What is the Commons Crit?

It is 2012. The dancer is Anthony “Ay-Jaye” Nelson.

He stands center stage wearing a black hoodie, symbolizing the tragic loss of Trayvon Martin. A black teen no older than himself, killed for…existing. Emotions rise in the young dancer and something is very, very wrong. The music for his dance solo is not playing. It has been over a minute. All eyes of a packed audience at Hillside High School in Durham stare at Nelson—and then tears come.

There are no laughs or boos, rather a chorus of soothing “ahhhhs” that embrace Nelson, and he reciprocates with a powerful performance. Being able to be authentic in one’s own vulnerability onstage is a gift, and Nelson relies on this gift in his approach to movement as well as choreography. The crux of the matter, as Nelson puts it, is to “Be where you are in the moment and ground yourself in it.”

Several days ago, I got the opportunity to chat with Nelson about this idea, his goals for his upcoming project as an artist-in-residence for the Digital Commons Festival at Carolina Performing Arts, and a few other topics. Sadly, like many conversations during these times, we began our discussion with COVID-19. I wanted to know what impact it was having on his practice, his well-being, and its economic impact. Like most independent artists, Nelson has had gigs cancelled and work lost, as he deals  with what he calls the ‘quarantine blues.’

“It comes in waves,” Nelson says. “I’m doing really good, then really terrible.”

Knowing he’s not alone and helping others through his art has been paramount in coping. On Mondays he teaches a virtual self-care and wellness class that centers on breathing, meditation, and movement. It is donation-based. Thankfully, many of his classes can be taught online, though it is both challenging and taxing to teach ballet and choreography through a screen.

Yet he’s still working, still connecting. Another therapeutic for his quarantine blues are video games. He describes himself as a gamer. Finding escape in the realms of the new Final Fantasy or helping young Miles Morales spin spiderwebs around villainous henchmen in the new PS4 Spider Man game can be a salve on the worst days.

Anthony draws from many styles and genres of dance. Jazz, Modern, Hip-Hop and Ballet are but a few. He credits Nicole Oxidine, an early dance instructor at Hillside High School, with charging him to be a chameleon. Being familiar with various styles of dance provides a platform to build the new thing, create the next level. His philosophy is that dance, at its core, is movement—and as humans we have moved since the womb. He views himself as an organizer of movement, creating and expressing the kinetic through structure.

Being a dancer, choreographer, and an instructor, I was curious which creative role appealed to him the most. This was a hard question and something Nelson wasn’t willing to look at through a “what’s better” lens. Instead, he shared his love for each. Teaching, for the ability to see change and healing happen through the learning of movement. Choreography, for the challenge of creating work with intention based on the subject. Dance for connecting to the audience and, in doing so, creating a space for the spectator to look into their own emotions and vulnerabilities.

Nelson currently teaches modern dance, ballet and self-care/wellness classes at Durham’s Ninth Street Dance studio, where he proudly works with dancers and movers from ages seven to seventy. The key to teaching movement, Nelson says, is “…Realizing, everybody is different and every body is different.”

Coming off a recent collaboration with the Black On Black Project, Nelson is preparing for his latest work, Pain, Trauma, and Triumph, which will be streamed (free, ticketed) on January 29th as part of the Digital Commons Festival at CPA. He intimated that the process of this particular piece has been a bit scary, as it’s the first one he’s choreographed for himself. His goal is to share how his traumatic experiences and his emotional responses to those experiences affect how he shows up in spaces, how he communicates with people, and how he navigates relationships.

But more important, this work shows us how he triumphs by shedding the weight of the past by being present with the pain and the trauma, thus allowing him to move beyond it. For the audience, his hope is that we see and connect to the universality of his struggles and challenge ourselves to face our own, so that we, too, can shed the weight of past trauma. He invites us to find victory, much like he did some many years ago during a solo performance at Hillside High.

This performance is part of the 20/21 Commons Festival at Carolina Performing Arts, presented in digital format. The festival takes places Fridays and Saturdays from January 29 through February 20, 2021. Free with registration, which opens on January 15, 2021 at carolinaperformingarts.org.

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