J'Sun Howard did not grow up dancingor he did, but not in a traditional dance studio. Raised in Tennessee, the young, introverted Howard taught himself to dance by feverishly studying the choreography in hip-hop and R&B videos.
Originally thinking he would pursue a college degree in accounting or biochemistry, Howard eventually declared to his mother that he was going to get a degree in dance. It was a last-minute decision to apply to Columbia College in Chicago but, in 2001, he applied and he went.
With no previous formal training, Howard diligently immersed himself in the dance department at Columbia College. He studied the forms, learned to execute the techniques and practiced the improvisational scores, but something was missing. "I don't feel like I was taught to pull out depth or learned how to excavate stuff," Howard said.
The "stuff" he was thinking about as a young dancemaker were serious sociopolitical issues like the aftermath of the recent 9/11 terrorist attacks, homelessness or the realities of being a Black, queer person in the world. Howard was craving guidance on how to express concepts outside of formal methodologies. "Instead of just making a phrase, let's take a risk and try to do something that is totally not traditional … so there are more options and more ideas generated instead of being stuck in a frame," he said. While some students find great freedom and possibility within the confines of classic compositional techniques, Howard used those restrictions as motivation to think outside the pedagogical box and discover his own approach to making dances.
After leaving Columbia, Howard dove into the Chicago dance community and eventually began to hit his choreographic stride. Things especially gelled for him after meeting dancer, choreographer and teacher Darrell Jones. In Jones, Howard found a fellow Black, gay male dancer, using a mixture of contemporary dance techniques along with vogue and hip hop vernaculars for choreographic expression. Working together, Howard was exposed to a new world of creative processes and potential in dance composition.
In 2009, with Jones as a mentor, Howard received a LinkUP residency at Links Hall, a program that supported emerging artists through a six-month creative process, and which cemented Howard's presence as a choreographer to watch in the coming years. He later received the prestigious Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Award in 2014 and, more recently, the Sybil Shearer Residency Fellowship Award at Ragdale and an invitation to participate in the emerging artist laboratory at the nationally renowned Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography ( MANCC ) in Tallahassee, Florida.
The questions he is asking himself now are: "What is 'joy' as a queer Black person?" and "How do I make a space for people to feel joy?" Wishing to provide an opportunity for audiences to immerse themselves in alternative environments or dream worlds, Howard said he hopes to offer a "release from distraction and a release of peace." He added that he wants to excavate expressions of authentic emotional depth from his dancers, hoping to depict performers who are "alive, tingling and bubbling from the inside."
The instinct to uncover and express emotional truths through movement might come naturally to Howard because, in addition to making a name for himself as a choreographer in Chicago, he is a published poet. In fact, the two forms of artistic expression are inextricably connected for this artist. Howard uses writing alongside the choreographic process as a tool to access inner depth and as a way to "make the choreography last offstage."
Because it is often easier to communicate with words than it is with movement, Howard said his ultimate goal is to master the choreographic craft so "the movement can be as communicable as the written word." Nevertheless, he already possesses a natural gift for using poetic language to invoke physical vocabularies. In a recent movement workshop, he gave dancers the following prompt: "Pick a feeling to rid yourself of. Set it on fire. How does it burn?" He has also been considering ways in which his own dancing might potentially "match or surpass the light in a room." One can either be stumped or stimulated by such lyrical prompting; Howard and his dancers are definitely the latter.
Howard's latest work-in-progress, a trio entitled "Working on Better Versions of Prayers," is part of the process and performance residency series "SET FREE" at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave., on Monday, May 22, at 7 p.m. See LinksHall.org .
Howard is developing this piece, which explores a cultivation of charisma, freedom and intimacy between three gay Black men, with fellow dancers Dedrick "Deddy" Gray and Damon Green. An iteration of this work will be performed this fall at Dancespace Project in New York City and the final work will premiere in Chicago in 2018.