Tara Aisha Willis has long explored the roles race plays in experimental dance. The 30-year-old Edgewater resident says, in her new role as associate curator of performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, that she’s trying to open up opportunities for performers of color. But to see her work in action, Chicagoans can witness her self-choreographed piece, Up From Under — a collaboration with New York-based musician Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste — at the culminating performance of the Set Free series, a residency program produced by Jessica Marasa taking place at Links Hall this weekend. Below, Willis talks about growing up in Hyde Park, her initiation into the world of dance, and her project for Set Free.
On growing up in Chicago: My parents are musicians and educators, so I grew up with jazz jam sessions in the living room and family outings to see shows downtown. Hyde Park at the time was very racially and economically diverse; on the other hand, in my high school — Latin School of Chicago — I was one of about 20 out of 400 students who were black. All of my work as an artist, scholar, and administrator has been influenced by how I’ve moved through different spaces. I have a lifelong desire to understand the social and political context in which creative work is made and experienced.
On embracing dance: I started dancing as a preteen at the Hyde Park School of Ballet (now Hyde Park School of Dance), and then with Anna Czajun at Latin, as well as Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in the Loop, Joel Hall Dance Center in Edgewater, and the Ailey School in New York City. I continued on to major in dance and English in college. Dance became more than just about classes and performances — I started to think about how we come into contact with it, how we think critically, historically, and theoretically about it. All those questions shaped my current career.
On her inspirations: August Tye and Sarah Ford Thompson at the Hyde Park School of Ballet first nudged me to choreograph as a teenager. A ton of the contemporary choreographers I’ve worked with inspire me every day. I couldn’t name one. At various points in my career, I’ve admired from afar Judith Jamison, Bebe Miller, Blondell Cummings, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Their contributions are each distinct, but that’s precisely what’s amazing about many black women in dance: the complexity of their experiences and ways of expressing them.
On what audiences can expect in Up From Under: It’s a duet between myself and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, who will mix sound live onstage. It’s a complex version of my relationship to music, starting in childhood: I listened for all the textures and layers of, say, a Nina Simone song in a very physical way. There are gestures, emotions, and personas that emerge when we hear certain songs or sounds, so the fact that both Jeremy and I are both improvising in the performance is important.
GO: 8/9–12. Links Hall. $12–$25. linkshall.org