Here & Now Dance: Snatched From the History of Black Exploitation

Hattie Mae WilliamsEXPAND
Hattie Mae Williams
Courtesy of Here and Now

Returning to her hometown after a 15-year stint in New York City, 34-year-old dancer/choreographer Hattie Mae Williams has seen her first year back in Miami marked with artistic achievements. Among them was a grant from the Knight Foundation to develop site-specific dance works at Miami Marine Stadium and Venetian Pool. This month, she presents a new performance work with Miami Light Project as part of the 17th installment of the organization's signature commissioning series, Here & Now.

Titled Snatched, her new piece is "about the exploitation of the black female body," she says. "It’s very dense subject matter, but we really wanted to talk about the gaze — society’s and the male-dominated gaze. How do we feed into that? How can we celebrate our femininity and sexuality without being exploited?”

For Snatched, Williams focused on three historical figures: Sarah Baartman, an African woman who in the early 19th Century was exhibited at European freak shows under the name Hottentot Venus; Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who was put on exhibition in the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s; and American chanteuse Josephine Baker. "Josephine Baker, in her own way, was put on display," Williams explains. "I think she embodied it more and kind of flipped it. I feel like she really embodied herself, her sexuality, and used it as a political weapon."

A powerful performer, Williams is collaborating with artists Shaneeka Harrell, who recently stunned in the solo work From the Corner of Cassius Clay; Loni Johnson; and Alexis Caputo to guide the audience around Miami Light Project’s Light Box Theater. "It’s a site-specific happening, and I choreographed it specifically for the space so that the audience travels around on a journey throughout the space. It was important for me, for this piece, not to leave everything inside the theater: being on another type of platform, another type of auction block, another type of 'let me entertain you,' and just kind of get everyone down to the same level."

The dancerEXPAND
The dancer
Courtesy of Here and Now

In many ways, this piece is a personal exploration of Williams’ experiences returning to and reacquainting herself with her hometown. "I’m walking around in this black female body, and especially moving back to Miami, a lot of things that I thought were resolved here in the city as far as racial knowledge, I was surprised that it's not,” she says reflectively.

"In New York City, it's more like, 'What do you do?’ Here it’s, ‘What are you?’ and this is something I grew up with a lot. I’m biracial; I identify myself as a black female, so to come to Miami and once again be bombarded by those questions, people fixing their eyes on me, trying to figure out where I’m from, am I feminine enough, all these things started kind of resurfacing for me, and I started looking at the whole structure of where is this coming from? What are the historical references I can pull from? This whole desire to gather and create conversation, and create kind of protection, also, for women of color, was a real motivator for me with the piece. It comes up a lot: Where is our place here in the city?”

Williams credits Miami Light Project and Here & Now for giving her not only the funds and a venue to create this project but also the creative space to explore those questions of place and belonging. "Here & Now has always been one of the main resources here for the dance community; it's always been something I wanted to do. It’s very Miami to me, very part of the arts scene.”

– Rebekah Lanae Lengel, artburstmiami.com

Miami Light Project presents Here & Now 2015 — featuring Liz Ferrer, Lazaro Godoy, Hattie Mae Williams, and Michael Yawney — at 8 p.m. this Thursday through Saturday and May 14 through 16 at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami. Tickets cost $25 via miamilightproject.com and 866-811-4111.

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