Shamel Pitts: The works have to do with the colorfulness of blackness. And I learned that through the artists who are not African American only, they are African Brazilian, they are from South Africa. So I’ve learned a lot about the richness of blackness and of those of the African diaspora.


Candice Thompson: You’re listening to UnSequenced — a podcast about the choreographic process. I’m Candice Thompson. 

On today’s episode, we hear from former Batsheva dancer and Princess Grace Award winning choreographer Shamel Pitts. Who was also just recently named a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. I spoke with Pitts by phone back in January of this year about his body of work, a trilogy, called the “BLACK Series.” These three distinct works, that nonetheless are part of a whole, were developed over several years, with the creative process unfolding in multiple countries through intimate and intense relationship building and collaboration.  

Shamel Pitts created the first dance in this trilogy in 2015 — an autobiographical solo called BLACK BOX.

SP: Living in Tel Aviv, dancing with Batsheva Dance Company. And what I was doing leading up to that creation was writing, right? A lot of text in this little book that I called black box, or little black book of red, red is my nickname. While traveling the world with Batsheva, I started jotting down different things that were arising at that moment that didn’t necessarily have to do with the place that I was in globally or geographically, but more so what was happening inside. So BLACK BOX became a very personal work that was almost, I mean, I like to say that it’s almost like looking into a peep hole of someone who’s going through something. BLACK BOX was created in my little apartment in Tel Aviv on my 30th birthday with 30 close friends and it was 30 minutes long. So very intimate. 

CT: Not long after leaving Batsheva, Pitts met Brazilian artist Mirelle Martins and forged a life-changing relationship with her. That relationship would lead to the creation of the second work, BLACK VELVET.

SP: Mirelle and I created BLACK VELVET together in Brazil. So I was there in Brazil for two months teaching a thousand Gaga classes. Gaga is the movement language created by Ohad Naharin, the former director of Batsheva Dance Company. Part of my initiative with Brazil and between Mirelle and I was to bring Gaga to Brazil. Parallel to doing that, we were creating BLACK VELVET. In creating BLACK VELVET, it was also a space for us to get to know each other because we hadn’t known each other so closely. We met just briefly before while she was taking Gaga in New York and she was the student, and as you know, I was her teacher. 

So BLACK VELVET was a lot, I say it’s a lot to do with the efficiency of strangers to become partners because as we were creating this work, we were also building a relationship. And that relationship was pretty artistic as well as personal, but also like on a soul level. I think we sort of like, blended into each other in an effort to come towards each other and create a space for each other. And that space that was created with Black Velvet has a lot to do with the similarities between us, but also our differences, and how we can listen to these differences in an effort to create this sort of harmony with differences.

CT: Did you have a sense when you were developing BLACK BOX that it would be a trilogy or did that only happen later on? 

SP: It only happened later on, honestly Candice. Yeah the trilogy happened because it needed to happen. I just had to listen to what it was telling me in terms of creation. Part of what happened after creating BLACK BOX was sharing this work firstly to Mirelle and then, her seeing herself inside of that work. So then that made me feel already a continuation, a lineage, a thread between BLACK BOX and the next work that I would create, which was with Mirelle. So then how do we create a new work with a sense of its genesis being in the prior work? As that second work happened, I started to already imagine a new work. And I think part of it is because when I create a work, it’s never really done. Like every time I meet a work, or meet a performance of a work, something shifts, something changes. Which I really enjoy. I’m constantly like learning from the work as it’s born. 

CT: I had the opportunity to see the US Premiere of BLACK VELVET, as part of the Tanz Farm performance anthology in Atlanta in March of 2018. Pitts and Martins were shimmering apparitions, mirrors of each other, and their combined presence was completely mesmerizing as they transformed the backstage area of Symphony Hall into a welcome, alternate universe. While in Atlanta, Pitts and Martins also began what would become the third and final work in the series, BLACK HOLE. They eventually folded in a third cast member, South African dancer Tushrik Fredericks and continued to collaborate with animator Lucca del Carlo on lighting design.

SP: Mirelle introduced Luca and I to each other in Brazil while we were creating BLACK VELVET. Luca is also from Brazil. So while we were there, Luca and I had many, many conversations. He’s never really worked with contemporary dance or like a theater environment. He did a lot of work in nightlife,which immediately connected me to him because I also have a huge nightlife identity. Yeah we went out dancing a lot together and we had many, many conversations outside of the studio together. And we dreamt about art largely, but then more specifically, I shared with him any ideas I had about BLACK VELVET. We knew that the only light source we wanted to work with for BLACK VELVET and BLACK HOLE would be a projector. He had this projection technology on his computer. I could send him videos from a rehearsal. He could then get to rehearsal with himself about how he envisioned lighting for that. And that’s pretty much how things started with us. Now, I didn’t know him so well with BLACK VELVET. He didn’t know me so well. And I had some sort of resistance or hesitance, let’s say, about using technology in my work because I don’t really know technology. So I was like, ah, I don’t know if this will take away from the humanity of my work, which is very important to me. In BLACK VELVET he sort of proved to me differently that there’s space for video projection work, video mapping, and that space can amplify our whole scope. That also creates an amplification and humanity of our work. And I felt very confident in his capacity. 

CT: Back in Atlanta, they began rehearsals at the Historic Rhodes Theatre. The Atlanta-based movement company, glo, through the Tanz Farm series was a producing partner on this third work as well. And glo was, at the time, beginning a major restoration project on this historic midtown theater. 

SP: After rehearsals in Atlanta at the Rhodes Theatre we’d go back to the house and talk a lot and discuss a lot about how the lighting could amplify moments that we felt were missing. And Luca would sort of take all of this information. And I remember waking up the next morning and  him saying, “Hey, I have some ideas.” Started researching a lot about black holes, it’s color schemes and also things moving in and out of space and time and colliding, crashing inward and outwardly. And then he sort of shared all of these artistic ideas and then showed me very specific lighting for this that blew my mind. And to me that’s almost technical. I think that, yeah, this is how we engage in a creative process with each other and this extends itself outside of the theater, into many different places and mostly the place has a sense home I guess for us.


CT: And was Rhodes particularly inspiring? 

SP: Rhodes was incredible. I hope to go back there. I don’t think I have ever experienced such a magical environment so far. It was a scary process. The space itself was very un-done. Although it was very much full of character. I had no idea how this would work. You know, there was so much dirt, it was lacking with lighting, with heating. But you go into the theater and you feel like, wow, she’s so magical. Like she has such a presence. Like there’s so much offering of this space. How do we create a black void inside of such a voluminous environment that’s very raw. So yeah, Lauri and Rick and glo, they’re incredible. 

CT: This is glo founder Lauri Stallings and general manager Rick Carvlin.  

SP: They made magic happen. I always think that magic is work and they worked very intensely to create this space that we had in mind or this space that was, that we felt was needed for this work to be pronounced. And how that black space then was in communication to this raw, spiritual, almost, ritualistic environment of Rhodes theater. It amplified the work. It really felt for me that we were transported. We being the performers, creative team, and the audience, we were all transported into like an outer space vibe. And I don’t know whether it’s outer space or some transportation. 

CT: Another dimension?

SP: Yes there we go, another dimension. 


CT: Pitts has spent the last decade maintaining a rigorous travel schedule, constantly jet setting the world to perform, choreograph and teach. I point out his incredible stamina and wonder how the concept of pacing enters into his work.

SP: I’m happy you mentioned this thing about pace because I think that we talk about each work in the BLACK series. They’re very much connected to the time, pace and timeline that each one was being created.

CT: The trilogy has also, in a sense, given birth to Pitts’ next big creation: a collective of artists called TRIBE.

SP: This is a new organization. So that means we really have to take our time to build what it is, what we have planned for it to be, and what it needs to be. So already as this new thing is happening, you know, we have to build infrastructure. That means, you know, having constant conversations with our creative collaborative teams and sort of dream up and examine what it is we want to do, who it is we are, what our future looks like. And that takes some time. So now with this process, after our launch last December, of really taking out time to feel clarity and how to move forward with this organization.


CT: That’s choreographer Shamel Pitts discussing the three works in his BLACK Series. Pitts is also the artistic director of TRIBE, a new arts collective based out of Brooklyn. You can find out more about the group on their website as well as on Instagram with the handle name @itsatribe .

That’s it for today’s episode of UnSequenced — a podcast about the choreographic process.

UnSequenced is produced and mixed by Stephanie Wolf. Today’s episode was reported and hosted by me, Candice Thompson. 

Joe Kye composed our theme music and the original music that accompanied this episode was composed by Sivan Jacobovitz for BLACK HOLE. Thanks to our sponsor MSeam Apparel. Also thanks to all of our Patreon subscribers. You can join them in supporting this podcast at

Find UnSequenced wherever you get your podcasts. And thanks for listening!

Listen to the full episode here, or wherever you get your podcasts.

UnSequenced Zoom Q&A

Join us on Patreon for exclusive content like this behind-the-scenes Q&A with the choreographer and collaborators.

Related Projects

    Start typing and press Enter to search