The Atlantic

The Intimate World of the Performance Artist

The dancer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili takes the stage alone in her acclaimed work Bronx Gothic. But behind the scenes, things get a little more complicated.
Source: Katie Posner

For Okwui Okpokwasili, performing is a very personal act. In the dancer’s most well-known piece, Bronx Gothic, she’s the only person featured, and as the choreographer, she has complete creative control over what she decides to present to the public. Alone onstage, Okpokwasili, 45, spends 90 minutes embodying the lives of two young black girls growing up in a world that “privileges whiteness” and leaves them vulnerable, as she tells the filmmaker Andrew Rossi in a recent documentary about the making of the piece. Her movements evoke struggle and pain: At various points during her performance, she isolates different limbs, breaking down and slamming her body onto the floor so only the sound of flesh and bone on hardwood is audible. Okpokwasili makes it impossible for the audience to look away, even at the most uncomfortable of moments.

Behind the scenes, though, putting together a work is a complicated process requiring many sets of hands. Rossi’s documentary, also called , follows Okpokwasili’s rehearsal and performance of that particular work: It’s an insider view into the creation andpiece—blood, sweat, tears, and all. Currently touring the country, the film weaves together intimate practice-roommoments with interviews in which the artistexplains the ideas behind ; it also follows her husband, Peter Born, the director for the liveperformances, as he gives Okpokwasili notes and debriefs with her backstage.

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