Niv Acosta’s Black, Queer, Radical Dance Launching Into Outer Space

(Photo: Jane Bruce)

Last spring, a “mystical thing” happened to niv Acosta, he said: The New Museum contacted him and invited the contemporary dancer and choreographer to participate in its 2015 Triennial. At 26, Acosta is one of the youngest artists on the short list of up-and-comings in the art world. And if the New Museum Triennial is all about showcasing new work and artists that challenge the status quo of their medium, then Acosta would be a righteous pick no matter what. But in light of the protests and cries for change surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island resident Eric Garner—both at the hands of white police officers—Acosta’s work related to black masculinity and identity couldn’t feel more urgent.

For an artist whose work is sometimes deemed a radical separation from other representations of contemporary dance, Acosta has come far.

“If there’s anything radical about my presence in the community it’s entirely based off of the fact that there’s not visibility for a lot of people like me,” Acosta who is transgender, explained. “I’m not necessarily choosing to be a radical presence, but I am inherently, by identifying and inhabiting the spaces that I do.”

Acosta, who spells his first name with a lower case “n” as a play on the “shift” key and “shifting” identities, came out as a transgender male just before his big career break. “I fell in love with this person, and they lived in Philadelphia. So I went to visit, and I never came back,” he explained wistfully. “Well, I did, but a year and a half later.”

He took time off, as Acosta writes in his brief artist bio, to “discover himself.” I asked him to hash this out.

“Basically I just took that time to really be reflective, and live off the land, and bike around, and have a porch, and do gardening,” he said. “I really was also able to find big communities of queer and trans people there. I was able to be out as trans in a really nice way. And that was just conducive to good feelings and a happy life, and simple things.”

In 2010, while based in Philadelphia, Acosta received an Art and Social Change Grant from the Leeway Foundation. After that, he said, things really began “snowballing.” He returned to New York (a place where he’d grown up and loved, but vowed to stay away from “for at least four years”) and began work with a dance company before carrying out a residency at New York Live Arts, and performing throughout the city at a variety of venues including MoMA PS1.

By the time Acosta came back to New York, he said, “I’d really found a new language for my identity and also for my art.”

As for his inclusion in the New Museum Triennial, he admitted “I’m totally mystified by it.” He broke out into a mix of gleeful, ironic, and self-effacing laughter, something he does often. Acosta thrives on absurdity, and is even-headed yet explicit when it comes to discussing subjects others might be inclined to either gloss over or let collapse into vitriol. I came to discover that he knows better than most people that life, and especially other people, can be pretty cruel. But somehow he maintains a deeply-held view that most people are generally ok.

I met Acosta at his light-filled apartment, which he shares with his partner. The building’s located in a corner of Bed-Stuy that has yet to be taken over by brand new coffee shops, bars and restaurants that look like they could be anywhere—anywhere in Williamsburg.

The apartment was pretty sparse besides the stacks of books on a low shelf in the corner—a guide to Tarot, and The Brothers Karamazov stood out to me. Acosta paused our initial small talk in his living room to put on an old jazz record.

When Acosta was 12, and still went by Navild, he took his first dance class—but this wasn’t ballet, or tap, or even jazz, it was a dance composition class. “I loved it and it really opened up my relationship to dance. Up until that point I was going to be a rocket scientist. That was my life’s passion.”

Acosta explained he hasn’t let go of science completely: “Although I’m not quite interested in rocket engineering anymore, I’m more into astrophysics.” Though they might seem like completely different realms, Acosta is working to bring his interests in dance and science together for the New Museum Triennial, with a new piece entitled DISCOTROPIC, which he describes as a work based on a “a research project on disco music ideology, astrophysics and science fiction.”

Of course, this isn’t exactly new—see the Afro-Futurism of Sun-Ra, for example. But Acosta said he intends to rework what’s already been done through a queer lens.“The [subjects] are related to a mode of inquiry that I feel is what it’s like being black in America—speculation, creating your own space, and making up your own truths,” he said.

“It’s the most exciting project I’ve done so far,” he beamed. “We’re creating a multifaceted world, one where we are able to exist without exotification, without the real world.”

DISCOTROPIC will be no less politically charged than the rest of Acosta’s recent work, which has been dominated by what he refers to as “the Denzels,” a series of dance pieces confronting the representation of black masculinity found in a variety of media. The most recent iteration of the series, i shot denzel, features Acosta running into a white wall repeatedly, only to fall back.

“It’s pretty fucking literal,” laughed Acosta, who said he’s not surprised when audiences read i shot denzel as a statement about state (and white) violence against black males. “When I was making it, I wasn’t thinking in such literal terms, but I certainly can see in retrospect how people can project that sort of narrative onto that piece. I’m a black, masculine-presenting person that, like, tosses my body around.”

DISCOTROPIC will have similar vibes, because, Acosta explained, his work is inseparable from his day-to-day experiences as a black man, as queer. In an unequal society and art world controlled by white, privileged males, Acosta’s life is inherently political. His work seeks to “turn the mirror around,” on the art world as a whole. “I can’t quite escape it. I can say that’s hard, that’s pigeonholing, or I can say this is really exciting, and it’s new and fresh for me and hopefully it can open up conversations in good ways. I don’t know—it’s ‘artivism.’”

But Acosta carefully chooses the ways in which he participates in activism.

It was ironic that, while Acosta and I were discussing Ferguson, police brutality against men of color, and how things seem to be “out of hand” right now, on Staten Island a jury was preparing to deliver the verdict of whether or not to indict a white police officer for the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was put in a chokehold and killed back in July. “This is not a new thing, it’s just more visible now that there’s way more media surrounding it,” Acosta said. We agreed. “And now is a really good time to make art about it.”

“I don’t go to protests because I don’t fuck with the police,” he said. “That was a stark reality for me recently with Ferguson. I can either feel bad about not going, or I can say that I have a lot more work to do now. I can shift the landscape in my own work.”

In a recent conversation Acosta’s mother joked, “You picked a really awful time to be dude.”

I wondered if his transition and masculine identity had awakened a new kind of awareness and political activism, or as Acosta prefers, “artivism.” Earlier this year, he participated in Simone Leigh’s collaboration with Creative Time,  Free People’s Medical Clinic. For the participatory art project, Acosta taught free dance classes for queer and trans-identifying people. But given his activism in college as a member of student council and vocal critic of the dance faculty at Cal Arts, politics didn’t seem like anything new.

But for dance, an art form so deeply connected to the body, to physicality, it seems that an identity shift from female to masculine, would almost certainly have radical consequences.

“To go from passing as a female to passing as a male, really puts you in different seats,” Acosta explained. “You get a different perspective. It really colors how I see the world and therefore how I make work. I am not separate from my life, I am not separate from my day-to-day, so when I go to the studio, there’s all of that in there.”

At the same time, Acosta said identifying as male allowed him to become comfortable with his femininity for the first time. His work also embraces apparent contradictions and defies expectations. “In performance I’m struggling to not be tethered to any binary or even a spectrum,” he said. “I try to live outside of those constructs because I think it’s the most empowering for me. I don’t want to live by those rules always. So in performance, I try to transcend structured ways of thinking about my identity.”

At times during our conversation, it seemed that Acosta’s is an ever-evolving identity, a result of his hyper-vigilant focus on the present moment. For example, he told me he’d come out to his mother multiple times over the years. “I’ve come out to her as bisexual, as gay, as queer, as gender non-conforming, and then trans, and then polyamorous.”

But despite the metamorphosis, Acosta still draws heavily on his past. His work is deeply influenced by voguing, something he picked up on as a kid growing up within a community made up of mostly gay men, drag queens, and trans-women. “That’s where I got my life,” he said.

When niv was Navild, he was growing up in the South Bronx with his mother, who is HIV positive. “She hates it when I tell people that, and I try to combat it by telling her it’s part of my experience too.” Because of her illness, the two were part of a support community based loosely around the facilities at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.

“Whenever we would go to these holiday parties, people were turning down,” Acosta recalled. “It would just be a ball every time—that was the most fabulous thing. So many people in the ball community were also overlapping with this community. So I was able to be introduced into this world.”

At an early age, Acosta was fascinated by ball culture.“It was just these colorful movements and colorful people in these extremely sterile environments—like the hospital, like the conference room or the cafeteria. But then they would put on some jams and get down, and that was like such a magical thing.”

Though the city’s HIV/AIDS programs provided a safety net for Acosta and his mother, things were still rocky. “In the earlier years she was in and out of the hospital just from having the common cold. She she would be away for tons of time and I would just have to be tossed around from family member to family member,” Acosta explained. “I was in the foster care system for a while, and we were both in a group home at one point.”

Acosta admitted,“I don’t really know my dad.” And siblings? “I have my little brother who is eight and my little sister is two,” he said. “I must have more. I have half siblings around the world. My dad was a very promiscuous person. I know for a fact he has a daughter that’s a few years younger than me, but I’ve met her only once.”

What brought stability to the family, Acosta said, was his mother’s conversion to Mormonism. “We basically lived off groceries that the Church provided,” he recalled. “People are constantly surprised that I grew up Mormon. It’s like, ‘I thought there were only white people in that Church. I thought they had sister wives.’ And I’m like nope, nope, nope.” Acosta is no longer practicing, but maintains a positive view of the faith. “I respect the religion for my mom, I think it has helped her.”

His childhood may explain the artist’s precarious approach to how well things are going now. He’s helping teach a course at NYU and has taught for Cooper Union in the past. And with the announcement of the Triennial, it seems that things are not only secure but are picking up.

“I feel like [identifying as an artist] is actually more of a recent thing. I think, historically, I’ve had a smaller range of access to things and the more work I’m doing, the more visible I become, and the more access I have. And that’s certainly turned into a privilege, and I’m extremely grateful for that,” he said. “I can sort of live off it now, and that’s a really lucky thing about this time, right now. I don’t have to cloud my life with too much else. And that’s the ultimate dream for me. I am currently living the dream.”

Acosta laughed for a long minute after saying this, as if this reality had only just dawned on him.

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