“As a Black gay man and as a person in general, I am compelled to use art to show our shared humanity.”
Those are the words of performance artist, dancer and choreographer Shamel Pitts who, on December 6, along with members of his arts collective, TRIBE, will close a three-week Princess Grace Foundation Works in Progress residency during which they worked on new material at Baryshnikov Arts Center with a live performance. The evening, titled “Solace of RED,” promises to be an immersive experience featuring a blend of scenic design, spoken word, magical lighting and more.
The evening will kick off with a showcase of works-in-progress developed during their residency, including “Island,” a video-projection, immersive installation, created by Lucca Del Carlo, TRIBE’s lead video designer, who describes “Island,” as “an ocean journey in sound, light and movement.”
From there the audience will be treated to glimpses of past masterpieces and will conclude with a sneak peek of “The Hosting,” a new extract from Pitts’ internationally acclaimed, “BLACK VELVET – Architectures and Archetypes,” which has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Audience Choice Award at the Stockholm Fringe Festival.
The anticipated event marks an exciting return for Pitts, harkening back to his early days: “My first job after graduating from Juilliard was dancing with Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance, thus bringing me full circle.”
‘Touch of RED’ (Photo by Maria Baranova)
‘Do I belong?’
Pitts has been dancing for as long as he can remember, beginning with choreographing routines for the adults that attended his mother’s parties when he was a child.
“There was something about the act of dancing that was so full of community and self-expression that I felt like it gave me so much and it gave others so much, in a way that I didn’t see expressed otherwise,” says Pitts.
Born and raised in Bed-Stuy, Pitts graduated LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts at 14, took dance at the Alvin Ailey School and went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from Juilliard.
In 2009, two years after graduating from Juilliard, Pitts moved to Tel Aviv where he spent seven years — a significant chunk of his professional career — as the only Black American dancer with Israel’s premier dance troupe, the Batsheva Dance Company. Founded in 1964 by Martha Graham it is, today, one of the most respected dance troupes in the world.
Over the ensuing years he has racked up the distinctions: artist-in-residence at Harvard, adjunct at The Juilliard School, a YoungArts Finalist and winner, recipient of the Martha Hill Award for excellence in dance, a Fellow in choreography of the New York Foundation for the Arts and, in 2020, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
“Shamel Pitts is a choreographer who scores emotion in motion,” says Tavia Nyongo, curator at the Park Avenue Armory. “He teaches us how to move in time with our thoughts.”
He choreographed renowned poet and playwright Claudia Rankine’s much acclaimed play, “Help,” which was featured at The Shed last year. Rankine feels that she had “the lucky honor of collaborating with Shamel on our production of ‘Help.’”
“Pitt’s choreography,” wrote dance critic Rhoda Feng, “is marked by vivid tableaus that swell the set with portentousness. In one sequence, red lights flood the cube as actors scrambled to prepare for an emergency.”
But this laudatory resume isn’t the point.
As a Black, gay man, Pitts has never stopped thinking of himself as an outsider — a double outsider — continuously questioning where he belongs and what it means to belong as the other.
“By the time I got to Juilliard, it was very exclusive and white,” Pitts says. “And even being in different dance companies made me experience tokenism and again made me feel like, ’Do I belong and what does it mean to be the other?’”
These questions of belonging led Pitts to found TRIBE in 2019, a non-profit, multidisciplinary art collective based in Brooklyn. The collective gathers diverse artists from across the globe — Black, queer, alternative or non-binary. Functioning akin to a rock band, each artist possesses their unique expertise, or artistic “instrument” (be it video production, set design, movement, electronic soundscape design, etc.), coming together to collaborate when inspiration strikes.
“The work TRIBE puts in the world is not only stunning,” says Rankine. “It allows us to see beyond what’s readily available to us. Anything I can do to support the ensemble is a small gift to all of us.”
As the artistic director, Pitts holds a leadership role, yet within TRIBE, collaboration thrives without hierarchy. “We walk alongside each other,” says Pitts.
TRIBE’s first official, multidisciplinary, art work was a visual masterpiece, a 15-minute film titled “Lake of RED.” Shot in black-and-white (in spite of its title) at Refuge Arts in Bed-Stuy and directed by Itai Zwecker, the piece features Pitts speaking and performing within a fragmented, boxed space.
Through haunting sound and swells of mood and movement, the film unfolds as a poetic stream of consciousness, bathing Pitts and his surroundings in layers of light which occupy and transform the surroundings.
“There is something with the fragmentation and repetition that brings up disturbed solitude and also mania” says Pitts. “There is something euphoric about mania.”
In 2020 the film was presented at the Cannes Short Film Festival. And from there his career has been on a dazzling ascent.
‘Unlocked and unleashed’
With his arts collective, Pitts created the “BLACK HOLE: Trilogy and Triathlon.” Each of its three pieces uses vigorous movement, original music and spoken word against a backdrop of dazzling visuals. “BLACK HOLE,” (which takes its name from the cosmic phenomenon) is the final installment in the series in the “BLACK” series triptych. It was hailed by The New York Times as “always visually striking,” while The Guardian called the work “both fascinating and fragile.”
These days Pitts is a very busy man. Following on the heels of the December 6 performance, on January 12, one of TRIBE’s signature dances, “Touch of RED,” (not to be confused with “Solace of RED”) will be performed at New York Live Arts. On June 1 and 2 “Touch of RED” will again be performed, this time at the Park Avenue Armory. And that’s barely scratching the surface of his packed calendar.
As such, he says, that feeling of being an outsider feels like a distant dance itself.
“Batsheva unlocked and unleashed and opened up things that I didn’t even know were closed,” he says. And now, at 38, having come full circle back to Brooklyn, Pitts is no longer questioning where he belongs.
Shamel Pitts and TRIBE will perform “Solace of RED” on December 6 at 6 p.m. Baryshnikov Arts Center. 450 W 37th St. Tickets are free but limited.