The Artist’s Way: Raja Feather Kelly, Choreographer

In this special feature, T photographed and interviewed 34 artists from various disciplines about 24 hours in their creative lives.

Article by Coco Romack

Raja Feather KellyKelly, photographed at the Smith-Ninth Streets station in Gowanus, Brooklyn, on March 2, 2022. Photography by Melissa O’Shaughnessy.

Something that’s unique to me as a choreographer is that I don’t prepare or prestage. Occasionally it gets me into trouble, but I enjoy interacting with the people with whom I’m collaborating. Together, we find out if the movement fits who they are or feels inspired — not by the way I’ve imagined it but by the way I’m seeing it play out in real time.

This is how I’ve worked since 2009, when I came to New York City. My husband and I recently moved to New Jersey, but the apartment I lived in for 10 years, in Brooklyn’s South Slope, which is now my office, is off the subway’s F line. I have good luck with that train; it always gets me where I need to go. I like the Smith-Ninth Streets stop because the platform is aboveground and has beautiful views of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty. I watch the sun rise through that station in the morning and see it set in the evening.

Nowadays, there are monitors that tell you when the subway’s coming, but back then, you never knew when it would arrive. That time can either be incredibly agonising or wonderfully spiritual, and I use it to centre myself before I get into the room with performers. I think about the scenes we’re working on that day, and about prompts I might bring to the performers to elicit exciting and adventurous physical responses. When I’m on the platform, I watch people. I study how they behave and interact with others, which becomes the foundation for how I create: my choreography is behaviour with the volume turned up and done to counts.

One thing I’ve noticed many people do on the subway is listen to music. Everyone’s playing what inspires or excites them, having their own individual experiences. This became the idea behind the number “Inner White Girl” in Michael R Jackson’s musical, “A Strange Loop” [currently playing on Broadway]. The main character is a queer Black man named Usher, who thinks about how much of [the musician] Liz Phair’s spirit is inside him. While the performance could have included any amount of lifts and jumps and spins, it’s really about what’s bubbling up in Usher and how that’s reflected in his fingertips, his thighs, his shoulders. Because of that, it’s quite restrained.

Choreography’s all about how people come together and why they fall apart, and the train platform is such a great metaphor for that. To me, being an artist is like being a translator — translating behaviour to movement, movement to choreography, choreography to stories. There’s a whole world asking and waiting to be mined and celebrated, and it’s my job to bring that to folks.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 76 of T Australia with the headline: “The Artist’s Way”