Visual Seduction: Holly Bass on Dance Theater & Performance Art Saturday 27 October, 2012

Holly Bass 920x350

“I try to keep things simple and just describe myself as an artist.” Washington D.C.-based artist Holly Bass is a writer, performer, and director with an unstoppable abundance of creative talent. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Newsday, the Washington City Paper, The Crisis and was the first […]


“I try to keep things simple and just describe myself as an artist.” Washington D.C.-based artist Holly Bass is a writer, performer, and director with an unstoppable abundance of creative talent. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Newsday, the Washington City Paper, The Crisis and was the first journalist to put the term “hip hop theater” into print in a 1999 article for American Theatre Magazine. She has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied Modern Dance (under Viola Farber) and Creative Writing, and a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. Her most recent artistic endeavors, which explore the enduring fascination of booty from 19th century Venus Hottentots to 21st century video vixens, combines innovative vision and provocative movement.

A creative writer since childhood, Holly’s affinity for language naturally extends to all elements of her repertoire, including dance. Holly uses dancing as another form of writing by creating a composition of “vocabulary” and “phrases” with her body. Her instinctive impulse to combine the written word with the structure of motion in her pieces “gives the work more power”, which is beautifully exhibited in works such as Holly’s poetry introduction for Alice Walker.

In this interview, Holly discusses the art of dance-theater, the impact of performance pieces, and the cultural phenomena surrounding the black female body.

Can you tell us about your Pay Purview Show?
Pay Purview is part of a body of work inspired by Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who was taken to Europe and essentially displayed as a sideshow for her large buttocks. She is the best known of several women displayed as the Venus Hottentot. In the piece, I wear an oversized strap-on derriere made of basketballs covered in gold lame fabric. With Pay Purview in particular, the performance is set up like a peep show with little vignettes. The audience is asked to give money for the curtain to open and the show to continue. It’s my way of literally getting buy-in from the audience. It asks people to think about the ways in which they contribute or don’t contribute to the commercial display of women, whether we’re talking about Hottentots in the 1800s or hip hop video vixens in the 21st century.

Holly Bass in Come Clean

What has the response to your shows been like the Pay Purview one? Do you feel that these responses are the ones you set out to elicit in the creation of each show?
I get a range of responses from the work. Some people are offended, particularly older black women. They see it as merely replicating an exploitative display. Others immediately get the political content and satire. What I hope to elicit is a mixture of pleasure and discomfort. There’s something wonderful about watching someone dance. And as a performer, I enjoy dancing for people. But at the same time, there are a lot of dynamics in that subject-object relationship that often get ignored. Is my labor being fairly compensated? Who is my audience? What is their understanding and appreciation of the cultural offering I’m sharing? What’s the line between seductive allure and sexual exploitation? I want to make audiences think about the complexities rather than take a black-white, negative-positive view.

What do you like most about performance?
People don’t always realize but when I’m dealing with difficult subject matter like the history of Saartjie Baartman, it can be really emotionally and physically challenging for me as an artist. The audience forgets that if they are feeling uncomfortable, I probably am too. Those emotions don’t come out of a vacuum. The same goes for feelings of joy as well. There are moments when everything seems to flow. You can feel the audience connecting with you and there’s a deep sense of empathy. That’s the best part.

I hear you have a new show premiering in DC. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Yes, I just performed two new works this August at the Dance Place as part of a show called Double Consciousness. Following that, I was invited to perform as part of the fallFRINGE, a mini-festival curated by the Capital Fringe. So I’ll be performing Double Consciousness Redux for five dates in November. The new works are much more theatrical. One of the pieces Girls In White Dresses is sort of a macabre mini-musical in which I take the lyrics from My Favorite Things and turn it into a commentary on drugs abuse and despair. So “snowflakes on my nose” becomes cocaine and “little brown packages” becomes a heroin reference. The longer work, Sweet Science, is an exploration of suicide in the black community. It’s my way of responding to the loss or near-loss of several important figures in my life.

Holly Bass in Sweet Science, part of Double Consciousness. Photo by Rosina Photography

How has being a black, female artist contributed to your work? Has it inspired your work or posed any particular challenges in the reception of it?
My work largely derives from lived personal experience so being a black woman is a big part of that. There’s so much ri­­­­chness and mystery in the black female experience. I enjoy mining this cultural source, whether I’m gathering ­­­­stories from my mother or researching historical figures. In terms of challenges, I’ve started to be aware of the sexism within the art world as it relates to my group of artist friends and whose work is exhibited more often. As well, sometimes reviewers don’t always do the simple research needed to write accurately about the historical or cultural references in my work. But I can’t complain as my career is thriving and I know how fortunate I am in many regards!

What does living unchained mean to you?
Living unchained means challenging myself to always learn new things as an artist. It means being a person of integrity and expanding my capacity to be deeply human. It means not shying away from the thing that scares me. It means having a circle of positive supportive people in my life. And being fabulous as often as possible!

If you are interested in Holly’s work, you can also stream her projects for free here:

Pay Purview

Moneymaker – 1 minute clip

Moneymaker – Description plus 3 hour Livestream video

Moneymaker – Blog Piece

Holly Dancing in Gregory Porter’s ‘Be Good’ video

Holly’s Poetry Introduction for Alice Walker

Written by Cera Smith and Aleyna Jones


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