Black Lives Matter, Peter Sellars, Street Dance, Cops... It's A Long Story

Relations between law enforcement and the African American community are perhaps the most complex and painful issue facing the nation today.

Dance, of all things, to the rescue.

Reggie "Reg Rocc" Grey invented a dance form based on Jamaican street dance.
A chance encounter with legendary director Peter Sellars has led to a collaboration that now brings street dance to audiences across the country...along with conversations between the dancers, top law enforcement issues, and other interested parties.

The show is called FLEXN, and it appeared last week at Jacobs Pillow in the Berkshires.
Sellars took time to speak to HuffPost about what FLEXN means to him, why he got involved, and why he sees it as a means for bridging what seem like unbridgeable gaps in American society.

Michael: How did you first encounter FLEXN, and what attracted you enough to decide to work with them?

Peter: I was rehearsing the St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. Up on the second floor was this extraordinary group of dancers. I immediately saw the virtuosity of those performers, who are just extraordinary. You don't see that twice in a lifetime.

Michael: What did you notice specifically?

Peter: I saw the kind of detail and brilliance and charged poetry of their dance vocabulary, that it was really capable of rendering such an incredible, emotional span of human emotion, and that, like most African American art, its basis was joy. And so, whatever they were recounting, the performance was exhilarating. Of course, that's what you always hope for when you see something for the first time.

Michael: Once you got involved, what was your role?

Peter: I just invited them to make dances about things that were happening in their lives. I said, "Please, for tomorrow, would everyone bring in a dance that's about your current job, or a job you've had," or "Bring in a dance about someone in your family," "About giving a tangerine to your two-year-old daughter," and things like that, just really interesting detailed autobiographical things.

Michael: These workshops weren't happening in a void.

Peter: Hardly. Our workshop began three days after Eric Garner was choked to death. And during our first week came Michael Brown and Ferguson. So inevitably, that subject matter and that content found its way into our work quite intensely.

People were bringing in pieces about their encounters with law enforcement, their encounters with the criminal justice system. And we then got to the place of solitary confinement, and what would solitary confinement do to you? I asked everyone to make a dance based on solitary.

Michael: How was the music chosen?

Peter: The performers have all chosen their own music. Regg Roc Gray, my collaborator and the founder of the group and, really, the great master of this type of dance, said to the dancers, "Choose a song you're going to dance to the rest of your life."

Michael: It sounds a bit like the way A Chorus Line came together.

Peter: The content of FLEXN is the content of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is the most important discussion going on in America at this moment. And so, it's not, if I could say, self-absorbed, and just about the lives of the individual performers.

This is an art form coming out of an African American tradition, where it's the community itself holding the art form, and the community itself supporting the individual artist. So even the solo numbers are held by the whole company in a beautiful way, and that's so rare.

Michael: How did you and Regg Roc Gray work together? How did you divide responsibilities for the development of the show?

Peter: Regg is the leader of the group, and it's not an exaggeration to say that he is a kind of father figure to the other performers. Regg has created this dream concept: D-R-E-A-M, Dance Rules Everything Around Me. So the group is a real haven for a group of people who depend on Reggie very, very deeply. So that's already the dynamic.

My role was not telling anyone what to do; it was more, really, genuinely interested and asking questions. And obviously, if you ask a better question, you'll get a better answer. So that is what I do.
It was interesting to have somebody whose eyes were really from the outside. I didn't know certain things, and I genuinely had to ask. Things got clarified or deepened or sorted out exactly because I was asking those questions. The performers were deeply responsive when they realized that someone was watching very closely.

Michael: I'm wondering whether the conversation that you had -- I was there Wednesday night -- is of equal importance to the performance, just the way it sets the stage.

Peter: The onstage conversation puts the content in the air. And then, as always, dance and poetry lift things beyond the current events discussion. But the current events discussion is extremely important for the audience, because we're so trained in America today not to really believe anything, and in the arts, we're trained not to connect what we're seeing to people's real life experiences. So I think that beginning part of the evening really does announce what we're doing and why we're doing it.

Michael: What has the been the reaction of law enforcement to FLEXN?

Peter: Extremely positive. They see an opening for dialogue, and they are taking part - the Police Commissioner of New York City, among others, is taking part in the on-stage discussions. So the police see this as a way to connect and discuss difficult issues that they might not have had before.

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To see a post-performance conversation at Jacobs Pillow with Peter Sellars and Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray with Jacob's Pillow Scholar-in-Residence Nancy Wozny, August 19, 2016, following a performance of "FLEXN," go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1Z0YhK7zg4