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Coming out from Under the Sun: Alexander Davis Dances

Alexander Davis leaps in Cambridge's famous Harvard Square, (c) Sarah Belclaire

Words by Sarah Belclaire

Photographs by Sarah Belclaire

I met Alexander (Alex) Davis in high school, in New Hampshire, while working together at our local public library.

We have been in and out of touch for several years, but the occasion of our recent get-together in Cambridge’s Harvard Square was very special, as Alex has just been awarded a Live Arts Boston grant for his work in the Boston performing arts community. When I knew Alex in high school, he was animated, entertaining, engaging, and — above all — he was our elderly patrons’ favorite circulation desk attendant. A library could never contain his ebullience. It makes sense that he became a performer.

Mentored over the years by teachers and peers in the communities of theater, dance, and fine arts, Alex continues to grow into his own definition of what an artist might be. In the age of 160-character Twitter bios, he exemplifies the artist whose self-branding intertwines with his personal identity: “When I am in a Lyft or at a party I find myself often defining what I do in a variety of ways depending on my mood, the situation, or what is on my mind.” The word performer works in a quick elevator pitch, but in reality, for Alex to thoroughly impart his artistic identity, that elevator would have to be headed to the top of a high-rise.

Often met with incredulity when he introduces himself as a full-time performer, Alex nevertheless persists towards the impossible: having his cake and eating it too. He is a dancer, a choreographer, an improv comedian, and a prolific fiber artist (knitting-while-walking at Harvard, for example), and none of these jobs are part-time. His achievements are the result of his ability to innovate, to create new categories in the arts when he finds that no category exists in which he can freely experiment. He describes to me the moment that he realized his path was driving him towards something new and avant-garde:

“I was creating a dance piece in college once and realized in the process that the themes I was exploring had already been mapped by other artists years before me. There’s nothing new under the sun, right?”

He goes on:

“My interest and desire to create within those forms and vocabularies [dance and fiber arts] was so strong and rooted inside my identity. Over time I began to accept that they were related, if for no other reason than their existence in my identity, so I stopped fighting that and ran with it.”

Alex at the Harvard Faculty Club, Harvard University, (c) Sarah Belclaire

He began to build upon and develop this identity. Very recently, social media has made it possible for artists to manage their own branding and promotion, but Alex does not strictly adhere to this method of self-promotion. Alex’s work offers the idea that if we allow our creativity to catalyze beyond hashtags and character limits, the product is not only more enjoyable for us, but contributes in a larger way to innovation in our artistic field. In a quest to define himself, Alex realized that if there was nothing new under the sun, he had to come out from under it.

And there was a lot to come out for. Much of Alex’s current work has unfolded in response to rapidly changing notions of queerness in our culture. He is currently designing and knitting a wedding dress, which will be presented in a piece entitled “Something Borrowed.” This introspective performance will take figurative snapshots from Alex’s family marriage tradition, while “questioning the value of the heteronormative institution in an increasingly queer world.” This project goes beyond an amalgam of tradition and family: it is truly a personal memoir in Alex’s hand, an “archive” of his talents and the societal constraints against which he has honed those talents.

Alex is presently attending the American Dance Festival, where he is developing, retooling, and building his Live Arts Boston piece, “She Bring it to You Every Ball.” In the fall, Alex will bring this piece back to Boston, where he will work with the cast and premiere it.

“Boston fell into my lap,” Alex says. “The best piece of advice I got after graduation was to approach the future one step at a time." So, he did just that. After spending most of his life in New Hampshire, he was struck with the opportunity to relocate. "While on that tour I was sharing a room with a musician from Boston who was leaving his I moved to Boston.” The city has embraced Alex as much as he embraces it (as a self-proclaimed “MBTA enthusiast” and sidewalk furniture connoisseur). Alex has earned the accolades of a city that few would deem warm and fuzzy. He has done so by purposefully existing outside of himself, focusing on his goals, and building a career that propels him towards a greater purpose. The inability to describe one’s self in 160 characters has proved a blessing for Alex Davis, a multidimensional artist driven by the potential of the unchartered ground he has uncovered.

You can read my entire interview with Alex below.

Alexander Davis, photographed at Harvard University, (c) Sarah Belclaire


Sarah Belclaire (SB): How did you decide you were going to make dance and art your life? Did anyone question you, or perhaps suggest that you try working in a bank and doing art on-the-side?

Alexander Davis (AD): Making dance and art my life is a decision I have to make every day. I’m hesitant to perpetuate this romantic narrative of an artistic manifest destiny. I have to choose every day to make dance and art my life. Some days it is an easy choice, but on others it is more difficult; but as with all things in life, it becomes easier through repetition.

People often ask me how I make a career out of dance and art. Most often these questions can be broken down into three specific categories: they are asking out of love/concern; they are asking out of ignorance; or they are asking out of incredulity. For example, as I was making the choice to pursue art and dance as a career, my father questioned out of love in order to make sure that I was making a thoughtful decision, that I had considered all the things that come with, to his mind, a more non-traditional occupational path. But others have asked out of ignorance perhaps because they just don’t know anyone making a living in the arts. Perhaps the artists they do know do it as more of a hobby or extracurricular activity. Or maybe they just figure all artists are lunatic drains on society who chop off an ear and die in penury. But more often than not, the people who ask out of incredulity actually believe in that last one...usually they’re the ones who see the NEA/NEH as a waste of their tax money. I always try to take the first two types of questions as an opportunity to educate. The third is mostly an opportunity to remind myself of the importance of arts education.

Determine why they are questioning; receive the love, educate the ignorant, and fuck the haters.

SB: Have you ever had trouble defining yourself as an artist? Social media tries to fit every person into a 120-character "bio" but you do so many things!

AD: I do have trouble defining myself as an artist. When I am in a Lyft or at a party I find myself often defining what I do in a variety of ways depending on my mood, the situation, or what is on my mind. I don’t think there is anything wrong with living in a queer/inter-disciplinary space as an artist. I do think it makes branding and marketing more difficulty. I tend to say I am a performer (I perform dance, theater, and whatever else I can trick people into casting me in), choreographer (I create original theatrical modern dance work), and Fiber Arts (I knit clothing, sculpture and sculptural clothing). I find that on most days I fit in (or at least in the space between) one of those definitions. Labels are limiting, aren’t they I know lots of people who identify so strongly with their art that they stop developing beyond their art form. Your art can be categorized, but I don’t think the artist necessarily needs to be.

SB: I know they say you can't have your cake and eat it too, but you have combined your talents in dance & fiber arts in a totally flawless way. How did you manage to find this niche?

AD: My interest and desire to create within those forms and vocabularies was so strong and rooted inside my identity. Over time I began to accept that they were related, if for no other reason than their existence in my identity, so I stopped fighting that and ran with it. Because I am fusing these forms that developed separate from each other I feel that I am creating a niche that hasn’t existed before, or at least not through my perspective. We are at a time when everything has been done before in terms of performance. Now it is about rearranging and finding unique perspectives.

I was creating a dance piece in college once and realized in the process that the themes I was exploring had already been mapped by other artists years before me. There’s nothing new under the sun, right? I went to my adviser frustrated, defeated, basically playing the twenty-first minute of any sitcom out in real life: flopping into a chair ringing my hands and yelling that “everything’s already been done. This piece has been done before. What’s the use?” He just looked at me for a minute, letting me get out all my feelings and said simply, “Sure it has. But not by you.” Making art is about understanding the work that’s come before...finding the gaps in between your personal experience of that thing and the other artists, and blow them apart; trust that you, as an artist, carry a unique and worthwhile perspective that will be revealed in the product of your process.

SB: Why Boston?

AD: Boston fell into my lap. The best piece of advice I got after graduation was to approach the future one step at a time; plan your summer, then figure out what you are doing in the fall, then the winter, then the spring. Have long term goals and work toward them, but just go one step at a time. I took an internship at the American Dance Festival in the summer that lead to a small tour with a company based in New Jersey. While on that tour I was sharing a room with a musician from Boston who was leaving his apartment and was looking for someone to take it over his lease. It was a unique living opportunity that I couldn’t pass up so I moved to Boston and just kept figuring it out one small step at a time.

SB: What's unique about the dance company you work with?

AD: Urbanity Dance, where I am currently a Company Member is the largest contemporary dance company in Boston. We produce a season of five shows and have been presented around the country. We create work collaboratively as a group, as well performing new work by our director Betsi Graves. Throughout the season we invite choreographers from all walks of life to set work on us. In that respect we are a repertory company. Urbanity also provides us with company class five days a week. This allows us to continue to develop as a dancers and as a community.

SB: Is there one teacher or mentor who you credit with getting you onto the path you are on now?

AD: I owe so much to so many people. I feel like a living archive of artists with whom I continue to interacted. As I move forward, and my personal and artistic relationships deepen I become more and more aware of the support system on which I am growing. William Seigh was my mentor and professor at Keene State College. He invested in me as a dancer and a choreographer, and encouraged me to develop within my own aesthetic. He is still a dear friend, and primary sounding board and editor of my work. Betsi Graves, the director of Urbanity Dance (where I am currently a company member) also continues to invest in me in a way that I am excessively grateful for. She saw something in me when I moved to Boston and has given me opportunities to develop as a performer and choreographer. I feel feel like I am very lucky to have had so many people trust and give me chances that I didn’t always deserve. Margaret Leary and I were students at Keene State College, and graduated the same year. I call her weekly to rant, question, listen, and discuss. I am lucky to have her as a colleague, editor, and friend.

SB: Is it true that you once worked in a library with Sarah [Belclaire]?

AD: That is 100% true. I actually consider working at the library a very formative experience. I learned how to talk to people. I learned how to be myself, without necessarily crossing a line. You learn to read people. When to help them. When to leave them alone. When to hide in the back room.

SB: What's your favorite piece EVER that you have choreographed? Why?

AD: Woof. My favorite project tends to be the last thing I worked on. I think that’s because it’s still so fresh in my mind. My last work Never Go Away (Again) was so fun to create and perform, and in many ways came to being with such ease that I am tempted to say that one. The the piece explored the queer space between conceptual identity and physical representation. We were exploring empathy in an age of binary processing, and partisan politics. We blurred the space between the audience and perform, and deconstructed the power structure that exists in traditional performance settings… and we did it in casual businesswear. The whole event kind of felt like the check-in at a corperate conference. These themes were engaging to me from beginning to end, the dancers (Jamie Ballou and Chun Jou Tsai) were a dream to work with and brought their own humor and perspectives to the work. We made it in about six rehearsals. I plan on continuing to work on it, and maybe incorporating elements of it into She Bring it to You Every Ball.

I am about to revisit a work for the first time for an upcoming performance at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. You Own Everything (Everything is Yours). It was my first major collaboration with Sound Artist J Jumbelic and was my first time exploring some major themes that now feel like staples of my aesthetic.

The last piece I made in undergrad was a quartet entitled Slight Displacement and it holds a special place in my heart. It received national attention and is very representative of where I was at at that point in my life. It also was my first instance of choreographic “risk taking.” Since then I have had very few fears about experimentation in the rehearsal process.

SB: Do you ever find the "starving artist" life to be....shall I say, stressful? What makes it worth it?

AD: It is stressful but then, I assume it is equally as stressful as living a work-a-day corporate lifestyle. The main difference, I suppose, is that I’m not always sure where my next paycheck is coming from versus the corporate guy at Goldman Sachs. Money is always stressful and I feel like job security is a lie. I figure it’s just as likely your salaried 9 to 5 job will be shut down or downsized. I might as well do something that I love and which allows me to contribute to the world the best way I know how. Schedules can be stressful too. Especially while trying to do everything I want to do while balancing professional obligations and responsibilities with personal relationships. Luckily I have understanding parents, a patient boyfriend, and compassionate friends and colleagues. I think what makes it all of that worthwhile, in the end, is the artistic process; the pure act of creating something that did not exist before. Having the chance to deeply investigate and research through performance and art, while also creating opportunities for empathetic connection and understanding through performance.

SB: How do your friends and peers support or inspire you?

AD: It’s so simple but I am always incredibly humbled when people attend live performance.

My colleagues inspire me with the simple generosity of their time. The fact that people take my phone calls and answer my emails blows my mind.

I enjoy when people send me new music, books, videos, etc. What is inspiring or engaging my colleagues and friends often engages and inspires me (or at least gives me the opportunity to consider why it isn’t engaging me).

SB: How do you feel about having your photo taken (in general)?

AD: I get really nervous that I am wasting the photographers time. I worry that I am not helping them fulfill their vision. I get too in my head and think about the product instead of being in the process. I need to chill.

SB: Congrats on your Live Arts Boston grant. What's next on the horizon for you? What projects are you working on or involved with?

AD: Thank you! Now I have to make that piece. In June and July I will be attending the American Dance Festival where I will be taking class, and creating the foundational material for the LAB piece. I will then bring the process to Boston to work with the cast and premiere the work (“She Bring it to You Every Ball") in the Fall. With support from the Boston Cultural Council and The Theater Offensive I am currently designing and knitting a wedding dress/performance piece entitled Something Borrowed. This dress will be fitted to my body and will serve as an archive of the tradition of marriage in my family, while questioning the value of the heteronormative institution in an increasingly queer world. I am also working on a series of fiber movement installation environments in response to the Anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub tragedy entitled safe_space. My company Alexander Davis Dances (ADD) is being presented by World Music/CrashARTS on September 22nd and 23rd at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston. This will be as a part of their Dance UP evening, which will feature ADD and five other New England based companies. You can get tickets here.

I will also be showing work at the Boston Contemporary Dance Festival on August 12th in Boston.

Beyond that I want to start dying my own yarn, and get better at my spinning wheel. And I may sheer a few baby alpacas.

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