Talise Campbell, Director of Dance Show “Tracing Our Roots”

Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Dance Talise Campbell is the director of this weekend’s Oberlin Dance Company show, Tracing Our Roots: A Look Into the Past As We Move Into the Future. The show, which will also includes work from her two other classes this semester, features the Djapo Cultural Arts Institute, a Cleveland-based organization where Campbell is the artistic director and founder. Djapo is a Wolof word meaning “come together.” Campbell has had an impressive career as a choreographer and educator. She has worked as a founding member of the Imani African American Dance Company, a choreographer and lead dancer for the Iroko Drum and Dance Society, and was a full-time faculty member teaching students with learning disabilities in an arts-integrated curriculum at the Cleveland School of the Arts. For her doctoral degree, Campbell is researching the effects of arts integration in Senegal schools and urban schools in America.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you tell me about your inspiration for this show’s choreography?

My inspiration always comes from learning more about history. I’m always the one to go back to fetch everything that was lost so that we learn more about ourselves so that we can continue to move forward, and have some knowledge of the past as we’re moving forward. So my inspiration was to create that atmosphere for my students, for them to actually gain or have that passion of going back and grabbing some part of history and learning about it, and taking it with them into the future. 

Was this particular performance created with one class or with an auditioned group of students?

It was initially created just with Oberlin Dance Company. All of my other classes were doing so wonderful with different works, and it just all came together by itself. All three of my classes are doing pieces. West African Dance II is doing a piece in here, and also Choreography and Cultural Traditions is doing a piece as well, along with my company Djapo [Cultural] Arts Institute.

Can you tell me about your work with Djapo Cultural Art Institute, both generally as the artistic director and then with this performance specifically?

Oh, wonderful. Djapo Cultural Arts Institute is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, we’re based out of Cleveland, and our mission is to preserve the culture, the music, the dance, and art of Africa throughout the diaspora. So that’s our goal. We take trips every year where we take families and children to different parts of Africa to study folklore, history, and culture and to bring it back here to the states so that we can preserve it. Our goal is to preserve culture so that it doesn’t get lost. It’s maintained and it’s continual, meaning that our children and all those coming afterward can get a piece of it. So that’s what Djapo Cultural Arts is all about, and I wanted my students to be able to experience working alongside professionals in music and dance and theater. It’s been an amazing opportunity for them to work with Grammy-nominated musicians and performers from around the world who’ve been working in theaters for many, many years. So they’ve got a really, really great experience.

Can you tell me about the process of teaching your choreography in classes and then melding that with working with professional artists to put the show together?

It was a process, and it always starts with research — especially for the theme of this show, Tracing Our Roots. We worked a lot in the archives, I mean we spent endless hours looking at videos of footage from past dance performances and from things that happened in the past here at Oberlin, and also with me bringing in different artists for research. One of my classes, Cultural Traditions and Choreography, is doing a lot of orisha pieces. So they were able to speak with priests, initiated priests of this culture and tradition, and learn hands-on about various aspects of those different orishas — and how to present it onstage as well. And also, if they in the future ever wanted to present any type of choreographic work that was based in a cultural tradition, how do you do it? How do you go about that when you’re not of that culture? How do you represent it, and maintain its authenticity in making sure that you’re presenting historic works correctly, that you’re able to speak about it effectively? 

Looking at work that you’ve done in the past, I noticed that your choreography has been used in theater productions and that this show is described as theatrical dance. Can you speak a little about what you see as the relationship between theater and dance, both in your own work and in choreography in general? 

Most definitely. I believe that dance is basically telling a story with your body. My process, especially with my choreographic works, has a story to it. There’s some storyline. There’s no one just getting onstage and improvising — which is beautiful as well — but I like to preserve some space in time and in history and I love to retell that. So I always have some griots present in my choreographic works. There’s always, of course, music, live music from ancient drums that have been around for centuries. My inspiration to create works is for audiences to leave with new information, inspired to create works of their own — and maybe not in the theatrical or dance realm, but maybe even on the curriculum side within their classrooms and academia. So all of those things inspire me — the audience and my students. All of this is guided from them. I don’t just walk into a space and say, “This is what I want to do.” I don’t pre-plan my works. They’re all derived from my students. It’s all from me looking at their bodies and seeing how they move. It all stems from them.

You have taken on many different roles and projects as a dance educator. I’m curious to hear from you about that passion and about how you go about doing that. 

One thing is to always stay a student. I’m forever going to different places in Africa and across America to learn about various ways to deliver and differentiate instruction. And also in the final culminating presentations as well. So I’m forever a student in learning about those things and trying to be as creative as possible so that I can also leave audiences with questions. When we have that final talkback on Sunday, I want the audience to ask questions. For example, “In the beginning of the show, when we had all these bodies represented and all these images, where were you going with that? What was your inspiration for that?” I love questions; I love intrigue, things of that nature. So that’s what it is: let’s raise some feathers, let’s talk about some things that are very rarely talked about. Sometimes we think about things among ourselves, and we never talk about it, so I’m hoping that when people do view this presentation, we can have conversations about it. Real conversations about what they saw, how they felt, and if it inspired [them] to want to make change in the future. 

Do you have ideas of where you see those conversations going, or is that based on what you hear from the audience? 

This is Oberlin. So these conversations can go left, right, up, or down but you know what, they’re all relevant. They’re all relevant. But we have those conversations in here, in classes, and they’re all around, so I can just imagine when we have audience members that come in it’s going to be the same. But at the end of the day, it’s art, and it’s through the individual lenses of the producer. I tell my students the same thing: When you go see a movie at a theater or cinema, when you leave you may say, “Well I didn’t like that movie. Because in this part I would have done this — I would have just hidden the whole beginning, or the end,” and that’s wonderful. It’s great to be able to critique. It’s great to be able to look at shows and see what you would have done. But I want audience members to actually respect the artist and what’s coming from their cultural background, what’s coming through their lens, to see the art that’s being presented and to actually enjoy it. And still ask questions. There’s nothing wrong with questions — “Where are you coming from with this?” — it’s all relevant. But [it’s important to] be able to truly appreciate artistic expression. 

Is there anything else you want to share either about your own work or about the show? 

This is going to be phenomenal. It really is. This is my first large-scale production — I’ve done small shows here at Oberlin — but this is going to be the first fully produced show that I’ve done here at Oberlin, and I’m really excited. I’m really excited for the students — some of them have never performed before in their lives, so I have a lot of hats. I have the hat of the choreographer, and I also have to keep inspiring my students and motivating them to get toward the performance. It’s a lot. But I’m really, really excited to see the final product. I’m very rarely in the audience to be able to watch a show, so this year I’m going to be able to sit in the audience and watch a piece of work that I’ve created. And I’m really, really excited about that.