When lockdown orders went into effect last spring, independent artist-scholar Michael J. Love had to leave a note on his neighbor’s door. It read something like, Hi, I live upstairs, and believe it or not, I’m a professional tap dancer.
Though his neighbor was understanding, they were living in an old building with unsturdy floors, and while much of the dance world pivoted to at-home alternatives, Love found himself in a predicament.
“With other forms of dance, you can use your kitchen counter as your ballet barre, or take class in your socks. Move your couch out of the way, and you’re dancing. But with tap dance, I can’t just be stomping on my floor,” Love says. “I had to figure out a place where I could go and make noise.”
Even prior to the pandemic, affordable space for artists to rehearse and perform in Austin was a critical issue. Now, also facing the risk of illness in shared studio space and the cancellation of in-person events, Love, who’s been based in Austin since 2014, began a furious search for viable options. After months of social media queries and scrolling through Craigslist, he found someone renting a 200-square-foot office area of a warehouse in an industrial park in North Austin. With the help of financial support from ARCOS Dance and The Allison Howard Fund, Love began to transform the empty room into The BEATBOX, a flexible workspace and artist studio.
“I had to go on YouTube and figure out how to build a dance floor,” Love says, laughing. “It was a crazy experience.”
Emerging through necessity and often invisible labor, The BEATBOX is one of only a handful of dance-focused spaces in Austin led and maintained by a Black artist. While this experience was not one that Love planned or anticipated, it is sparking new ideas.
“From this point on, I really want to [keep having] my own space,” Love says. “There is a freedom in running my own thing.”
Bringing it Live
Securing space, however, is only the first step, followed quickly by questions of sustainability, as well as how to adapt to the new realities of virtual performance. In response, Love launched a monthly series of livestream events, bolstered by a Patreon subscription model that offers audiences multiple ways to support the work, including single show purchases and a pay-what-you-can pricing option for Black/queer/Of Color patrons.
“LIVE From The BEATBOX” is an experimental, dynamic series, mixing live rhythm tap sketches with video collages, creating what Love describes as layered audiovisual environments. Each month features collaborations with other artists and scholars as well, through recorded contributions and live post-show discussions.
As with the construction of the space itself, there is a DIY quality to the livestreams, as viewers see Love adjust his own lighting, run sound, and navigate Zoom, an aspect of the performances that he admits is somewhat horrifying for him.
“Letting go of the perfect things or the technical aspects that you might see if you went to a theater and saw a show, that’s the hard part for me,” says Love. “But then, well this is DIY, that’s what it is, and I should just lean into that. [The audience] is going to see me turn off a light, and I think that’s interesting in a way.”
The first installment in the series streamed last November, featuring a guest performance by movement artist and activist Kaitlyn B. Jones and a Q&A moderated by writer and curator Jamal Batts. The dancing was interspersed with images and looping audio from protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality.
“We were coming out of the increase in actions and activism over the summer [of 2020], and I was still processing a lot of that, how that type of activism is necessary,” Love recalls, “and will there ever be a point in time when it’s not necessary?”
These inquiries on time have become increasingly central to Love’s ongoing artistic production.
“There’s this idea of queer time that I’ve been in conversation with folks about,” Love says. “This idea of time not being linear, and to me, Black creativity defies the structure of time.”
Livestream No. 002, which appropriately took place on Love’s 33rd birthday in December, was in many ways a celebration of Black American culture of the late 70s and 80s. Joined by guest artist Yunina Barbour-Payne and in conversation with poet-scholar Dominique Garrett-Scott, the video montage brought in icons like Gregory Hines and Whitney Houston, as well as commercials for Ebony and Essence magazines, placing images of the past alongside live performance in the present, as a way to imagine toward the future.
Love’s meditation on time will continue into “Livestream No. 003” (4 p.m. CST Jan. 23), with a focus on the late 90s into the early 2000s. A guest appearance from SKAM, a collaboration between Love and interdisciplinary artists siri gurudev, kt shorb, and Ari L. Monts, is also in the works.
“I’m listening to a ton of early Brandy and Missy Elliott, The Velvet Rope era Janet [Jackson], Toni Braxton…all those great folks, and something is emerging out of that,” says Love.
He anticipates that the monthly series will continue at least through the spring, at which point he’ll reassess, given the uncertainties of the present moment. And recently, he was named an artist-in-residence at Austin’s Ground Floor Theatre.
The explorations of time unfolding in the livestream series are also becoming a form of performance-as-research, incubators for a larger, long-term project. When an ensemble production in a theater becomes a possibility again, Love plans to stage The AURALVISUAL MIXTAPE Collection, Part III: (RHY)PISTEMOLOGY: TO KNOW THROUGH THE RHYTHM!
“[The show] is based off an idea of ancestral knowing, or knowledge that’s passed along from generation to generation through rhythm and song and movement,” Love explains. “It makes sense to go through different periods of time, to think about what was happening, what Black cultural production looked like in each of those eras, what topics were being talked about.”
The AURALVISUAL MIXTAPE Collection, Part I: GON’ HEAD AND PUT YOUR RECORDS ON! premiered in Austin in 2017, followed in 2019 by DOPE FIT!
“Part I is very autobiographical, about how I’ve come to be self-actualized in each portion of my identity,” says Love. “Part II is thinking about community context, and more specifically, responding to collective histories of trauma when it comes to the Black American experience. Part III is going to be more about the future, like what it would look like if Black folks are really liberated, what we could do.”
In looking toward the future, Love is also confronting the complicated legacies of tap dance and the power structures between performer and audience — concepts he dove into in his thesis research as a recent MFA graduate of the UT Department of Theatre and Dance’s Performance as Public Practice Program.
As Love explains, “there’s a certain history (in tap dance) of blackface and minstrel performance and Black people literally performing a certain sort of caricature of themselves for white enjoyment.”
“Still to this day, when people (think of) tap dance, they expect certain things, and I’m interested in not meeting those expectations, and in fact, taking people other places. A lot of my work is about identity, race, gender, queerness. So, placing some of the onus on audience members to think about their own positionality to some of these issues.”
With that intention, Love sometimes chooses to face away from the audience when he dances, a practice of subversion that harkens back to Miles Davis, who would turn his back to the white audience as he played.
“It becomes more of a witnessing of something,” Love says, “which calls for deeper introspection, both from me as the person who’s presenting the work and also the audience members.”
As the city of Austin continues to reckon with its own racist history and complicated legacies, there is indeed much for us to witness.
“Livestream No. 003” premieres 4 p.m. CST Jan. 23. Visit dancermlove.com/virtual for ticketing information.