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Nia & Ness use dance, poetry to tell story, analyze identity
by John Stadelman
2018-11-26

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Brooklyn-based dancer-poet duo Nia & Ness will bring their unique storytelling experience, run., to Chicago in four shows during the first week of December.

The intersections of identity play a key element in run., as Nia & Ness describe and analyze their experiences and struggles as a Black lesbian couple in New York City. They hope to have their audience question how they see and move through the world, for their own betterment.

"[We] definitely want people of color to feel empowered," said Nia Shand, "and for white people we want them to feel empowered to do something to be seen as better allies."

Accurate, honest representation is also important. "When it comes to the people of color in the audience I want them to feel like their stories are being told," said Ness White. "Sometimes [their stories] are being told but not by the right people and not in the right way, so I want them to feel like, 'Okay, our stories are being told correctly by people that need to be telling them.'"

And although establishing connections with their audience is important, they understand the complexities that come from creating an emphasis on intersecting identities.

"I don't mind when they find themselves within our stories," said White, "because we have all this intersectionality, because we are Black lesbian women so we'll have women who connect with us, we will have lesbians who connect with us … and there are some people of color who might not connect with us."

This awareness of the identities being brought to the performance interacting with a multitude of other identities showcases a profound thoughtfulness on their part. Not everybody will see themselves within the performance, but the connections can be surprising.

After some discussion, Shand related back a situation from New York that shows the connective power of shared experience with people they wouldn't initially expect to reach.

"A random guy from our building came up to me and asked if I had weed just because of what I look like. … I had straight male friends go through similar situations."

Their unique blend of dance and poetry, of expressive movement with powerful words, showcases not only the strength that each woman draws from the other, but their strong mutual trust from being in a committed relationship.

"We work with each other so well," said Shand, "and when there's a trust in each other's stories that are being told through each medium. I feel like there's a whole layer to it because we love each other so deeply. I feel safe when I perform because I know I have White by my side and I know that I can say and dance and be in my shoes. It wouldn't be our work if we weren't in a relationship."

"For me working with Shand has become much more expressive and [I] use only the words that are really necessary," said White.

However, run. doesn't just use dance and poetry as two separate elements—each performer and her work play off the other, shifting and metamorphosing run. into something new. They know how to rely on each other while performing.

"[It helps] the audience," Shand said, "because if they can't understand or interpret what White is saying they can get it with my body and vice versa. We each have the strength in what we're doing and the power with each other in our mediums. For me, as a dancer, I've been able to work with White and find my voice as a mover and as an artist for my truth and our truth."

A third element, music, is provided by friend, collaborator and musician Garrett Miller, who created an entirely original score for run.

"It makes our work even feel more intimate," said Shand. Originally, they would "create some content and then I would go find the music, and now instead we have someone who we know … [who] sits in our conversations, and he's also our friend and he's also really passionate about our work. So having someone who loves us as people and … as artists come and create something for us, [there's a] level of just love and passion in the music that wouldn't be happening when we were looking for music out there."

The result is an organic accompaniment that enriches the performance. "The music [is] driving enough for my movement, but not overpowering where you can't hear what White is saying. It's a really beautiful collaboration."

Most of the time, the duo performs in small venues such as bars, rooftops and even apartments. This preference aids the performance, utilizing the space of the "stage" to further the experience.

"It makes our work feel more real," said Shand. "The experiences that we have gone through … [and] the trauma we deal with constantly happens in places like that." They are "reclaiming these space when we're performing in a nonconventional place."

The Chicago shows mark their first time in the city.

"We're really excited about performing in Chicago!" Shand said. "That's really exciting, performing in a new state. I feel like the audience is probably very receptive and open and ready for our work."

Nia & Ness will be performing run. in four shows on the first week of December. Information can be found at www.niaandness.com/tour/ .

For a preview of their work, check out their pre-run. performance of "blind spot" at youtu.be/XFIjXQDUp2k .


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