The body as a political vessel: a conversation with Okwae A. Miller

Okwae A. Miller in CARVEDimages
Miller, a Black man with a shaved head, is captured mid-air after jumping off the wooden ramp beneath him. His feet and arms are relaxed. He is shirtless, and the muscles in his back, arms and calves are visible. He wears a knee-length white tulle skirt. Miller’s chest is pulled toward the sky, and his eyes are turned upward in surrender.
Credit: Shoccara Marcus/ShocPhoto

October 31, 2020
Volume 2 Issue 1
By: Laura Briggs

Atlanta-based choreographer Okwae A. Miller has been making work about race and identity politics for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and public outcry against police brutality catalyzed his creative process, forcing him to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

“My work is protest,” Miller says. “It might not look the same as a marching or protesting in the streets, but this is how I make a difference and share my voice. I want to create work now more than ever.”

Miller is the artistic director, founder and choreographer of Okwae A. Miller & Artists (OAMA), a research space and interdisciplinary dance company. When COVID-19 suddenly disrupted his plans for a new work in April 2020, he responded with tenacity and resilience. “I allowed myself a little depressive moment,” he says, laughing. “Then I got back up and decided to experiment with technology and this new virtual world. I was able to collaborate with a couple artists to create a short film in place of the full-length work. It’s still in progress, but it will premiere very, very soon.”

The film — a shy, [RED] moon— focuses on dismantling the stigma of HIV/AIDS and the politicized Black body through solo and duet material. Miller is also in the midst of producing another dance film — Forging, the blackTAX— created during a month-long choreography lab in August. The timely documentary-style film examines our shortcomings in the ways we talk about race. Miller, an athletic and charismatic performer, appears in both films.

Zachary Orr, Lyrric Cosby Jackson and Benji Stevenson in The g[R]ay Boi
Orr, a Black man wearing overalls, a T-shirt, a baseball cap and sneakers, is bent over at the waist with his right arm extending behind and above him. In the frame behind Orr, dancers Stevenson and Jackson are also bent at the waist, feet together, facing away from the camera. The space is industrial, and the light behind the dancers is dim and blue.
Credit: Jamie Hopper Photography

Miller’s response to COVID-19 reflects his insatiability and curiosity in the dance studio in general. His directing style is flexible, generous and exploratory. His rehearsal playlist (highlights include Beyoncé and Glass Animals) is always turned up to full volume, but his infectious laugh can usually be heard over it. Miller expects his collaborating artists to be courageous, vulnerable and committed to embodying his grounded and explosive movement style. 

“My process is just crazy and fun and experimental,” Miller says. “I do focus on certain topics, some of which are very close to home. For the past few years, I’ve dedicated my work and process to the Black gay identity, identity politics and what it means for the body to be a political vessel. I want to transcribe the body as a means of sharing our stories.”

His unique choreographic style is influenced by his training at Duke University, where he was able to study at the American Dance Festival and the Ailey School. He later took an administrative position at the Washington Ballet. But when he was laid off in 2014, he refocused on his passion for choreography. Miller came home to Atlanta, where he connected with T. Lang Dance and Spelman Dance Theater.

A year later, Miller found a home at WORK ROOM, the artist residency program founded by Blake Beckham and Malina Rodriguez of The Lucky Penny. This time period birthed his company OAMA and catalyzed the creation of several full-length works, including the g[R]ay Boi, which debuted in May 2018 at the B Complex.

Benji Stevenson and Zachary Orr at The WORKROOM
Orr, a Black man, holds Stevenson, a Black nonbinary person, in his arms while Stevenson hinges towards the floor. Their embrace is tender but strong. Orr looks at Stevenson as if to make sure they are taken care of. Benji’s shoulders and collarbones are alive, and their head is held in line with their spine, moving toward the sky.
Credit: Jamie Hopper Photography

Miller has already established himself as one of the most innovative and exciting choreographers working in Atlanta today. He never settles, always hustling to the next grant cycle, the next performance, the next project. When asked about his legacy, Miller is confident his work is speaking for itself. “I know people will look back on my work and say, ‘Wow, he really made a statement about the intersections of racism and homophobia and how that impacts marginalized people. He took time to work with artists and talk about race relations.’ It may not be the shot heard around the world, but it’s an experience that will be here and will say something to someone.”

Credit: Walter Apps

Laura Briggs is a dancer and choreographer based in Atlanta. Their research is concerned with embodying aspects of the queer and trans experience.

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