Lela Aisha Jones
Lela Aisha Jones is an artist scholar, movement performance artist and interdisciplinary collaborator. As the founder of Lela Aisha Jones | FlyGround, she intimately intertwines personal and collective lived experiences of diasporic blackness in her work, as archived in and excavated from the body through dance. Jones’s life as an artist has led her to researching, teaching, performing and choreographing in Barbados, Brazil, Ghana, New Zealand, Senegal and the U.S. Most recently she was a choreographer and performer with the Same Story Different Countries Project in Johannesburg and Cape Coast, South Africa (2017), directed by Dr. Lynnette Overby; performed in Onye Ozuzu’s work at Dance Gathering in Lagos, Nigeria (2019); and presented her work Plight Release and the Diasporic Body at the African American Museum of Philadelphia with and in response to the work of visual artist and scholar Fahamu Pecou. Her awards and honors include a 2015 Leeway Foundation Transformation Award, a 2016 Pew Fellowship in the Arts, a 2017 New York Dance and Performance/Bessie Nomination and the Reflection | Response Commission at Temple University, curated by Merian Soto (2017). She earned a B.S. in health science education from the University of Florida, an M.F.A. in dance from Florida State University and a Ph.D. from Texas Woman’s University. Some of her most influential professional experiences have been in movement practice with Nia Love, Christal Brown | Inspirit, Barak Ade Sole, Moustapha Bangoura, Anssumane Silla, Sulley Imoro, Omi Osun Joni L. Jones and Urban Bush Women. In 2019, Jones joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College as an assistant professor of dance.
What inspires you to make new work? When did that first happen for you?
My artistry is usually inspired by communities I am a part of, the way we are relating to one another as people, and some visions of how we might do better work for ourselves as individuals and as a collective, spiritually, physically and through the body. I am always trying to bring forth some inspiration during the work, familiarity of physicality in the body, gesture that make us think about life as something we know how to do well and something we are still in awe of and we have not mastered. Life is process, exchange and potential so how do we access our creativity, artistry, to be a part of that fully and completely? I approach the body as a processing space for any subject matter, any problem, any histories, any joy, any celebration, or any personal narratives. For Lela Aisha Jones | FlyGround, my creative home, we are always working towards seeing dance and the beings/bodies that are a part of the dance’s/performance’s creation (from the club, juke joint, church, bembe, bush, beach, mountain and river), as made, presented, archived to manifest new cultural memories that share our offerings as individuals as well as a collective. I call it the creation of embodied cultural memories and sometimes revival.
It first happened to me through music and through a backyard dancing family. We enjoyed our music and barbecues. I still don’t feel I have reached a seasoned potential with musicality as it is not always encouraged as a place to locate yourself in the impetus of making a dance. I did not understand that at first, how to let the being/body tell the story beyond/with the music. My move away from music helped me build a dynamic sense of my being/body that I now bring back to my artistry, and I feel excited to bring that back into the process and to really dive back into that world. I love the artistry of the being/body and music/rhythm coming together as equals. It’s from my family roots, listening to jazz with my Dad, going to church with my Mom and Grandmother, Saturday morning clean-ups to LPs that included Sade, Chaka Khan, Ray Parker Jr., George Benson, Spiro Gyro, Earth Wind and Fire and songs for which I only remember the lyrics: “Let the side show begin, step right on in”; “Let me be your angel. Let me be the one for you…you believe in…”
My coming of age with ’90s music—mostly R&B, pop dance hall and hip hop, as well as my Black/African diasporic dance nomadic travels through traditions—creates “translineages” in my being/body, I am in love with the play of music and musicality in the body, the way the being/body archives life and interrelations and pushes us in our creative making of life.
I also can’t forget my training in modern, post-modern, post/post/post and on and on modern, elongation techniques and improvisational/freestyle structures. I am not sure if I am Afro-Futurist, but I do know the presence of spirituality (deriving from varying orientations) in my work brings a certain past/future/nostalgia ambience and may shape time as a location you can sometimes find on the map in my work and at other times not know what dimension we are living in. And I love costumes, they do some of this work. I am deeply invested in the garb usually. We step out on that stage, and I want it to be magical for the performers in every aspect. We need magic to be special and everyday at the same time. Although we are people/beings, we are walking with bodies/spirits/souls/ase. I am/we are conjuring/conjurors of something more than everyday life; it is majestic, the spiritual, as everyday life. And I am so glad I am exposed to so much magic/ase through artistry coming from my beautiful black peoples, folks in all our glory. So we need to harness that work and be careful to walk with intention, with that powerful source of possibility. Let the darkness, the melanin, wreak its havoc or beautiful destruction/truth and revival/majestic.
When you are creating a new work, do you come to rehearsal with your work already choreographed, or do you come with ideas that evolve with the dancers?
I feel like I always do a little of the both. I ask a lot of folks I work with, or at least I think I do. I ask them to give a little piece of their spirit to the work, their deepest pains and their wildest dreams. If you see the movement performance artists after the performance or anywhere, ask them. We don’t ask them enough what the experience is like for them. They are contributors, and I am always so grateful when they do trust me with their words and beings/bodies. There are conceptual points/parameters and embodied messages that I need to send and translate so my being/body has to be offered up to the process, and this, combined with our conceptual and embodied thinking together, is my preferred way of making emergent, generative space for creation. I think many people see dance as my love, and it is really creation that is my love. In artistry, in teaching, in life, within my being/body and with collective beings/bodies, and even beholding the creation/s of other folks’ artistic/life practices, when it is all said and done, creation is my love.
How does it feel when you see a new work of yours performed for the first time?
Terrifying, I ain’t gonna lie. We gots to be terrified but do it anyway. Whether I am in my work or watching, I am a bit terrified because I am so exposed and vulnerable in that moment. My insides are on the outside, and there is some sense that I want the audience to connect. They may not understand everything, and their connection may not be about affirmation for me, and that is sort of a limited orientation anyway. However that visceral moment when you forgot where you are/were ’cause you were in it and it took you—I desire that feeling in my audiences, the moment when audiences are like, “I know that” or “I want to know that better,” when they find their landing place or portal inside of the dance and how dance/movement performance can create that is an elative explosion with a live moment of artistry. I want to facilitate the manifestation of all those energies for everyone involved, to get into what is possible no matter how impossible the moment we are living in locally, nationally and globally seems. I don’t think I rely on hope, although we need folks that rely on all kinds of things to get through, but I do think that possibilities/potentialities and hope are the closest of cousins and neighbors.
What’s next for you after the “Visions & Voices” performances?
Next on my horizon is a project in Philadelphia called the Olney Embrace project, through which I am working with the Olney community to continue this trajectory of the interconnections of beings/bodies, spirituality and the natural environment. How do we shift from a place of seeing nature as a resource that serves us to a location of exchange of wisdom and care? That’s the question I am asking in a lot of my work right now.
Don’t miss the world premiere of Lela Aisha Jones’s we:all ~ gon’ die into revivals in Red Clay Dance Company’s “Visions & Voices” program April 3 and 4 at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. King Dr., Chicago. For tickets and information, visit redclaydance.com.performances.