DANCECRUSH SPOTLIGHT: MARKEITH WILEY

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Some artists are so integral to the scene, you couldn’t talk about Seattle dance without including their work. And in the last decade of contemporary dance in Seattle, it would be hard to name an artist more prolific, or more influential, than Markeith Wiley. A choreographer, dancer, sound designer, organizer, and teacher, Wiley’s work shows up everywhere from festival-style shows like Showing Out and Full Tilt, to headlining productions at On the Boards, from Seattle Children’s Theatre’s summer musical, to the most tucked-away black box theaters across the city. They’re a regular on the burlesque circuit, and a DJ at the dance community’s most beloved party night at Vermillion. 

Photo credit: Stephen Anunson

After my 2010 arrival in Seattle, Wiley’s choreography was some of the first I remember seeing. Even fresh out of Cornish, Wiley’s work stood out for its rigor, a clear eye for design and execution. A master of balancing tensions and making meaning out of movement. As their style evolved and became more experimental and theatrical, this keen sense of fine tuning became even more apparent—a process of continual investigation evident in the works’ ability upend expectation. Wiley’s work is alive with the sense that anything could happen. 

That same rigor and aliveness defines their performance quality, which is unsurprising—the performing body is never fully separate from the choreographer mind, especially in the kind of collaborative processes to which Wiley is drawn. But the range of those performances is huge. I’ve seen Wiley destroy a bag of Wonder Bread in frustration, innocently chase butterflies, mysteriously pull an entire rose from their mouth, and play an unhinged desert character tumbling across sand. They are equally versed in tender modern dance partnering, confrontational fourth-wall-breaking theatrics, and playful hip hop sequences. Wiley clearly has breadth to pull from, which might explain why their work can be so layered and complex. Their peak performances, in my mind, are always walking right on the edge, available to shift realities at any moment—constantly changing the rules of the game, continually asking me to reevaluate my reactions. Do I laugh or cry? Be scared or empathetic? This emotional bait and switch never feels disingenuous because it always feels so real. Wiley’s work manages that great artistic feat of revealing truth and humanity in all its complexity. 

After a year of closed Seattle dance spaces, it is especially heartwarming to see Wiley on the other side of a Zoom call. While they and I often cross paths in and around Seattle’s dance scene, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to talk more in depth with Wiley about their work. 

This transcription has been edited for length and clarity. 

How do you feel your making has evolved in the time you’ve been in Seattle? 

As someone who came to dance late it’s felt like I stopped having to catch up to what I believe dance to be and started making what I believe I needed to make. I spent a lot of my late teens/early twenties attempting to do what I was told—like you need to do this many years of ballet to be a dancer/choreographer. I was taking classes with 12 year olds when I was 17 in ballet school and that always felt disheartening because I was met with ballet masters who were like you’re never going to get better. Even coming to Cornish I was like I can’t do what a lot of these kids can do, so I’ll just try to make work on these bodies that I’ll never have. 

Photo credit: Bret Love

Can you talk more about the transition from having your former company, The New Animals, to the more solo-focused work you’re doing now? 

On a personal level, just shifts in friendship structures. Going to school with a bunch of people and trying to establish a dance company upon graduating with those friends, and then those friendships deteriorating is one aspect. That’s happened a couple of times whether it be people move or find different artistic desires. 

And then…this is going to be very unpopular, but…I used to quote Bill T. Jones a lot ‘I am not a Black artist, I’m an artist who happens to be Black.’ That rang true to me for so long, and still does, but it lands a little different now. I’ve constantly struggled with what people desired from me versus what I’ve wanted to do. When can I play with what you think you’re going to get from me, versus what I give you. It felt really easy to make on other bodies when I was a little younger and now that feels so challenging….Me creating on my own body, there’s no right or wrong answer. There’s no did I mess up. There’s no expectation. I’m not trying to appease the choreographer because I’m the choreographer. So making stuff on myself is so easy. And also there’s my body dysmorphia and queerness that I don’t largely speak a lot about in public, because I don’t know if I’m taking up space, so it feels better as an artist to make work on my body and address those things. 

You had multiple events slated for last spring at On the Boards—Too Much or Not Enough, and W(UT), which was cancelled due to the pandemic. Can you talk about these two projects? 

Too Much or Not Enough was an ongoing conversation I was having with Hatlo, Lore [Laura] Aschoff, and Dani Tirrell. Three artists that I fully respect and I wanted a forum for audience members to just listen in a different capacity. How we listen when we’re seeing a show is different than coming to a lecture and being ready to ask questions. But I felt like those three artists and myself were all questioning complacency and reciprocity of audience members and viewership and having very different approaches to it. So that was something that I wanted to and wish to continue to happen. We can even do that virtually now. 

W(UT) [acronym for Working (Undecided Title)] was the On the Boards piece that was then going to happen at ACT Theater in June as part of ACT Lab. And I’ve said that I’ve already mourned the loss of that, but I don’t know if that’s completely true. The room was very beautiful, my collaborators were about the generative process of that work. Too Much or Not Enough and W(UT) were cousins I would say. 

The W(UT) creative team. Photo credit: Stephen Anunson.

How was W(UT) addressing the question that you posed earlier about how an audience consumes? I remember that being a theme in It’s Not Too Late (2016) as well. In fact it was something that was very directly asked of the audience during that piece. 

That piece was the safer version of the question [for the audience]. A talk show [the premise of It’s Not Too Late] –we all know what this is, we know how to act. I had support…I had cast members teach the audience what to do, when to do it at some points. And when the inverse happened they had to readdress that for themselves. Whereas W(UT) was little-to-no information, but set in a party setting and anyone with enough common sense knows what to do when they show up to a fundraiser or a party or a gala, but it being a performance was going to make people immediately challenge what to do… The one image I remember is there’s a present and on the present it said This is for you. No one’s name. And then attached to that present were some scissors and they could open the present if they wanted. Just really basic tasks that you would just do if you weren’t at a fine arts performance. And yes, there was dancing and poetry. I viewed it as a lyric more than a performance piece. We were all addressing very individual, specific things, as well as collective things for what it was to be alive in 2019 basically. 

Do you have hopes for some iteration of this piece coming to fruition?

Excuse my language but absolutely the fuck not. That piece will never happen. There’s evidence of the actions, but there will be no resurrection of it. There were pressures from a couple of organizations to try to recreate [it] and I’m like, We’re not in the same world anymore. It’s literally impossible. For just reasons. Everyone’s scared. So the things that needed to happen [to perform the work] cannot take place right now in the place that we are. 

With everything that has happened in the last year, between the pandemic and civil rights, how has that informed your perspective either on your own career or the future of the dance community as a whole? 

I’ve watched several younger TikTok artists blow my mind over the past year. They’re doing that with zero dollars and no one backing them. There’s been this phenomenon taking place in my mind with the youth making incredible artwork and also for our bandwidth. It’s 30 seconds. Sometimes it’s like three minutes. With like no funding. I go back and forth about the necessity of arts orgs right now. ‘Cause everyone’s doing it without them for the most part. There’s still like grant opportunities and residencies taking place. But a lot of the work, I think we’re learning collectively as artists that our shit can stand on its own. It exists with or without certain types of support. 

Even like seven years ago I used to talk about how the theater is dead, Oh the stage is dead. Let’s do anything else but be on stage. And it feels very prevalent right now. The theater is literally dead. And so figuring out what to do…I have no interest in like this kind of work like ‘let me reinvent the camera’ personally, but for those who are doing it, awesome! I’ll collaborate…But I can’t really see past pandemic. I don’t think there’s that for me artistically. The work that I want to make right now is more communal therapy, maybe and less ‘I’m going to push you to think differently about how you’ve been racist, sexist, homophobic.’ There’s more of a heightened awareness of these things now, so if you’re entering an arts space you might have some awareness of that. Whereas five years ago it was different. Thinking about It’s Not Too Late, there were people who were like, Oh I thought I was coming to a talk show, not a soap box. I got that comment. Now it’s like, Oh I’m going to go see this Black thing by this Black artist and I’m going to get told how terrible I am! And it’s like no, that’s a waste of my time friend. 

So it’s still mulling about in my head, but I have ideas. I have things that I want to do. I recently realized that my stuff requires a live audience. Like in person. Whether that be in a big ass field, or like us on other sides of glass…there’s something so important and so potent about a close physical connection for me that I just can’t get past…I’ve been doing macramé and planting things and giving my macramé to people because that feels the closest I can get to the connection I’m looking for. 

You’ve been continuing to teach youth through the pandemic. Can you talk about your teaching ethos? 

Meeting them as people, not [just] meeting them where they’re at, but meeting them as human beings first and foremost. This is a protest chant that should just be made common knowledge, but the youth right now is the truth right now. I want to know what’s up with them. I want to know what they’re going through. That informs how they’re going to move their bodies. If you’re having a bad day as a 14- year-old, you might be moving different than if you’re having a good day. Making dance class more than a movement-based opportunity. It’s a moment for conversation. We’re doing something so vulnerable. So why should we not communicate about that. Also the reminder to not try to imitate, but create on yourself. Even if we’re doing unison material. I don’t want you to try to look like me. 

Cornish Dance Theater. Photo credit: Jazzy Photo.

I have a good group of ten beautiful dancers that I’ve watched grow tremendously since I’ve been [at Rainier Dance Center]. Some of them I’ve been their first dance teacher, and they decided to start taking different genres of dance because of the vocabulary that I use. I’ll talk to the ballet students about something in the street style class. It’s just a pas de bourree. And that changes their whole mindset about the movement, and then these dance students who have never taken any other class are like oh I should do that, that’s information, that’s language. That’s going to further my thinking. I’m a forever student myself, so I just want to provide the idea of continual learning throughout your entire life. 

You’re also well known for your performance in others’ works. Can you talk about some favorite roles? 

My first paid dance gig ever in life was for a drag queen in Riverside, CA. We did a cell block tango number and I played all the guys. I got a scarf pulled from my neck, my pants, my armpit. I died like seven times, right? Moving here and my next burlesque role being with Kitten, Lou, and BenDeLaCreme. The show was called Freedom Fantasia [2012-13], and it was the most subversive thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was so well done. That show, the way I was asked to not only bring myself, but the roles I played. I played Paul Revere, I played the first man on the moon. These things that just look different because of the color of my skin and the way it showed up was really cool to me. And the jokes being slap-sticky and also really heavy handed at the same time, I was like this is brilliant. I’m sure I could find something wrong with it, but I still feel like it’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done. Still to this day. 

More recently, I do like working with Kitten N’ Lou a lot. They give me a lot of agency. I’m basically co-choreographer for some of the works that I’m with them in…We’ve been working together for almost a decade now. They trust my voice, they trust my movement, they know I’m going to bring my whole self. They know I’m not a diva—in that way anyway. 

Performing in Lavender by Keyon Gaskin.

Here’s a tricky one for me. I’ve been struggling with this over the past year actually. I really love and appreciate the roles that Dani [Tirrell] asked me to portray in Black Bois [2018]. It also felt like at some point I was branded the person who could be outwardly angry in performance…And the toll that it took on me, physically and mentally and emotionally, made me feel really isolated, and that’s something I’ve been working on for a little bit. I’ve been isolated a lot in my entire life. There’s a dancer whose father came to the On the Boards version, and I watched him tell all the other dancers how great they did, and then he walked up to me and said, I really loved how you unabashedly yelled at all those white people. He’s also a white man. I didn’t need that comment. And that’s a reason why I don’t want to come out at the end of shows. I don’t want to be congratulated for something that was like, really hard and difficult for me to do. So that’s a toss up for me, like some days, I’m wearing a Black Bois shirt right now. Some days I’m really proud of that work. Also Dani and I shared a lot of life. We lived together for about a year and a half and that was a beautiful experience. I had a lot more insight into the second iteration of that piece [Feb 2020 at The Moore], that affected how I was able to show up for it and perform it. 

I really loved performing one of my own pieces, called 31 and Counting [2015], it was the seed for It’s Not Too Late. I was moving through a lot, I don’t normally work through catharsis, I don’t try to like feel better about myself through my art, but it was very necessary at the time. I was going through a lot of changes. And the non-sequitur-ness of the work, and the quickness of the work and the ideas that were moving though my head and my body were really fun to do. And the fact that I got to do it in different cities and get different feedback was cool for me as an artist. [31 and Counting showed at NW New Works, Risk Reward (Portland, OR), Bellevue College, and Seattle International Dance Festival.]

And then yeah, I love It’s Not Too Late, I loved doing that. I loved getting to share space with different collaborators every night. That kind of crystalized what I want to do artistically. I want to be able to make something where I can invite different people every time. Which leads me to Lavender by Keyon Gaskin. He did that with Lavender. You never got to see the same show, and I was fortunate enough to do two different versions of that. And also bring my whole self and feel trusted by someone who doesn’t live in the same city as me. 

You are someone who collaborates a lot, whether that be on projects you lead, or in support of someone else’s work. Can you speak to that? 

Different collaborators bring out different things, whether it’s a musician, or a dancer, or a writer. I was also raised in a pretty interesting co-parenting situation. My grandmother, my aunt, my uncles, my stepfather, my father, my mom, and like my aunt’s and uncles’ partners helped raise me. So I got to hear adults disagree about a choice that I made based on the information I was getting from them, and nevertheless I was allowed to make a choice. I think that’s why I love collaboration so much. One brain isn’t gonna do you just service, right? I feel like think tanks are really special. Being in process with many people and trying to make it kind of egalitarian is really cool. Autonomy is really cool. I really don’t see any other way. And when I’m making something—I don’t have casts, I have collaborators. 

I have found some tried and true. Like I would like to work with Hatlo until whichever one of us dies first. I hope we work together until that moment. Hatlo and I are like a match made in heaven. they’re also a serial collaborator. There’s something about that mindset that is very appealing and attractive to me. 

Sylvia_Cilvia. Photo credit: Jazzy Photo.

What about your work as a sound designer? How did you get into that? 

From working with sound designers. Just asking questions like How did you do that? Oh I have that application, I have that program. And then y’know out of several I worked with I had two really bad ones and I had to just take what they did and make it how I wanted it to be. [I] learned a lot working simultaneously with Elby [Brosch] and Lore [Aschoff]. They wanted completely different things, so I was having to stretch my aesthetic to meet both of them at the same time. Elby really wanted something soft and quiet and a whisper, and Lore wanted [something hard-hitting]. I was trying to make them both go somewhere in the middle and they were like No. No, I want you to meet me. I come from a very musical family already, had already been experimenting with what a mixed tape is, and then Dance Floor Feelings arrived, and starting to do sound for yoga classes. 

I feel like I’ve been the personal beneficiary of Dance Floor Feelings! Your transitions, the way your sets interact, were getting so good. I was also lucky to be a part of one of the final SC Sessions you curated at Studio Current in 2019. Do you see yourself doing more events like that in the future? 

SC Sessions—I wanted that to happen before it started happening. I really love the idea of like a mixed, multi-genre-disciplinary show taking place…I love the speakeasy feel of it. I love the feel of We’re here…it might be 30 minutes, it might be an hour and a half. You never know what you’re going to get. I love inviting artists back, I love curating, I love getting a yes from one person, and then basing the rest of the show off that one individual. Oh this music sounds good with this dancer, and these paintings…I love curating. I love facilitating, I love being able to provide space. I love being in community and with community. Will it be called SC Sessions? Probably not. Yes, I would love for something like that to happen. That feels more valuable to me than anything I could create.