Dance artist’s family tradition inspires Live Arts Miami’s ‘RoseWater’
As the lockdown dragged on, dance artist Michelle Grant-Murray found herself wondering how her grandmothers had lived through the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which inspired her latest work. (Photo courtesy of Woosler Delisfort)
An African-American woman in a bright red dress and cat-eye sunglasses poses before a pale yellow Studebaker, a pair of white gloves in her hands. The slight fade to the Polaroid suggests the frequent handling of a cherished photo.
The image captures Elma Julius Newton-Henry, grandmother of dance artist Michelle Grant-Murray, who’s also associate professor and coordinator of dance at Miami Dade College. The stance of the woman’s body, and her body vernacular as she posed for that photo, will appear in Grant-Murray’s latest work, “RoseWater.”
Presented as a form of dance theater, “RoseWater” will explore memories from both of her grandmothers. The show is set for April 23–24 in Pinecrest Gardens, as part of Live Arts Miami’s LALA (Live Arts Lab Alliance) Artist-in-residence Program.
“RoseWater” emerged amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as Grant-Murray was trying to figure out how to cope. She says she thought about her grandmothers’ experiences during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic – and was reminded of their practice of making rose water from scratch.
She began learning the craft of making rose water, experimenting with drying roses and distilling the flower’s oils. As her research expanded, she realized that her family’s use of rose water was a link in a centuries-old practice that traced back to Africa.
“All the ingredients [of rose water] have a medicinal purpose as well. They come from nature, and they have sustained people from antiquity,” she says. “I researched the connections rose water has with African spirituality and realized this knowledge existed within my family for hundreds of years.”
Last summer, Grant-Murray’s practice of creating and sharing rose water with neighbors and friends intersected with her passions for social justice and the environment.
“I started looking at why we have so many environmental issues right now. The main reason we have these issues has to do with environmental racism,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘How did we get to this point?’”
Guided by what she described as a “visceral feeling for the limitations of the freedom of Black women,” Grant-Murray and her company, Olujimi Dance Collective, mapped out the work using prompts that drew on collective memory and movements lodged in the body.
“In this work, I am looking at the decolonialization of the Black female body,” Grant-Murray says. “People don’t listen to Black women. They carry the essence of the world inside of their womb.”
Grant-Murray says the “perfect example of that” is Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose cancer cells were found to be instrumental to medical research.
“Black women and the environmental DNA that exists in the Black body has answers to many of the issues that we are experiencing in the world,” she says.
When the pandemic shuttered dance studios in March 2020, the interruption and period of uncertainty allowed Grant-Murray to examine suppressed feelings of vulnerability.
“As a Black woman, [I] know that injustice happens and racism is very real. As an artist and an artmaker, I noticed I was finding ways to deflect situations and to refocus my energy, so I didn’t have to think about the injustices going around,” she says. “During the quarantine, we couldn’t get to a studio or share a space, so I started riding my bike, running and walking and kayaking. But these were solitary activities, and I was alone policing my thoughts and actions.”
The goal of Live Arts Miami’s LALA Program is to support a local arts ecosystem, with performances made in Miami and fueled by communal creative practices. “RoseWater” is billed as “the first of six unforgettable new performances” from LALA.
“In 2019, we commissioned our current cohort and were motivated to bring together a group of artists who shared a passion for climate justice,” says Live Arts Miami executive director Kathryn Garcia, with the aim of developing “new works centered on climate change and sustainability in Miami, as part of our larger ECOCultura initiative.”
That initiative is described as an ongoing series of action-driven programs and performances for the planet.
Grant-Murray’s track record of engaging issues of climate justice made her a perfect fit with the 2019 cohort.
“As an MDC professor and part of our Faculty Task Force, [Grant-Murray] has partnered with us on countless engagements connecting students with changemaking artists,” Garcia added. “Through LALA, we have had the incredible opportunity to support her artistic vision as a creator in our community.”
Still, even with the support of LALA, Grant-Murray found connecting audiences with “RoseWater” to be a challenge during a pandemic.
“Four films go along with this work, by videographer Woosler Delisfort. It was a way to present ‘RoseWater’ because we didn’t know that we could do a face-to-face performance. We thought it would originally have to be presented this way,” she says.
Grant-Murray even structured the 45-minute, open-air performance in a way that recalls features of the conferencing platform, Zoom – with a series of spaces where dancers will perform.
“The piece is informed by Zoom because we have the structure of the main room and the breakout rooms,” she says. “The piece is built so that people come into the main room where everyone sees everything. Then the audience members go into different spaces and all see something different. They all come into the main room and then have a discussion.”
Michelle Grant-Murray’s “RoseWater” – set for 7:30 p.m. April 23-24 at Pinecrest Gardens, 11000 Red Road – is sold out. To join the wait list for free tickets, visit Liveartsmiami.org/events/rosewater. For more information, go to Pinecrestgardens.org/entertainment/performing-arts/dance.