IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH MIAMI LIGHT PROJECT WRITER-IN-RESIDENCE, JORDAN LEVIN

Miami Light Project is thrilled to continue our series of stories on creative individuals who are a part of our community of artists!

Last fall we engaged Jordan Levin, a Miami-based creative writer and journalist who has spent over 20 years writing about Miami’s contemporary performance scene, to “pull back the curtain” and write stories that offer insight into of some of Miami’s bright lights making dance, music, film and theater in our community.

Today, we would like to share our in-depth interview with Jordan – we hope you enjoy reading her story!


MLP: Where are you from? Can you share a little about your background?

JORDAN: I grew up in a small town in Vermont, the kind of tiny place with a general store, a church, and a gas station. What made Plainfield different was that it was home to Goddard College, which was a small but famously radical (both in their educational philosophy and their politics) school in the 60s and 70s. Goddard attracted people advocating for social and political change, who came to work or study there, who thought if they changed how they lived they could change the world. My dad got a job teaching there in the 60s, so my two younger sisters and I were basically hippie faculty brats. My parents separated when I was little, and I grew up in a commune with her from the time I was 11. In a lot of ways, I was raised by the community. My mother helped start a food cooperative, which grew from a dozen people driving to Boston in a VW van to buy brown rice and beans and whole wheat flour that you couldn’t buy anywhere in Vermont to an elaborate volunteer organization with hundreds of members ordering scores of different items, with trucks bringing in sacks and crates of food. At the commune, we raised a lot of our own food, had chickens for eggs, a milk cow, made all our own bread. By the time I was 15 I was cooking dinner for 8 or 10 people once a week.

I went to a parent-run “free” school – we played capture the flag, went sledding, skinny dipping in a pond the parents dug for us. There were only 30 or 40 kids, all our parents were friends, so my school was an extension of this close-knit community. We were like little wild animals; we’d jump off the school roof into snowbanks, dare each other to break the ice on the pond and swim in the spring, to see who’d be first to go barefoot as soon as we could get our shoes off. Thank god I was an obsessive reader; I used to devour books, you had to say my name several times before I’d look up.

Looking back, my hometown was the first of the communities that have defined my life. I’ve always lived in a kind of village, a close-knit community; Plainfield, then the East Village (both the art/performance scene and the club scene), early South Beach, the performance and arts communities in Miami, and my tiny neighborhood of Buena Vista East, where I’ve brought up my daughter and have close friends for years, where every time I go for a walk I end up talking to my neighbors. I love living this way.

Jordan with her daughter and a friend at an event in the Design District in 2015.

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MLP: What is your first memory or experience of a performance as you were coming of age?

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JORDAN: The first live performances I remember seeing were by Bread and Puppet Theatre, this amazing troupe led by a revolutionary German director named Peter Schumann (I went to school with his daughters) which was in residence at Goddard, at a farmhouse with a big barn and fields that the college owned. All the members were volunteers who lived with the group. Bread & Puppet created and performed ritualistic, anti-war, anti-capitalist, mythic pieces using masks and sculptural puppets they made themselves – everything from face masks to big looming figures like the Birdcatcher from Hell, this monstrous red face that was some 15 feet high. (They also marched in our little 4th of July parade with the kids on bikes and the fire department; Peter would lead them, dancing down the street on 15 foot high stilts, either dressed as Uncle Sam or as an angelic woman in flowing white robes and white mask, playing – I kid you not – a miniature violin. It was astonishing; but for me it was just what I grew up with.) They made coarse sourdough bread which they gave away at all their shows. I saw the first edition of their Domestic Resurrection Circus, which they staged in the fields around the farmhouse near Goddard where they lived: I remember performers spreading across the fields, and towering puppets parading along a high ledge in an abandoned excavation site of some kind. (Soon after Bread & Puppet moved to a larger, more remote farmstead, and the Circus became an enormous annual event which drew hundreds of volunteer performers and thousands of people for years.)
Jordan (on left in the dress and heels) performing with Poppo, on right, in A New Model of the Universe in 1986.
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MLP: How did you get into the arts?

JORDAN: The arts have always been part of my life. At my elementary school, one dad volunteered to direct us in Shakespeare, and I was Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was 8, Miranda in The Tempest when I was 9. Another woman (who lived in the commune with us) taught us dance – she used one record, Ike and Tina Turner’s “Workin Together” – and I learned to roll my hips to “Proud Mary.”  When I got a little older I would take dance classes with the grownups at Goddard. One summer me and another girl would walk two miles to the campus to take modern class with a member of the Martha Graham company. I did a summer workshop where the teachers were Gus Solomon, Jr., who’d been a member of the Merce Cunningham troupe and was one of the few Black artists in post-modern dance, and a member of The Living Theater. In high school – when I finally went to public school – I did plays and musicals. So even though there was no professional theater or dance around us, or even in Vermont, those things were part of my life.

When I went to Boston University, I started taking dance classes and hanging out with the theater students at B.U.’s School of Fine Arts. I should not have been a dancer: I’d never taken a ballet class, my technique was extremely weak, and I was overweight. But I loved performing and everything around the arts much more than any of my academic courses. My first summer away from home I did a dance program at Harvard; I had a wonderful composition teacher named Beth Soll, who had us read critic Edwin Denby’s essay collection “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets,” which had a huge impact on me. I still have the tattered paperback I used for that class. The next summer I got myself a scholarship to a local dance studio, a restaurant job and an apartment. I transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, which at the time had a famous dance department, but where I could still get an academic degree. It was in Westchester, a half-hour train ride to NYC. When I graduated, I moved straight onto Avenue B on the Lower East Side as the performance scene was taking off, and that became my world.

Jordan reporting on YoungArts Week in 2010. Photo by Joe Gato.

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MLP: What dance performance would you consider the most monumental artistry you’ve ever experienced?

JORDAN: I can’t tell you just one; there have been so many. A high school field trip to see The Bolshoi Ballet in the 70s, in their first trip to the U.S. in decades, where I saw Vladimir Vasiliev rocket across the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in Spartacus. The Merce Cunningham Company in Boston; their clarity and the way they altered space and time; and pretty much every performance I saw them do after that, all the way up to Ocean in Miami and one of their final closing performances at the New York Armory after Merce died. Tim Miller’s Post-War in the early 80s, which changed my concept of what performance and movement could be, inspired me to audition and perform for him. Seeing the Rock Steady Crew break dancing for the first time at the Roxy in the early 80s, who blew my mind with new movement possibilities. The premiere of Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset in the 80s; it was so hypnotic and flowing and beautiful, but also forever altered my ideas of stage space and the intersection of reality and performance; I was friends with Stephen Petronio, who was in the company, and I can still see him rippling across the stage in his solo. Many performances by Miami City Ballet: Jeanette Delgado lighting up the stage of City Center in Square Dance in 2009, making a New York audience literally gasp; the whole company dancing with the Cleveland Orchestra playing live at the Arsht Center, bringing the Balanchine saying “see the music, hear the dancing” to life. The premiere of Rosie Herrera’s Various Stages of Drowning at Here & Now, which was a revelation because it was so unnervingly intimate, seductive, vividly and hilariously Miami. The Afro-Brazilian choreographer Giovanni Luquini.

Jordan (second from the right) in Tim Miller’s Cost of Living at The Kitchen in 1983. Photo courtesy Tim Miller.

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MLP: Can you describe a day living in the NYC downtown dance scene of the mid-80s?

JORDAN: My days took various forms during my time in the 80s in the East Village, but they always included: taking dance class, rehearsing/performing, nightclubbing, seeing an amazing array of performances from clubs to PS 122 to BAM. And riding my bike everywhere. I lived on Avenue B near Houston, which for the first few years was literally the busiest outdoor drug market in the city, coke and heroin being hawked on the street, people lining up to shoot up in abandoned buildings. It was really scary. But I never got mugged. It was just my world. And I was close to everything I loved.

I took class or moved every day: ballet with Maggie Black, who taught everyone from members of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Tharp and Cunningham’s companies, and aspiring dancers like me. Open movement contact improvisation jams at PS 122 once a week. Class with Stephen Petronio, who was inventing his Trisha Brown flow on cubist crack style, and workshops with Trisha’s company (moving in retrograde i.e. learning a phrase and then figuring out how to do it backward is still one of the most mindbendingly difficult things I’ve ever attempted.) Lifting weights or swimming laps at the YMCA. Riding my bike pretty much everywhere.

Rehearsing/performing – I went skydiving with Tim Miller for Cost of Living, rolled and ran around PS 122 for hours, performed it at the Kitchen and in Europe; became Marilyn Monroe for Democracy in America at BAM. I did Hit the Streets! With Yoshiko Chuma and her School of Hard Knocks, where we roamed the city doing interventionist improvisations in the West Village, Soho, Herald Square, where we actually danced in traffic; with Yoshiko I also did 24 Hours at PS 122, where a giant crew of East Village dancer/performers performed for 24 hours. I danced with a Butoh choreographer Poppo and the Gogo Boys (we were all women), where we’d go to extraordinary physical extremes and always finished nearly naked, covered in gold paint. I did Raising Voice with Johanna Boyce, with a group of diverse women ranging in size from five to six feet tall dancing as we sang the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah in three-part harmony, using “she” instead of the male pronoun “and she shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” I used to share a dressing room and dance on the bar at the Pyramid Club with the drag queens, who included Ethyl Eichelberger and RuPaul and invented modern drag and a new concept of merging art, gender persona and performance. (And could make the most amazing costumes and looks out of thrift shop findings.)

I waitressed and bartended in clubs and restaurants – a coffee shop, a Mexican restaurant, a Cajun place. The most powerful experience was bartending at 8BC, a performance club on a burnt-out block between Avenues B and C on the frontier of the East Village. It nurtured this fantastic, radical community of artists and performers: Ethyl Eichelberger, Karen Finley, They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, the Lounge Lizards, Carmelita Tropicana, Eric Bogosian, Jo Andres, Steve (Buscemi) and Mark, and many many more. I did Eternal Performance with Poppo at 8BC; we finished in the empty lot outside, then on the roof, with 1500 people (police estimate) watching. My hearing is still a little worse in my right ear because the stage was on my right as I bartended – it was LOUD.

I went out almost every night. In the early 80’s the downtown clubs in New York were full of, were made of, artists and creative people who tried things out in the clubs because their work was too radical and new for legitimate theaters and galleries and concert venues. A lot of them went on to change the culture and the art world. My mainstays were Danceteria, which had cool new bands and performers like Tim Miller and Diamanda Galas and the No Entiendes cabaret, this fabulous camp cabaret which was run by the doorman Hauoi Montaug (legendary in our circles), where I saw Madonna’s first-ever performance of her first song, Everybody. I was friends with Madonna and her best friend Martin, who lived around the corner from me, so I ended up in the music video (pre-MTV) for Everybody. I went to the Pyramid Club all the time, besides drag and gender-altering performance, they hosted a wild mix of music and performances – John Kelly, John Sex, the Red Hot Chili Peppers (in what I think was their first NY show), the Now Explosion (whose members included RuPaul, that’s how he got to New York), Yoshiko and the School of Hard Knocks, experimental theater from John Jesurun. I went to Wheels of Steel at the Roxy, a Friday night party hosted by a pair of Brit hipsters where hip-hop really exploded onto the world – DJ’s like Afrika Bambaata and D.ST, B-Boys blowing everyone’s minds. (I took Stephen Petronio there; he was stunned by the Rock Steady Crew.) I went all the time to Area, which in the mid-80s was the hottest club in New York. They changed themes every six weeks, using concepts like Sex, Gnarly, Suburbia, Faith, Disco, Confinement to inspire these surreal immersive environments they would build; they had dioramas with live performers in them, stunning set pieces. The Art theme had work by Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, all of whom hung out there, plus Jenny Holzer, Les Levine, William Wegman. Area was the first club where downtown creatives, mainstream celebrities, art stars, and uptown social types mixed. (One of the guys who created it was Eric Goode, who was in the news again recently as the director/creator of the Netflix hit Tiger King.) Area was thrilling, you felt like you were at the center of the world. Because I’d been part of the downtown scene since the early days, I didn’t just sail through the crowds at the door and get in for free, but got drink tickets! It was delirious.

So – dancing, rehearsing, performing, waitressing/bartending, going to shows, nightclubbing – and riding my bike all over the place. Now it sounds exhausting. But at the time I never wanted to stop.

Jordan on Halloween 1985, with boyfriend/artist photographer John Schlesinger on the right and 8BC club co-owner Dennis Gattra on her other side. Photo by Tom Warren.

MLP: How did you end up in Miami?

JORDAN: By 1986 AIDS and gentrification were taking an awful toll on the downtown world. Rents were going up. People had to spend more time working and worrying about money, less time creating and having fun and mixing. I began to know people who had AIDS, like John Bernd, Tim Miller’s former lover and someone else I’d danced with. Martin, Madonna’s friend, whom I adored and was a golden boy in my nightlife circle, died of AIDS when he was only 23; that was terrifying. 8BC was closed by the city, and the owners Dennis and Cornelius, whom I was also very close to, tested positive for HIV (it later turned out to be a false result, but at the time they thought they were going to die.) I was waitressing at two restaurants, both of which I hated – I was sick of waiting on people. Johanna Boyce, who I’d been dancing with, got pregnant and disbanded her company. My world was falling apart – things didn’t seem easy and adventurous anymore.

At the same time, Sandra Schulman, my best friend from Sarah Lawrence who’d introduced me to downtown nightlife, had moved to Miami. She’d been writing and calling me, telling me to come visit – I could stay with her in South Beach, and she had a friend who needed dancers for these club and event performances. At the same time, I got fired from my waitressing job for my terrible attitude, and I got $500 cash for my birthday from a longtime lover. It was this amazing confluence of events. Plus it was winter. I slogged through the slush to a travel agency and bought a ticket to Miami. I was only going to stay for a month. But after a month I thought that, if I go back I have to get another restaurant job, audition for more choreographers, start the whole battle again. South Beach and Miami seemed fun and easy; I could walk to the beach. I thought, let me just stay a little longer. And that was it – I never went back.

Jordan with longtime friend Sandra Schulman at the Marlin Hotel, South Beach, early 90s.

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MLP: How did you evolve from performing artist to writer?

JORDAN: That’s another case of serendipity and impulse. (I seem to be very bad at planning my life.) During my first few years in Miami, in the late 80s and early 90s, I stopped dancing and worked at arts organizations here: for Mary Luft at Tigertail, for Olga Garay at Miami Dade College Cultural Affairs (the ancestor to MDC Live Arts), for the Florida Dance Festival, and producing some arts events myself – an artist residency program called Art and Social Commentary under Olga at MDC. One of my best girlfriends, Cessi de Onis (she ran the Cameo Poetry Night where Adrian Castro and Teo Castellanos started performing; her brother Paco de Onis and his partner Jim Quinlan did great punk and world music concerts at the Cameo) started dating the NPR reporter Alan Tomlinson. So I started hanging out with the two of them and a crew of foreign correspondents who’d covered the Caribbean and the wars in Central America in the 80s, who were transitioning back into the U.S. These were people with Time, Newsweek, the wire services. They were smart, irreverent, political, liked to hang out and drink, and I liked them almost as much as I liked artists.

One night we all had dinner and went out to a Latin dance club; they had gathered to be with a friend who was head of the Peace Corps in Santo Domingo. I was dancing up close with this guy to a beautiful song when he asked me if I understood the lyrics and when I said no, started translating. Well, the song was this romantic, erotic bachata, Burbujas de Amor, by Juan Luis Guerra and 4.40, who were just blowing up into the biggest stars in the Latin music world. I melted all over the floor. Afterward, the Peace Corps director said ‘hey, if you’re ever in Santo Domingo, look us up.” The next day I had breakfast with him, bought the Juan Luis album, and ended up housesitting for him and his family that summer in Santo Domingo. I learned Spanish and learned Juan Luis’s music by heart. When I got home I didn’t have a job and was at loose ends again. Juan Luis and 4.40 were coming to Miami for their first international tour. And Annie O’Connor, one of this crew of journalists, said “hey, why don’t you pitch a story on 4.40 to the New Times, then you could interview Juan Luis and see the concert for free.” I thought ‘pop star, free concert tix, great idea.’ Through a guy I met in Santo Domingo I managed to get an interview with Juan Luis (it would never happen so casually now.) The New Times ran this big story on Juan Luis, and I went to the concert – and the afterparty.

After that, it just worked. I pitched stories, I got published, I got paid. I wrote for the New Times and an alternative publication in Broward, for South Florida Magazine. Another girlfriend who was dating Bill Cosford, the film critic at the Herald who was a big deal then, introduced me to him (he was impressed that I could hold my foot over my head), and he introduced me to the head of the Herald’s Features section, and I started writing for the Herald. I had no idea what I was doing; and in journalism, no one tells you how to do anything until you do it wrong, and then they yell at you for screwing up. I made some really stupid mistakes. I was broke again; I remember one Christmas when I had $25 to my name because the Herald was a month late in paying me.

But I was falling in love with Latin music as it was starting to cross over and blow up in Miami, and I knew about the contemporary artists that Tigertail and Miami Light Project and MDC were starting to bring here. The Herald didn’t have any writers who could cover this stuff. Soon they put me on retainer. I was ambitious and energetic, having so much fun, discovering new worlds – Cuban music, Trinidadian carnival, Latin pop. I was interviewing the NY artists I used to worship. I wrote for the LA Times a lot, and did some amazing stories for them: I interviewed Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham, went backstage at American Ballet Theatre, covered Buena Vista Social Club’s concert at Carnegie Hal. I wrote a couple of times for the NY Times, did a column for Ocean Drive (JLo! Electronic music!), and wrote for all kinds of other publications. I went to Aruba for a Latin jazz festival to interview the genius Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes for a tiny South Beach jazz magazine; afterward, I pitched him to a bunch of major jazz magazines, who all said no. And at the end of the decade, the Herald finally hired me.

Herald headshot from when Jordan was hired in 1999.

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MLP: What do you love most about Miami culture? What frustrates you?

JORDAN: I love the sense of possibility that Miami offers – the feeling that if you can come up with an idea or a project, you can make it happen. Because there are fewer institutions here (and when I arrived there were even fewer), the city is more open to strivers and doers of all kinds. I doubt I would have dared to become a writer and journalist in New York; I would have been too intimidated. Here I could.

The other thing I love most about Miami is the mix of cultures. Wonderful as downtown New York was, most of the people around me were also white and middle-class. In Miami I’ve been surrounded by people from other countries, other cultures, other backgrounds; they’ve been my friends, colleagues, lovers, neighbors, subjects, inspirations. They’ve expanded my vision of the world, taught me so much, made me more empathetic and curious. Living among immigrants has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.

I’m frustrated by the city’s amnesia – that it doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes or remember its history. That neighborhoods are continuously developed, gentrified, and over-developed until they become bland commercial zones devoid of the diversity and creativity that made them exciting: South Beach, Wynwood. On racism – we destroyed Overtown, we had the Liberty City riots, and police and institutional violence towards Black people continues to be a terrible problem. I find it infuriating that animosity towards Cuba continues to drive Cuban-American political attitudes, cutting off exchange with the island that I believe would benefit people there and here. I believe that focus on Cuba leads much of the Cuban-American leadership to act as if they’re still fighting the same misguided Cold War battles rather than focusing on the issues that matter here – for instance, driving the insane current rhetoric that Democrats are communists.

Jordan at The Light Box in 2014. Photo by Barry Fellman.

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MLP: In your 25 years writing about culture, is there any particular story written by you that had a significant impact on your career?

JORDAN: The ongoing story of Cuban music, culture and exchange with Miami from the early 90s to the early 2000s probably had the biggest impact on my career. When I began to write about Cuban music and Cuban artists coming to Miami in the mid-90s for the Herald, it was enormously controversial. I was able to do it because I was passionate about the music, idealistic about the value of artistic exchange and freedom, and naïve about the politics of Cuba in Miami. The Herald hadn’t published stories where Cuban artists and exiles spoke about these things. My stories changed attitudes in Miami, opened people’s minds about exchange, gave people the courage to speak up or present concerts who would not have done otherwise, because they thought they were alone and were afraid. My stories helped open the way for the Herald to cover Cuban issues in a different way. Those stories showed me how much journalism can impact people’s minds and lives. They made people take me more seriously as a journalist. After I went to Cuba in 1999 to cover Music Bridges, a big international music event that brought a bunch of pop stars to Havana to work with Cuban artists, for the Herald, that’s when they finally hired me. And in my first year at the Herald, my coverage of the controversy over the Cuba Ordinance, the notorious Miami-Dade County rule that prohibited arts organizations receiving county arts grants from presenting Cuban artists, or people who’d worked with Cuban artists, or people who’d worked with people who’d worked with Cuban artists (seriously – it was nuts), helped change the rule and politics around Cuba.

I think the other most important story I’ve done was a project on Overtown in 2009, when I spent a year researching the vibrant music scene and community in Overtown during segregation, and how it was decimated by the construction of the highway through the neighborhood and institutional racism. It was a huge project: with a long story, video, radio piece, and online elements like a slide show and interactive map that were advanced at the time, all of which I reported, wrote and produced. That story ignited interest in Overtown that helped inspire other projects there and helped a lot of people rediscover an important part of Miami’s history. It made me feel like I’d contributed something valuable to understanding Miami.

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Jordan with friends at Carlos Betancourt’s studio on Lincoln Road, early 90s.

Jordan by Rhonda Corte, from an early 80’s Polaroid show at NY club Danceteria.