Dancer and Choreographer Countess V. Winfrey
In this episode, host Rodney Veal talks to choreographer and dancer Countess V. Winfrey about her origins in dance, growing up loving art, working with family, and the importance of seeing and feeling representation in the world of dance.
[00:00:21] Rodney Veal: hello, Countess. This is a great honor to have you on the first episode of the Art Show podcast. So thank you for taking time outta your afternoon to be with us. Thank
[00:00:32] Countess Winfrey: Yes, I am very excited. I’m so glad I get to be an inaugural participant. So thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Oh,
[00:00:39] Rodney Veal: I mean, you were our first choice.
[00:00:41] We were sitting around the room, we said who would be awesome on podcasting and to share their story about their creativity. And we said, Countess. I was like, it was unanimous. So I’ll have you on there because you know I’m a fan. I’m fanboying out.
[00:00:55] Countess Winfrey: Well, I too have a fan of your work,
[00:00:57] Rodney Veal: so, so this is just a mutual admiration [00:01:00] society, which is great.
[00:01:00] Yes. So we’re gonna start from the beginning. It’s kind of a, this is your life sort of scenario, but I know a little bit about you, but I want the world and to know as much as possible about you in regards to. How this creative journey started for you being a dancer and a
[00:01:17] Countess Winfrey: choreographer? Well, you know, it’s interesting, so I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and I started dancing when I was 11 at just like a local studio.
[00:01:25] And I was like, oh, I, I, you know, I enjoyed this and I went to Nashville School, the arts for high school, and I would say that’s where I really started my training. I remember being in school and wondering, Like if professional dance was something that I would be able to do, but you know, there’s only so much that you know about in your formative years.
[00:01:48] And so I only really knew about commercial dance and, you know, ballet type programs. And I only knew about a couple of modern programs. And so essentially I ended up going into [00:02:00] college and pursuing physical therapy school because I had a really great ballet teacher that was like, well, you know, retired dancers, they go into physical therapy, so on and so forth.
[00:02:08] So I was like, okay. That’s something I could look into. And then I went to college and you know, I was taking every single dance class that I could , even though I was minoring in dance and had all these other classes I had to take for my actual major. But I just kept finding my way back to it. I think that.
[00:02:24] I just, there’s just so much like beauty and magic that lives inside of dance. And actually dc DC they came to my college and that was the first time that I saw, well, maybe not the first time, but the first time that I was really recognizing what I was seeing and that it was a black dance company and they were, you know, telling these black stories and I.
[00:02:46] Was just so enthralled by looking at them. They all looked different, but they all danced so beautifully together and that was like a catalyst for me to say, okay, maybe, maybe I too can dance professionally. So I [00:03:00] like got in all these ballet classes and again, still taking as many classes at the university as I could.
[00:03:06] And then, you know, and I had friends in college who loved to choreograph, and I would be in their work sometimes, and I was like, oh, this is cool. But I just never really found myself in it. , you know, I didn’t really know that I had a place in choreography, so I just was like, well, I enjoy dancing. I’m just gonna kind of stick with this.
[00:03:24] And then when I came to dc, DC you know, a lot of the processes, you know, we learned a lot. We also contribute to the creative process. And, uh, there was one show that we were working on for our arts and education outreach program, and Debbie had asked some of the company members to create, you know, a three to four minute piece that, you know, adding to the story of the people who could fly.
[00:03:50] That was what the program was based around the book called The People Who Could Fly. And so I was kind of nervous and I had done like, you know, recital things for the different studios that [00:04:00] I worked at, but never anything like. On a professional dance company. And so when I, you know, made this three to four minute piece, they looked at me and they were like, oh.
[00:04:12] And I, I mean, I didn’t really know where it stood, you know, I thought it was just, you know, I found a song I liked and I had six dancers and I just made the piece they asked me to make essentially. And from there it just kind of like catapulted the next season, my coworker and. We’re commissioned to create a main stage piece for dc DC and that was called Stepping In the Season.
[00:04:36] It was performed at the Victoria Theater, and we went on to, you know, be able to tour that piece a couple different places, which was really nice. And then it just, I don’t know, all these other opportunities have just come up and I think I. Don’t say no. So then I’m like, you know, and it’s interesting because choreography is, it doesn’t really come, I don’t think it comes easy to me.
[00:04:57] I think that teaching comes a little [00:05:00] bit more naturally. I think that I really enjoy dancing and there are aspects of dancing that come naturally, and there are other aspects I really have to work for, as we all know. And choreography is just one of those things that feels like such a big challenge because there’s no direction.
[00:05:14] Like sometimes someone will say, I want you to make a. To this music, or I want it to be the anchor of this show, or the piece has to be about this, but after that it’s all you. And so I think some of the challenge initially when I first started was like, does what I have to say? , you know, matter or are people gonna be interested in it?
[00:05:36] And I have so many, I would say stylistic influences that, in that influence, the way that I create phrase work that like, does it all go together? And then can it all tell a story? Does it need to tell a story? And then, so there’s all these questions that come up when you start creating work, whereas when you’re learning someone else’s work, then you try.
[00:05:58] To be [00:06:00] inside of their voice and to bring forth exactly what they have envisioned. And so, you know, initially it was pretty scary and I always went into it with all the prayers, like, oh, please, please, please . And I think that, you know, I still do. I think I still do. I definitely don’t think it comes easier now that I’ve.
[00:06:18] Choreographed a lot more. I think that now that I’ve done it more and I’ve gotten to present my work on pretty big stages, which I’m so grateful for, and I’m again so grateful that Debbie believed in my work enough to allow me to have a lot of spaces to be able to, to present my work. And now I’m just trying to decide what I wanna say and what I wanna talk about right now and how to make sure that that is in full alignment with who I am and my spirit.
[00:06:47] As a most authentic, you know, representation of who Countess is right now in her early thirties. And
[00:06:54] Rodney Veal: what’s amazing, Countess. And one of the things you touched upon, like you said Debbie and Debbie London is the [00:07:00] artistic director of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, is that fact that there’s always some person who sees it in you before you see it in your.
[00:07:09] Absolutely. And they give you that chance and an opportunity. And you said it’s like a door open. You, you don’t how to say no because you’re, you just wanna work in this, in this process. What was really fascinating to me is the fact that you are so young in the process, but the work. Is so accomplished. I mean, that’s why I fanboy out because y your, your work is, has so many multiple layers of, in interpretation and entry points.
[00:07:33] Are you consciously thinking about all of those elements? I mean, you bring in social causes, representation, video. I think you, and you’ve done site specific, but I mean, but we’ll get into that later. But just what’s going on in the creative process in your mind when you’re presented with these challenges that people may not.
[00:07:52] They’re going in in the head of a
[00:07:53] Countess Winfrey: choreographer. Yeah. I think that for me personally, when I create, I really try to start from a [00:08:00] place that feels most honest and most true. And for me, that’s my connection to spirit and my faith. And so I start there and start with a lot of praying about what direction to go in.
[00:08:12] And then I just think about the things that interest me. Say right now, I’ve been very interested in collaboration. The most recent work that I presented for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in February of this year, we had live music. My brother is a musician, so he composed all the music for this piece.
[00:08:30] I also had a spoken word slash or orator who created the dialogue. Kind of tethered the whole piece together. I also got to work with my cousin, who is a brilliant visual artist, and she created a really beautiful painting of a tree, this huge tree that, for me has a lot of symbolism, both personally and spiritually, but she created this rendering and then we had that rendering [00:09:00] essentially blown up on a huge.
[00:09:02] Translucent backdrop. So that’s, you know, four different people that I worked with on my most recent piece. And I really enjoy working with other artists who are really great at what they do. One, because they’re gonna bring. Their best selves. And two, it’s really wonderful to have people who also believe in your work and when we can all come together and create this really beautiful thing.
[00:09:26] I just, I don’t know, I’m like a, truly an art lover. Just I grew up and I was a visual artist really before I was a dancer. Oh really? And so, yeah.
[00:09:36] Rodney Veal: We share so much of the similar pathway, it’s just canny.
[00:09:39] Countess Winfrey: Yeah. I, me and my brother and I, we were drawing on our long car trips to and from Nashville to Memphis, but anytime we were in the house and we had free time, we were drawing and painting and coloring, and that was something that was just of pure interest to us.
[00:09:55] And we’ve both shied away from it. I mean, clearly, because now I’m heavily [00:10:00] involved in dance and he’s heavily involved in. But that was like a very strong base for us. And I think that my desire and interest in visual art has never waned, which is why like whenever we go on tour, whenever I’m on vacation, one of my favorite things to do is to go to a local art museum and.
[00:10:17] Just see, you know, really just love art. I love out, even outdoor art. If there’s like, some cities will have like murals and so I love to just kind of drive around the city or walk around the city and look at all the beautiful murals on the walls. Art is just, it’s just always been like such a huge part of my life.
[00:10:35] And then obviously music is something. I would say most people can identify with, but music is, I, for me, is important in my creative process. If I don’t like the music, it’s very challenging for me to feel inspired to make a dance to music that I don’t like. So in the times when I’ve had to do that, I’ve been like, okay, let me just try to like think of material and then I’ll just.
[00:10:58] Put it to this music. So I, I don’t [00:11:00] like having to do that, but sometimes, you know, we have to do that depending on the scenario. But I love being able to choose the music that I like. It has been really wonderful to work with my brother on my most recent projects and the music that he’s created for me, because I’ve been able to kind of, not dictate, but really say, I really want this to sound like this.
[00:11:19] I want this, the next song to sound like this. And then we toggle, we work back and forth, and then we reach a resting. That is a really great musical score, and then I get to create to it, and that feels like such a gift for me. So yeah, collaboration has really been something on my mind. I definitely think that as I continue to create more work, that if I can do collaboration in a way that’s not gonna hinder the work, then I would definitely like to continue to.
[00:11:45] Rodney Veal: Oh yeah. And. I also too, I love the fact that you can collaborate with your brother. You know that he’s not gonna try to let his sister down. So Yeah, you have the familial connection. So on that one, and when the work, the title of the work that you performed for dc DC in [00:12:00] February. Cause I want people to kind of know so they can kind of dig into your history because we’ll be posting hopefully links and clips of, from your work and images so they people can kinda get a, a feel for it.
[00:12:11] And I was lucky to sit in the audience and see it and I was just really. Blown away by the complexity. Thank you. Going back to the whole, like the name of the work that you presented at for C D C, I just remember one of the things that was really fascinating about it, it just felt. Like you were taking us on an ancestral journey and it was very personal and, and I really responded that, and you had talked about earlier about representation would, if you hadn’t seen a dance company with black and brown-skinned people in it, do you think you would’ve currently had pursued the pathway of dance?
[00:12:43] Or was it just that the dance was just gonna, you were gonna make it happen no matter what? Or was it the catalyst of seeing a modern company of pretty predominantly African Americans, Perform. Was that the
[00:12:55] Countess Winfrey: spark? Yeah. You know, it’s interesting that you say that because [00:13:00] I think that I love dance and I’m not really a person who is like, I only do this kind of dance.
[00:13:06] I really am a person who I, I love all the genres. Now I will say, I tell people I am a modern girl at heart. Give me a roll on the floor. and a hair flip and a partnering section. I love it all. So I would say I am definitely more attracted to, and I feel most comfortable in my body doing, you know, movement that is of the modern aesthetic.
[00:13:29] But I love and appreciate all styles of dance. I will say that, you know, prior to seeing DC, DC. Seen Alvin A. So that was one black dance company that I had seen. I had also seen, well, Dallas Black, I didn’t see them perform, but they came to my school and they did like a residency day. And that was really cool to see them, you know, in our space and to know that they were.
[00:13:52] Professional dancers and to learn from them. And I did enjoy that class, but it was such a short experience. I would say if we would’ve [00:14:00] had them for a week, that would’ve been really cool, but it was just one day. So those are the couple of bites of black dance I would say that I got to see. I didn’t know about the International Association of Blacks and Dance, which is a black dance conference that was started over 30 years ago, which is a compilation of all the black dance companies in the nation that are a part of this conference and one of the founding companies.
[00:14:22] So I had never heard about I A B D, whereas I have a lot of friends who in middle school they were going to the conferences and in high school they were going to the conferences and in college they went to the conferences and, which is fine. I think I got a lot of exposure in, you know, in certain lanes, which I think, you know, my teachers in high school did the best they could with what they knew, which was wonderful.
[00:14:43] We did a lot of really wonderful things. But, you know, I think that, you know, I’m. Person who, you know, I look the way I look. I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, I’m a southern girl, . And so not often do you see southern looking women on [00:15:00] stage. And so, you know, when I saw dc DC for the first time and I saw the variety of the bodies and I saw the trusting work that they did, and they did some pretty.
[00:15:11] I don’t know. They did some big work when they came to my school. They did Vespers, which is a very well known piece. It’s a world renowned piece that actually was first performed here at the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, and now it’s performed anywhere and all over the world by multiple companies and conservator, so on and so forth.
[00:15:32] But it’s a pretty major piece to be able to say. Started here in Dayton and they did that piece at my school. So when I first saw Vespers in person, I was like, what? I had never seen any. Like anything like that and or at least it didn’t hit if I had, it didn’t hit me the same way.
[00:15:52] Rodney Veal: And Vespers is built to hit you a certain way for, for our audience.
[00:15:56] Vespers. Vespers as a work is just, it’s [00:16:00] propulsive. It’s got this incredible, incredible sound score and it’s all women on stage with chairs and they are moving with a fervor and intensity that. It’s all consuming and we’re gonna hopefully cross my fingers will include some photographs of Vesper. on the Instagram and Facebook pages for the art show so you can kind of get a taste of feel.
[00:16:22] But you gotta see it live. If you see it on a bill, go see Vespers.
[00:16:26] Countess Winfrey: Yes. So, you know, I was just in awe when I first saw that and so long story short, I would say that to your point, Rodney, that seeing dc, DC perform live and also getting to spend a week with them, cuz they were with us for a week, that was really the catalyst to allow me to believe that there.
[00:16:44] Space for me in the dance world and you know, I came to dc. DC cuz I wanted to train more. I knew I needed more training if I were going to pursue a professional career. I didn’t come thinking that I was gonna dance specifically for dc DC but I knew I wanted to come here to [00:17:00] train and I wanted to. Soak up and learn all that I could from this space because they just left such a big impression on me.
[00:17:06] And so, you know, I did the thing that you do for dancers who are in a pre-professional program or that are in training, or even once they get ready to graduate from college and they’re starting to look for jobs. They, you know, you go to auditions and some of those auditions are cattle call auditions, where it’s hundreds of people trying to get two spots in the company.
[00:17:26] and some of those auditions were a little bit smaller. But ultimately what I learned was that, you know what? What we do here at dc DC is what I was most interested in dc DC is a repertory company, which is a company that does choreography by multiple choreographers, not just one single choreographer.
[00:17:44] And there’s just so much challenge in that because, Spend all your time in one style, you’re really like, I mean, we’re doing African and contemporary dance and hip hop dance and a contemporary ballet dance, sometimes all in the same [00:18:00] program, , and that can be very, very challenging as the dancer. But it presents such a wonderful challenge that I think is like the driving force for.
[00:18:11] I’m still here and I still want to dance with dc DC and I still love dancing for dc DC So I would say that was the catalyst. And then I didn’t wanna miss your question about the title of the piece. So the piece that I created for dc DC was entitled Human Nature. And in the program it’s written human.
[00:18:31] slash nature. And the reason for that is because I was with that piece in particular, I was interested in exploring the human experience and then juxtaposing the human experience to the ways in which nature goes through its own life cycle. So finding the common spaces between humans and nature, but also kind of.
[00:18:59] Putting it out there [00:19:00] that there are things that are a part of the human condition that are just natural to our human nature. So I used a lot of personal influences for different sections of the piece. My mom is a woman who loves photographs. And I guess it could be a baby boomer thing cuz my dad is the same way and they love photographs.
[00:19:20] And I love photographs too. , like
[00:19:22] Rodney Veal: tangible, real touching photographs. That’s not the digital kinda on your photo.
[00:19:26] Countess Winfrey: I’m digital. Right. They love them and I mean, and I get it because you know, they’ve been on the earth for a long time and a lot of people that have been in their lives, Maybe have transitioned.
[00:19:35] And so pictures are a really lovely way of keeping people alive and keeping, you know, stories alive. And so what I did for this piece was I collected a myriad of pictures that were at my mom’s house of people that were a part of my life and my lineage and my journey. And my upbringing and my root system and you know, I looked at those pictures and I wanted to bring those pictures to life in [00:20:00] a way that would also kind of talk about like why my great-grandfather was a preacher in the south.
[00:20:06] And the significance of that in the black community, but also in a southern black community. I wanted to recreate my imagination of what it was like when my grandparents first met. I never got to know my grandmother, but I did know my grandfather and. . I did a little research to try to learn more about them, and that was a little challenging to, to learn about, but I got to just imagine what their love was like.
[00:20:29] That then led to them having 10 children, which then led to me essentially. So there are a lot of aspects. Actually. The whole piece, I would say, is built based off of these photographs, based off of my connection to my faith and spirituality based off of my connection to jazz music. Based off of my connection to nature and my exploration of how we as people connect to nature and it’s heavily embedded in our history, connection to the [00:21:00] earth, connection to spirit, and I wanted this piece to kind of show all these tethers of connection that we have amongst us.
[00:21:08] And so, yeah, this, the piece, first of all, took a long time to really put into motion and to conceptualize and I, it started to become more and more rich the more time I spent with it. And I think that we’re gonna perform it again next. Spring in Cincinnati and I’m looking forward. Oh, fantastic.
[00:21:27] Rodney Veal: So people are like, you listen to this podcast, you need to go see the piece.
[00:21:30] It is so worth it. You know, one of one things it is so funny was I talked about the piece being about very ancestral. You nailed it. I mean, in essence, as an audience member, Everything that you’re describing is exactly what you put on the stage. And it came together in a way. I remember, cuz I remember I wrote an article in the Day, daily News, and they were talking about amplifying new black voices.
[00:21:51] And I wrote a piece about you. Yeah. So, so there’s a, there’s a connection. I, I’m going and I said she choreographs in a way that is beyond her years. [00:22:00] And then at sense, and there’s no diss on those who’ve been at the craft of choreography their entire lives for decades and decades and decades. You’ve tapped the work in a way that I expect somebody who’s.
[00:22:12] three times your age. And so I was like, I’m just like, so wh how, where do you go from that kind of process? I mean, that’s my per personal opinion of your work is that it’s that mature and it’s that nuance and it’s that thought through. And you talked about you had ruminated on this process. How long did it take you?
[00:22:29] Like was this an idea that you already had? In say your book of ideas.
[00:22:35] Countess Winfrey: That’s a great question, and I just wanna shout out you, Rodney Veal, because I saw that article the morning of the premiere. You go through all the things as artists and you’re like, oh my gosh, is it gonna be good? Are people gonna like it?
[00:22:47] Is it gonna, is this worth it? Like, is it gonna be good ?
[00:22:50] Rodney Veal: We are, we are, we are creatures riddled with doubt about our
[00:22:54] Countess Winfrey: ability. Oh my gosh. So riddle with Dow and seeing that article, it was like, oh my gosh, I really [00:23:00] needed to see this this morning just to keep me in. I don’t know, just to like reignite me and reinvigorate me.
[00:23:05] So thank you so much for writing such a beautiful article. I really appreciate it. It’s funny because Debbie and I were sitting around, we were about to do a performance. And we were sitting in the green room and I was talking to her about what I was gonna do. This is in 2018. And I was telling her what I was gonna do for the holiday break and I was like, oh, my mom and I are gonna go to see Wesley perform on Holland Cruise Lines.
[00:23:29] He’s a saxophone player. And she was like, really? I did not know that. I was like, yeah, I dunno. I guess I thought I had told her, but maybe. It didn’t happen. So anyway, she was like, oh, I’m so interested in this. And so then maybe like a month later, so early 2019, she was like, you know, I’ve been thinking, I wonder if we could do a show with you and your brother, like you guys collaborating on a new work.
[00:23:55] And I was like, oh, I, I’m open to that. And she’s like, does he write music? I was like, I think he [00:24:00] does. I’m not sure. Long story short, two, three years later, here we are, maybe. That’s
[00:24:06] Rodney Veal: a, that’s a long period of gestation for a piece. It
[00:24:09] Countess Winfrey: is. And you know what’s interesting is the piece was supposed to premiere in 2021.
[00:24:15] Mm-hmm. , but then we had 2020 and we did not expect 2020. No one did. And so, you know, Debbie was like, well, we could do the piece, but I really don’t want you to feel like you have to nickel and dime to do the piece. I really wanna be able to do the piece in its fullest form, however you imagine it being.
[00:24:33] So she. Said that she was gonna postpone it to 2022, and I’m so thankful that she did because, you know, when we did finally get to perform the work, it was just such a wonderful, the, the whole show I think was really wonderful, but it was a really nice homecoming in a way as well. And so, you know, as far as the actual piece, I would say Wesley and I didn’t really get into what the meat of the piece was about.
[00:24:59] [00:25:00] Six months, like six or seven months prior to the show. And the reason is because, you know, we had an idea of what we were gonna do and then we kind of tabled it because we had more time. But in that time, I think it was really a great experience because Wesley came to Dayton during 2020 summer and we worked together on just creating some ideal music scores that I think we only used one of those music scores once we got to the actual show.
[00:25:24] But you know, we started this working process together. Then he made music for me for a virtual lecture demonstration that I created and choreographed for. And then he also created a piece of music for me for a work that I did at the Ohio State University when I was the visiting artist for the spring 2021 semester.
[00:25:47] So we had easily two. Pretty big projects that we got to work on before really diving back into this work. And I think that that those processes allowed us to [00:26:00] create a really great working relationship. But in addition, we got to grow even more as artists before we got to the big one. I think if we had done it, you know, two, three years prior to 2022, we might not have been artistically ready or.
[00:26:15] Close to where we were when we made this piece. And so in a lot of ways I’m really grateful for the additional time. I think the additional time also allowed us to be able to dive more into what we were trying to say, what he wanted to say with the music, what I wanted to say with the choreography. And you know, we already have a good bond.
[00:26:34] We’re less than a year apart, so we’ve always been pretty, I would say, pretty close. Not like talk on the phone every day close, but like we think very similarly, we have. Similar demeanor, and so working together was just like a piece of cake. I know that’s not always the scenario, but I’m so grateful that , that’s
[00:26:50] Rodney Veal: always not always the sibling.
[00:26:52] Yeah. Sort of connective threads. And my brother’s five years older than me and had no interest in anything that I was doing as an artist. But he does now. [00:27:00] I mean, it was just really, you know, brother love, you know? Yeah. Shout out to that. And so one of the things that was really interesting to me about this is you this time, Process of time.
[00:27:09] I don’t think people really understand that the creative process doesn’t just happen with a snap of the fingers. Mm-hmm. , it’s, it is a very arduous, time consuming process. Thanks. Can you kinda elaborate on that first us, so that for at the people in the back row who are listening, understand how much time you need to do these
[00:27:28] Countess Winfrey: things?
[00:27:29] Yes. Well, so we started in July of 2000. One. And you know, we started with ideas for what we would want the music to sound like and how the music would progress over the course of the piece. Additionally, I don’t know if I said this, but the piece is about 30 minutes long and there are six different sections of music and.
[00:27:52] We wanted each section to be able to have a life of its own. So like it doesn’t have to be performed with the full conglomerate of [00:28:00] the piece. But we also wanted each section to connect. So we started with talking about, you know, what we want the different sections to look like and sound like and feel like.
[00:28:10] And that was the kind of initiating point. And then, you know, I was pretty much the one that wanted to have these different stories that we told in each section. And then Wesley kind of took those ideas and feelings and wrapped him up into his musical brain. And I would say we didn’t. Finish the music with all the tweaks until late December.
[00:28:34] And then, so that was about six-ish months. And then he was actually in Dayton for the whole month of February so that he could work with the University of Dayton Jazz Ensemble who was gonna be performing the music live. And even while he was here, we were finalizing the spoken word. Sound score. So we had her record her what she wrote for the [00:29:00] piece, and then we, you know, added little technical things to her audio recording.
[00:29:07] That helped to give it a little bit more production value or a little bit more at, in a way. And so we were working on some of those things up until the middle. February and the piece was performed on February 25th and 26th. And so the other part that comes into play is costumes and lighting. So I would say we have a really wonderful lighting designer at DC DC and he was the one that really helped me decide what direction to go in with the artwork and with what he suggested and what we worked on with the visual.
[00:29:41] Plus the amazing light designer that he is and the lights that he created. It was pretty magical to see it all come together. Matt, Matt Evans, Matt Evans,
[00:29:52] Rodney Veal: and then he’s so mad. He’s so super cool. He’s, he’s pretty amazing lighting designer. And that’s the other thing I think a lot of people don’t understand about dance and because it [00:30:00] is such a collaborative thing, lighting can make or break a piece.
[00:30:03] Yes. And so somebody has to understand how the light bodies as they move through, Versus being static or standing still. It’s a very different, it’s a unique, it’s a unique perspective as a, as a profession, so I just want people to
[00:30:18] Countess Winfrey: know that. Yeah, no, that’s a great point. And in addition to that, the next person I was gonna talk about is Lamar Amir, who is our costume designer extraordinaire.
[00:30:29] And those costumes have to be tailor-made to each dancer and, you know, material has to be ordered. And it was a lot of moving parts and, but I was up for it. I felt like there were moments where I wondered if I was gonna become overwhelmed by the number of. Things on the to-do list to tend to for this piece alone because I was also dancing in the other works on the program as well, which I was grateful for.
[00:30:53] Cuz the thing that can happen is sometimes when you become a creator, then there can sometimes be more emphasis [00:31:00] on you doing that than you still being the artist and I. Have been pretty vocal with my directors about that. And I’m also just vocal to myself about it like I wanna create and I’m so grateful to be able to create, and I wanna continue expanding my creativity and making new work, but not at the expense of me being a dancer artist first.
[00:31:21] And I’m sure that as I. Continue to age, then, you know, I’ll wanna maybe be on the stage less and less. But at the moment, I still have the same vigor and excitement about performing as I did when I first arrived. So that passion hasn’t gone away for me. So I’m really grateful to be able to do both simultaneously and be in a place that.
[00:31:44] Me artistically and creatively.
[00:31:46] Rodney Veal: That’s so awesome. And okay, so you’re very humble, but the reality of the situation, folks, for those listening, she was dancing into work. She’s creating this piece for dc DC but she also applied [00:32:00] for and a site specific work that was at the Cincinnati Art Museum. That she received.
[00:32:05] So at the same time she was working dancing. Then she was looking for the next opportunity and it was happening at the same time. The only reason why I know about Cincinnati Art Museum is that Ohio, Dan, I’m the president of the board, and we entered into a partnership with Cincinnati Art Museum to create a site specific work based upon two exhibits that were coming to the museum, the David Driscoll exhibit of paint, artwork, paintings, and the Kaman Group workshop of.
[00:32:32] Now you got the commission to create the work at the same time. So this is a workaholic. People . Such a workaholic. Oh my God. So talk about the Cincinnati Re because that was site specific. We’ll, we’ll talk about that a little in more detail, but talk about it.
[00:32:49] Countess Winfrey: Yeah. Well, so I actually saw this call for artists.
[00:32:53] I don’t, it might have been December. Late December and a couple of people had sent it to me and [00:33:00] I was like, oh, this is right up my alley. I love, first of all, I love museums, as I’ve already talked about. I love art museums and I also love site specific dancing, and it’s not something that we get to do too often.
[00:33:14] You know, we’re mostly dancing on stages. I would. You know, 90% of the time. But I love dancing outside. I love dancing in strange places. There’s just so much magic that comes into like bringing movement into spaces where you don’t normally see movement. So I remember saying to myself in September of last year, I was, I don’t know why I was thinking about site specific work, but I was like, you know, I wanna make a site specific.
[00:33:42] I wanna do that. And then three, four months later, I saw this call and I was like, oh, I am definitely applying for this. I, I’m already excited. I was so excited about it. And I read the proposal and I was like, or the, the call and what they were asking us to do as far as creating proposals. And it was a pretty lengthy [00:34:00] process.
[00:34:00] And at first I was like, wow, am I gonna be able to like dive into this work while also making this other work? We did ask
[00:34:07] Rodney Veal: for a lot, I’m not gonna lie. We did ask for a lot.
[00:34:10] Countess Winfrey: Yeah. You know, and so I say, okay. You know, in between the time of working on the other work, when I had some free time, I was like, okay, well I researched these artists and I wanna look into their work.
[00:34:22] Because that was part of the proposal as well. You had to talk about how your work would connect to the, the main artist work that were being showcased. But for me, I was like, well, I feel like I need to look at their work. If I’m gonna make this work that is really supposed to support their work, then I need to look at what they do.
[00:34:38] And looking at the work of David Driscoll in the Kamogi workshop, I was. Floored and I had never heard of either artists or either the work, the group of artists and the individual artists. I had never heard of them. So once I started listening to some of their interviews and started looking at their work online, I was like, oh, this is beautiful.
[00:34:58] I mean, it was just so, there was just [00:35:00] so much richness and from two different perspectives, they were capturing life from different perspectives.
[00:35:05] Rodney Veal: Oh, no, David Driscoll was an abstract expressionist. Painter in many ways, but he was so much more an African-American who is pretty much the godfather of the, of all the artists who have like come through the visual art world from, from the African-American diaspora, just, he’s the godfather basically, in essence of all of us who make visual art.
[00:35:28] And the Kaji group was photography. It was a group of photographers who made their own way in Harlem. And so they’re documenting life as they saw it through the lens of a camera. So yeah, it was, these are big. Duty exhibits happening
[00:35:42] Countess Winfrey: simultaneously. Yeah, it seemed like a really big deal. And so I was like, well, I’m gonna just apply for it and I’m gonna just see how it goes.
[00:35:49] So, you know, I took the time and really just dived into working on this proposal, and I’m pretty sure I turned it in, you know, minutes before the deadline as I do. [00:36:00] That’s
[00:36:00] Rodney Veal: ok. That’s ok. We all do
[00:36:01] Countess Winfrey: that. We all do that. And then I just let it go. I said, well, you know, I don’t know if it’s gonna happen, but I knew that even.
[00:36:08] Sent it off that I was excited about what I had proposed, and I thought that even if I wasn’t chosen, that I would still keep the proposal and do it somewhere else whenever the opportunity came around. And so I remember I was in rehearsal. We were in our first week of rehearsals back at dc DC and I was working on the men’s section of my piece and we were taking a very quick break and I checked my email and I saw that I was chosen and I.
[00:36:36] What, just like so surprised and I’m not really one who’s going to like, shout from the rooftops. This is what I do. You know, I’m very, I don’t know. I, I just do what I do and then I kind of go about my way. But the reason I applied is because I wanted to be more proactive about getting my work. out there and being more confident about my work that I’ve done, and that can be a hard [00:37:00] journey in itself to feel like the work that you do is worthy of applying for other opportunities to create things.
[00:37:06] But part of my personal mission in getting to work on this piece for dc, DC was like, Countess. , you gotta work on being more confident about your own work. It can’t be that everybody else believes in you, but you need to work on your belief in yourself. So I’ve been trying to exercise, applying for more things, even if I don’t know that it’s gonna happen for me.
[00:37:27] Part of my personal confidence practice was applying for things and just seeing if there is space for me to continue creating in the world. So it was really a humbling experience to be able to work on this particular project with the Cincinnati Art Museum. Oh, that’s so
[00:37:43] Rodney Veal: awesome. And you know, so that people understand this again, and I’m gonna throw this title out to folks and then we’ll post it on the, on the Art show, Facebook and Instagram, black Futures by Kimberly Drew was sort of an inspiration.
[00:37:56] And so to let you know the process of how we set it. Countess, [00:38:00] they approached us and I remember the kid curator photography, Emily as just phenomenal. And we had lunch and we discussed and I said, this is a book you should use as the kind of guide map for bringing voices from the black community into the museum space.
[00:38:16] And one of the things was they recognized that they needed to do a better. With that. And so they wanted to do it the right way. And so we were just kind of there to help guide it. And so if you get a chance, folks, this book is absolutely a primer on, uh, black creativity and, and that process. So that’s the foundation of that.
[00:38:34] But I want you to talk about, because I got to see the performance cuz folks, I go see all dance when I see. Of course it’s Countess, so I have to be there because I know it’s always gonna be exciting. Describe this work because I don’t think I could do it just as the way you could and how you used the space.
[00:38:52] Countess Winfrey: so I actually, going back to that book, black Futures, I purchased that book and I didn’t even realize at first that that was the [00:39:00] catalyst for the creation of the title of the series. But when I read the book, and it’s a big anthology, so it’s hard to read it in one setting, but it has so much beauty inside of it.
[00:39:09] So that was a really. Source of research for my work, but the work that I created for the Cincinnati Art Museum was entitled Homage Colon. What was, is Comma, to Come. And you could read it as homage what was is to come, or you could read it as what was, is. To come and I felt like we couldn’t talk about black futures and the idea of black people in the future and what that looks like and what it sounds like and what it is if we did not acknowledge the past.
[00:39:42] And so my proposal for this particular project was to create a moving museum experience where you experie. The black, the African American experience in the past, the African American experience [00:40:00] today as it is, and my imagination of what the African American experience can be, which represented the future section.
[00:40:08] So we had a past section title. What was. , we had a present section entitled is and we had a future section entitled to come. So the title was almost like a precursor as to what each section was about. Very rarely do I go to museums and actually do the tours , but sometimes it’s nice to walk through museums and have a tour guide, a tour guide that tells you what a particular exhibit is about and what you’re gonna be experiencing and how all of the artwork in this part.
[00:40:38] Experience in this particular exhibit contributes to the overall theme of the exhibit? So the first part of the show started on the outside of the museum, and that was purposeful. When I saw in the proposal the pictures of the areas you could use, I already knew. I was like, oh yes, this, these columns [00:41:00] outside of the Cincinnati Art Museum, which I.
[00:41:02] in process is one of the oldest museums in the country. I didn’t even realize that. Right, exactly.
[00:41:07] Rodney Veal: It is truly, I was like, it. It’s, it’s truly a gym within a gym. It is,
[00:41:12] Countess Winfrey: it is. There are these, you know, large concrete columns in the front of the museum and you know, one could say that there’s a lot of architectural references that you could look into to establish why, but my first thought when I saw those columns, Plantation homes.
[00:41:31] And so the reason I wanted to have the first section, which was the past presented outside of the museum, was to represent this, the idea of what the African American past looked like and how we got to that point. So we started with talking about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and where that, how that really started, where that began.
[00:41:53] And then once we finished in that section, we. Through the museum [00:42:00] into this outer courtyard, or actually it’s an inner courtyard, but it’s, it’s outside, but it, it’s in the center of the actual museum people. To get
[00:42:09] Rodney Veal: a reference point about the CI museum, it kind of has like a, a layout, like a Roman villa in the sense there’s an inner courtyard.
[00:42:19] kind of surrounds this courtyard. So there’s this activity and the audience moves with the artist and the performers. So we moved with the performance into the spaces with them. So we became a part of the journey. So,
[00:42:32] Countess Winfrey: exactly, and you know, oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t say this. Part, I had a spoken word artist as well for this show, and the spoken word artist was like our grio through time.
[00:42:45] So she starts the program and she is the one that kind of talks us through what we are, what we’re watching, what we are experiencing, and the dancing is happening intermixed with her talking. And I think that [00:43:00] she, in her. To, for me, integral to the experience because I wanted it to feel like people were on the journey with us.
[00:43:08] I didn’t want it to feel like it was a whole, you had to try to figure it out on your own. I really wanted it to feel like she was just really guiding us like a, like a tour guide. So she is the person who guided the audience from one section to the next and to the next. And by all the dancing magic, the dancers would appear in these different area.
[00:43:29] As, as theatrically sound as possible. So we had the first section and she walks the audience from the first section, which is on the outside of the museum into the courtyard, which is where the present section happens. And in the present section, I really wanted to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement and h what that.
[00:43:49] To the black community today. And why? I really wanted to talk about the why because there are sometimes things happen and they can become these movements and we don’t always, [00:44:00] you know, if you’re not careful, you can just kind of jump on board with the thing and not always know what the root of it is.
[00:44:06] And so I wanted this section to really talk about the root of the Black Lives Matter movement and why it’s important to keep talking about it. So we had that in the courtyard and I also thought it was appropriate to have it in the courtyard. The courtyard has this beautiful, you know, just lush landscaping and fountains and just has a different, it had a more present and a alive feel than what the first section had.
[00:44:33] First section, you know, was that those concrete columns, and it’s very drab. It. Feels like the past and the, the courtyard felt very present to me because of the beauty that existed inside of it. But even in that, even with all the beauty, there’s, we need to be able to talk about the other things that aren’t so beautiful too.
[00:44:50] And then we moved into the future section, which was in this beautiful, great hall area of the museum. And as soon as [00:45:00] I saw the picture of the Great Hall, there was this regalness about it that just felt like, Space of ascension and royalty and just beauty. And so I was like, this definitely has to be the future section.
[00:45:15] So what happens is Vinay leads the audience from the courtyard, which is the present into the Great Hall, which is the future. And when you walk into the future section, you’re greeted with a video of black people. Dancing and being free and not bogged down. Not chained by all of the things that exist inside of the psychology of what African American history has been, but an imagination of just.
[00:45:44] Peace and tranquility and joy and love, and that being the surrounding feeling and the hope that in our black future, that is the resounding experience, not the things that we have experienced, but [00:46:00] acknowledging the triumph and then forging ahead with joy and peace as the catalyst. And so the piece culminates.
[00:46:08] Great Hall area and the dancers walk up the stairs and the spoken word, or our artist, she completes our journey. And you know, as we were creating this, as I was working with the spoken word artist, we didn’t really know who she is. Like she is this person that you know that you’ve met in your lifetime, but also that you don’t know or that you haven’t met yet.
[00:46:28] She was almost like a Glinda from The Wiz. If you’ve ever seen The Wiz like the fairy . Yes.
[00:46:34] Rodney Veal: It’s almost like, I love how you described that, like Linda, like it was she, she was all knowing, but she wasn’t gonna tell you everything.
[00:46:43] Countess Winfrey: Exactly. Exactly. But she knew everything and she was from the future and the past at the same time.
[00:46:51] And there was this, and she just kind of floated. Through. She disappeared when it was time for her to disappear. She appeared when it was time, and I think that I chose the right. I think that [00:47:00] she really, who she is, who the artist is as an individual, I think really also contributed to the kind of mystery of who this woman was.
[00:47:08] and I was really grateful to have gotten to work with some great artists on this. So anyway, long story short, these stories are great. Those are
[00:47:15] Rodney Veal: good
[00:47:15] Countess Winfrey: stories. Whatcha you talking about? Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you know, I, I wanted it to feel like you were going on a journey. So the piece ended up being about 35.
[00:47:24] To 40 minutes long, and that was completely my desire and I wanted it to be something that felt a little bit more evening linked, not just for the sake of making a long show, but so that we had time to really be inside of the experience for the fullness of the experience. So it was really wonderful. And going back to what Rodney said, I got to work with Emily who was just, I mean, she was the best person.
[00:47:49] I mean, and everybody at the museum was so kind and they really, they really did all they could to make all my dreams come true for this show. And Emily, she was on the front lines with me. It’s almost [00:48:00] like we were like forging at this thing from both sides, you know, on the museum side for her and the choreographic side for me.
[00:48:06] And she. Tried to and did make everything happen that I wanted to make happen. And it was really a great working experience. And aside from it, the show turning out to be really wonderful. It was a great working and building experience, which I think was a gift for sure. Oh, that’s so
[00:48:24] Rodney Veal: awesome. And you’re echoing exactly how I felt in working with Emily.
[00:48:28] Yes. Uh, through Ohio dance and the, so this journey. Process. And for those who are listening, we covered Countess journey with the Cincinnati Art Museum for the Art show. So if you get a chance and an opportunity, that clip is available right now on our YouTube channel. And you can kind of check out, you can see images and video from the work.
[00:48:46] It’s stunning. I know we have a lot of video footage of the entire performance itself that I, I’m hoping has been compiled. Cause it’s phenomenal. It needs to be seen. And I know it’s not the same as experiencing it live, but it needed to be [00:49:00] captured like after you were finished with it. Cause what I love about you is the fact that you stayed a goal, you hit the goal, and, and you hit it so masterfully.
[00:49:08] What does it feel like after you’ve done it? Like you’ve done this work for the Cincinnati Museum, which was beautiful and incredible and I. What was going on? What’s your process after you do something like this? Mm. How do you, how do you comprehend what just happened? .
[00:49:23] Countess Winfrey: Yeah. As an art maker. Well, you know, it’s interesting.
[00:49:25] I think sometimes, You don’t always know what it’s gonna look like or be like or sound like or feel like until it’s done. And I had a very similar feeling when I did the piece for dc DC I’m like, I think this is gonna be bigger than what I imagined. You know, like I, I, I think that that’s usually how I feel on the other side of it, which I think is the better way to feel.
[00:49:47] I think. I’m so grateful that I feel that, you know, something. Birthed has a larger range than what I anticipated, which is really, I think, part of my goal. I think [00:50:00] that art can be so impactful and I think if you only try to make it impactful for you as the artist, then it hasn’t really fully done the thing.
[00:50:08] It hasn’t really fully reached its potential, but I really want the work that I do to be beyond me, to have a. You know, without me essentially, you know, like yeah this is a great piece, but not just because I made it, but because like the work is really great work that can live on and be appreciated or even just remembered from the people who got to experience it.
[00:50:30] And I think if it can make a long a lasting impact in that way, that is the most satisfying thing. So, you know, once the show was over, you know, I just enjoyed spending time with my mom cuz she came up for the show, which was really great. And then, Was like, well that was great. I’m also grateful I get to experience it too.
[00:50:49] Like I, I don’t wanna miss the moment. And it’s easy to, when you are doing a lot of things with, you know, cuz I’m dancing and I’m teaching and I’m doing these and it’s easy to start to kind of miss the moment cuz you’re [00:51:00] trying to accomplish a goal. But I really work. To be as present as possible. And then when it’s time to give it over to do all the magical things that art can do, I feel very ready to just give it over and let it be as as much as it is.
[00:51:15] You know, I think also as artists, there’s always things you’re always like, mm, okay, next time I do this, I wanna change this. I wanna edge this, I wanna do this. There’s all these things that come, but I think that it definitely. Allows me to feel free in a different way, creating and being a choreographer.
[00:51:32] It can be, again, very challenging, but it can be very freeing. And I feel like sometimes I leave those scenarios where like a piece has just been finished performing and it went well, and I have this feeling of elation and limitlessness and I think that it’s, I think it’s good to feel like. we’re not limited because there’s so many things in life that can make us feel limited and small and I really appreciate and try to take in the moments where I can feel like I’m [00:52:00] flying because there’s always gonna be things in life, part of the human condition.
[00:52:03] There’s always gonna be ups and downs, and I really, really work. To just relish in the beautiful moments while they’re happening. And then when it’s time to move on to something different, I feel ready to move to the next thing. And not that I’m just constantly trying to find the next thing, but I do like to relish in the moment, but then move to wherever is next.
[00:52:24] You know, whatever is is next on my list. And sometimes it’s not anything. Sometimes it’s just taking a break. Like I took a good four weeks off this summer and it was really lovely to not have to think about anything creatively, just travel and enjoy my time with friends and family. And so I think that it’s nice to be able to kind of like relish in those moments and then leave them and then revisit them on video or in articles, you know, so
[00:52:48] Rodney Veal: That’s so great. That’s so awesome. Yeah. So one of the things that you know, I love, and this is our part, Statement from you. Mm-hmm. , and this is for those who maybe are seeking inspiration. I think you kind of, you [00:53:00] definitely touched base on it. For those folks out there who are thinking about creating or thinking about changes in their lives and things like that, what would be your number one piece of advice for getting that creative spark?
[00:53:12] Countess Winfrey: I think that my number one piece of advice would be to be open to continuing to learn about yourself. I think the more, and it can take a while, one thing I’ve learned is that, , it can take a while to get to know who you are, cuz then also your desires change and you evolve and you, and you have different experiences.
[00:53:33] And so, you know, I think I take a a, a staple thing for me is I take time, you know, with myself every morning just to check in, see where I’m at, see what is inspiring to me, see what I’m interested in, and then I just allow those things to. My creativity and the way that I approach creating. And so the artists that I look up to, the choreographers that I just love their [00:54:00] work and I love what they have to say, and they feel like they are on their own personal journeys and their work is a reflection.
[00:54:09] of, even if it’s not all of their life, maybe it’s a part of their life. It might not even be their story. It might be like their mother’s story, or it might be their best friend’s story. But if they’ve identified that this person or that story is important to them and the reasons why, then they can make this work or they can make that work and it and can be impactful.
[00:54:29] So I would say that’s, that’s the biggest piece of advice. I mean, I think that the more we know about ourselves, the. At peace we can be with who we are and where we are in life. And the more at peace that we can be inside of ourselves and the more healed that we can be walking through the world, then I really think that’s what allows us to have an authentic experience.
[00:54:47] And I think it’s what allows other people to have authentic experiences with us. If we can be true to who we are and true to who we are in the world. , then it leaves a portal for people to be true to [00:55:00] themselves and then for people to take you as you are, you know? So that would be my biggest piece of advice for any creator is just make things that make sense to you, that feel authentic to you.
[00:55:11] And if you make it authentically, then there are no wrong answers. That’s the thing about creativity. There are no wrong answers. If it’s right to you, then it’s. You know, and there’s always gonna be someone who loves your work. There’s always gonna be someone who doesn’t love it, and that’s just the reality.
[00:55:26] But also those things matter and don’t matter because if it’s honest to you, then then that’s what people will receive.
[00:55:33] Rodney Veal: I love it. That’s the best way to end this conversation. Countess, thank you for giving us the inspiration and for everybody out there, please by all means, continue to check out this podcast, but also to check out our Facebook page, our website, our Instagram, we’ll be having.
[00:55:48] Clips and images from all the things we talked about in this podcast, so thank you.
[00:55:52] Ann – The Art Show Producer: Rodney ves inspired by is a production of Public media Connect, the regional partnership of [00:56:00] C e T in Cincinnati and think TV in Dayton. There’s a lot of great art happening around southwest Ohio and we’re excited to be part of it. . If you like this episode, please subscribe on Spotify, apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
[00:56:15] You can learn more and find the show firstname.lastname@example.org org slash inspired by or CT connect.org/inspired by. Thank you.