A boy alone in his room imagines sailing across the seas in a paper boat. It could be a moment from Maurice Sendak’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are”. Except that this boy is 14 years old and his room is a cell in a juvenile detention center.
The scene is from “Wild: Act 1”, a new dance film by the choreographer Jeremy McQueen. The 50-minute film (available until April 4th on McQueen’s website blackirisproject.org) is a continuation of a larger project that seeks to convey the experiences of young men trapped in the criminal justice system.
The project was actually inspired by Sendak’s book and its fantasizing protagonist Max. “It’s a favorite of mine,” McQueen said in an interview. “I love how Max, even though he’s in his bedroom and sent there for his terror, can use his imagination and think beyond his walls and circumstances to create a world for himself where he will be valued. “
McQueen, 34, said the book reminded him of his own childhood in San Diego. When his mother took him on a touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” everything “made him feel terrifying,” he said. “I wanted more of it.” So he started taking performing arts classes – a black male teacher introduced him to ballet – and he locked himself in his bedroom for hours, playing cast albums, and introducing himself as a choreographer.
For “Wild”, however, McQueen had a different type of space in mind. While visiting the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Alabama, he got that terrifying feeling again when he came across a photo of Richard Ross of a black boy in juvenile detention. In the photo, the boy stares at the concrete walls of his cell, which are covered with writings and drawings from previous residents.
“I thought about the number of young people who had lived in this room and contributed to these walls and what it meant for them to want to break free,” said McQueen.
He had already thought about “Where the Wild Things Are” for a work commissioned by the Nashville Ballet. The Ross photo focused the idea. But the pandemic put the project on hold.
With the filmmaker Colton Williams, McQueen had already turned one of his dances, “A Mother’s Rite”, about a mother whose son is killed by a white police officer into a film. (It was nominated for an Emmy Award.) If the theaters were closed for performance, why not start “Wild” as a movie?
“I always try to find ways to get new people to the art,” said McQueen. That is the core of my mission. “
McQueen has been on this mission since at least 2016 when he founded the Black Iris Project, a New York-based ballet composed mostly of black artists telling black stories. This project, too, has its origins in McQueen’s reaction to a work of art – Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Black Iris,” which gave him the terrifying feeling when he discovered it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That was in 2012 when he applied to be the choreographer for the Joffrey Ballet Color Prize. He channeled his feelings about the painting – and about his mother’s breast cancer – into a ballet called “Black Iris” about the strength of black women.
The Joffrey Studio Company did the work, but McQueen said he felt too many of his decisions were being challenged. In general he said he believed that his voice was not really heard or appreciated by the wider ballet world, and so was he stayed away from this world for a while.
But during He taught ballet in New York City public schools as part of the public relations work for the American Ballet Theater, and found that black teens who were resistant to ballet could connect with it – if he used the right music and stories to familiarize themselves with could identify.
“I love the magic of ballet and the language of ballet,” he said, “but I don’t love not being able to see my stories.” So he started Black Iris.
“Instead of waiting for someone to give me a seat at the table, I decided to build my own table,” he said. “It’s a vision of black creatives who tell our stories and our path without being censored and share those voices directly with our communities.”
“Wild” is part of this vision. “My mission is not to educate whites about the black experience,” said McQueen. “My mission is to give young black and brown people the opportunity to see their life as art and to encourage them to dream bigger.”
Initially, McQueen hoped to develop “game” in detention centers and work directly with young people in custody. The project is partially supported by a Soros Justice Fellowship awarded by the Open Society Foundation for projects promoting reform of the criminal justice system. McQueen is the first choreographer to be awarded one.
After it became clear that filming in prisons would not be possible during the pandemic, McQueen and Williams came up with the idea of depicting the cell with a three-walled set that is inhabited by an adult dancer, Elijah Lancaster. Sometimes the walls look like concrete, but they also fill with pictures of other young men in custody – embodying the wall markings in the Ross photo – or the boy’s fantasies.
Lancaster, a member of Ailey II, dances expansively and barely fits into the room. The pictures on the walls suggest a world beyond. Sometimes we hear words (from Ross’ book “Juvie Talk”) from young men in juvenile detention. We see photos of these men, but also films of black dancers from all over the country who react to these stories in motion.
For the 24-year-old Lancaster, exploring his part was training. “Some of these kids were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “So much injustice. That is why this project has to take place. “
Filming during a pandemic wasn’t easy, but the hardest part of making Game was living up to the responsibility of telling real people’s stories through art. “You want to get it right,” said McQueen.
McQueen said he felt that pressure especially in his decision to deal with sexual abuse. “Wild” may have been inspired by a children’s book, but it contains corrections officers more menacing than Sendak’s monsters. One sexually assaults Lancaster’s character. The scene is not graphic, but it is clear what is happening. The episode mirrors many that McQueen discovered in his research.
“Can I do that?” McQueen remembered wondering. He decided he had to. “I can’t leave out parts of the story to please other people,” he said.
For McQueen, this fight against self-censorship is a holdover from how he believes ballet companies have controlled and constrained it in the past. “They want a censored and filtered version that suits their aesthetic and their idea of blackness,” he said.
Working outside of these companies – just collecting donations and logistics – is a challenge. “I don’t think people really understand how hard it is,” said McQueen.
In “Wild”, however, he can express anything he wants and in the dance language that he loves. When the boy imagines sailing the seas in this paper boat, he balances on his bed like a ballet dancer.