In this conversation with Smile Politely, Mauriah Kraker, Leah Wilks, and Charlie Maybee offer insight into their creative process and research for the premier of their upcoming Studiodance performances.

MFA candidate Charlie Maybee will present The Promise of Stormy Weather,  contemporary explorations of tap dance, in Studiodance I Program A.  

armageddon or sunrise or something is a multi-year research project and performance for two dancers. Stemming from their shared interests in memory, nostalgia, resiliency, and placemaking, MFA candidates Mauriah Kraker and Leah Wilks probe into dreams as scores for movement and how the topographies of the Midwest and the South have shaped their bodies and their choices. Within the piece, they pull from their different histories in elite-level sports, improvisation, ballet, and sound design to explore care, exhaustion, ritual, and decay. The work will premiere in a converted barn, Bluestem Hall, at Barnhart Prairie in Urbana.

Smile Politely: Charlie, what are your explorations into tap dance for your work, The Promise of Stormy Weather, and what makes them contemporary?

Maybee: I’m exploring tap dance through a literary point of view. And what I mean is that I approach the process of making this work as if I were writing a science fiction novel. For example, all the performers in my cast have created alter egos that are surviving this post-apocalyptic infection that transforms them. I was thinking about how tap dance could be a way of navigating a world rather than just being a virtuosic expression. Each of the performers have a different dialect of tap dance which allows them to navigate this new world in different ways. Some of them highlight sliding through the floor, some accentuate standing all the way up on their toes similarly to balletic point work, some are more traditional with their tap dancing, more percussive, some of them do floorwork with their tap dance. I’m interested in broadening what tap dance could be and that’s happening through language, storytelling, and the creation of these characters.

SP: It sounds like you’re also exploring futurism. Do you see something historical that brings us into the future happening?

Maybee: That question is a nice way of framing it. In my early time here as a grad student I took a class called Afro-Futurism that really opened my eyes to the ways that people of color were thinking about the future. Tap dance comes from a black vernacular social setting predominantly. I’m asking, how can tap dance be looked at through an afro-futurist lens?
The thing I realized about tap dance history is the relationship between tap dancers and the cyborg. There was this extreme dislocation with the Atlantic slave trade and tap dance is a direct artifact of that. In the wake of the Stono slave insurrection, African drums were outlawed. Africans and African Americans had their percussive outlets, their method of storytelling, their connection to Africa without being there taken away. That’s when buck dancing, wing dancing, and jigs in America started to pop up. Those were the early forms of tap dance. So, the bodies that were practicing this early version of tap dance were becoming musical objects in the absence of their drums. I started looking at this rearrangement of the body as a percussive instrument through the lens of the cyborg because of how intertwined tap dancers are with their musical objects.

The characters in this work embrace their musical objects to modify the ways that they communicate with each other. In this world, the more you use spoken language, the more the body decays. That’s the infection. So, they abandon language and move into this alternative form of communication.

SP: Can you talk about the title of your work?

Maybee: Well, I’m sure many people are familiar with the jazz standard "Stormy Weather."The version that I reference is the Lena Horne version because she sang the title song for the film. That movie is an incredible assemblage of amazing black entertainers. Lena Horne, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, and even Katherine Dunham and her dancers. It’s an incredible conglomeration of black excellence. I was playing with the lyrics to the song one day in my head and I came up with a version that went, “Can’t go on, Everything I had is gone, Stormy weather, Just can’t keep my poor self together, Keeps raining all the time”. That version of the song struck me as a dystopian world. The original song is clearly about a woman who is grieving the loss of a lover. But, the idea that stormy weather could allude to something post-apocalyptic, climate change and the way that stormy weather will be our future, was interesting to me. The promise of stormy weather is that the characters prep us to endure it.

SP: Leah and Mauriah, your work, armageddon or sunrise or something, explores memory, nostalgia, resiliency, place-making, dream scores, care, exhaustion, ritual, and decay among other things. How are all these ideas informing the work?

Kraker: When we committed to a duetted thesis we wanted to make sure that we could research independently as well as come together with our research to create collective spaces that are able to hold all that you just listed. We’re making structures that open-up space to support those ideas.

Wilks: Some of the things listed have emerged in our individual thesis writing, but came from the making, not necessarily the other way around. We didn’t say, “Oh, we want to explore a piece that decays. How do we do that?” This work is about trusting that all these things that we’re reading, writing, or dreaming about are in the space, that we can both just show up and intuitively trust that the things we’re thinking about are present in the choices that we’re making.

I went back to North Carolina for the summer because I realized, through other people pointing it out to me, that my writing sounded southern gothic, and I’ve never read any southern gothic writing. It made me curious because I grew up in the south, so what does that regional idea of this place mean and how does that relate to storytelling or the way I imagine myself as a maker? Some of my thesis writing is about North Carolina, monuments and dirt and some of it is about spending time with people in my life who are dying. But, I don’t go into the studio with Mauriah saying, “now I want to make a piece that feels southern…”

Kraker: That’s why we created a duet, so that we can have the space to grapple individually and collectively with things we’ve collected and things that we’ve chosen not to share. And the support of a duet feels right. It’s a support that holds us accountable to pursuing a certain part of ourselves that is difficult to access. I’m thinking of gut sensing and not disassociating from the moment. Emotionally, sometimes I’m just not present in the work. Part of my thesis writing is a score for myself. It’s called Stay Here, that’s really my task for the work.

Questions we’ve both been asking ourselves are, what is difficult for us? What is endurance? We’re both gifted with sports histories and bodies that handle endurance and like pushing past the point of knowing how we can physically handle what’s to come. But, for me the difficulty has been emotionally connecting to each moment and allowing the façade of not being affected by the work to crumble.

SP: Can you describe Bluestem Hall and why you chose that location for the performance?

Kraker: The prairie has kept me well. It’s a place I go to restore myself. It’s a place Jennifer Monson and I spent a year researching seasonal time. Witnessing four seasons pass in a very particular plot of land has been foundational to where my research has gone. It’s also the way Leah and I used to make work before grad school. We’re both used to constructing the entire show in spaces such as galleries, parking garages, or old warehouses.

Wilks: Abby Frank, who owns Bluestem Hall, she and her husband live out there, but it’s been in her family for five generations and her project was converting what was her grandfather’s barn into this event space.

Kraker: In grad school, her artistic study was how to restore old buildings so that she could come back to her homestead and do that.

Wilks: The space is carefully wrought in the location that it’s in, it’s attentive to the prairie. The design of the windows, everything, so, there’s something about being in a place that isn’t trying to suspend itself away from a location but is grounded there that’s interesting. And working with Abby has been lovely because she’s also an artist. She’s excited to have artists out there.

Kraker: I think this work could introduce the CU community to a wonderful family in the area. Abby Frank and her family are champions and advocates for the land, for the animals that live there, for a slow way of living and a sort of craftmanship. It feels important to align ourselves with someone in the community who’s living that way.

SP: Thank you all!

Studiodance I Program A
Studio Theatre
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin, Urbana
February 28th, 7 p.m., March 1st, 9 p.m., and March 2nd, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $10 to $17

A second program, Program B, is offered February 28th, 9 p.m., March 1st, 7 p.m., and March 2nd, 9 p.m.

Studiodance I Extended
Bluestem Hall
Barnhart Prairie, Urbana
March 8th and 9th, 7:30 p.m.
For more information, contact Rebecca A. Ferrell at rferrel@illinois.edu

These programs are wheelchair accessible and may contain adult content

Photo from Krannert Center for the Performing Arts