J’Sun Howard (dance artist) received an ACC Fellowship in 2019 to study traditional theater practice, partake in a residency and workshop facilitation of Improvisation and Dance Composition at DanceBox in Kobe, Japan, and plan for future exchange of dancers and choreographers between Kobe and Chicago. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he returned to the United States only two months into his fellowship.
In 2019, he wrote of his relationship to dance and dancemaking: “To dance is to be breath; breathing, sensing. My dancemaking process builds space of non-victimhood; providing Black men with opportunities to release fear in a country that systematically condemns our humanity. My aim is to organize generous, loving, and compassionate play for Black men. In a society that denies us play and does not permit us acts of exploration, we are barred from the route of creative discovery. Discovery requires a moment of aimless freedom, which is deemed criminal for those who look like us. We must be unapologetic in our Blackness if we are to be artistic inventors. My work intertwines the inevitable gentleness, loveliness, and pain of our play. Because the air is so thin here for Black men, dance is my alternate to breath and freedom. I want to find the routes that allow Black men to continue to breathe and invent in a time and place where it feels impossible to do so. This act of breath orients me toward the divine: I am creating the worlds I want to see.”
J’Sun shares more on his artistic practice and the worlds he is envisioning in the interview below. This interview was originally published on April 23, 2020 by Eva Yaa Asantewaa (Senior Director of Artist Development & Curation, and Editorial Director at the Gibney) on her blog InfiniteBody as part of the series Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. To view the original post, click here.
Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?
Yes, I had several projects affected by the pandemic. I had to cut my Asian Cultural Council (ACC) fellowship short. I began my four-month residency at DanceBox in Kobe, Japan on February 1st. I was supposed to stay until May 30th. I started a new work I am calling The Righteous Beauty of the Things Never Accounted For, which is about the built environment and spatial politics, how Black and Brown bodies negotiate and perceive space, as well as ecological and Japanese aesthetics. Additionally, I was undertaking Noh Theatre lessons, and planning the next round of exchanges between dancers/choreographers from Kobe and Chicago.
Mid-way through my ACC fellowship, I would have gone to the dance seminar Holding Common Ground: Pathways to Cultural Exchange in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. At the seminar, I would have collaborated with a Vietnamese storyteller and puppeteer Linh Valarie Pham on new work, facilitated a Vogueing Aesthetics workshop, been one of the panelists on cultural exchange, and mentor one of the participating Vietnamese artists.
After leaving Japan, I would have flown straight to Plovdiv, Bulgaria to show my recent choreographic work, aMoratorium, at the Black Box Theatre and Dance Festival. And once I returned to the United States, I would have headed to a six-week summer residency at a university.
I am fortunate that these engagements are postponed and will happen as things become safe to do. I am looking forward to getting back to Asia to continue researching and developing Righteous Beauty.
Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.
Growing up, I always wanted something physical like martial arts or gymnastics. Since I was a bigger guy, everybody said I should play football. I was great at it but was not interested in seriously pursuing it. I loved dancing but did not understand—at that time—it was something I could make a career out of. I mean I would record the 80s and 90s videos and learn the choreography from them.
In middle school, I participated in a talent show and did my first solo ever to Aaliyah’s “One In A Million” (still my favorite song to this day). When my high school transitioned to a magnet arts one, I did not pick dance as my major because I did not feel welcomed by the clique of dancers in the program nor I did feel supported enough to go that route. I went into the creative writing program.
At graduation, I decided that I would go to college (Columbia College Chicago) to study dance. It was one of the most important decisions in my life. I would not be where I am today if I did not take that leap of faith.
In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?
I want to be fluent in other languages, so I have been practicing Japanese and brushing up on French. I have been writing more. I hope to have a poetry chapbook manuscript completed in the coming months. But the main thing I have been practicing is slowing down, which I think is some sort of rehabilitation, allowing time to open and see what it reveals.
The last few years I have been going nonstop, and this has made me appreciate slowing down by watching clouds float by and cast their shadows, listening to the different species of birds make their calls, watch flowers bloom, cook amazing meals, spend time with my mom (I am in my hometown of Chattanooga rather than Chicago right now), do little rituals like having tea every morning, prayer, and and and...
I have been so present in my day to day that I have not been envisioning for what is to come. In this slowing down, I can do the envisioning. I know I am ready to get back to Japan and continue the work I was doing. Outside of my window right now, kids are flying a rainbow kite. It makes me think of the serial poem “If I Never See A Rainbow Again” about making wishes and desires I started in rehearsal at DanceBox. That’s my envisioning—-if I never see a rainbow again.
How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?
In my artistic practice, I am building multi-dimensional, emotionally immersive experiences with care to practice freedom, especially in how Black and Brown people navigate it. I care about peace and freedom. Slowing down feels like a modality for practicing it (which is in the vein of rest as reparations.) If I never see a rainbow again, then I am going to have to create it myself. That is the care I think all of us are dealing with right now albeit alone or with loved ones. It is a spiritual practice that transcends the world we have now.
How does your practice function within the world we have now?
I do not think my practice functions within the world we have now. I mean if it does, it does through the potentiality of futurity, especially when going back to “normal” is not an option. I guess I am asking how can this isolation be radical to mean something other than isolation? What is ontological about all of this? What are our alternatives? I reread this poem—"Dream Where Every Black Person Eats A Cloud”—I wrote when thinking about the world and futurity.
Additionally, I have made a conscious choice not to participate in all things Zoom...not because I do not want to connect with family, friends, other artists, and like-minded people. I find this is an important opportunity to dive into one’s internal cosmology and resurface anew shining brighter than ever.
Above photo: Uedanoudoujo Theatre in Nagata where I was taking Noh Theatre lesson with sensei Akio Kasada.
Below: My lines, curves, square, rectangle drawings are inspired by visual artist Torkwase Dyson's work on spatial politics. I was using the pastel drawings to create a dance score.