An interview with B. Ajani Brannum
I first crossed paths with L.A.-based dance artist B. Ajani Brannum on Tumblr (remember Tumblr?) about a decade ago. As I think back on our interactions, I realize we’ve met in person only once or twice, but our digital orbits intersect often. Over the years, I’ve become an avid follower of their sharp, imaginative writings and social media musings, which spur me to look at dance in ways I hadn’t considered before.
Back in the really bleak days of December 2020, mid-Instagram scroll, I came across Ajani’s invitation to a live-streamed solo performance taking place on Christmas, The Nutcracker (from memory). The name alone piqued my curiosity. As someone who receives a yearly avalanche of Nutcracker press releases, many of which promote some version of “a twist on the holiday classic,” I thought: Now this is a twist on the holiday classic (or at least, one that I’m excited to see). I marked my calendar for Dec. 25.
If you’re reading a newsletter about dance, you might know what it’s like to have The Nutcracker stuck in your head. It has a way of taking hold and not letting go, though most people have not committed the entirety to memory. In The Nutcracker (from memory), Ajani draws on their early experiences of rehearsing and performing the ballet, year after year — first in Alaska and then in South Carolina — to sing the Tchaikovsky score by heart from start to finish, a cappella, interlaced with impromptu commentary and lyrical, conductor-like gesture.
After last year’s warmly received livestream — which viewers, in the YouTube chat, called “prize-Christmas viewing,” a “live cellular memory experience,” and “A TRIUMPH!!!!!!” — Ajani is now bringing the project to Twinkle Toes Dance Company, a studio that sounds made up but isn’t, in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood. The in-person, come-and-go-as-you-wish performance will happen this Sunday, Dec. 12, 7 to 10 p.m PST. (More details below.) I met with Ajani on Zoom to learn more about The Nutcracker (from memory) and their memories of The Nutcracker. This is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Siobhan Burke: I guess I’d like to start just by saying that I’m so impressed by your ability to sing The Nutcracker from memory. How do you do it?
Ajani Brannum: Well, maybe first I should talk about why I’m even doing this. [Laughs.]
SB: [Laughs.] Yes, good idea. Let’s start there.
AB: So, like a lot of people who grew up doing ballet or concert dance, I first did The Nutcracker when I was 7 years old. I was a party boy in the Ballet West production when they came to Anchorage, Alaska, and I did it almost every year, until I was 14 or 15. In addition to dance, I also do a lot of stuff with music. I grew up in the church choir, I played violin in school. So, music is also a practice for me in different ways.
Being in Nutcracker rehearsals all the time, going through dress rehearsals, being around for every performance, the music is always there, and I soaked it up. At a certain point I started joking — I would sing the music backstage and to friends, and I’d be like, one of these years, I’m just gonna grab a microphone and sing all the music and they won’t even need the orchestra for the show.
Even before Covid, I would talk about this idea that dance knowledge needs other places to live. Concert dance is great, but there’s so much other stuff that dance folks can do with the skills that we have. I had been thinking about how to bring in parts of my practice that were there, but that I never really considered part of my practice. Like, I have these musical skills, or I like music, but I’m not a musician.
When Covid came, I thought, OK, this is a great opportunity to do this thing I had always joked about doing. One thing I’m realizing is that if an idea exists for me as a joke, then it’s probably something I actually want to do. So, last year, I just decided to do the livestream, and I got a really great response. This year I was like, why not do it in person?
SB: Can you say more about the response last year?
AB: I think this is the first performance project I’ve done where I wasn’t in a rehearsal process or a making process. That’s something I’ve returned to more frequently recently, being in this space of, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I know I have something to offer.” One of my friends was talking to me about it being a form of storytelling. You’re just telling the story, and through your commitment to telling the story, people pick up on something.
I was surprised by how many people sent me messages about the livestream, saying, “It brought up so much for me as a dancer. It reminded me of going to rehearsals, of being backstage, of having to learn this part and hating it.” That was great, to see how it called to people and invited them to share the particulars of their dancing experience.
SB: I’m intrigued by the location you’ve chosen this year. I actually looked it up on Google Maps, because I thought it might be a joke. It’s almost too perfect.
AB: Yes, and multiple people have asked me, “Is this just your house?” [Laughs.]
So, let me tell you how I started interacting with this place. I moved to Highland Park about a year ago, and there’s a certain strip of the neighborhood that’s walkable, because people have built up these coffee shops and restaurants, which is its own story. But there’s a dance studio on this street, and of course, when there’s a dance studio within walking distance, I’m always like, “Hmmm, I wonder what’s happening there.”
I didn’t know the name of this place, but just the way it was laid out — it has these huge glass windows facing the street, so you can see classes as they’re happening, and this décor that reminded me of so many dance studios I’ve seen, sort of pink and purple with posters of ballet dancers, that sort of thing. I thought it was so interesting that this studio exists in Highland Park, which a lot of people would describe as a hipster-blah-blah-blah-whatever. So I was like, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m just very interested in this space.
I would not refer to myself as a site-specific artist, but I think the place where I’m invited to do things or where I choose to do things is important. When I knew I wanted to do this performance live, I was like, I wonder if I could do it at this studio down the street. By this point, I knew it was called Twinkle Toes. I wrote to them and explained the project, and the owner, Karen, was like, “This sounds so interesting! Yes, you can come see the space.”
I hadn’t realized that there’s the front studio that faces the street, but then you walk down this hallway and up this staircase, and there’s this really cavernous back studio. As soon as I saw it, I was like, I have to do it here! It was all a nice synchronicity.
SB: The livestream version seemed unrehearsed, in a good way, with just the gentlest production elements — I’m remembering some colored lighting. What do you have in mind for the structure of the in-person performance?
AB: It’ll mostly be me in this dance studio, sitting there singing. During the livestream, I did a sort of running commentary about the plot and memories I have. I want to keep it pretty similar this year, with the same improvised quality, even though it’ll be in person and there might be more temptation to perform.
I’m trying to figure out if there’s anything I want to add. Because of stuff that’s happened with Act II of The Nutcracker — with more conversation around the racial stereotypes and new approaches to restaging it — I think I want to add a moment to really talk about what this is and where it came from and how it still exists. But otherwise, it’ll just be me doing the park-and-bark, as people call it, and I’m really excited for that.
SB: To go back to the question of remembering the score, I just want to clarify: You don’t look at sheet music or anything? You just know the whole thing by heart?
SB: That strikes me as genius-level memory. [Laughs.]
AB: [Laughs.] It could be, but there are three things I’ll say. First, I definitely listen to recordings beforehand, so I’m refreshing my memory, although it’s interesting, because there’s not much memory to refresh. Second, I’ve looked at scores of it, which helps clarify details I’m not quite sure about. But I think, again, it’s really a testament to the dancer thing of when you learn to dance to a piece of music, or if you’ve watched people rehearse to a piece of music over and over, it’s just in there. For me, the logic is similar to learning a movement phrase. It’s not a conscious remembering, but once I’m back in it, the kinesthetic thing kicks in and does what it does.
SB: The Nutcracker is such a formative experience for so many dancers; it seems connected to both the joys and traumas of early ballet training. What are your associations with doing it as a child? Are they positive? Are they mixed?
AB: One thing I’m realizing about the stuff I make is that a lot of it has to do with — I won’t say trauma, because that feels so spectacular. But it has a lot to do with what I would call behind-the-scenes or backstage stuff. How we learn how to do certain things, how we learn to habituate to certain things. That’s a big concern for me. So it makes sense that I’d be interested in The Nutcracker, because it’s how I learned to perform in a big way.
I wouldn’t say my associations with it are negative or positive. I just think there’s a lot of familiarity and intensity associated with it. What stands out to me the most is the process of hearing “places,” going backstage, hearing the concert master come in, hearing the conductor come in, hearing the overture, seeing the stage manager call the curtain, just learning how stagecraft works. That’s one big association I have with it.
Another thing that has stuck with me, and that shows up in a lot of what I make, is this idea of a transition from a very public setting — a Christmas party — into a journey that’s not just private but that goes into this really weird parallel universe. The story is about this teenager who’s like, I have a public life, and then I have this private life that is very vibrant, and maybe no one else understands it, but somehow those two things are related.
My favorite part of The Nutcracker is the moment where the people leave and the clock strikes midnight and the tree gets really big — everything between the end of the party and the battle scene. It’s such a nice holographic representation of dance. I wouldn’t say it’s a metaphor, but it’s sort of what dance is for me in a nutshell, this idea that somewhere between public and private, there’s this transformational experience, and a whole lot happens in there. It can be spectacular, like the tree growing, or it can be scary, in terms of like: Why are these rats so big? Why are people fighting? All that stuff is in there for me.
SB: That’s so beautiful — the transformation as dance itself!
AB: Actually, I hadn’t even thought about this, but that specific part with the tree — it’s all about the set people, the stage manager, the lighting designer, the orchestra. In most productions I’ve seen, there’s no dancing in that section. It’s just the magic of the theater! Which I think is one reason it’s so impactful to me. A lot of the stuff that makes dance dance to me actually has nothing to do with capital-D Dance but orchestrating all this material and activity that comes together to make it happen.
SB: I didn’t grow up doing ballet, so I was never in The Nutcracker, but I’ve always been struck by the hierarchy of casting — mouse, snowflake, flower, etc. It seems like the role you get to play really shapes your experience.
AB: Yeah. It’s really interesting, especially being a quote-unquote male dancer, because as with so many things in ballet, the hierarchy is totally different. I was a party boy for most of my time. I was Fritz one year. When I moved to South Carolina, I was a party boy again. Then I was a soldier, and then — I’ve thought about this a lot — I was a page one year, where literally I carried a shoe. You know the shoe that Clara throws at the Mouse King, and then in the second act she tells the whole story and someone has to bring the shoe out? I brought the shoe out, did a single pirouette, handed them the shoe, and left. I was like, huh, it’s interesting that I was in the servant role, but OK.
SB: Wow. By that point you were 13 or 14? You were definitely capable of more.
AB: I was in 8th grade, I think. That’s one reason I ended up sidestepping ballet entirely — realizing I could be doing more, but this is what y’all are asking me to do? I think I should go somewhere else.
SB: And here you are. I’m excited for this next incarnation of The Nutcracker (from memory). Is there anything about the project you want to add?
AB: I will say, not to give too much of a spiel, but the Act II issue is so interesting to me. Though I love to see organizations like Final Bow for Yellowface [which advocates for eliminating racist stereotypes in The Nutcracker] and I think it’s important for people to be doing this work, I often feel personally like these are band-aid solutions. The Nutcracker is such a force, such a presence, that it feels really hard to change something essential about it. So, what happens if you say, instead, I’m going to do something very different — not even in terms of making a new version, but just using the information in a totally different way.
What: The Nutcracker (from memory) by B. Ajani Brannum
Where: Twinkle Toes Dance Company, 5917 N. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA
When: Sunday, Dec. 12, 7-10 p.m. PST. Come and go as you please.
Tickets: No reservations necessary. Suggested donation: $10-$20 via Venmo (@ajohnny).
Covid safety: Per studio policy, visitors must wear a mask and provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test taken no more than 72 hours in advance of the performance.
Can’t make it to Twinkle Toes? Check out last year’s livestream:
Ajani Brannum is a movement artist hailing from Anchorage, Alaska and currently living in Los Angeles, California. They investigate practices for moving, thinking, and being, asking how our tools for doing-self might venture beyond, between, or beneath received categories of personhood. Ajani appeared as a guest artist with Cullberg (based in Stockholm, Sweden) for their 2015-2016 season, and danced in the Merce Cunningham Trust's Night of 100 Solos. Ajani's latest long-term endeavor is Talent Agency (@tttalent.agencyyy), which uses conversation, embodiment practices, and divination to help people reckon with the spirit of their personal and/or creative projects. (barryabrannum.com; on Instagram @aajjaannii.)