Before Shamel Pitts began studying dance, first at LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts and The Ailey School, then as a bachelor of fine arts candidate at Juilliard, he was a little boy growing up in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
At 21, Pitts got one of his first glimpses into the world of international dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There, he was introduced to Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, where Pitts would spend a significant chunk of his professional career.
From 2009 to 2016, Pitts lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and danced for Batsheva, a company led for years by choreographer Ohad Naharin, who developed a movement language called Gaga. Gaga is a form of modern dance rooted in anti-classical Israeli tradition. It’s not folk dancing, and it’s not popular dance, but it is meant to be accessible to a wide range of bodies and abilities. To see Batsheva perform Gaga is a cultlike experience. It transfixes with its slow, undulating movements and seduces its audience with its mystery, beauty and just straight-up strangeness. You don’t really watch Gaga so much as you submit to being plunged into it for a time.
“It unlocked and unleashed and opened up things that I didn’t even know were closed, just the essence of why I dance and my passion for dance, and how would dance reconnect to our pleasure and our passion to move, and how we listen to our bodies before we tell it what to do,” Pitts, now 34, said of Gaga. “It’s something about those kind of teachings. While I was at school, it was transformative for me. Something about education environments, sometimes it becomes very practical and you kind of miss out on the essential.”
Pitts first experienced Batsheva at BAM, then later danced there as a member of the company. This week, he returns for a series of performances with his creative collaborator, the Brazilian-born performance artist Mirelle Martins. They will dance BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, the second in Pitts’ trilogy of non-narrative works (BLACK BOX: Little Black Book of RED, BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, and BLACK HOLE: Trilogy and Triathlon). The language of Gaga is foundational to Pitts’ work, but, with Martins, he has built upon it to fashion his own dialect.
BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes Performance Trailer from Shamel on Vimeo.
Pitts describes BLACK VELVET as a theatrical meditation on transcending the boundaries of gender, race, love, friendship and identity. It’s performed in a space that’s lighted only with projections designed by graphic designer and video artist Lucca Del Carlo. He and Martins, who is also black, move as two sparsely clad, androgynous beings in light that turns them into a sinewy, rippling pair.
“Part of my idea and interest in using only projector in all of my works actually … is that there’s something about this object and the potential of this instrument, this lighting, to create something that is incredibly cinematic,” Pitts said. “You can feel almost like watching a hologram, but watching something that is really past and present and future change in the matter of moments, and seconds, in front of you.”
Perhaps what’s most astounding about BLACK VELVET is Martins, who began training to dance professionally with Pitts at age 28. They first met in 2013, and then Pitts moved to Brazil to teach Gaga in 2016. Martins and Pitts premiered BLACK VELVET in Brazil later that year and have been touring it internationally ever since. Pitts and Martins are the only two dancers in the 50-minute work. They move with such fluid intensity and purpose that witnessing BLACK VELVET almost feels like an intrusion, as if you are watching two people so connected to each other that they’ve managed to make the world around them cease to exist.
“I really wanted to create a work with her that was about us meeting each other and taking care of each other and listening to each other and celebrating each other and empowering each other in a performance,” Pitts said. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, but we definitely, from the very beginning, felt a strong bond between us. We really listened to this pulling to this kind of connection. I don’t know if it’s ancestral or if it’s in the future, but we really felt there was some strong connection between us. We listened to it, and then we came together. … Since then, we’ve kept fueling the fire … so now, we’re very, very, very close. She’s like a soul mate.”
When I reached Pitts this week, he was sitting in the backyard of his family’s Bed-Stuy home, with birds chirping in the background, reflecting on the circular journey his career has taken. He’s moved back to Brooklyn and continues to teach Gaga, and he works as an instructor at Harvard and Juilliard too.
“To come to BAM and bring my own work, as a Brooklyn artist, it really feels like a homecoming to me, and I’m really sort of immensely excited,” Pitts said. “It just feels really like a dream realized, this moment. I remember, as I saw all of these performances that really inspired my past as an artist, I also realized that I haven’t seen Brooklyn artists at Brooklyn Academy of Music.”