Dancing About; A Conversation with Shamel Pittsby Anna Kopito | 04.11.14
(Photo: Alex Apt)
Shamel Pitts is a dancer at the Batsheva Dance Company and a prominent nightlife figure; notoriously stylish and generally notorious. I have been acquainted with Shamel for some time now, and would see him either on stage with Batsheva, at parties, or, usually, ordering juice at the shop in Neve Tzedek where I worked. But in spite of everything we ever said to each other, less than friends and more than strangers as we were, I always felt like I don’t know him at all; not only in terms of his personal (hi)story, but mainly what kind of person he is? Is the image I’ve come to have of him, mostly through his media appearances, of a talented, full on, hedonistic party-boy really all that is there?
As we sit down to talk in his apartment at the American colony, Shamel pours himself a glass of mimosa (Cava and orange juice, in case you’re wondering, as I was) and asks me if I’ll have some, “it’s very celebratory”. It’s a Friday afternoon and we are celebrating that, but I still drink water instead. I can feel my sobriety as I press to start the recording.
When and how did you start dancing?
“I was always dancing. There are videos of me when I was younger, maybe two or three years old, dancing. My mother had always parties, she had lots of friends and there were always people over at my house till very late and I was always a part of that. Go figure I’m a nightlife person. But formally I started dancing late, at 15 years old. This is when I started studying classical ballet and classical modern techniques.”
At 15, Shamel who lived all his life in Brooklyn, started going to the LaGuardia high school in Manhattan, most popularly known as the Fame School. He had a dream then of going to LA to do hip hop choreography for music videos. “then I thought if this is what I want then I need to learn more, various ways and techniques and languages of dance, I can’t just do hip hop. So I auditioned for the school. I had no Idea what I was doing. I was.. yeah I was horrible, I sucked, but somehow they saw something.”
Did they tell you that, “you suck, but we see something”?
“Well no, they were very sweet, but once I graduated I snuck into the records room and read their critique about me for the audition and they were not so nice. Some of the teachers said things like “he has no training, he doesn’t have a flexible body, he doesn’t have a facility to dance.” I was graded very low. And then other teachers said “he seems like someone with good energy, and with a lot of potential.” So I think that combination is why I got in. And then I worked my ass off, and I let go of the hip hop dream.
When you said “I’m going for this, I want to dance”, was it an unusual thing to say in the kind of environment you were coming from?
“Yes. You know, I’m from a black culture, there’s always dancing. I guess there were issues with doing more classical types of dancing because it was more feminine and more sensitive, but I never felt dissuaded from that, and I never felt not supported. I was always pretty much independent and unusual, so my parents and my family and friends kind of understood that I’m able to take care of myself and do what I want to do.”
What is your earliest memory?
“First thing that pops to my mind now is riding my bike for the first time without training wheels. I remember we were in a park. I was very young, like three or four, something very young to be riding a bike without the training wheels, but I became so excited seeing other people do it, so I was like “I need to go to the next level”. So we took off the training wheels at some point and I was trying, and then I was doing it, going really fast for a long time and the rush was insane, and then I Just crashed right into my father.”
I say that it’s interesting that he crashed into his father, and Shamel continues.
“Another memory is of me drowning in my grandmother’s pool in South Carolina. My older sister was able to jump off the diving board and swim into the kids’ section and I wanted to do it too, so I got on the diving board and my sister was over there, she was like ‘common do it Red,’ (my nickname is Red) ‘be a man, be a man’. She said it, I’ll never forget it in my life. So I jump off, I make it in, I come up, then I go back under; I come up, I go back under, and all my family is there screaming and freaking out and somehow no one is able to swim. Then my grandmother she gets this huge pole that you use to take out insects and stuff in the pool and she’s praying to god, and she puts the pole in there towards me and all of a sudden I just start swimming. And I make it over. And then I felt – ah, actually I’m fine – but they were all such a mess so I faked it, like I wasn’t ok.
So you managed to swim eventually.
“Yes, at some point I figured it out.”
In both of these stories there is you feeling a pressure to perform something, it is you versus someone else who can do something that you want to do as well. It’s very physical too.
“Yes sure. It was very physical. I guess I’m very competitive.”
(Photo: Alex Apt)
So when you were born, your parents were living in Brooklyn?
“Yes. They separated when I was very young though. I don’t actually remember them together. And we moved around a lot but mainly around Brooklyn.”
What kind of place was Brooklyn?
“It’s hardcore and I only began to appreciate it since I’ve left it. It can be very scary, threatening; if you’re an outsider in any way they make it known to you, the way that they look at you or disregard you or disrespect you or abuse you. It’s very aggressive and exclusive and full of intense energies. I somehow managed to put myself inside of it, but then realized that I was an outsider inside, you know? I just wasn’t interested in that hanging out on the street and talking bullshit and talking about girls and starting fights with people and bullying people… I mean I did that. I guess I was a part of it and I felt fake, so I took myself outside of it. Just stopped being social in those ways, and then it became problematic for me and friends, cause then I was an outsider and was treated as such.”
Was this parallel to when you started going to high school?
“Yes and this changed my life because actually this school was the opposite of exclusive. It’s exclusive in the way that everyone is highly talented and intelligent, but it was the epitome of New York. Everyone was there, every category you can imagine. I remember during the first day of school I saw this girl, maybe 14, she had pink hair, she was gothic as hell, all black, big platforms, black lipstic, smoking a cigarette outside, and I was “wow”, never seen that before. I loved this about the school, that there was space for everyone to develop as an individual. But then I miss Brooklyn more. There’s something really amazing about this extreme cultivation of a culture.”
So how did you end up in Tel Aviv?
“In my second year at The Juilliard School we were doing a piece by Ohad Naharin called Tabula Rasa and he came to work with us for ten days and I fell in love with the work and with his offerings in dance, the way he thought about dance. It was something that I felt was essential but no one spoke about it. “Find pleasure in movement” – no one said that shit, which is so weird, because this is why we move you know? Ohad had used different words that I felt were inside of me and he just unlocked them, like ‘pleasure’, ‘passion’, ‘textures’. So I told him. I told him ‘I love you, I love this work, this was an amazing experience’ and he said ‘I’m very interested in you too. Maybe you should take my email we should keep in touch’. So I did that. Then I moved to Montreal for two years, and he came to Montreal to work with another company. We had breakfast, and he suggested I come to Tel Aviv to see what it’s like. So at some point I came, and he offered me a contract.”
But things did not go smooth at first. “It was very difficult. In new York I felt “wow this is so me, this work is so me,” and then I got here and I was having second thoughts about that, and actually Ohad, I felt from him, he also had hesitations.”
Did he tell you anything?
“No, it was never that direct. But in the way that we worked together, and the way he corrected me, and the information he said to me. It wasn’t easy stuff at the beginning and I felt very confused.”
(Photo: Goni Riskin)
But isn’t that always the case with starting new things, especially when they touch the core of who you are and what you do. Did you expect it to be different?
“I expected to feel like this was home. That the work and Batsheva and being in Batsheva would feel like home. Home doesn’t mean easy, but you feel that ‘this is where I belong’, and I didn’t really feel that way during the first year.”
You said something similar about Brooklyn, that you were an outsider inside.
“Yes it’s true.”
Is it home now?
“It’s home. Tel Aviv is home. Batsheva is home. Ohad’s Daddy (laughing).” He says about his work with Naharin: “I feel I’ve stripped a lot of things, I let go of a lot of things, which allowed for other things to surface. And I think I found more of what his work is about, truly, deeply, I mean I listen very deeply to what he says, I let it sink inside and spread, and I’m into it.
What do you think that you had let go of, what is this ‘stripping’?
“Maybe part of it is ambition. This idea of trying to be the best and working so hard, cause I was always working so damn hard. Actually at Batsheva we work mainly with thirty percent; Ohad says this a lot – it’s just thirty percent, thirty percent.”
What do you mean? does he expect you to give thirty percent?
“Yes, and with thirty percent you can be soft, loose, but you can still explode.”
It makes sense, because if you are a hundred percent there is no room to move.
“Yes, so I was very full, and I found much more suppleness, much more delicacy, and agility, and juice, and these allowed me also to be explosive.”
We begin talking about art, of all things, and I ask Shamel who his favorite artist is, a question whose answer I anticipate – “Jean Michel Basquiat” he says after a moment’s hesitation, and shows me his Basquiat-crown tattoo. Basquiat’s books and portraits decorate the living room. “He was a street artist from Brooklyn, living on the streets and doing graffiti and he would write different phrases, different words, different sentences under the nickname SAMO. Then at some point Andy Warhol discovered him and he became hugely famous and sought after. When people asked him about his work he’d say it’s about royalty, heroism and the streets. And I love that. I relate to that.”
It’s an unlikely combination.
“Yes, but it makes so much sense.”
Is heroism something you feel you needed to have as well?
“Yes, I felt I needed to be brave to survive. So ‘heroic’, I don’t know, but brave for sure. I needed bravery. Because it was hardcore. And I think that I have that, and this is also something that pushes me forward.”
What else do you like about his work?
“It’s childlike. Not childish, childlike. Jesus said not to be childish but to be childlike. This is me quoting Michael Jackson quoting Jesus. To keep exploring and have this sense of wonder and excitement and silliness.” Pointing to his tattoo, Shamel then says “this is a crown, right? and a crown represents what? Royalty. If you think about people who are royal, back in the day, they represented perfection. It’s very superior to be royal. But he drew it in a childlike way. it’s imperfect.”
(Photo: Alex Apt)
I conclude that it is royalty thirty percent, and Shamel laughs and approves. My next question though brings out a more serious side of him, as we go into the territory of his image, and how he feels other people often perceive him.
As a dancer, are you an artist or an artwork?
“I’m an artist. It’s obvious. For me.”
Why is it obvious?
“It’s obvious. I’m an artist because of who I am and how I live my life and all that I’ve been through and what I bring to the art. Or you can say I’m a color inside of the artwork, but I’m more than that as well. I live my life as an artist. I don’t know what that means but I feel that I am.”
Because I feel that you live your life as an artwork
“Because people like to think of me as an object, they like to objectify me.”
Don’t you like that too?
“I like symbols and, as I said, I like being a color for Ohad as well. But that’s just one side to me. Why do you say that?”
First of all because I think that with dancers in general, there is always this aspect of being looked at. When you go to see a dance show you basically look at other people, and I think if someone chooses this kind of profession so it’s something to think about. That’s one thing. And then also, I mean, you are very extroverted, you get attention all the time.
“That means I’m extroverted? You misunderstand me. I internalize everything.”
I don’t mean extroverted in the sense that you seek attention, or provocation, I mean that you feel comfortable in letting something show outside that’s internal.
“For sure. Yes. That’s it.”
So can you say something about being in that position? You perform almost daily, and people come to watch you and your friends. How do you feel about that?
“As dancers, you know, it’s alive. We make the artwork, and the artwork shifts every day. It’s a living thing so there’s something about saying “I’m a work of art” that’s too stagnant. It’s nice, you know, feels good to say that, it turns me on a little bit, but no. I feel that I’m a real person, with ideas and issues.”
Of course! I wasn’t saying you weren’t.
“I know, it’s just interesting for me to think about it too. it brings up lots of different things in my mind about the way people see me, it’s an issue, because I dress the way I dress, and I go out a lot, I do a lot of things that are performance related, so yes people can see me. And sometimes I feel like people are looking at me as artwork, sometimes after a show I can tell that they feel this towards me but I hope that people feel that what they receive from me is something that’s coming from within me, not outside. That it’s an energy thing. I’m not playing dress up you know? With my artwork, with my life. It might look like that, but it’s a misunderstanding. I dress the way I dress because it’s an expression of how I feel and how I feel comfortable.
Since you’ve mentioned it, let’s talk about fashion. Why is it important for you to express yourself through clothes?
“Because I like it. And it’s nothing to do with fashion. It’s style. For me.”
Good. Define stlye?
“It’s self expression, individuality, putting out something. It’s how you expose yourself to the world, like your personality, your attitude, your swag. About black culture, this rapper said it once very clearly, this idea that black people come from Africa, and in Africa they dress up, and have all these rituals, and they are into painting their faces and piercings and branding and wear extravagant clothes and lots of gold, and they dance! And then hip hop kind of took that and emulated that. So yes I see myself as part of that lineage, and it’s a style. I don’t know anything about fashion, so I’m going to quote Yves Saint Laurent, he said “fashion is temporary, style is eternal”.
Is there a particular designer whose work you admire?
“I Love Ricardo Ticci and Givenchy. Also Lanvin and Alber Elbaz. I met both of them actually and love what they do, classy and creative and crazy.”
(Photo: Guy Nahum Levy)
What makes you happy?
At this Shamel stopped, then repeated the question aloud to himself, “what makes me happy?”
Do you feel happy most of the time?
“I have lots of happiness you know, but I’m not happy lots of the time. I have an amazing inner light, and it saves me. But what makes me happy? High moments make me happy, performing, creating, dancing, partying makes me happy. Drinking an amazing bottle of wine makes me happy, having great conversation with friends makes me so happy, seeing films, amazing sex makes me happy, sitting quiet here in the morning drinking coffee, classical music makes me happy. I don’t know if happy is the word though but it gives me joy. Solitude makes me happy. What makes you happy?”
“It’s weird this Idea of happiness, “the pursuit of happiness”. It’s forever, for everyone, it’s like a work, it’s an effort. Actually serenity is happiness. I can feel peaceful just sitting here quietly”
Shamel then tells me about his upcoming tour with Batsheva to the United States. They will be performing in Brooklyn. “It’s a dream. All of Brooklyn is going to be at the opera house, my family lives down the street so it’s unbelievable.”
Is this going to be the first time you perform with Batsheva in Brooklyn?
“The second time but the first time was horrible, when I first got to the company. I just didn’t like myself inside that piece and couldn’t connect to my role. But I don’t feel that way about this piece. This is Sadeh, and we created it with Ohad. It’s my first piece with him, and a true journey with myself in that piece, not someone else’s part.”
He then disappeared into the living room and came back with a big black notebook. He calls it “Little Black Book of RED”, a book of poetry which he started writing upon his 27th birthday. The poems are written in silver ink on black paper. He tells me about the last of these poems, “Pillar”, which he uses in his latest project. He wrote it after an unusually emotional dinner with his two younger siblings. “It’s hopeless and heavy, but I really love it and it’s truthful. It’s a video art project, but it’s for my siblings, it’s a gift.” He explains that it’s a video made of sliding images that were taken by his photographer friend and collaborator Alex Apt, with the voice of Shamel reading “Pillar”. As we speak, he receives a message from Alex saying he finished editing the clip. Shamel is very excited, and we watch it together. I like Shamel’s voice, and the rhythm of the text. I tell him how it reminds of Walt Whitman, who was from Brooklyn as well.
(Photo: Alex Apt)
Shamel says about his motivation to publish these materials, going back to what we discussed before: “People have this impression about me. You mentioned the word “extroverted” and I’ve reacted strongly, not because of you but because this is something I’ve been going through for the last five years. Also in terms of love, it’s been a problem. People are interested in meeting me, you know they are turned on by me, and then at some point it becomes – “yeah, but let’s just be friend”. I feel that there’s something about how I represent myself, how people perceive that, there’s a gap between those things and who I really am. And I’m questioning whether it’s my fault. People don’t see me as someone who would be serious in a relationship; wake up in the morning and make breakfast with them, or have a quiet dinner at home. But I am that person as well. I’m less mad about it now, but it’s something that I want wholeheartedly. I want love.”
I had this on tape, and at that point I wanted a mimosa. Shamel and I continued to talk about love and about his family, and I left his place feeling that, in the course of the three hours we spent talking, something in the way I see him had shifted. I walked home feeling light, and I remembered suddenly Whitman’s word for someone who is less than a friend and more than a stranger – a comrade.