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Why this "movement dramaturg" is so sought after on the New York theatre scene
Raja Feather Kelly, one of the busiest choreographers in New York, wants to make something clear: "I don't just make dances."
Although he's the newly minted artistic director of New Brooklyn Theatre, an innovative site-specific troupe that recently merged with the feath3r theory, the "dance-theatre-media" company Kelly launched in 2009, that's not what he's talking about. He means that, as a choreographer, he does more than just create dances. As he puts it, "I heighten the behavior of the entire show. My intention and my mission is to expand the definition of choreography."
His skills as what he calls a "movement dramaturg" have put him in demand Off-Broadway. "Movement in performance for him is not necessarily about music," explains Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who's written several plays Kelly has choreographed. "It is about sculpture, time, the psychology of the person on the stage."
Take the two currently running productions that credit Kelly as choreographer: Madeleine George's Hurricane Diane, coproduced by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater, and Tori Sampson's If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka at Playwrights Horizons. Neither are musicals, but they both feature brief interludes of dancing that are enthralling and exuberant.
In "The Bacchanal," a four-minute dance near the end of Hurricane Diane, demigod Diane (aka Dionysus, portrayed by Becca Blackwell) leads a group of suburban New Jersey housewives in an orgiastic appeal to Nature to start healing the planet. In "Lifted," the second of two numbers in If Pretty Hurts, the performers, dressed all in black with white masks and gloves, engage in a resurrection ritual inspired by the Gospel Mime routines done in some Southern Baptist churches.
While Kelly is proud of these sequences, he explains that his work extends beyond these bits. He's involved with every movement -- and thus every moment -- in the shows. For example, in Hurricane Diane, Kelly helped Blackwell effect grand poses à la Greek statuary while directly addressing the audience. For If Pretty Hurts, which explores attractiveness and jealousy, he had the object of envy move more assuredly than her adversaries because, "we respond to people who have confidence," he says. "You need to create a logic and a language of movement" for each play.
Director Lila Neugebauer, who's working with Kelly for the third time, has given him the title of "core artistic collaborator" for Mrs. Murray's Menagerie, which begins performances next week at Ars Nova. This devised play by The Mad Ones centers on a focus group of parents evaluating a 1970s children's television program. "It doesn't involve dance of any kind," Neugebauer says. Yet "ensemble-generated work can require a heightened creative agility and athleticism from everyone involved. Raja's insights and artistry have been invaluable to the creation of the piece."
Theatre and dance have been Kelly's twin aspirations since childhood, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict. Born in Fort Hood, Texas, he knew by the time he was a toddler that he wanted to be an entertainer like the ones he saw on television. At seven, he moved to Long Branch, NJ and began acting in school plays. But by junior high "I realized I wasn't good at theatre," he recalls. "I didn't know how to use my body. I was uncomfortable; I squirmed as if I had to pee."
To solve the problem, he began dancing in high school. Soon he was entering dance contests every Sunday, and speech and debate competitions every Saturday. When it came time for college, he had to decide between one that offered a concentration in theatre, the other in dance. He chose the latter. "I figured I could not be a dancer in 20 years, but I could be an actor in 20 years."
After graduating from Connecticut College in 2009 with a BA in dance and English, he started dancing with four companies and founded the feath3r theory. Feather is the middle name he gave himself at age 13. "It has nothing to do with movement," he says. "I just like how feathers come together and fall apart."
The "3" in feath3r is a reference to the three core elements of the company: dance, theatre and media. Occasionally, the troupe works in just one of those disciplines, but most of its pieces incorporate all three.
By 2016, the feath3r theory's commitment to a hybrid art form was presenting some practical problems -- they couldn't get grants. "The dance community felt we were more theatrical, and the theatre community felt we were more dance-oriented," Kelly says. That's when Off-Broadway came calling. Neugebauer was looking for someone to work on actor movement for a trio of classic one-acts she was directing at Signature Theatre. Jacobs-Jenkins, a friend of Neugebauer's, had seen a couple of productions by the feath3r theory and recommended Kelly. "I felt that what he did was dance-theatre, not just contemporary dance," Jacobs-Jenkins says. "He was more fluid an artist than he was thought of."
"From my very first meeting with Raja, I knew I had met someone I wanted to work with for the rest of my life," Neugebauer gushes. "His imagination and rigor were arresting; I felt an immediate kinship with his sensibility."
Kelly's been working steadily in theatre ever since. "In the past three years, Off-Broadway has gotten more experimental," he says. "It means there's a place for what I do."
"I love using choreographers in plays," says Lileana Blain-Cruz, a director who first used Kelly for Signature Theatre's 2016 revival of Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. "Raja is special because he crafts movement in relationship to the whole piece. He's sensitive to the bodies in the room and works with his collaborators to get them to places that feel organic and yet highly elevated."
Blain-Cruz is one of several directors who keep Kelly busy -- especially this year. In April, their Faust runs at Opera Omaha, and in the fall they'll present Girls, Jacobs-Jenkins' take on The Bacchae, at Yale Rep. When the show premiered at Princeton University in 2017 under the name Gurls, Jacobs-Jenkins recalls that "I watched Raja turn this group of two dozen insecure college students into a remarkable ensemble within the span of two or three weeks."
Director Sarah Benson first collaborated with Kelly on Fairview, a much-acclaimed play by Jackie Sibblies Drury that's having an encore run at Theatre for a New Audience this June. "Act II is like a wordless, dance-theatre piece with a voice-over," Kelly says of the perspective-bending exploration of the racial divide in our nation. "I love working with him so much," Benson says. "Raja is interested in how movement can create empathy. And in pursuit of that he is continually interrogating the loop of us creating culture and culture creating us."
Kelly will soon go into rehearsals on a musical, A Strange Loop. Written by Michael R. Jackson and running at Playwrights Horizons from May 24 to July 7, it's about a black gay writer trying to put on a musical about a black gay writer trying to write a musical.
Kelly says that his approach to choreographing plays and musicals really isn't all that different. "I'm storytelling," he says. "It's the same amount of work. The process is different in that musical theatre provides more of a guide as to where the dance will happen. In plays, as in my own work, I have to decide where everything goes."
Speaking of his own work, in June Kelly will oversee the world premiere of the political and personal dance concert We May Never Dance Again, produced by his company. Apparently, sitting still is the one move he can't master. "I'm disciplined," he says about how he manages his jam-packed schedule. "My grandmother was in the Army in Fort Monmouth. She instilled in me growing up that there's a way to do things, and if you do them, you survive."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Hurricane Diane and If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka. Go here to browse our current offers.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Raja Feather Kelly. Photo by Thomas Dunn.