Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes: Interview with Dancers Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins

Black Velvet
“Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes” is a dance theater piece co-created by the Brooklyn-born choreographer and dancer Shamel Pitts. Photo by Sherri Nickol.

“Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes” is a dance theater piece co-created by the Brooklyn-born choreographer and dancer Shamel Pitts (known for his work with the world-famous Batsheva Dance Company) and a Brazilian-born performer Mirelle Martins. “Black Velvet” played to sold-put houses in NYC and internationally when it debuted in 2017. The work is a follow-up to an autobiographical solo show “Black Box: A Little Box of Red.”

“Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes” is a multimedia performance that utilizes evocative and intense music, lighting, makeup, and costumes. The 60-minute piece features spoken word and dances by two androgynous performers who are covered only by loincloths making them reminiscent of ancient figures. The work is an abstract commentary on Blackness and is the second part of Shamel Pitt’s Black Series. The third installment—“Black Hole: Trilogy and Triathlon”—premiered in Atlanta in April, is touring internationally and awaiting its NYC premiere.

Recently Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins granted an exclusive joint interview where they discussed the project.

Meagan Meehan (Q): How did you guys get involved with the dance theater and how did you come to work together?

Shamel Pitts (SP): I am a teacher of Gaga, the movement language created by Israeli choreographer and director Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company, of which I was a member for six years. Dancing with Batsheva in Israel and touring with them around the world has opened up my palette towards the many tastes and paths which dance encompasses. Upon leaving the company, I began creating my own work which contains elements of spoken word and other theatrical elements. My first show was an autobiographical solo BLACK BOX; it had its New York premiere in 2017. Mirelle and I met in 2013 when she came to Brooklyn to do her first dance course in Gaga. She was a student. and I was the teacher.

Mirelle Martins (MM): I met Shamel Pitts in 2013 when I went to NYC to do the Gaga Summer Intensive for the first time. It was also my first professional dance course and Shamel was the teacher. I fell in love with Gaga and, at the same time, I felt a strong connection with Shamel. We definitely saw each other during the classes and in our first conversation which happened in front of BAM: we talked about to bring Gaga Movement Language to Brazil ( a project that began in 2015) and we started to get to know each other better. At that time, Shamel was starting to create his first own work BLACK BOX and shared his ideas with me, while I told him about my desire to create art. When the course in NYC was over, I came back to Brazil and started to research Gaga by myself and also taking other dance and performances courses in São Paulo. I was 28 years old at that time and despite the fact that looked like too late to start to dance, I believed the feeling that with body movement, the language of Gaga and the inspiration of Shamel I will make it possible to express the ideas that I have in mind. I had to work tremendously hard to keep up with him and took a lot of risks in order to make our ideas a reality but I trusted his vision and am extremely proud that I was able to prove myself on this project. Shamel definitely is the turning point of my life, if we didn’t meet in 2013 probably, I will not be a performer today. He is not just my partner, he is my biggest inspiration. Since this first collaboration, we embarked on another joint dance project, BLACK HOLE, in which I am also performing.

Black Velvet
“Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes” is part of a trilogy. Photo by Alex Apt. 

Q: Shamel, how did you get the idea for your Black Series? Why did you decide to make this series a trilogy and how is each piece different from the other?

SP: The idea came towards me when I finished the creation of BLACK VELVET, which is the second work. Never before did I have in mind or heart to create a trilogy. When BLACK VELVET premiered, I felt such a connection between that work and the first one, BLACK BOX. I felt that there was a clear thread and maturity of its offering beyond me. I then realized that there had to be a third and final installment in the series that created even more space and expands on the ideas introduced in the first two parts. It had to continue and resolve something – even if the resolution is with questions. BLACK HOLE, the final work in the trilogy, is about creating more space for us to exist. The Power Of Three becomes something larger than the sum of its parts.

Q: What is it like to develop multimedia performances and how essential is the lighting, makeup, costuming, and sounds in relation to one another?

SP: I refer to my creations as multidisciplinary performance. Each medium in my work has a clear presence and pronunciation. Voices of my collaborators – performers, designers, even photographers – are heard in my work. It sometimes feels like what I am doing is more visual art with the movement since the multimedia component is so powerfully researched and shared largely throughout all three works.

Q: At its core, what is “Black Velvet” about?

MM: In my mind, it is about connection, compassion, partnership and, most important, Love. The idea of romantic love and crazy love stories are too overrated in my point of view and, sometimes, we lose track of what more universal, human love means. It is not just a feeling., it is an exercise and commitment. In BLACK VELVET, we want to share an experience of a more vast love of humanity, a feeling that makes us strong together even in the moments that we need to face our weakness.

SP: At its core, is about the efficiency of strangers to become partners. While it originated from the experience of Blackness Mirelle and I share, it strives to transcend the narrow definitions and labels and focus on the universal, human qualities – like sense of belonging and connection. BLACK VELVET deals with a lot of structures and archetypes. It questions many of these things and it blurs them so that something new can arrive between how one person can connect so deeply to another. It also aims to share and reflect on the colorfulness of blackness—especially in regards to black women—in a relationship of love, compassion, and camaraderie.

Q: What is it about this play that you think will most interest audiences—in other words, what can they expect?

MM: Shamel is a genius and innovative dancer, choreographer, artist, and creator. We often hear from audience members that they never saw a piece like that. Last year, I met an audience member in Berlin, weeks after our shows, and she said that the emotion of BLACK VELVET was still with her. I think creating memories in people is enormously powerful. The audience can expect to be touched, aesthetically or emotionally, in an original and true way.

SP: Our spectators should expect that their ideas of gender, race, identity will be challenged and questioned. They can also expect a highly kinetic movement and that sound, light, and staging will be an important part of the experience.

Q: Was it tough to match the dance movement with the themes?

SP: YES! As I mentioned, Mirelle came in as a new dancer and I have been dancing for a much longer time. We were trying to create a world that was about our connection and we had to figure it out through movement. Working with Mirelle has taught me a lot. She has challenged me not to hide behind movement but to research deeply and find the precise movement that can reveal us.

Q: This show sold out when it debuted in 2017, why do you think it had such appeal?

SP: There is something very powerful and intriguing between Mirelle and me; how we connect with and through our brown bodies; how we move, using Gaga movement language as a source of inspiration; the multidimensionality of the environment that we create an eclectic musical arrangement (with a nod to Nina Simone, Frank Ocean, Jay-Z, to name a few); and the very unique lighting/video mapping technology through only one powerful projector that projects only black and white light into the space. It is a very cinematic live art experience.

MM: Seeing Black artists on stage is, unfortunately, still rare. I read one time that a Black woman walking into an art studio is a revolution. I agree with that. We had the pleasure to share BLACK VELVET with the audiences in many countries: Brazil, the US, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Singapore, Lithuania, Israel… Even in Brazil, which has a majority of the Black population, the idea of Black performers is still exotic. On some level, we could feel that in all places the audience see the work as something new or different from the typical dance programs.

Black Velvet
The performance includes music, artistic lighting, and dance. Photo by Rebecca Stella. 

Q: Shamel, can you tell us about the newest show, “Black Hole”?

SP: BLACK HOLE: Trilogy and Triathlon is the third and final work in the Black Series triptych. It is conceived as a kaleidoscopic performance art experience using movement, light, and visual art. Although the title is derived from the cosmic phenomenon of a black hole, it is not about the science of it. It proposes to use the idea of the transformational environment of a black hole to create an atmosphere of mystery towards what it encompasses; what it can contain in it. BLACK HOLE proposes to engage an audience in a way that it condenses the experience into a deeply colorful hypnotic journey without exit The work researches and shares a performance art odyssey, in which three black artists (from Africa and of the African diaspora) unite to create a trinity of vigor, Afrofuturism, and embrace. Hence the sub-title “Trilogy” “Triathlon” is a marathon in three parts. It’s a race. We just had our US Premier of BLACK HOLE in Atlanta, with myself, Mirelle, and the South African dancer Tushrik Fredericks as performers. Two filmmakers, known as The Palette Group, are creating a short film/mini-documentary our BLACK HOLE. I am looking forward to sharing this with the world soon.

Q: Is this particular presentation at BAM Fisher of special value to you?

SP: Being born and bred in Brooklyn, I grew up seeing many performances at BAM that have INFORMED and TRANSFORMED me towards the artist that I wanted to become. My first time seeing Batsheva live was at BAM! Years later, while dancing and touring with Batsheva Dance Company, I was fortunate enough to perform on BAM’s magical stage sharing the incredibly vast artistic world of Ohad Naharin. And now, to be able to share my own work at BAM is a dream realized! And I dream that dancers, Brooklyn natives, and New Yorkers will be able to see my work this May and have a meaningful transformative experience as well n the words of a fellow Brooklyn native, Biggie Smalls: “WHERE BROOKLYN AT?”

Black Velvet
The performance is scheduled to take place in New York City. Photo by Rebecca Stella.

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“Black Velvet Architectures and Archetypes” will be performed from May 9 to May 12, 2019, at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Fisher/ Fishman Space. Tickets range from $20 to $65. To learn more, visit the official website.