Reinventing Repeated History: A Q&A with Raven Marsh

By Ayiana Walters

Raven Marsh's dancers rehearsing for their upcoming performance. Photo courtesy of Raven Marsh.


Currently putting the finishing touches on her senior project with the working title, “The New Strange Fruit,” Raven Marsh, a dance major at Purchase, has choreographed a piece that encompasses the history of being a person of color in America, and how that history doesn’t change, only reinvents itself over time.


Okay, let’s start with something easy. What style of dance is your favorite, either to perform or to watch?

I would say contemporary is my favorite in both aspects. I think it speaks to the times and it’s very in the current moment, and artists who do contemporary style movement are able to reflect on the reality, or a reality, within that work.


So, is your senior project in the contemporary style?

My senior project is contemporary, but I don’t really think I thought about it having a style. I was thinking more about the story I was trying to tell and what movement best reflected that story. So, I would say there’s aspects of Caribbean movement and African movement, and there’s also a lot of language that you could find to be semi-balletic, and also language that would be contemporary and modern.


Can you explain the story you want to tell?

I have three themes within my piece that are about different aspects of being a young Black American, especially in the year 2020. The first section is largely based off of the poem “Strange Fruit,” which I found out through research was originally written by a white man, and then Billie Holiday made a song out of it and now I am using a Kanye West sample of “Blood on the Leaves” in the song to basically tie in all these different aspects of the lineage and give it a modern feel. I really wanted to incorporate a hip-hop feel into this section and have that modern feeling, but also have this idea that it’s a bigger issue that’s been historically reinventing itself over time.


The second section is a poem called “Tired of Being Tired” and it’s read by my father. And it’s basically about all the reasons African American people are tired. It’s about how BIPOC people are working 10 times harder just to wake up every morning and see more hate crimes and more people dead on the news. I incorporated a lot of games into this part actually, to have this juxtaposition of the light-heartedness of how fun and easy non-POC think it is to be Black versus what it’s actually like. A lot of times people want to “put on” the culture because it’s trendy and it looks fun and cool, but they don’t realize all the things we have to persevere just to look like that. A lot of our trends come from us trying to find joy in this world of sadness and anger and grief and frustration.


The last section is inspired by the South and by the Southern Baptist Church, and it has this very church-gospel feel. To me, this section of the piece is really to showcase how beautiful we [Black Americans] are and how even though we have to persevere through all of these things, we are gifted, and we all have something valuable to share. I really want to stress that that’s a beautiful thing to have. I think it says in the song “Oh, what a sweet gift it is to be young, beautiful, and Black,” and I really wanted to end my piece on that. I didn’t know whether I wanted to end my piece happy or sad, but I don’t think it ends on either. I think it ends with “I am blessed to be in this body, but this is also my experience.”


Are you working with all people of color on this piece?

All my dancers are people of color, and I’m costume designing by emphasizing the aspect of their human-ness. So, a lot of the costumes are coming from their own wardrobe, you know, things they already wear within a color palette that I think is beautiful. My intention was to have this be a piece made by us, for us, with the hopes that we can enlighten people by giving them a look at what being black in America is like. But I still wanted to emphasize that this is a piece by people of color for people of color.


You said your dad read the second poem? How did you come to that decision?

My dad has been a writer my whole life and has always been into literature--my name comes from the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, so it’s always been something really close to his heart. I wanted to highlight that this piece was gonna come from my heart and was about things that really inspire me. I’ve found that he never fully stepped into his power as a writer, so I wanted to give him this avenue to have a huge influence on my project just as he’s had a huge influence on my life.


So obviously COVID has warped everything that has to do with anything, and I’m sure you know that there were positive cases within the dance major at Purchase. How has that affected rehearsals?

Actually, none of my dancers were exposed, but I was exposed, so I had to cancel one rehearsal, but it’s affected other people within my program much worse. One of the ways we were able to negotiate this whole disparity of not having rehearsals is last Thursday we got all of the classes canceled so seniors could hold their rehearsals in the studio spaces all day.


Was your piece influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor?

Actually no, I think my process was more influenced by history. I’m a dance history TA and one of my huge inspirations was Pearl Primus [a dancer and choreographer], who actually did a hugely political dance to “Strange Fruit” and she ended up getting invited to all these political places to do this protesting piece. A lot of my process was really more focused on why “Strange Fruit” was such a controversial poem and how the history is really a stain that just hasn’t left. I wanted to focus on how the events with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are not new, and that they’re “Strange Fruit” reinvented.


That’s really sad to think about, how the events don’t change, they just modernize.

Yeah, and I don’t think a lot of people were realizing how many people were actually feeling that kind of weight. People were becoming awake like “Oh, this really is something to be worried about,” and people who have known that this is an issue, who live in Sundown towns, [a neighborhood in which it is deemed “unsafe” for POC to be present at night because they may be subjected to discrimination and violence] who live in communities where it’s not always safe to be a person of color, are like “I’ve been worried about it. I go outside and wonder if I’m gonna make it back home.”


What do you want people to get out of your senior project?

As a choreographer, I would rather know how it made the audience feel. If I make you feel something I think I’ve done my job correctly. I’m interested to see your perspective of what you see, versus I’m not trying to tell you what to see. Different gestures mean very different things to different people, so I just want to know what it made you feel at the end of the piece.


Finally, let’s pretend you’re doing promo for your performance, why should people come see it?

I think the whole weekend is gonna be talking about topics similar to mine, like my roommate, who is also my best friend, is doing a piece about Sundown towns. And I think you should come to support Black artists. It’s gonna be a show of all women of color creators and that should be celebrated and supported. It’s gonna be a good time, good vibes, good music, and you might learn something.


Raven Marsh’s performance will be happening at the Dance Theatre Lab at Purchase during Senior Project Weekend, April 9-10. The live performance will be open to the on-campus Purchase community and will be livestreamed on the Conservatory of Dance's Facebook page for those who are not currently living on campus.

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