On a recent August afternoon, the only illumination in The Light Box is a glowing, open cube in the center of the darkened room, which is jumbled with gear: a tripod, shipping boxes, dance bags, bright red boxing gloves. Choreographer Shamel Pitts leans into transmedia artist Lucca Del Carlo’s laptop, his face glowing in the flickering red and white light that Lucca is manipulating onscreen, as if he’s painting with light that blooms and ripples into the box of light before them. “Bee-you-tee-ful,” Shamel says, and the two men laugh delightedly. When Shamel and dance partner Tushrik Fredericks step into the ring, darting through an intensely connected dance, they seem suspended in an otherworldly arena – their only anchor the tight hold they keep on each other.
A technical residency sounds dry. But the two weeks that Shamel, Lucca, Tushrik and others from Shamel’s multidisciplinary collective TRIBE spent at the Light Box were a richly creative and crucial process. The residency, from August 20 to September 4, was part of Miami Light Project and YoungArts’ ambitious commission of Shamel and TRIBE’s newest piece, Touch of RED. The choreographer and his collaborators built a mock-up of the set, and spent long days experimenting with light, projections, and more of the multi-faceted elements integral to their work.
“The piece isn’t complete without all the parts,” says Shamel, a buzzed about, Brooklyn-based dance artist who in the last three years has received a Guggenheim fellowship, a Princess Grace Award, and a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship. “I’ve had several other movement residencies. It’s all leading up to this, when we have the resources to actually see things.”
“Now we can create our own world, be transported to the world we had imagined,” says Lucca. “This allows us to create another dimension.”
The Touch of RED project is collaborative all the way through: from the process at TRIBE, which Shamel, 36, founded as a multidisciplinary group of BIPOC artists where each member is a valued co-creator; to YoungArts and Miami Light Project’s partnership on the National Performance Network Creation Fund grant that links the Miami groups with Jacob’s Pillow, Live Arts New York, the Center for the Art of Performance UCLA, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, all of which will present Touch of RED in 2022 and 2023
Apart from being thrilled to bring an innovative and increasingly acclaimed artist like Shamel into the MLP extended family, executive director Beth Boone is enormously pleased to be part of such a deeply collaborative project.
“To partner with YoungArts and extraordinary like-minded colleagues across the country and artists like Shamel Pitts is exactly what we want to be doing,” she says.
She is impressed by the communal creative paradigm Shamel has built with TRIBE. “I relate to that,” Beth says. “It represents a much-needed rethink of dance company models that are difficult to sustain. I want to learn from them and support artists making those kinds of efforts.”
The roots of the project extend to when the Brooklyn-raised Shamel, who got into LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts (the ‘Fame’ school), though he had no formal training, became a YoungArts finalist in 2003, the highest honor in the Miami organization’s intensely competitive program for teenage artists. “It propelled me,” says Shamel. “When I came to Miami I was bursting open with the potential of a great life.”
He went on to Juilliard and to dance with Batsheva, the groundbreaking Israeli troupe long headed by Ohad Naharin, from 2009 to 2016. (He’s a highly regarded teacher of gaga, the visceral movement language created by Naharin.) In 2018 Shamel, out on his own as a dancemaker, was in Miami to set a Batsheva piece on New World School of the Arts students, and connected with YoungArts and with Lauren Snelling, Artistic Director. She saw in the new choreographer an ideal candidate for YoungArts’ expanding efforts to support its adult artists.
“He was someone who really had a vision for what he wanted to make, with a real sincerity to the stories he wanted to tell,” Lauren says. She urged Shamel to apply for the YoungArts Performance Residency. He was selected, but when the May 2020 start was postponed by the pandemic, YoungArts found Shamel a new residency location at New York Live Arts, then led the complex process of applying for the NPN commission, reaching out to Miami Light Project – an NPN partner, required to apply for an NPN grant – and bringing on other organizations.
Helping Shamel expand an intricate web of “relationships, networking, funding, development, space, presentation” is a kind of template for YoungArts’ growing efforts on behalf of their past awardees. “That’s the direction we’re heading,” Snelling says. “Shamel is a clear example of how that process can work, even in this very challenging time.”
The commission has lofted Shamel at another crucial stage, as he has gone from performer to dancemaker to crafting a new company model with TRIBE – which he launched in late 2019, just in time for the pandemic. “Now I also feel propelled as a creator, as an artist, as a director who’s trying to create space for other artists,” he says. “I feel fortunate as an artist that although [the pandemic] is a lot, it’s not an end. It’s something I feel I now have to work through safely and creatively. I get to continue and persevere.”
Shamel is meticulous in crediting and effusive in praising everyone involved with TRIBE and Touch of RED. In addition to Tushrik and Lucca, they include Ashley Pierre Louis, a New World School dance graduate who is rehearsal assistant and dramaturg; set designer Mimi Lien, a MacArthur Fellow; composer Sivan Jacobovitz; cinematographer Taylor Antisdel; covid compliance officer and collective manager Joshua Antoine (Shamel’s husband); and artistic production manager and theatrical lighting designer Russell Snelling.
Shamel’s BLACK triptych, with its mysterious, darkly lit staging and powerful integration of human, lighting and scenic architecture, marked him as an artist to watch. Touch of RED is the second in a new series, where he’s exploring new colors; literally, by going beyond the stark black and white of the BLACK series; and metaphorically.
“I like darkness – there is light inside of darkness,” Shamel says. “I didn’t want to box myself in by creating a signature that I become imprisoned by. I’m learning to allow for more color and lightness. That lightness is not to be taken less seriously.”
In both series, Shamel explores the humankind of “colorfulness within Blackness.”
“Black people embody multiplicity,” he says. “Too often Black people are easily categorized. Our bodies are also weaponized or dehumanized or sexualized. It’s saying we get to share how much variety there is within our shared complex humanity. Everyone has many things going on.”
Boxing is a major inspiration for Touch of RED. Shamel went from being confounded by the violent sport’s appeal, to exploring it as a metaphor for the layered, often unacknowledged connections between two Black men. In this case, two gay Black men.
“Things I don’t understand I try to go further towards,” he says. “What happens when two men get into a ring and there is a match?” But not a fight. “We have things that are similar, that create electricity, that lead us to each other. It’s dealing with the allowance of men of color to soften. With the belief that there’s power in vulnerability.”
“I started to see how these two men are partners.”
In many ways. At The Light Box, there’s a book on Lindy Hop next to the boxing gloves. When Shamel and Tushrik run through one section, they slip dizzyingly between flashing fighters’ footwork and tango, ballroom, and swing dance; their duet simultaneously taut and fluid.
Shamel’s performance partner in the BLACK triptych was Mirelle Martins, a Brazilian woman with whom he found a profound connection (and is now TRIBE’s creative director.) He has a different but no less intense rapport with Tushrik. Tushrik, 26, is from South Africa, where he is seen as “colored” – an apartheid-era designation for people of mixed African, Asian or Southeast Asian, and European descent.
When he first saw Shamel in a video, Tushrik was instantly compelled. “I really felt as if I was looking at a version of myself,” he says. “I connected to the way he moved.” As he has gone from student to collaborator, he’s become aware of attitudes about color differences – and of himself as light-skinned, Shamel as darker. “I did a lot of research,” he says. “Even in the Black community there’s a difference between light and dark-skinned folks. I wanted to acknowledge that.”
Even the journal where Shamel writes and sketches ideas, as he does for all his pieces, reflects his fascination with dark and light – silver pen strokes shimmer on velvety black pages. (It will be part of The Choreographers Scores: 2020, an exhibit of dance on paper works which will open Dec. 1 at the YoungArts Gallery, during Miami Art Week.) The Touch of RED score starts on March 23rd; previous pages were burned in the fire at Jacob’s Pillow, where Shamel and TRIBE had another residency, that consumed the Doris Duke Theater in late fall of 2020.
The book lies open at rehearsal; when I say that the section I just saw from seemed like a ritual, Shamel springs up and adds another gleaming notation. With everything happening in the room and in his head and in the chaotic world outside, he’s still eager to embrace another idea.
Like he said earlier. “The art and work we do when we feel most alive is the most full of purpose.”
Photography by Elvis Suarez – GlassWorks Multimedia.
Eventz Paul is currently the Technical Director and Productions Manager at Miami Light Project. He has been a part of this organization since 2011. He participated in Miami Light Project’s first class of the Technical Fellowship Program held at The Light Box. He joined this program hoping to improve his existing theater skills. He received training from experts in the industry that mentored and further his theater technical skills. Now, he has successfully used his professional knowledge and has had the opportunity to work with various arts organizations and venues throughout Miami including Miami Theater Center, National Young Arts Foundation, the Colony Theatre and many more. He has become an instructor and conducts audiovisual classes to incoming technical fellows.
Beth Boone has been the Artistic & Executive Director of Miami Light Project since 1998, developing critically acclaimed artistic programs that have asserted the organization as one of the leading cultural institutions in South Florida. These programs include: the establishment of Here & Now, South Florida’s most respected commission and presenting program for community-based artists; premiere presentations of internationally acclaimed; pioneering historic international cultural exchange with Cuba; and the creation of The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, a multi-use performance and visual art space in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. She previously served as Associate Director of Development for Florida Grand Opera, Deputy Director for the Department of Cultural Affairs at Miami Dade Community College, Wolfson Campus, co-founded an Off Broadway theater company (New York Rep), and served for six years as a Program Associate in the Arts & Culture Program of the AT&T Foundation. She received a B.A. in Fine Arts from the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and a MFA in Theater Arts from Brandeis University in Boston, MA.