At the start of Jeremy McQueen’s dance film, “Wild: bird of paradisea young black man played by lead dancer Khayr Muhammad, lies in a field in Yonkers, New York, as a song plays in the background: “What if there were no police, no prison, or bail, give me a chance of failing and not being buried?” Then the young man heard the voice of a policeman shouting: “Show me your hands! followed by the sound of a blow from Muhammad passes out, entering a dreamlike state where he is joined by five other young black men dancing in the sunlight on the green grass.
With this scene, McQueen envisioned a space where young black men could express themselves without fear of police violence. “There’s a level of trauma that comes with being a black man in America, constantly feeling like you never know, when you leave your house, if you’re going to come home alive,” McQueen said. , a Bronx-based choreographer. and dancer.
“Bird of Paradise” is the final installment of McQueen’s four-part dance film, “Wild,” which he made to amplify the voices of young people involved in the criminal justice system. The film is presented by the Black Iris Project, which McQueen founded in 2016 to create classic and contemporary ballets rooted in black history or experience.
“Ballet has often been seen as elitist, far removed from what’s happening in the world,” McQueen said. “And so I felt it was necessary to bring ballet into the 21st century by covering topics like juvenile incarceration.”
As a queer black youth who was beginning to immerse himself in choreography and dance in the 1990s and 2000s, McQueen felt like he was being asked to fit into a white, Euro-centric aesthetic of technique. ballet. “My teachers used to say things like ‘Ballet is the foundation of all dance,'” he said. “Now that’s entirely moot, because this idea is really rooted in white supremacy.”
Although he never felt completely comfortable with ballet, he loved the art form and was moved by scripted pieces such as ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’, which recalled his favorite children’s books. He continued his dance education studying modern dance, tap and jazz, and graduated from Ailey School/Fordham University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2008.
“Wild” originated in a piece the Nashville Ballet commissioned McQueen and morgxn, a singer-songwriter, to premiere in 2019, inspired in part by Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Additional inspiration for the film came when McQueen went to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. There he saw a photograph, taken by Richard Ross, of a teenager in a Mississippi detention center. In the portrait, the walls behind the boy are covered with sketches and statements; the words “North or Nothin”, written next to a drawing of a spaceship, stood out from McQueen.
“It really got me thinking about the challenges this young man has to go through at 12 to be sequestered in this little room with almost no way out,” McQueen said. “All of a sudden it just clicked, and I was like, ‘This is, ‘Where are the wild things.’ “I loved how Max, the young boy in the book, was able to think beyond his circumstances. He was really able to use his imagination and creativity to imagine a world where he reigned supreme, and where he was loved and valued.
In 2020, McQueen applied for a Soros Justice Scholarship Open Society Foundations to create a ballet; he was the first choreographer to receive this scholarship. (Disclaimer: The Marshall Project also receives funding from the Open Society Foundations.)
McQueen worked with nearly 50 different artists, performers, composers and filmmakers to create the four episodes of “Wild.” The first film, “Overture,” examines the underlying reasons why young men and women might find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system, including the school-to-jail pipeline. The second film, “These Walls Can Talk”, shows a young man celebrating his 14 years behind bars. The third film, “The Journey Home”, is about what happens to the young men after they are released from custody. The latest episode, released in November, is meant to capture the challenges of what it’s like to be a black man in New York City.
For “Bird of Paradise,” McQueen created moves inspired by the phrase “I want to be free” in American Sign Language. Throughout the ballet, the dancers hold their hands behind their backs almost as if they were handcuffed. At another point, the men form a line and then run in different directions as if running from the police, evoking birds in flight with their movements.
McQueen said he wanted the dream segment, which features young men dressed in jewel-colored durags, to show the dynamism of an Afro-futuristic fantasy in color, backdrop and costume. “Throughout my life I’ve been in situations where if I were to walk into a room with a durag, I would be treated a certain way,” McQueen said. “But here in this imagined space, these young men are able to be authentic themselves and choose clothes without fear of persecution.”
In the middle of the dream scene, the principal dancer Muhammad stands erect, other dancers gathered at his feet. With this painting, McQueen hoped to convey that people’s current struggles are rooted in the past. “It’s this idea that we don’t walk alone,” he said. “So while Khayr may have had that experience, there are so many others throughout history who are there with him. They are there to ground him and keep him grounded.
The film’s producer, Colton Williams, wanted to show a contrast between the scene where Muhammad is walking in the Bronx and the dreamlike sequence. “We wanted it to go from chaos to escapism, with some sort of relief at the end,” he said. The parts of the Bronx were filmed using a handheld camera, to create an impression of realism. Using a drone and a camera on a dolly, he was able to create a feeling of fluidity in the dream section. A moment of transition in the film was also significant for Williams and McQueen, where Khayr raises his fist and the camera pans over a latticework dome, signifying a bird in a cage.
Muhammad wakes up to find himself in the Bronx, in a world tinged with gray. McQueen’s “Wild: Bird of Paradise” offers art as a way to come to terms with the trauma young black men face when dealing with the criminal justice system.
“They argue and yearn for peace, a place where they can just be themselves, express themselves, rest and recharge,” he said. “The boy in the dance lives, but I really think what happens next to the boy, or that ‘character’ next, is really what we as viewers do to help people like this young man. “
“Wild” was co-commissioned by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, CUNY Dance Initiative and the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, with additional support from New Music USA, the Coronavirus Dance Relief Fund & Dance Advancement Fund from Dance/ NYC.
The film is available for viewing here until January 31, 2022. In February, it will be broadcast on CUNY TELEVISION. On March 17, 2022, there will be a live performance of “Wild” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.