Choreographer and New York-based founder of The Black Iris Project Jeremy McQueen knew he wanted to be on a stage when he was 8 years old and saw his first performance: "Phantom of the Opera" at the San Diego Civic Theatre.
Several years later, when McQueen took his first ballet class at San Diego School for the Creative and Performing Arts, a public magnet school, it wasn't because he wanted to do ballet. He just wanted to get out of P.E.
"I hated the idea of wearing a dance belt and tights, and I hated the the rigidness of ballet, but over the years, I came to really love and appreciate the art form for what it is fundamentally — outside of all of the very, deeply rootedness in white supremacy," he said, adding that for those reasons, he had a challenging and difficult journey trying to fit in and express his voice in the ballet world.
McQueen eventually moved to New York City and founded The Black Iris Project, a ballet collaborative dedicated to original works that center Black voices, experiences, stories and bodies. For the first time, he's bringing the Emmy Award-winning project home to San Diego for a performance of two recent works.
"WILD" was inspired first by a powerful portrait of an incarcerated boy by Richard Ross, a photographer known for his "Juvenile in Justice" series and works that spotlight the realities of youth detention programs.
At the time, he was also toying with bringing Maurice Sendak's children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are," and its imaginative main character, Max, into a choreography concept.
"I saw Max's story through this young boy, and through seemingly a lot of the experiences through a number of young men impacted by the juvenile justice system," McQueen said. "I decided to find a way to bridge those two stories together ... amplifying voices that frequently go unheard."
Another work he'll debut in San Diego this week is "A Mother's Rite." The work is set to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and it follows one mother. After her son is murdered, the mother grapples with intense grief amidst a high-profile case.
"One of the stories that I was inspired to create was a story about mothers and their journey through grief, especially after enduring such an injustice of seeing the officer or the person who killed your son or daughter go away without really any kind of repercussions, and what that does to the mental, psychological and physical self," McQueen said.
Both "WILD" and "A Mother's Rite" pack powerful and emotionally-loaded narratives within each ballet. Still, McQueen wants his work to represent the full range of human experience.
"I feel like I'm just sharing life. I'm sharing life experiences. A lot of times when we look at Black lives, there is trauma associated — we can go all the way back to the slavery period that we've endured in this country," McQueen said.
He added that it's important to acknowledge and tell those stories as well as the full story.
"The multitude and magnitude of Black life is not a monolith. We are not a monolithic people, and we do have highs and lows and joys and dreams and hopes, and in these two ballets you get to see all aspects of human personalities and characteristics — not just trauma and grief, but we get to see joy and hope for the future that things will not always be the way that they are," McQueen said.
While the Black Iris Project debuted in New York City in 2016, it took seven years to secure a show in his hometown of San Diego. McQueen does not mince words when he talks about the ordeal.
"It's been pathetic. Honestly, it's just ridiculous. San Diego is unlike any city that I've ever worked in," McQueen said. "I'm learning a lot about San Diego and it's very conservativeness. It's its own bubble, that I think actually holds us back from moving forward. Trying to bring these works to San Diego, I've tried for so many years to connect with the popular dance presenters, like ArtPower and La Jolla Music Society, but for years, they've continued to ignore my work, and I think it's particularly because I'm so unapologetic in the ways in which I express and share Black stories, Black life, Black experience. It feels as though, no matter how much accolades or how many awards or recognition I can receive nationally or in New York, it's still never enough for San Diego, and that's a really hurtful thing to experience, to feel like your own voice and vision is appreciated more outside of your hometown."
He didn't want to give up on San Diego, partly because of his gratitude for the people here who shaped his own artistic journey here when he was younger.
KPBS reached out to both La Jolla Music Society and ArtPower for comment on this story. LJMS declined to comment and ArtPower did not respond to our request.
"I'm doing this purely because I know that I would not be where I am today if it were not for the artists from San Diego who came back, especially to my high school, and shared of their experiences and showed me that it was possible to have a career outside of San Diego, it was possible to be on Broadway," McQueen said.
The Black Iris Project performs at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at Balboa Theatre.
"McQueen will also appear on a panel alongside Black local arts leaders Dinah Poellnitz, Miki Vale and Kamaal Martin to discuss equity in the arts. The panel is 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9 at the Central Library downtown.