“We’re Turning Black Lives Into Works Of Art” Jeremy McQueen On The Black Iris Project And Using Art To Heal
Born and raised in San Diego, California, Jeremy McQueen is a graduate of The Ailey School/Fordham University, B.F.A. in Dance program. McQueen was trained by Donald Robinson at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts before he went on to perform in the national tours of Broadway’s Wicked and The Color Purple among many other works. In 2013, he received the Joffrey ballet of Chicago’s Choreographers of Color Award to create The Black Iris Project. Recently, we had the chance to chat with McQueen about his project, diversity in the industry and how art can be used to heal us in these trying times.
What inspired the concept for The Black Iris Project?
The concept for The Black Iris Project started three years ago. My mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she told a little bit after the fact. She had already begun chemo therapy treatments. And I was busy working on a show in another state. And she told me and it really threw me for a loop. I fell into a depressive state. And one day I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a friend and I feel in love with a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, called Black Iris III. And something about this painting just really spoke to me in ways that no other piece of visual art had ever done. And around the same time, I was also looking for work, struggling to find work as a performing artist.
So I was applying for this award from the Joffrey Ballet called the Choreographers of Color Award and a part of the application process is you have to pitch them an idea of the type of ballet you would create for their trainees and the program. So I basically took my life experience and what I was going through and I channeled it creatively through art. I used my mom as my inspiration as well as the inspiration of my godmother and my aunt, to inspire this almost like a tribute to womanhood and the strength of womanhood and things that Black women often have to go through. So I pitched this idea and they loved it and I was whisked away to Chicago to create this ballet and then from there it just evolved into a bigger project of uniting Black artists together to create a sense of community to show people the beauty of the art and that they have human powers and that if you are going through something it’s important to find a way to release what’s going on within you in a creative or constructive manner because it might be able to help someone else that’s going through something as well.
Speaking of art as a form of healing, the Black community is going through quite a bit right now. Can you speak about the importance of art when the Black body is under attack?
It’s extremely necessary. It’s so vital which is why I’m pushing so hard to get this project up on its feet right now. Because I feel like right now, we, as a community, we do need to find something that allows us to be able to cope and to resonate what’s going on, constructively to be able to push forward. I, myself, am going through a number of challenges myself right now. My father just passed away on Saturday. It happened very suddenly and our performances are two weeks from tomorrow. So for me, this is very necessary. So instead of resorting to drugs or violence or something else, I’m able to go to work in the studio and kind of force myself to— I don’t want to say lash out but to be able to express myself and to cope in a constructive manner.
We are in a really dark period right now but I think that lots of positive change can occur if we really come together and find ways to really create that unique sense of community. We need a collective group therapy right now and I think that the arts can really do that. Whether it be going to see an art or going to the museum. And the biggest thing right now is also coloring. They’re encouraging people to color because it creates a stress reliever. So, I think it’s extremely important and that’s why I’m so vigilant right now in trying to get this project out there. And let people know about it and let them know that we are trying to let people heal but we’re turning Black lives into works of art. And we’re showing people that we are beautiful and that our stories are valued. And if no one else is going to value those stories, we need to value them ourselves, the community. So we can’t just talk about the people who have died recently. We also need to celebrate the people that are living right now that are continuing to push forward with all of the advances that we hope to have in the future.
I know one of the missions of the project is to encourage more diversity in the arts, specifically ballet. What are some of the things that keep people of color from pursing ballet?
Honestly, the first thing is financial. More than anything, ballet is expensive. That’s why I always say, ballet is a very classist art form because if you don’t have the finances or the resources to be able to afford all the classes or the summer intensives, the pointe shoes—which often cost $80 a pair. Older girls who are training at a professional level could easily go through at least 2-3 pointe shoes in a week. It’s extremely expensive. It’s not sometimes financially feasible for, sometimes, minority families. And if you have a school that wants to give you a scholarship, sometimes, they’re not located in your community. To get the best training, that might require you to go miles and miles away from your house. So it becomes a factor of which parent is going to take them?
And then another factor is visibility. I think that a lot of times a lot of girls, and boys especially, give up ballet because they don’t see a lot of people that look like them. I just say God bless Misty Copeland because she has really brought a new, profound sense of visibility for Black ballerinas. Black ballerinas have always existed, there’s been a huge lineage of them that have come before her, but because of social media and pop culture, it just seems that her visibility is so much more widespread and that has been so much more encouraging to young, Black dancers.
I used to look up to Desmond Richardson. And this was before the age of social media. And I would have to go to the library and try to check out videos that maybe he had been recorded on. But Misty Copeland has been a pioneer in helping us transform the arts in general just from being more vocal and more visible. She was on the cover of Time magazine!
It can inspire so many more people to want to believe in themselves. I think financial and visibility are often the hardest things, especially for male ballet dancers. It’s so hard to be a male, in general, let alone be a Black male and then come from a Black family and there’s all these preconceived stereotypes about what it means to be a male and be masculine. It’s really rough. And the kids are rough too.
When I teach at dance schools, a lot of my White students, they carry these Vera Bradley bags and they’re so expensive. But they carry them as their dance bag. So if you’re a little Black girl or a little Black boy and you can’t afford a Vera Bradley bag, how is that going to make you feel? You’re going to feel different. You’re going to feel obsolete. Sometimes you’re the only one. And that’s really hard to deal with. So a lot of times people do resort to wanting to give up or wanting to stay close to their communities or they’ll go places like Dance Theater of Harlem or ABG where they feel like they’ll be more respected.
Misty Copeland has spoken about body type discrimination within the art form. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Naturally, we as Black people, have a little bit more curves and a little bit more junk in the trunk than most people. But ballet is based on the European aesthetic where you have no butt, you have no boobs. You just don’t have those things. And we culturally are just born with all of those things. So, again, it’s the idea of being the Black sheep, the Black swan or the ugly duckling because you’re in this sea of people trying to fit into this European aesthetic and then here you are, born with something different, and you’re trying to fit into it too but then you just can’t make it happen.
Myself, I’m more curvy than a lot of other boys that I trained with. I’ve got thighs, I’ve got ass and I’ve got calves. And I used to get picked on all the time. Some of my teachers told me I needed to lose more weight. And again, it’s the whole European aesthetic of beauty. And I think that translates even into pop culture. When we look at Vogue and Glamour in the early days, everybody was very pencil thin. Everything is airbrushed. Everything is retouched. And I think ballet is the same way. We always try to fit into this type because, here we go again, the lack of visibility. The lack of seeing, on stage, diverse body types.
It took me a really long time to embrace my own body. I had eating disorders and disordered eating habits because it’s hard. We stare at ourselves in mirrors all day, with hardly any clothes on. And you just can’t help but compare yourself, either to yourself, or the persons next to you. The arts are supposed to be a freeing and liberating thing; however, the technical aspects of learning the technique can be very rigorous mentally because they still carry the European aesthetic.
How did you navigate being a Black man in this industry?
Thank God, I had an amazing teacher. His name was Donald Robinson. He was my dance teacher in middle school and high school. I had him for about 3 years in San Diego. He grow up in Detroit, Michigan. And he was a part of gangs and what not. But he turned his life around with sports and got a scholarship for Wayne State university. And was up for the Olympics and then he got injured so the changed his aspect for life. And I think he also discovered dance as a form of healing.
More than dance, he taught us life lessons. So I always had a very strong, Black male figure to look up to. He told me everything that I would go through but he always gave me tools to get through them. So I was very blessed to be able to have him in my life.
It can be really, really subconsciously damaging to be a man, just because the outside factors of the church. I’m also gay so growing up gay in the church, that automatically puts on a lot of pressure and provokes a lot of shame in yourself. But he as one of the main people who encouraged me to keep pushing. No matter what people say, no matter what people do. Strive to be better than you were the day before.
Where can we see the performances?
We have a preview performance today at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at 6:30. But that performance is more of a discussion. We’ll be with noted television producer and writer Susan Fales-Hill, talking a little bit more about this project and the state of Black America and why we want this project to exist right now and how to help people find resources and solutions to ways that they can cope. I can’t really even watch tv right now, because it’s just so overwhelming with the amount of stresses and drama. But I just keep saying, you just have to stay prayerful. And you have to find ways to uplift yourself and uplift others despite the traumatic things that we go through.
But aside from that, we have our main debut performances at the New York Library on July 27 and 28. And at those performances we’ll be debuting three works that are rooted in Black History. One work is the story of Nelson’s Mandela’s life, which I think is so relevant to what we’re going through right now.
How can we help the Black Iris Project?
I do want to stress that we still need support. I think that a lot of times people see that we have gotten some support. But we are still very far from reaching our financial goal to bring this project to life. And if we do not receive support immediately, we can not make this happen. So that means that our performances at the end of July will have to be canceled. Because paying for the theaters, paying for the dancers’ salaries, the administrative aspects and the collaborators, it’s all a very expensive enterprise. And we really, desperately need support because we all believe this project is so vital and necessary right now.
All photos taken by Matthew Murphy.