’s fascination with pop culture, celebrating and interrogating the water in which we swim. As Andy Warhol aptly pointed out, and Kelly is quick to bring up, a man who lives on the street drinks Coca Cola, and Jackie O. drank Coca Cola: culture is our common denominator. More than that though, Kelly is interested in exploring pop culture as a doorway, “a launching pad to talk about deeper things.”
So yes, Carly Rae Jepson’s I Really Like You, may seem like a simple song by just another pop princess, but as Kelly suggests it also speaks to a shared experience of liking someone and wondering if they like you back, one that’s intense and meaningful, and ultimately about a deeply human feeling of seeking validation.
UGLY (Black Queer Zoo) seems to perfectly illustrate Kelly’s passions, using pop-culture to explore something deeper, this time the “lack of Black Queer subjectivity in the mainstream.” I wondered out loud to Kelly: Is he calling himself ugly? Is he saying the way society views Blackness and Queerness is ugly? “Whatever you think of, it’s probably 98% of what I’m dealing with,” Kelly offers. “In 2016 we underwent a cataclysmic event, after that there has been a desire to face the continuation of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and xenophobia. It’s brought these issues into the foreground. It also became popular culture, but in that, are we minimizing it from nuance?”
As for what to expect from UGLY (Black Queer Zoo), Kelly teases, “You’ll just have to come and see it to find out!”
Raja Feather Kelly is a performer, choreographer, artistic director, and visual and multimedia artist. He works full-time in New York City, choreographs plays and musicals for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, and directs his company the feath3r theory. Buy tickets to see UGLY (Black Queer Zoo) at WashingtonEnsemble.org.