Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Brontez Purnell in conversation in conjunction with
Fold, Stack,Turn
August 1–September 3, 2020

Jessica Jackson Hutchins: I’m really glad to meet you. I’m really a fan of your work.

Brontez Purnell: That’s so funny. I’m always surprised when my work gets anywhere, because I feel like I just made it in a warehouse in Oakland.

JJH: Like Free Jazz?

BP: My gosh, I made it almost a decade ago. At this point, I’m always surprised by the little nooks and crannies it still gets into.

JJH: Your film Free Jazz is one of the things I wanted to ask you about first. It was made a little bit like a mixtape, right? The final work is like a collage.

BP: Originally it was three snippets, Free Jazz, The Beats are Falling Down… and one other, I forget which one, which expanded into more, all on 8mm black and white film. My dance company made its debut performing this piece at the Berkeley Art Museum, where I was a guest curator in 2010. The lady who hired me said, “Maybe you could throw an underwear party,” probably cuz I was in this queer electro clash band Gravy Train, and we danced around in our underwear. I was going to school at the time for dance and theater, so I asked, actually, can my dance company perform? She was like, “Wait, what the fuck? Fucking dance company?” So I started a dance project at BAM, and I was working with Gary Gregerson. He’s a queer filmmaker and queer core musician that I had known for years. I was a Kill Rock Stars kid.

“At this point in history, I feel like I’m witnessing the last great epoc of those kind of queer, hedonistic, just fucking WOW displays where anything goes. Let’s do some shit we regret, you know what I mean?” 
—Brontez Purnell

JJH: I figured you might have come out of that, like Bikini Kill.

BP: Yeah, me and Kathleen are friends, Gravy Train used to tour with Le Tigre all the time. Gary was in this band called Sta-Prest, which I listened to in high school, they moved out here to the Bay. I got to work with him, and I said I wanted to make free jazz and collage a bunch of my dance work. He was into it because he worked on black and white 8mm film. I thought that such a gorgeous aesthetic choice because I wasn’t seeing anyone who would deal with the glitchiness of that type of medium anymore. I thought that was a perfect opportunity. I was going to Cal State East Bay, I used my student loans to fund that movie. I didn’t buy books for two semesters, because all the money I borrowed went into making that movie.

JJH: Did you make it as one film? Or did you make different dance films and then collage them together?

BP: It started off as just three vignettes, but then I knew that I wanted to make it into a larger piece. I think over the course of a year and a half, we filmed it all from start to finish. Then at the end we collaged it together.

JJH: Was most of it filmed in your loft?

BP: Yeah, most of it was filmed at my loft on San Pablo. There’s a part called San Pablo Runner where I’m running with a branch down the street. I read somewhere that Anna Halprin ran with a branch in one of her dances and I was like—I want to run with a branch. We’re running down San Pablo and it’s also an homage to that Sun Ra movie, Space is the Place. And Sun Ra is riding down that street in the 70s which also was where my warehouse was. Sun Ra is from Alabama too, he graduated from Alabama A & M, the historically black college where I was conceived and where my parents met and that I went to, also. There were a lot of deep references mixing and meeting all through that thing. Anyway, the film was shot in my warehouse loft. We did street scenes, sometimes around or in this indie rock show venue called 21 Grand, which sadly isn’t open anymore.

JJH: That was after you were in Gravy Train, right? Around 2010 you had your punk band The Younger Lovers?

BP: In 2002, I moved to the bay and I joined Gravy Train. I started going to Laney College and studying dance, and then in 2003 that’s when I started demoing The Younger Lovers.

JJH: So they were simultaneous?

BP: They were kind of simultaneous. From 2003 to 2009 I danced in contemporary African dance companies in Oakland, and was studying traditional African ritual theater. After a while it started feeling kind of stiff to me, and I wanted to honor lots of gods and lots of experiences. The more performative aspects started to take over and I think that was the impetus for Brontez Purnell Dance Company.

JJH: I had questions about your dance company too. I really love Free Jazz, and I was trying to articulate to myself what makes it so beautiful and I think a lot of it comes from the freedom and personality of the individual dancers; everybody really feels like themselves. It still uses pretty formal movement, which, from what I know about dance, seems pretty new. I think about the Trisha Brown dancers. For her it was all about channeling her body exactly.

BP: Yeah, totally. I was never really about that, because my aesthetic was closer to punk. I mean, the kids you see in those videos and I lived in a warehouse where we would have punk shows. I was writing for Maximum Rocknroll at the time, and the initial way I got people into the company was by finding kids at shows who I saw in the mosh pit. I’d be like, “Hey, do you want to be in a dance company with me?” And they’d be like, “Wait, what?” But it was cool, because it gave us something else to do. I think scenes are supposed to be a lot of things at the same time. In Oakland, everyone’s identity was just about being in a band. I think a true countercultural moment should never be about one thing. There should be people writing plays, people making photographs, people writing, some people playing music, you know? Whenever one thing gets too top-heavy with anything, I don’t think we get the full experience of what an art scene should be.

JJH: And you were able to just do it all.

“The initial way I got people into the company was by finding kids at shows who I saw in the mosh pit. I’d be like, ‘Hey, do you want to be in a dance company with me?’ And they’d be like, ‘Wait, what?’”
—Brontez Purnell

BP: Yeah, I was. I was nervous enough, and honestly my indie rock career was basically a failure because I never made a lot of money doing it. I just did it for fun. Plus, I could never quite feel satisfied just making music. I felt like it was an extension of my writing. Movement is a whole other language that you can express things with, but the articulation is different. I always thought that it was something worth exploring, and still worth exploring. I love exploring.

JJH: You starting that dance company was really just pulling a group of friends together? Or at least people you knew could be free and adventurous with their bodies. If they’re coming out of a mosh pit. They can move and be…

BP: Down to clown.

JJH: Exactly. They’re down. They’re down to clown. And you were writing at the same time?

BP: Totally. I had started the zine called Fag School when I first moved to Oakland, and was writing for Maximum Rocknroll. That was around the time I started the dance company, and when I started I was writing my first book, Johnny, Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger? You know, it’s funny that I’m going over all this because I really space on those years. But when I look back and talk about it, I’m like, damn, that was a lot of shit going on. I’m glad I’m talking about it now, because I don’t know who knows what, or will remember what, in 20 years.

JJH: Also, you had just moved to Oakland from Alabama in 2002, when you had all that going on. One of the interviews I heard with you was so charming. You were talking about being inspired by Flashdance, just wanting to have a loft, and dancing a lot like she did. I can completely relate because I also loved that movie as a kid.

BP: Yeah, those were my two routes: Flashdance and “The Pleasure Principle” video by Janet Jackson. I remember when I was five, and my mom used to sit me in front of BET and I saw Janet Jackson. I remember sitting my dad down in the living room and acting out Janet’s moves and scenes from Flashdance for him.

JJH: I also put on plays for the grown-ups with scenes from Flashdance. I had boas and stuff. It’s kind of embarrassing for me now, because I realized how I oversexed it a bit more than was appropriate for that age.

BP: Oh, same. I saw Flashdance, like, a year ago and it is not sexy at all. It’s all performance art. I think all the cultural signifiers just aren’t there anymore. These days, I think kids just want to go background dance for Beyoncé. No one wants to be a girl who works in a steel mill who strips till two AM, then somehow welds metal, by eight PM she breaks into ballet.

JJH: That’s because kids really want to be good at things. They want to show they know everything and be so polished, so accomplished.

BP: Everyone wants instant arrival. That’s the funny thing too, when I meet dancers and kids years younger than me. The mode of branding makes it so it doesn’t matter how bad their moves are if they can polish their image at first. Even in that 10 year age gap, we were entitled to our fucked upness. The fact that we made mistakes, we cherished that. Having made mistakes and I got better, is the benchmark of progress. These days there’s such an eye on people’s behavior because of social media. When I first moved to the Bay, we were insane! We had intense public displays of hedonism that I don’t think anyone would engage in today. Not even for any moral thing, but just the fear of, like, oh, what if my future boss sees this or what if someone sees this or blah blah blah! We didn’t give a fuck about future bosses, we weren’t trying to live in society, anyway. At this point in history, I feel like I’m witnessing the last great epoc of those kind of queer, hedonistic, just fucking WOW displays where anything goes. Let’s do some shit we regret, you know what I mean?

JJH: It worries me for future generations. For art making, I mean. If it’s all about what kind of a successful branding a person can come up with… Where’s the discovery? It’s depressing.

BP: You know, I think that they’ll figure it out. At some point, they’ll start asking themselves how long can that really last. Plus, the older you get, the more you stop giving a fuck. I’m sure around forty they’ll all be naked and dancing in the woods and shit.

JJH: They’ll have a different timeline.

BP: Yeah, very different time.

JJH: I wanted to ask you about choreography. Where does the choreography come from? I know that you’re a fan of Ed Mock, or that he was a really big influence. Or were you influenced by coming more out of the mosh pit scene, or both?

“I think a true countercultural moment should never be about one thing. There should be people writing plays, people making photographs, people writing, some people playing music, you know?”
—Brontez Purnell

BP: The mosh pit scene for sure. That came after being in the African dance theater for years, where every movement means something—it’s very gesture based. When I first started, I was very into the early mods, like that whole Isadora Duncan scene. “I am dancing through the garden of my ideas” type of shit. It’s so cheesy in this one way. But when you think about it, who actually does that anymore? Sometimes I do want to dance through the woods. Why not? Sounds like fun. A lot of my earlier pieces involved a lot of people; it was a lot of gesture, lots of improv. I was also working with my partner Sophia Wang, who’s very meticulous. Me and her could sit in a damn studio and work two or three weeks on something that we felt was necessary. I don’t have just one method for how I work out choreography. It’s a lot of things, depending on the project.

JJH: Was most of it worked out in partnership?
BP: Well, it’s funny, because when people wanted to start seeing the Brontez Purnell Dance Company, they started as these large scale pieces with twelve to fifteen people. But when we were traveling, no one ever gave us the money for the dance company to travel with us, so it ended up just being a lot of duets with me and Sophia. Just out of simple practicality. So at that point, about half the work was made through our partnership. Half with Sophia, and for the other half, I’d set some parameters and we keep practicing until we find our logical groove in it.

“It was mostly about me sitting around and thinking, ‘Okay, what does these movements mean to me?’ It was about me having my own cosmology of movements and stuff.”
—Brontez Purnell

JJH: Did you still work with a group of dancers on a regular basis?

BP: Every once in a while. I worked with Sophia a lot, and occasionally I’d have a duet with another person and other projects. It will be like three people and it will be totally fun.

JJH: I wanted to go back to something you said about gesture, and how some gestures have different symbolic meanings. Can you say more about that? The exhibition you’re in at Adams and Ollman, it’s named Fold, Stack, Turn after a series of gestures. Earlier you mentioned, in some African dances the gestures have specific symbols, can you talk more about that?

BP: In Haitian dance there’s Yanvalou, and there’s a dance where you roll your spine like a snake to reference Dumbala, the snake God. It holds all this symbolic energy, Dumbala is the oldest and the wisest god, and snakes carry that symbolic energy. They have no legs, but they’re one of the most graceful animals. There was also some West African dance where we would go like this and I never knew why we were going like this. But then one day, Pape Diouf, had a company I would practice with called Diamano Coura. They showed me how to move like you’re a butcher shop and the butcher is cutting the meat and then tossing the meat. In Free Jazz, there was a move when I’m with Sophia and taking the arrow out of the quiver and shooting it. It’s part of a warrior dance. All of those movements have very specific meanings, but I translated it over to what I wanted, to do my own thing. It was mostly about me sitting around and thinking, “Okay, what does these movements mean to me?” It was about me having my own cosmology of movements and stuff.

JJH: The movements are pretty narrative?

BP: Yeah, they can write a narrative. The older dances were very much like that. Or, when I first started dancing I was thinking about it a lot, but now I’m more apt to just be more free. Formality does creep up on us as we get older.

JJH: You refine the movements and see what is beautiful.

BP: Yeah, totally.

JJH: I noticed in some of the dances there’s a religious connotation. In one of them, you’re wearing a priest collar.

BP: That was one I made when I was in college at Cal State East Bay. I went to Cal State East Bay and it was kind of amazing. I think I had a really amazing dance education and I worked my professors were these two queer professors, Nina Haft and Eric Kupers. Coming from Laney College, and the Malanga Casquelourd Lord, and moving into a realm where I had two core dance teachers that were hip to performance art. They were hip to all types of stuff and were a huge part of my early process of figuring things out. They helped me develop what my dance company would be. I was really lucky to have that education. I think about that all the time, actually.

JJH: Were you already in a really kind of artsy punk environment in Alabama or did moving to Oakland just blow your mind?

“Some people use our stories as entertainment, but it’s not entertainment. It’s a strategy for our survival.”
—Brontez Purnell

BP: I was already a punk in Alabama. I was definitely like Seth Bogart, the guy in my band Gravy Train. Me and him were actually pen pals as teenagers. We met on the Kill Rock Stars message board! I remember I had another friend in southern Alabama, who was like, oh yeah, Seth is gay, he dates the drummer from Pansy Division. I didn’t know any other gay boys and I knew that I was gay, but I was pen pals with him. He’s the first person that I came out to. It was pretty amazing. I was in a band called The Social Lies with this other Black riot grrrl. We had to be the only two Black riot grrrls in all of Alabama. I grew up in this town that was like, 400 people. We had more diversity than, say, some of the more county towns, but not by much. Then, in about a year and a half, I went from just being in my mom’s house sitting in my room staring at a fucking wall to being in Oakland. Then all of a sudden, I’m in England dancing on stage in my underwear for a bunch of boys who wanted to make out with me. When I sit and think about the level of fucking culture shock that happened… it’s kind of insane. It was almost this instant night and day difference that happened. I don’t think very many people get to have like that shocking of a turnaround in life, ever.

JJH: Make your Flashdance dream come true.

BP: I manifested that shit! I was happy it  happened, I was grateful.

JJH: Were you also interested in visual arts when you were younger? Some of your pieces look like fantasies of Warhol’s factory. Or maybe that’s just, again, my fantasy. Like, in Free Jazz when you guys all have the sunglasses on and you’re in the party going around in the circle.

BP: I often think that it does. I definitely studied Andy Warhol, so there’s no way those aesthetics didn’t come up. I do have to say that the 100 Boyfriends Mixtape bathtub scene is inspired by Warhol’s Poor Little Rich Girl. I don’t know who is not inspired by Andy Warhol. I often think about how prophetic he seems now. That whole thing he said about how everyone in the future will have fifteen minutes of fame. That came true with how much of society is built on Instagram and Facebook. It’s almost apocalyptic how well he predicted what we’re living through now. When I look back at his films like Poor Little Rich Girl, and all the stuff was essentially reality TV. But then that became like the dominant thing, and now President Trump, a reality TV star, sits at the White House. Warhol gave us a doom prophecy.

“How to survive has been plotted out for us before, it’s just that they take the knowledge away. They hide it or bury it, so we feel lost, like there’s not a blueprint. But there is a goddamn blueprint. If we go and look, if we go read and study about these people who were making something new. Making their scene and doing their art in the face of it all.”
—Brontez Purnell

JJH: But back then it sounded like just some stupid shit.

BP: For sure. Yeah great, fifteen minutes of fame for everyone. We’re looking at the logical end of that, and it’s not so cool. It’s fucking crazy.

JJH: Not so cool. But you guys look really cool in Free Jazz. It reminded me of The Velvet Underground in the warehouse.

BP: Oh yeah, those kids were definitely having lots of fun. There was also so much going on then. I really studied all the mid-century choreographers. I would look up their old dance films and was really captured by their methods and aesthetic. I was looking at the old Anna Halprin films, and things by Lester Horton and Martha Graham. I’d say from when I was twenty-three to twenty-nine, those were really the aesthetics that I was really deeply entrenched in. I wanted to see how they looked on my body, in my reality around me. I thought we could definitely update that aesthetic or revisit that conversation in a cool modern way. That was also part of what I was trying to do.

JJH: How would you say that those dancers use or address gesture, compared to how you did, or how you learned through African dance?

BP: They were all studying intense forms of ethnic dance. Lester Horton, before he moved from Indiana to California, he studied ritual Native American dance. Martha Graham, Jesus Christ!, everything she does has a fucking novel of working explanation behind it. Reading some of her dance notebooks, there is not one gesture that doesn’t have, like, a 3,000 word essay behind it. That’s how dogmatic she is. I was also really into Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts. That book was literally my Bible at the time. Just reading about her process and the No Manifesto was really influential. And Alvin Ailey, who was also in the Lester Horton Company, who had the first interracial dance company in America. It’s crazy to think about what that must have felt like. Even Ailey used jazz music or jazz gestures. My piece is called Free Jazz, but it’s not a statement on jazz music. It’s a statement on jazz dance. When I was going to Cal State East Bay, there was this book by an Afro-Haitian teacher in the Bay area, I forgot their name, but the book says that people who started jazz didn’t like the word jazz, and they didn’t call it that. The word jazz was a white media invention. So, in calling the piece Free Jazz, I was also thinking about how people like to be able to free their form and have it not be linked to any type of history. I chose to use black and white film and conga and dance tracks as a way to say we should free the form, but also keep a connection to an art that has very deep arms in the past. It was informed by the past.

JJH: It comes through in the film. It’s so rich, there’s a lot going on, but it also structures formality. There’s also a lot of improvisation.

BP: Yeah, I’m not a draconian taskmaster, I’m more benevolent. I’m a benevolent dictator. That’s the way to keep it going…

JJH: The title makes me think about how, in jazz, there are standards, but everybody can also bring what they bring to it. And that’s allowed. I wanted to ask you about the role of Ed Mock. You mentioned all these other great influences…

BP: Ed Mock came later. After I made Free Jazz, I was trying to get my dance company’s film to show at this art gallery, and the gallery director’s sister was a dancer and choreographer in the Bay; she had worked with Ed Mock in the 70s when she was like 13, she saw the video, and said it reminded her Ed Mock. So she got in contact with me because she was doing this five hour public dance piece by Ed Mock called He Moved Swiftly But Gently Through The Not Too Crowded Streets, and I was in it.

JJH: Why haven’t we heard of Ed Mock?

BP: Well, this was during that mid-century canon, and we only know about the white dudes. But that canon has been disrupted, and we’re seeing names pop up like Lucia Berlin, for instance. She’s one of my favorite writers. She could be considered a beatnik writer. She lived in the Bay, and was a really bad alcoholic raising four sons by herself. She has this book, A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, there’s one line in the book where she says to always try to work for Black people and Jewish people, because you’ll get lunch. I thought that was so funny. She also has these stories about like going to Mexico in the 50s to get an abortion, which was a crazy thing to do at the time. The beatnik boy writers could write about whatever the fuck they want, but this woman wrote about her alcohol problems and trying to get an abortion, and society made her pay for it by cloaking her history.

Now, posthumously, we’re getting all of her stories, which is happening with a lot of other people, I think. Ed Mock was one of those people, too. He was Black, he was gay, and he was suffering from a time where everyone wanted him to be just a jazz dancer, because that’s what was in. But he was really all about kinds of crazy, freaky, weird performance art and other shit. It was really hard for him to be classified, which also meant his work was almost never funded. What we’re having now as we get older, as the world becomes unearthed, we’re getting these splintered histories that we never got before, and more names pop up each day, like the Lucia Berlins and the Ed Mocks… The Shaun DeLear’s (of LA punk band Glue), just a lot of people who are living these crazy amazing lives, but because of like their marginality never quite got their due, but I think in the next couple of years, especially as shit gets rougher and rougher we’re going to turn to these stories because we’ve survived hard times since the beginning. I think about these people doing their thing during the Reagan era or you know I’m saying or Nixon… We have survived this before, we don’t just get to lay down and die and despair. It’ll suck, but we’re gonna get through this shit. We also have to make sure that our stories are not being overly marginalized or pigeonholed. Some people use our stories as entertainment, but it’s not entertainment. It’s a strategy for our survival. How to survive has been plotted out for us before, it’s just that they take the knowledge away. They hide it or bury it, so we feel lost, like there’s not a blueprint. But there is a goddamn blueprint. If we go and look, if we go read and study about these people who were making something new. Making their scene and doing their art in the face of it all. Sometimes you want your own scene to grow in front of you, and that’s fine too. As long as you still get up and make the work.

JJH: Wow, that was really moving.

BP: I've never had anyone ask me about Free Jazz or my process. Usually I just get asked about identity and then leave it at that. It’ll be saying some sound clips. No one ever asked me deep questions about, like, what’s the process or what did you have to do to get better made, so I actually really appreciate this.

JJH: I’m so grateful you shared it with me.