On a phone call with dancers Amrita Hepi and Jose Xtravaganza, two artists who use movement to communicate, the newfound friends finish each other’s sentences. They’re not, perhaps, best friends yet—they only met a few months ago—but their synched conversation is a testament to the ways that dance, as an emotional and political art form, can deepen a friendship that was already meant to exist.
Hepi—a New Zealand-born Bundjulung and Ngapuhi dancer and activist—and Xtravaganza—legendary voguer who first rose to mainstream fame in Madonna’s 1990 “Vogue” video and Truth or Dare tour documentary—first came together as part of a physical and IRL conversation put together by ASOS. The duo was tasked with choreographing a dance piece together despite never having met, and the intimate, beautiful result was captured on video by the photographer Christelle deCastro.
In their piece, which seamlessly incorporates their individual dance styles and has them both trying out the other’s steez, they make a case for the importance of fluidity and freedom through movement. And because each of their styles comes with an inherent political imperative behind it—Hepi’s, based on the preservation of indigenous cultures in her native country; Xtravaganza’s, with its evolution as a dance created as a safe space by and for black and brown gay and trans people—the beauty takes on another whole layer of meaning. The piece is incredibly moving, even in its kinetic short form; Rookie spoke on the phone with Hepi and Xtravaganza about their burgeoning best friendship, dance as a form of activism, and how to convey emotion in movement.
JULIANNE ESCOBEDA SHEPHERD: You only just met through this project, right? What did you talk about the first time you spoke?
JOSE XTRAVAGANZA: Yes, the connection was instant.
AMRITA HEPI: We started off like tentative and polite, and all of a sudden it was just back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Jose: And then when we met each other at the studio, we’d already talked about music, I had given her a list of music that I like and she did as well, then come to find out, she was going to the concert.
Amrita: We both liked Solange, and we’d been referencing [music and art and fashion].
Jose: Then when we got to the studio, it was so easy to create. It could go either way—it could either be very pretentious or something else, but usually when choreographers meet, it can be very tense. But with her and I, it jelled in such a wonderful way.
The dance world seems quite small, I’m surprised that you didn’t know each other before this project.
Amrita: We’d spoken on the phone and had a coffee beforehand, but once you get into the workspace, for me personally I think that dance is some of the most generous people that I’ve met, who really put their body on the line the whole way through. But when it comes to the choreographer, and when you have to shape it, sometimes your methodologies don’t always align. And when you’re used to being the head honcho, it can be hard to relinquish control.
The dance world might be small but it’s also big cause there are so many different languages.
Jose: It can be very difficult when you don’t speak the same language, but it was amazing because you gave me so much, Amrita. You were so generous and that made me want to give. We spoke with our movement, and that says so much in what we created. We spoke as we went along. It was passionate.
Amrita: There are times with choreography where, Jose, you’re the father of a house, or I can have ten people that I’m working with, and you don’t want to create a hierarchy but you also do need to keep control and a schedule. It was so nice to be able to relinquish that control and surrender.
Jose: We lost track of time, we didn’t worry about eating, it was so beautiful and gave me so much inspiration to do what I do and I thank you again.
Aww! You know, you can very much tell the way you move together that it was so symbiotic and you seemed that you’d been dancing together for years. So how did you choreograph, did you teach each other? Amrita, had you vogued before?
Jose: A lot of it, for me, we just improvised off each other. It didn’t take us much.
Amrita: The process was that we followed each other and set a structure in terms of [sections of the music].
Jose: We were listening to sounds because we were already on the same wavelength musically in terms of what we like so the movement came so naturally because we had that connection. When we went to put it together, I followed her body and the movement to the music and she did as well.
Amrita: It was a different way of working for me, because I’m so obsessed with texture, and it was really nice to go back to just flowing. In terms of voguing, there is a really amazing scene here in Australia, and so I’d done a little bit, but for instance Merce Cunningham was really interested in voguing because he knew what lines were and modern technique like Alvin Ailey, borrows a lot of that, thinking about the extension of the line. But it’s one of those things that’s beyond the steps. You could be really good at the steps but it’s beyond that. To be part of a house, a community.
Jose: Yes, the emotion behind it, which developed the dance.
I think about the cultures, too, behind the types of dancing that you both do. Those movements carry so much history, I wonder if you discussed it and how you individually translate the weight and responsibility but also the freedoms of those cultures, within it.
Amrita: I come from a wider culture of dance that’s passed down to you, and some of the stories in the dance are protected [in terms of] indigenous history—
Jose: Just like voguing, yes!
Amrita: Yes! I feel very protective over it, and it’s the same with localization; I can’t speak on behalf of voguing, but I know that my sisters over here that vogue, are very like—as a straight cis woman, I’m not trying to get up on the runway, because it’s not my place, and I’m happy to be there to support, but I’m there to watch and be inspired. I think the great part about dance is that you don’t necessarily have to do it to be thinking about the transmissions that come from it.
Jose: And it’s all relative in the end; it’s all movement, it’s all related. It’s also the political aspect of it all, and where it comes from; it’s a dance that was created from nothing where you don’t need a technique or you don’t need to go studying it 13 years to be considered good at it. You just need to express the emotion. Amrita’s work, I think, and her emotion, comes from the same place voguing does, I think, and that ‘s why it worked so well, because of where they both come from.
Yes, the politics of it is integral.
Amrita: It’s having a black or brown body and dancing is another thing; so is being trans; Jose is so generous, I admire you so much for that. I always try to interject like, Where am I applying my privilege, and what is a political act within my dancing? How does it align with me? I think for a lot of indigenous dance within Australia, I buck tradition in terms of its transmission.
Jose: Because of your dance background and your contemporary background, you’re able to bring this element. I mean, I studied ballet even before I was voguing in the balls when I was a kid, and you’re bringing a different element, which I think made us able to interpret it and share with each other the way we did. That’s the beauty of it. You take what you know, and you make it your own, and I think that’s what we did in a sense.
I would watch a talk show with you two. You should get together and host one!
Jose: You don’t even know! We could go on for hours. We spent time together and it felt like we knew each other for years, it was really a connection, a deep one, and I appreciate her for it. We grew so attached, it was just so fast and so connected because dancing is such an intimate thing. Even in our movement, there were moments where I felt like I needed to show my gratitude for her in my movement.
Amrita: I’m gonna cry!
When you were young, when did you each realize that dance was the way that you wanted to express yourselves? What would you say to aspiring young dancers now?
Amrita: I explored a bunch of things [until I settled on dance] and I did stop dance for awhile because it was like, Okay, time to get a “real job” now. But having a “real job” is kind of a lie. If you stay doing something that you love long enough, you’re going to be doing it in some capacity, and for me, I think I always thought if I didn’t get into a dance company that I was not a dancer. But there are so many different ways to be a dancer.
Jose: I second that, I’m very firm in saying that when you’re young you have this picture of what you want to do, but there’s one thing that pertains to any field, is that desire, to want. I think when you stop wanting, everything else stops. Don’t go by, “oh, this person is better than me, or so much faster or so much more talented.” Know what you bring is something that no one else can. They may be better or faster or stronger but no one can do it like you.
Amrita: How old were you when you discovered the West Village [where, in the ’80s and ’90s, the voguing scene thrived]?
Jose: I was seventeen. I was still really dedicated to my dancing [at Alvin Ailey, where I studied ballet], but in the West Village scene it was the artistry of voguing that intrigued me. I wanted to tap into that creativity, it was a fantasy world I had discovered. So I was down there even before going into dance professionally, I was already voguing. I was very lucky and very determined because I was a dreamer and I wanted to be something, I wanted to share my gifts with the world. It goes back to knowing what you want and scaring off distractions.
Amrita: Everything you do along the way is a means to getting somewhere else!
One thing I think that young people are told a lot is that you can’t be a dreamer and be determined. How do you square those two?
Amrita: I think it’s really about carving out space for yourself, offline and online.
Jose: For me, I was attracted [to voguing] because it was about my community, but also I wanted to change my community, and so if that meant utilizing what I’m learning here and presenting my own interpretation of this creative force that there’s such beauty in, I’m gonna take it and present it and share it. I think social media is a double-edged sword. It’s good to get your point across and people get to share their talent and creativity, but also it’s a bit watered down for me. You can learn everything, it no longer takes you being in the moment and going and experiencing things [firsthand], you can just sit at home. It all comes to you now, you can learn it but you’re missing the moment. That, to me, is one of the major distractions with young people who aspire to be something or achieve something in life. It’s hard to stay focused.
Amrita: It’s dreaming online and offline, but beyond your online persona being able to share your dreams with other people. I love the internet, but there’s something very electric about being able to share your dreams in the real world. Sometimes your dreaming can be remembering that there’s folly and play, and remembering there’s lightness in the world. Those are very necessary things! ♦