Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
Dean Moss is a brilliant choreographer whose multidisciplinary shows are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They never give me that “eating your postmodern vegetables” feel I sometimes get when watching similar work. I find his shows utterly absorbing, and I’m always a little tense when I’m watching because I never know what the performers are going to do to me next, whether it’s inviting me onstage, sitting too close to me, or just doing things onstage that make me uncomfortable. Each show offers its own distinct set of pleasures. For example, in Kisaeng becomes you (2008–2009), a collaboration with traditional Korean dance choreographer Yoon Jin Kim, a group of Korean women invites two audience members onstage for a raucous drinking party that perfectly captures many of my favorite aspects of Korean culture.
Dean has an inherent drive to foster up-and-coming artists, and he has been one of my most important mentors and collaborators. As a collaborator, he gives unstintingly to help bring the creative visions of his fellow artists to life. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on two of my shows, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (2006) and LEAR (2010). He has also collaborated with sculptor Sungmyung Chun on Nameless forest (2011); and with painter Laylah Ali on figures on a field (2005) and a current work-in-progress, a performance meditation on abolitionist John Brown.
Dean’s work has been presented at museums and performance spaces in New York City and internationally. This upcoming fall it will be part of a performance series at MoMA.
Young Jean Lee Where did you grow up?
Dean Moss Tacoma, Washington. I grew up on some property that’d been a chicken farm—my parents bought it and built a house on it.
YJL And you have very interesting parents. Can you talk about them?
DM Both my parents are politicians. My father was mayor of Tacoma, but he was also, for a very long time, a civil rights worker. He established the Urban League there and now has a day and a building named after him. He was the first black city councilman, the first black mayor, the first black county commissioner, and the first black chairman of the Pierce County Council. My mother managed many of his campaigns and was the local director of Planned Parenthood. She became a city councilwoman. They were a real power couple. Much of my childhood was spent marching and campaigning and throwing parties and organizing around civil rights.
YJL How many siblings do you have?
DM One brother, and one sister who was adopted and died about three years ago.
YJL I’m so sorry to hear that. I didn’t know. What order were you?
DM I was the first; my brother was born about 14 months after. My adopted sister was six years younger than me.
YJL Were you a typical older child—obedient, responsible?
DM Hmm, I guess . . . no.
YJL Why am I not surprised?
DM My parents had a whole support system around them. But my brother and I were doing the civil rights thing in our local school and felt that we had nobody around us. So there was a cantankerous relationship with society and also expectations from our parents for us to do well in school, to become professionals. Plus, my brother and I were combative since one of us wasn’t old enough to put a protective wing around the other. We competed for everything. By second grade I had separated myself from the rest of the class. I had the easel on one side of me, and the chalkboard on the other, so that nobody could see me. I felt like I was being stared at all the time and I didn’t want that.
YJL Was that true?
DM I mean, I was seven. (laughter)
YJL How were you different from your classmates?
DM Just race. I went to a reasonably good public school. A suburban white school. That was at a time when little kids would say, “You can’t visit my house,” or, “Come visit me before my parents get home because they don’t like black people.” (laughter)
YJL It didn’t matter that your parents were such bigwigs?
DM We’re talking late 1950s and the early ’60s. It was a dangerous time. My father became mayor in the mid-’70s.
YJL Were you a good student?
DM Socialization is the whole point of grade school—that and learning your basics. That was difficult for me. Once I bit a teacher really hard and drew blood. I acted out, was suspicious of authority—that was built into the family and the civil rights movement. So the teacher was an extension of that authority. For me, the tempering of socialization took a long time, a lot of church going, and working with good teachers. My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Gardner, made me president of the science club. She put me in a position of authority, so that year I did very well in school. Then, when busing started in junior high, things got really difficult again because my friends were a few white kids and not any of the black kids that were coming in. That tension magnified the isolation.
YJL What were you into when you were a kid? Besides, you know, defying authority. Were you a jock?
DM I wasn’t! I was a nerdy, geeky kind of guy. I wasn’t popular. I liked Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I was good at science and math. I thought I was going to be a marine biologist—
YJL Wow. Were you good at English?
YJL What?! What about art?
DM I was good enough at art that I didn’t even think about it. My parents had friends who taught art in the summer—I took watercolor and drawing. I thought my parents wanted to be artists—they brought an environment of creativity to the house very early on. My father would do abstract paintings. One of my earliest loves was Picasso. I was exposed to that very early, but it was all part of the civil rights movement. We were going to a Unitarian church, where we came in contact with very progressive people. So, like, on Halloween you’d go out as beatniks. (laughter)
YJL This art camp must have been hugely influential.
DM It wasn’t so much a camp as going over to somebody’s house with a few other kids and spending a couple of hours drawing. And I did science stuff during summer school. But, you know, Christmas was like Gilbert chemistry sets with the metal box that folded over and had rows and rows of chemicals that they don’t even sell today. And microscopes and test tubes. I built radios, model rockets. My father built model airplanes that flew with little motors—by sixth grade I had built a smoking machine that collected nicotine and tar and could measure everything.
YJL That’s awesome. Where did your science career go astray?
DM More than a scientist, I wanted to be an astronaut, like most little boys. By the end of high school I started ground school to become a pilot.
YJL As a precursor to being an astronaut? So your parents supported you in a “you can be whatever you want” way?
DM Their belief was that you could be anything you wanted to be, but the being part of the equation was limited.
I’m surprised they didn’t push me to be a doctor, since I had the skills and interest. My grandfather wanted my father to be a lawyer. That he never became one was the bane of my father’s existence, even though he had achieved so much. Also, neither one of my parents had gone to college by the time I was getting ready for it, so they didn’t really have the understanding of how you get there.
My father had connections, though. I got accepted at West Point and the Naval Academy. But they didn’t have a pilots’ program at West Point—and I couldn’t get into the Air Force Academy because of my sickle cell trait. The Naval Academy, which was the next best, said I would have to go back to school for a year and bring up my terrible English scores. So that took the wind out of my sails. I went to a community college, since I didn’t know what to do. My parents were divorcing in my final year of high school, and I couldn’t go on to take flying courses anyway because my whole financial support was gone.
YJL So what did you study at community college?
DM Everything, anything. I skipped school and was unfocused. But I started going to ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] at the University of Puget Sound with an eye toward consolidating my credits and then getting a two-year scholarship at UPS to become an officer in the air force.
YJL Oh my God! Still a precursor to being an astronaut?
DM Kind of. This is the last ditch effort, you know? (laughter) So, I was in ROTC in the early ’70s. You have to command men and march around the field in a uniform! I had a rock in one hand because I was trying to figure out which was my left and which was my right. I was dyslexic until the end… But they absolutely liked me there. I gave a required five-minute speech for our commanding officer and, the next thing I knew, I was promoted. It was a time when being one of the few “articulate blacks” made a big difference. They were grooming me, no question about it. So I went to them and said, “Okay, what kind of scholarship can I get? I can’t be a pilot, so what can I do?” And they said there were more scholarships than applicants available for math majors. I’m thinking, I’m good at math but not that good. So I got the scholarship, but I knew I was playing on this funny ground of race and being at the right place at the right time. Getting this thing had little value to me—I had friends who were working so damn hard to get that kind of scholarship. When consolidating my credits at the community college, I had started taking humanities courses. This led me to acting, art, and a dance course. I’m taking a dance class and I discover, Hey, this is really interesting. I’m good at it and it’s skill-based and I can mold who I am within it, which I can’t do elsewhere. I mean, I’m in this world of race as such a big identifier. The arts gave me the opportunity to be something else. I grafted onto that really hard, so when they gave me the scholarship I didn’t accept it and left school to become a dancer.
YJL Whoa! That’s a huge life change! Was that a difficult decision at all?
DM I looked at it as if I were exploring something. I was always a little explorer—I’d go into the woods and get lost and find new things—so, yeah, it was natural. I remember being at a bus stop on my way to dance rehearsal and thinking, I’ll be an artist. Period. That was that.
YJL How did you then become a dancer?
DM Well, the very first class I took, the teacher, Jo Emery, came over and asked if I’d ever taken a class before. She immediately took me under her wing. She took me into a dance company, gave me classes and a scholarship. Here’s this attractive older woman telling me that I’m good. I mean, Yeah, I’ll follow you anywhere!
YJL What company was it?
DM The Tacoma Performing Dance Company. (laughter) We went to a regional festival, so I got to see the world around dance. After a year of taking classes, I made my first performance work, which was selected to go to a Craft of Choreography Conference. It was mentioned in Dance Magazine. I was so proud.
YJL Do you remember anything about it?
DM The music was by Al Jarreau; I was in it along with five other dancers. It was based on the theme of the song “We Got By,” overcoming struggle. I worked out the choreography in my father’s living room. It had a big lift I invented—it was the beginning of imagining something and then trying to figure out the mechanics. Dennis Nahat of the Cleveland Ballet saw it and invited me to come to Cleveland. I took a three-day bus trip, arrived with no place to stay, and ended up at the house of one of the dancers. He was gay, and I was like, “Okay, sure, no problem.” We slept in the same bed, and that first night was about identifying whether or not I was gay—I figured out I wasn’t. (laughter) Cleveland proved to be a really difficult time.
YJL What was difficult about it?
DM I didn’t like ballet much. I started out too late and the form was hard to master. It wasn’t what I excelled at. This was ’77. I lived with another member of the company, but the landlord didn’t know I’d moved in. His wife had given us the okay. When he found out, he said, “You don’t live here. Get out!” I’m thinking, You can’t do that to me! The next day I was moving out.
YJL Was that racial?
DM Totally racial. Cleveland was just crazy. People would drive by you and scream, “Nigger!”
YJL Was Cleveland your first experience of that?
DM In Tacoma, my father, being a city councilman, would get death threats. We’d hide under the bed because we thought someone was driving around the neighborhood with a cross in their car. Shit happened. Somebody got hung somewhere, somebody got killed out in the woods—these things you heard as a kid made your life precarious. My father had a gun.
YJL There’s a lot of white supremacist activity in that area.
DM It was nerve-racking. When I came back from Cleveland, I bounced around. At Cornish, an art school in Seattle, I took a workshop with Arthur Mitchell when he was in town with Dance Theatre of Harlem—he invited me out to New York. That’s how I got here. In ’79 I came out to study at the Dance Theatre of Harlem as a ballet boy, though that was the end of my ballet boy days. After three months, I left the company. I danced with Martha Graham.
YJL I didn’t know that.
DM Yeah, I spent time at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. I did a workshop with Ms. Graham herself—every time she came into the room you just wanted to get on your knees and bow. Then I worked at Radio City Music Hall as a page. Did nice things like that. Got the New York feeling. I also danced with the American Dance Machine, which was this archive of Broadway dance. The original Anybodys from the West Side Story show from the late ’40s, early ’50s—there was this woman, Lee Theodore. She ran the Dance Machine school. She would put on her bandana, light a cigarette, and start class with a snare drum in the corner, cigarette going, and boom! It was one of those places where they would smack you around—
YJL They’d hit you with their hands?
DM Oh, yeah. Hitting was normal! It was great; I learned a lot. What I do in my latest work, Nameless forest, when the performers hit the audience participants on the chest, comes from what they do to boys in ballet. They hit them on the chest and say, “Take that sensation to the ceiling. Lift your chest!” But it was like, smack, “Change something! Do this!” There was a real physicality in the teaching and no fear around the touching at that point.
I also did some Broadway shows—West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate. Lots of music videos. I did commercials with Margo Sappington. I worked with the Jackson family, did a Marlon Jackson music video.
YJL Oh my God.
DM Those raucous early years were fun. But I got tired of that, and I started to hear about things downtown, where I actually had been living for a long time.
DM On Avenue C and 11th Street, and then in a number of places in the East Village. I had friends who were doing things at PS122 when it’d just turned from a school into an art center, so I started going there. That’s how I knew about David Gordon. I started falling into this downtown world of dancers. I took a class with Bill T. Jones and auditioned for both him and David Gordon right around the same time. I was invited to join both companies, but went with David because I felt like I knew too much about Bill’s background. I didn’t know anything about David’s work and it seemed very interesting.
YJL So you were with his company for—
DM Ten years, from ’83 to ’93. During that time I squatted in the Bronx. I was invested in trying to set up my own dance center and organized some squatters in trying to own a building. I fought against “the man,” like a small echo of my parents. But it kind of destroyed me, and I had to make a choice: be an organizer or make art?
YJL Were you making your own work during this time or were you just dancing?
DM Just dancing. I didn’t make my own work until about ’92.
YJL Why did you leave the company?
DM Hmm. I had joined David Gordon because I wanted to expand what I was doing. After ten years there, I understood what he was doing. He and I had a simpatico relationship—maybe a little too simpatico because it caused a kind of friction between us.
YJL It’s hard to imagine you as a company member under somebody else’s direction. How did you handle that for ten years?
DM It was pretty extraordinary. One of the first things David asked me when I joined the company was, “Can you be in this company? I can’t work the same way I would if you were white. I like to have a group and send one person away. If that person is you then it colors what happens.”
DM He was looking at a choreographic problem as a director. And I was like, “Asshole! Don’t make it look like I’m some problem for you to figure out!” He brought me in because he liked that I said, “Fuck you!” to him. He also liked that I’d done all of this Broadway stuff. He was wondering, “Why are you auditioning for me?”
YJL You were learning.
DM Yes. And weirdly, he became a mentor, a father figure, an older-cousin figure. I was probably the only person he’d let have choreographic ideas. I wasn’t a fast learner. I’d get frustrated and then I’d act out—typical! I’d get over my frustration and would try to give it some choreographic light. Say, if we were learning something in a particular way, I’d reset it as tiny steps. So I’m doing this thing that’s exactly the same choreography except in tiny, intricate footwork. David sees it, let’s everybody else do the original choreography, but then gives me this solo where I wind through the choreography doing everything smaller and tighter. Then I teach it to another member so it becomes a duet. This happened in his 1987–89 work United States. People would throw out ideas, but I often felt like I had real influence.
YJL So you got to be a collaborator then?
DM Well, no. It was more of a feeling of collaboration. I was held in a different kind of esteem. There were negative aspects to our relationship: when I denied David a certain affection or had a judgmental attitude toward the work, he would feel that acutely. Toward the end that’s what happened. He was a harsh taskmaster—I can respond to that, but the harshness became too much for me.
YJL So you started making your own work right before you left him in ‘93. What was the first thing that you did?
DM A video called Adventures in Assimilation. I liked video a lot—nobody could deny me the possibility of making work. I wouldn’t have to audition or make it into some downtown venue to see if my work was good enough. I could just do it. That first work did very well right off the bat. It got shown at The Kitchen and other places.
YJL How long was it?
DM Ten minutes. I had improvised a dance in my apartment in front of a VHS camera that was autofocused on me. I knew the boundaries and was playing with the edges. As I was editing, I realized that I could change the music to this song by Fats Waller sung by Louis Armstrong, “Black and Blue.” They matched up perfectly, the improvisational imagery and the song.
YJL And then what happened?
DM Then I left David’s company. I had to get a job, so Lucy Sexton got me a job as a busboy at Florent. I was there for the next six years.
YJL And what were you doing during that time?
DM I was making little works that would show up at small places around the city. I made a theatrical version of Adventures in Assimilation at Dance Space Project and then another piece called Commodities, Identities and Synchronized Swimming—it was a disaster. It got hyped as an identity work, which was important at that time. My work was much more abstract than the identity work that people were seeing then: David Rousseve’s or Ron Brown’s, for example. So after that I spent about five years out in Brooklyn making stuff on my own and still working at Florent. I lived very hand-to-mouth. Eventually Neil Greenberg became the dance curator at The Kitchen. He knew me from a performance in which I was drawing on the floor, dancing, and telling a story. So at The Kitchen he was facilitating this workshop with young choreographers called “Dance in Progress,” at the end of which there was a showing. He invited me to participate. My piece for that became Spooky action at a distance, my first serious work. It premiered at The Kitchen in 1999 and was awarded a Bessie. It was based on the idea of entangled pairs in quantum mechanics. I saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movie Swing Time as the entangled pair. My piece had segments on voodoo ritual and segments where I took apart the movie and identity. I did this sort of ragtag, tapping Bill “Bojangles” Robinson number in a black body suit and with a television on wheels that I swung around by its cable. That was the beginning of my more modern works.
YJL Weird. Have you ever done a personality test? I took one and was totally expecting to be the artist or writer, but I was the scientist.
You and I have so much in common. Everything is very much an experiment for us. It’s about how far we can go, about whether we make something happen. But you’ve gone so much further in terms of the audience interaction. You’re like the expert in that field now.
DM It wasn’t always in play. In 1999, after premiering Spooky action at a distance, I became the curator of dance and performance at The Kitchen. I started seeing a ton of work and wondering, How does the audience feel? You know, I’m an audience, and I want you to form a relationship with me. Don’t just show me stuff. Anticipate me, and play with that.
YJL That’s one of your work’s loveliest characteristics.
DM That’s so much what you do too. When I first saw that piece of yours at PS122—
YJL Pullman, WA. You took me under your wing after seeing that show. You were so generous. In your interactions with the audience there’s the same distinctive warmth and generosity. In terms of the impetus behind this, it’s about giving, as opposed to, say, attacking, which is what I do a lot of. (laughter)
The audience is an honored guest in your home. In Asian culture, to be considerate, you’re supposed to anticipate people’s responses and needs ten steps in advance. But in your shows you’re anticipating a hundred steps in advance. I’m wondering, how do you anticipate when you don’t get to rehearse with the audience every day? I face this problem a lot.
DM You make a lot of mistakes first and then you find out how a viewer sees and anticipates what you’re doing. I took a year off from The Kitchen in 2003 and went to teach courses in video and dance management at Tokyo Geidai, the Tokyo University of the Arts. I began to absorb some of that Asian hospitality. It came from other places too—my parents could do hospitality very well.
But getting back to the first time I engaged the audience directly—it was in 2005. I’d done a piece with Laylah Ali called figures on a field, based on her “Greenheads” painting series, which I adored. Sarah Michelson, a dear colleague, came to a showing and said, “I see Laylah’s work but I don’t see you, and that’s what I need to see for this piece to be good.” I was like, “Well, thank you!” (laughter) But, really, thank you, Sarah. I went away and thought: What makes the theater or gallery experience? What if you put a group of people from the audience on stage, make them pay an extra dollar, and give them a tour of the work while it is happening? Say we give them a photo op within the work, this will implicate them and it’s going to make the performers absolutely crazy.
DM And this made the piece come alive. Things got really tense. You have these horrific images happening onstage—people are hung, there’s full-on dodgeball and a duet where I was dragged around by a belt around my neck—and then there’s a tour group taking pictures with the performers. The craziness of it all was magic for me! You have part of the audience reacting to the environment onstage, and the seated audience reacting to the whole environment and being implicated in this dicey circumstance. It was like being immersed in the experience of Laylah’s paintings.
For my most recent work, Nameless forest, there are six performers, 15 audience members onstage, and a large seated audience. The performers are manipulating both the content and context of the performance, the whole thing. Developing the piece took asking for practice audiences to come to rehearsals, getting information from them, sending them away, getting another set of viewers, and doing new things. And dancers want to do their performance—they’d rather not deal with the audience members onstage. It’s hard to train them to think, We the performers are actually not as important as the other people onstage. But what you do with that person onstage is the performance, you know?
YJL Yeah. What about the new piece?
DM I’m beginning a new piece with Laylah Ali again. We’re looking at John Brown, the abolitionist. He led an armed raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to get arms into the hands of slaves so that they could rebel. He failed miserably but between his trial and his hanging, he made himself into a martyr. In a way, he is the father of the Civil War, radical activism, and homegrown terrorism. What draws me to John Brown is this articulation of ego and radical compassion: “Am I Moses leading the slaves out of Egypt?” He put himself in that place. That egotism resonates with my father and the civil rights movement, and, in the tiniest dust-mite-little way, with my work and art.
YJL Your relationship to black identity is slippery. I don’t think anybody would ever refer to you as a “black choreographer.” They might for marketing reasons—
DM Marketing issues. (laughter) I’m not looking for my identity in black culture. I’m trying to escape it in some way, yet I constantly pull back. Working on this new project on John Brown, it’s interesting to me that a white man did all this stuff for black people. I’m absorbing all this information on the history of the West and minorities in America, and it’s fascinating. It’s harsh, way more violent than I ever imagined it to be. And I’m finding within myself an ability to embrace what I’ve shunted away—
YJL Which is?
DM The possibility of being part of a larger diaspora that includes American Indians and Asians, mostly people who are outsiders. (laughter) Otherness stops being built around race exclusively. Race is not an overwhelming part of it.
YJL One last question for you. What’s the most pleasurable part of what you do?
DM It’s that moment when you’ve assembled a machine, you’ve dealt with all the little intricate parts and their interrelationships, you take your hands off of it, put it out there, and start wondering: Is it going to work? It could be a wreck! And then you start seeing it coming alive. It’s going to work! My Pinocchio is turning into a boy!
DM It’s this constant tide of bliss that keeps sweeping over. It’s just breathtaking.
—Young Jean Lee is an Obie award-winning playwright and director whose work has toured to over 20 cities around the world with Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company. She is a member of New Dramatists and 13P and has an MFA from Mac Wellman’s playwriting program at Brooklyn College. She was awarded a 2010 Prize in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.