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Dance is a Portal to the Ancestors: A Look at Jean-Paul Weaver

Dance artist Jean-Paul Weaver is enjoying a much deserved season of success a year after coming to Pittsburgh to continue his hard-won journey to dance anthropologist.

There’s a James Baldwin quote tacked above my desk that reads:

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent– On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.

Apply this thought to any art form and who could argue the point? After all, it’s a special kind of crazy that drives a person to shuck convention in pursuit of a dream. To ignore the practical advice of parents to “get a regular job with some benefits,” to take adjunct professor gigs that pay just enough to keep you dangling above the poverty line, to eat baked potatoes and Kool-Aid for a week in order to afford those residency apps — all for the sake of making art. Of creating something you’re not all that sure anyone gives a crap about. But we do it. Those who have been lucky enough to figure out what our gifts are, we fight to follow our hearts, to make our marks, to find a way to share these gifts with the world. But then there are roadblocks. Huge barriers. Vast potholes of life stretched out in front of us so wide, one would have to literally take flight to transcend them.

Some people simply don’t have the stamina it takes to stick it out and reach that level of writer or musician or painter they dreamed of becoming. Luckily, Jean-Paul William Weaver had the hops to hurdle those momentary trials like the professional dancer he was born to be. Then again, maybe it wasn’t luck. Maybe it was will and determination pushing him along on his climb to the stage.

But the dancing life for Weaver ain’t been no crystal stair.

Jean-Paul Weaver at Sankofa Village for the Arts (photo by sarah huny young)

Jean-Paul Weaver at Sankofa Village for the Arts
(photo by sarah huny young)

STEPS

Weaver’s introduction to dance didn’t begin in a room with mirrored walls and ballet pointes. His journey began as the result of the bullying he suffered growing up in Centennial, Colorado as an awkward, lanky, and feminine adolescent boy in the sixth grade. “This kid choked me until I literally passed out,” Weaver recalls. “Over beef jerky. It was the weirdest thing. I tried to punch him, tried to fight back, but I couldn’t breathe. Then everything just turned to black.”

Soon after the traumatic event, Weaver’s father enrolled him into a martial arts class so he could learn to defend himself. That’s where he discovered the movement, facility, and discipline that would eventually lead him to the stage. But always more attracted to the performance aspect of martial arts, Weaver quit at 16 (after receiving his black belt, of course) to focus on other creative interests like acting and visual arts. At 18, he got a full scholarship to study acting at Casper College in Wyoming.

“So the first show was a musical, and I’m like, ‘no I’m not trying out. I don’t dance, I don’t sing.’ But someone pushed me into auditioning, and I was cast as Paul in A Chorus Line… It was really heavy in dancing, and I was one of the better dancers.” Two years later, Weaver graduated from Casper College with an Associate Degree in theatre and acting.

Following graduation, he had his heart set on attending LINES Ballet BFA program to study with Alonzo King. On two weeks notice, without his parents’ blessings, he sold his car, moved to San Francisco, auditioned for a spot, and was completely devastated when he didn’t get in. As consolation, and to improve his chances the next go round, Weaver enrolled in the LINES Ballet Summer Intensive program. But upon finding out about the year-round training they offered, he weighed his options–the BFA university program for $40,000 vs. the intensive program for $8,000–and decided to stick with the intensive.

“And it was tough,” he says. “Everyone there had been dancing their whole lives. Everyone there had done every summer intensive in the country, they’d been on this track to become a dancer since they were, like, three. They had trained with all the best teachers and knew about the different dance companies… and I had never heard of half of these things. I had to learn ballet, I had to learn contemporary. The expectation was that I had at least eight years of training, and I had two.”

On top of hurdling the learning curve, Weaver had make the $1,000 monthly payment for the program out of pocket, plus cover his $600 rent by working the overnight shift at Starbucks. “So I just ate leftover Starbucks food. For two years” he adds, with a shrug.

“It was terrible, but it was also one of the best times of my life.”

Jean-Paul Weaver at Sankofa Village for the Arts (photo by sarah huny young)

Jean-Paul Weaver at Sankofa Village for the Arts (photo by sarah huny young)

I’ve had every obstacle. But I also felt empowered because I was doing what I needed and was meant to do.
Weaver moved to Chicago when he was blessed with opportunity to dance for both Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre and Elements Contemporary Ballet. During that time, he also apprenticed with Gustavo Ramirez Sansano at Luna Negra Dance Theatre. “The six months of solid training under Sansano, in a strict, contemporary dance setting was super invaluable,” he says. “But I still wasn’t being paid for my work and I was flat broke. My apartment was infested with mice. I would get to rehearsal and discover there was mouse poop on my shirt. It was that bad. I was like, I can’t do this, I’m not making enough money for this, I can’t make this level of sacrifice. Somehow, I landed a job in Portland, Oregon that would pay me for rehearsals.”

So he charged the ticket on his credit card and moved to Portland within the week.

Problem was, with no money in reserve, he had to live in the closet, of an office, of the headquarters of the dance company. For two months. That’s how long it took to earn enough money to get a place.

“They’d be having business meetings and I’d be walking through with a towel on my way to take a shower,” he says, laughing. “The shit I’ve been through just to be able to dance. I would come home from rehearsal and watch YouTube dance videos all night, take an Epsom salt bath, do stretches [then] practice more. Because I couldn’t let go yet. All this stuff was so new to my body, that if I took a break it would literally disappear in two days. I had to be that dedicated to maintain this caliber of dancing.” Weaver stayed with Polaris Dance Theatre for two seasons.

“From day one, I’ve had every obstacle. I mean it was a rough. But at the same time I also felt really empowered because I was doing what I needed and was meant to do.”

LIFTS

Fast forward to 2014, when Weaver gets a call from Anthony Williams to be a part of Loving Black, Williams’s production on the complicated relationships between African American men. Once again, without hesitation, Weaver boards a plane to chase a dream. This time the plane was headed to Pittsburgh.

Since then, the up-and-coming talent has become a resident member of Texture Contemporary Ballet, under the artistic direction of Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman. He recently won an Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments, to create his ballet Vwoyaj. When I caught up with him, he was fresh off the road from a whirlwind tour with STAYCEE PEARL Dance Project (SPdp), to the cities of Crested Butte, Aspen, and Carbondale in his home state of Colorado. He had exactly one week to recuperate before gearing up to teach his adult contemporary dance classes for The Legacy Arts Project at Sankofa Village for the Arts on January 31, and a beginners ballet class at Alloy Studios starting February 1st. If that wasn’t enough, from March 3-5th Weaver will be back out on tour with Shana Simmons Dance to perform her piece, Otis in Chicago.

Jean-Paul Weaver teaches a class at Sankofa Village for the Arts (photo by sarah huny young)

Jean-Paul Weaver teaches a class at Sankofa Village for the Arts. Pictured are Erin Perry, Patricia Ford, and Lea Blumenfeld of the The Legacy Arts Project (photo by sarah huny young)

“This is a big deal to me, to be working this much,” Weaver says, on his season of success. “I’ve had more consistent work in the one year that I’ve been here, than probably the last three years of my career combined. In the last few months, I’ve been able to [make a living] by just dancing and teaching. I couldn’t do that in San Francisco, I couldn’t do that in Portland, I couldn’t do that in any of the other cities that I’ve lived in.”

From Obuzor, to Simmons, to Pearl, the variety of artistic voices found here has expanded not only Weaver’s dance career but his technique and range as well. “I have great respect for Simmons as both a choreographer and a business woman… I’m learning a lot from her about [the] meaty, heavy modern movements like weight sharing and lifting in juxtaposition to my dance training in a contemporary ballet company.”

Regarding his work with SPdp, Weavers says that in addition to the feminine perspective Pearl brings to the creative process, he especially values her universal depiction of African American identity and themes of the African diaspora. “In one piece she may tackle #BlackLivesMatter and the issues of police brutality, but that’s not the only thing she talks about in that piece, which I appreciate. I feel like if I get stuck talking just about that, then that in itself is another form of oppression.” He explains, “I’m not suggesting that we ignore those things, but what I am suggesting is that the Black identity is a spectrum. And within this huge spectrum, there’s more space for everyone to breathe. So I appreciate being part of that work, and I feel as though I belong in that type of work, and I haven’t always felt that way in work that addresses African American identity as a biracial individual.”

And at a time when America is experiencing an identity crisis that has very much mirrored his own, Weaver is particularly attracted to projects that explore and dissect issues of identity.

Jean-Paul Weaver at Sankofa Village for the Arts (photo by sarah huny young)

Jean-Paul Weaver at Sankofa Village for the Arts (photo by sarah huny young)

“So the dynamic within my family…I don’t want to say that it’s unique or special, but it’s different from what I was seeing on television and definitely different from what people were telling me I was supposed to be,” Weaver says. “My parents were always like, ‘You’re biracial, you’re bicultural. Your father’s white, your mother’s Black and Haitian. And you’re all of these things and so much more.’ That’s the mentality we grew up with. So I really never understood a, why that was a bad thing; and b, why it was such a shock to people that my dad didn’t save my mom from poverty. And why my name is French. And why people kept saying that I was white.”

Growing up with such a progressive view of ethnicity and race, compared with collective cultural consciousness around them, was a source of constant confusion for Weaver and his siblings. Especially when that alienation and ostracism came from both Black and White communities. “So a lot of that has shaped where I’m going with my art and how I perceive myself as a person of color who’s making art. If art is supposed to be a weapon of change, if art is supposed to reflect the culture that you find yourself in…then that’s where I find myself,” Weaver says. “I don’t really fit in there, I don’t really fit in here. And if I’m feeling this, as someone who is somewhere on the spectrum of Black identity, then that’s an issue I have to address.”

LEAPS

On March 18th – 20th Weaver will premiere his ballet, Vwoyaj (the Haitian, Creole word for “journey”) at the New Hazlett Theater, as a part of Texture’s show Reflections. He describes Vwoyaj as his odyssey as an “Afro-Haitian, Afro-Latino, biracial, mulatto, queer, gay, femme born in a masked body, whatever you want to call it person, man, thing in today’s world.” This piece is centered on the universal spiritual beings he’s discovered while studying the Voodoun religion and culture, and it’s laced with music from Le Motel, a producer who reconstructs traditional Haitian music and ceremonies into a contemporary house sound, which perfectly compliments what Weaver is trying to showcase in his work. “I can tell you honestly that Vwoyaj is not authentic Haitian movement at all. And that’s the point. I am a half Haitian, half American living in [this country]. So my work will look different from what’s happening in Haiti because it’s a reflection of who I am and where I am right now. As a millennial Haitian American. You could say my cultural context is a millennial perspective from an Afro-futuristic lens.

“In Haitian culture, they view the poets and artists to be the prophets. The people who see the future,” he says. “Because we’ve been robbed of our past, people of African descent are looking towards our future, we’re beginning to strengthen ourselves, and our ancestors have all the information we need. We just have to tap into the source. That is my goal.”

Jean-Paul Weaver at Sankofa Village for the Arts (photo by sarah huny young)

Jean-Paul Weaver at Sankofa Village for the Arts (photo by sarah huny young)

For Weaver, the most organic portal to this source is dance. It’s one of the reasons he plans to devote the next five years of his career towards becoming a dance anthropologist. This summer he’ll  travel to Haiti to teach and study dance. Then it’s off to Minneapolis to study Afro-Haitian, folkloric, Voodoun movement with master dancer Djenane Saint-juste, from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

I want to know how all dance connects so I can showcase what I’ve learned. Dance is a language.
“Her mother is a Voodoun priestess, and [Saint-juste] has only been in the States for the last five years, so she’s fresh. She has the cultural context, she has the history, she has all of that knowledge behind the steps. I want to dive into that world, then take everything else I’ve learned and keep learning more. I want to go to Australia and study Aboriginal dance. I want to study Native American dance. I want to know how all of these dances connect so that I can showcase what I’ve learned in a concert dance setting. That will be my dissertation… because dance is a language.”

This dance dissertation will evolve into his life’s work. Today, Weaver is looking forward to getting Vwoyaj off the ground and building his freelance choreography career, one project at a time. “After performing at least three in-progress productions and snagging maybe two residencies, I would like to present a full production of Vwoyaj within two years. So I’m looking at my options as far as that. Is it going to be in Pittsburgh? I hope so. Will I have more resources somewhere else? I don’t know.”

Though his voice is dry and a bit weak from his week of dancing in the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains, it radiates a familiar elation one exudes when a labor of love is beginning to fall into place. I get the impression this talented young man will be sticking around for a while.

“I’m actually blown away by what I’ve been able to accomplish because of this city. I’ve had some of the most enriching experiences here, and feel like Pittsburgh is the type of place that if you really want it, and are willing to work for it, you will get it.”

For tickets & more information on Jean-Paul William Weaver’s premiere of Vwoyaj, New Hazlett Theater, March  18– 20, 2016, please visit Textureballet.org.

About the Author

Author, oral historian, and Pittsburgh native Yvonne McBride is inspired by her love for storytelling, folklore, and the rich, musical history of her hometown. She is currently working on a novel based in The Hill District during its golden era of jazz.

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