The Wild Imagination Of Choreographer Jeremy McQueen
The San Diego-born founder of the Black Iris Project wrote "Wild" to explore imagination, racism and youth incarceration. It screens on demand through April 4.
Choreographer Jeremy McQueen remembers the exact moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
"It was about the age of eight that my mom took me to the Civic Theater downtown to see the national tour of 'Phantom of the Opera.' And we got these nosebleed seats on the very, very last row of the balcony," McQueen said. "So my mom rented those binoculars and I pretty much hogged them. I had them glued to my face, sitting on the edge of my seat."
McQueen, who was born and raised in Southeast San Diego and now lives in New York, remembers everything: the plush red seats, the costumes, the lighting, the dancing and acting, even peering inside the orchestra pit. It sparked something big in him.
"I looked at my mom after that performance and said, I want to do this. I want to be a part of this," McQueen said.
From that point forward, his world was engulfed in the arts and performance. He trained with San Diego Junior Theatre and attended San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts beginning in the sixth grade.
How To Watch:
"Wild: Act 1" is available to rent on demand, but only through April 4, 2021. The film's runtime is approximately 50 minutes.
Trailer, rental tickets and special features (including "Wild: Overture") can be found here.
Fast-forward to 2021: his New York-based dance company, The Black Iris Project, has been virtually screening evocative and critically acclaimed ballets throughout the pandemic. The latest series, "Wild," draws on the imagination found in books like Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are" to tell a story of the incarceration of young people, particularly young men of color.
Prior to starting his own company, he performed in the Corps de Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, toured with several Broadway productions — including "The Color Purple" and "Wicked" — and was a 2013 recipient of the Joffrey Ballet's "Choreographers of Color" award. He also studied with the American Ballet Theatre, the San Francisco Ballet School and other programs. It was around this time that the seeds for The Black Iris Project were planted.
"I've found it very challenging to find motivation and encouragement to continue in such an artistic field that doesn't necessarily lend itself to celebrating Black bodies and Black stories," said McQueen.
He began to realize that choreography was what he turned to during times of trauma and stress, so he decided to dedicate himself to telling those stories. And in 2016, the Black Iris Project came to be.
"What we do with the Black Iris Project is we specifically create both classical and contemporary ballets that are rooted in Black history or the Black experience, something that I often did not have an opportunity to see," McQueen said.
He also wanted to be mindful of the way these stories were brought to life: with a team primarily made of young people of color — not just the dancers but the full production team.
"It was really important to me that I bring together a number of Black and brown people to help be the change that we wish to see in the world instead of waiting for other institutions to give us opportunities, to see ourselves on stage and to see ourselves as leaders in the field," said McQueen. "I decided it was time for us to do it ourselves."
In 2018, he wrote the ballet "A Mother's Rite," which follows a Black mother grieving for her son after he was killed by police. To get the project seen by as many people as possible, "A Mother's Rite" was made into a film in 2019, which received an Emmy nomination and also screened online last summer.
For his newest ballet, "Wild: Act 1," which premiered on Vimeo On Demand on March 15, McQueen knew he wanted the broader audience of film. It's called "Act 1" but it's the second of a four-part series. The first, "Wild: Overture," sets the stage for the full story about the ways in which young people can become trapped in the justice system.
For "Wild," McQueen was also inspired by the work of photographer Richard Ross, whose book, "Juvenile-In-Justice," is a collection of photographs, interviews and materials from dozens of institutions and more than a thousand incarcerated youth.
"This work, to me, really amplifies the idea that though our bodies might be perceived or incarcerated in so many different facets throughout life, our minds and our imaginations can never be incarcerated," McQueen said. "This ballet in particular is a call to action specifically for young Black and brown men to be able to see the beauty of their lives and the beauty of telling their stories, no matter what they've been through — and the value of their stories. I feel like we don't see enough of that right now in media, especially with as much as we talk about the senseless killings of Black men and women."
The work follows a 14-year-old boy, portrayed by dancer Elijah Lancaster, celebrating his birthday behind bars. Three screen-covered frames function as walls of a cell, and center the work. Photography (including that of Richard Ross), and original illustrations and animations are cast onto those walls — reminiscent of Max's room in Sendak's book, when "the walls became the world all around."
The vibrant soundtrack includes original works by Morgxn, contemporary composer Chari Glogovac-Smith and many more.
"Wild: Act 1" tackles difficult, tragic themes of systemic racism and the justice system's impact on childhood development, but it does so in a way that somehow feels hopeful.
"I think the hopefulness is in the ability to see this young man transform, and the ways in which we see his mind and even his spirits start to grow a little bit more," said McQueen. "I think it even promotes the idea of hopefulness that our society will not always function or operate in the way in which it does — in terms of how it incarcerates children and doesn't provide necessarily substantive, restorative justice."
Additional parts of the Wild series will come to fruition later this year, including a socially distanced bike tour of individual performances in the Bronx. If performed in other cities, McQueen said the company would adapt it and work with local youth to tell a story specific to their neighborhoods.
When asked if this was something he could bring to San Diego, McQueen lit up.
"Oh my gosh. Like, are you kidding? I have been dying to get my work to San Diego," McQueen said. "It's always been my goal to try to get my hometown, especially Southeast San Diego, to be able to see my work."