Spotlight Session: Kar’mel Small
What are the Spotlight Sessions?
I was the child who asked “why” 150 times in a row, to the dismay and occasional annoyance of the adults around me. That curiosity and need for discovery grew with me and became a guide on my artistic path. Determination, inquisitiveness, and the drive to connect with others led me to write, dance, choreograph, produce, and educate.
I started my company, Six Degrees Dance, with the mission of creating community. Embodying the theory that all people are connected through a social network of 6 or fewer degrees, we collaborate in an environment where the exchange of ideas is the building block for innovation and growth. We approach dance making with the belief that the contribution of the individual benefits the group, and results in a body of work reflective of the sum of its parts.
To that end, we have developed several initiatives that connect artists with audiences and with each other, maintaining the idea of six degrees of separation as the foundation for those connections. Our annual showcase brings together national and international choreographers, most of whom have never met. Our Choreographic Commission series allows the dancers of Six Degrees to work with a variety of choreographers in different styles. In The Spotlight Sessions, I will present a different artist each cycle, and through interviews, short feature articles, previews, and capsule reviews, offer a behind the scenes look into their work and their process. I hope you enjoy getting to know these unique, talented individuals as much as I have, and continue to follow them on their creative paths.
Raised in the South Bronx, Kar’mel Antonyo Wade Small initiated his dance journey with American and International Ballroom styles. He further honed his craft at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, where he received formal training in ballet, modern, and jazz. Continuing his pursuit of dance, Kar’mel graduated with a BFA in Dance Performance and Composition from the Conservatory of Dance at SUNY Purchase. Kar’mel's performance venues include renowned spaces such as Jacob’s Pillow, The Joyce Theater, Symphony Space, Kaatsbaan, New York Live Arts, and Lincoln Center, among others. Notable choreographers he has collaborated with include Kyle Abraham, Damani Pompey, Sidra Bell, Ohad Naharin, Kayla Farrish, Martha Graham, Keerati Jinakunwiphat, and Jerome Robbins. In addition to his stage work, Kar’mel has been featured in film and TV productions, including appearances on UNIVISION’s Despierta América, HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness, TELFAR TV, and more. His choreographic contributions extend to director Dean Irby’s rendition of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size." Kar’mel's artistic endeavors are multifaceted, spanning film, photography, and music. His photography has graced The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he has showcased collaborative video projects, such as 'Interrupting The Divine,' exploring the complexities of one's relationship with God, collaborated with Kyra Akia Naomi Ferguson and Claudius Richard James Terry. As a Chez Bushwick AiR recipient through the Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation, he worked on his latest choreographic project, project:MEMORABILIA, and later joined A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham in October 2022.
1. How did your artistic journey begin?
I began my journey as a social ballroom dancer under the guidance of Pierre Dulaine through his organization, American Ballroom Dance Theater, now known as Dancing Classrooms. I was introduced to this program during my penultimate year of elementary school. Its mission was to invite inner-city students from New York City to participate and compete. My initial exposure was to American social dancing, but I ventured into the International Ballroom scene through a summer intensive program led by Tatiana Keegan. Her direction brought a dynamic shift in my dance education and continues to influence my movement choices today. With newfound confidence, I auditioned for Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School under the direction of Michelle Mathesius.
There, I received formal training in Ballet (George Balanchine) and Modern techniques, including Horton and Graham. During my later high school years, I also delved into Tap and Jazz, along with composition classes. My senior year allowed me to perform works by prominent choreographers like Eleo Pomare (through Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, where I would later spend some time dancing, as well as for Nathan Trice/rituals), Damani Pompey, and Martha Graham. Following graduation, I enrolled at the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, where Nelly van Bommel served as the Interim Director. This marked a new chapter in my dance journey, promising challenging yet thrilling and enlightening experiences. I expanded my exposure to contemporary dance and further honed my skills in modern techniques such as Limon and Cunningham, as well as composition. Many of the works I participated in were student-led through Junior and Senior Projects, as well as the Purchase Dance Company. These productions included pieces by Symara Johnson, Kevin Wynn, Kimberly Bartosik, Roderick George, Claude Johnson, JoJo Boykins, Cemiyon Barber, Dava Huesca, Nicole Caruana, and others. These experiences led me to contemplate my goals beyond performing. During my time in school, I chose to explore choreography and created several dance pieces. It was during this period that I dedicated the most time to crafting various ideas and concepts for physical expressions that could best convey the images I wished to share with others.
2. What drives you as an individual artist? What do you hope to express/convey to the world through your work?
I aspire to demonstrate the freedom of unrestricted creativity, believing that everyone can become artists of emotion and vulnerability, using the vast expanse of the air as their canvas. My motivation stems from the way I began my dance journey. It was influenced by the prospect of breaking free from the cycle I was born into, providing me with a purpose to embrace happiness and practice discipline.
During my high school years, I often felt out of place because I didn't start dancing competitively at the tender age of 3 or 4 like many others. My dance journey as an individual began at the age of 14, primarily focused on concert dance and the various styles performed in theaters hosting companies that emphasized formal ballet and contemporary aesthetics, worlds further from where I began. To overcome this sense of being left behind, I chose to confront my limitations in flexibility, movement choices, and strength that I had yet to attain.
3. When do you feel most powerful?
I find strength in my creative collaborations with fellow artists. Clarity and effective communication of my ideas, expressed through articulate explanations and presentations of motifs and motives, empower me. Vulnerability becomes a source of power when I openly share my needs and experiences. True empowerment is experienced in the process of creation, engaging in the experiment of artistic expression and engaging in meaningful conversations with those possessing greater knowledge or a different life perspective.
4. What has been your biggest challenge and your proudest moment during your artistic growth?
My most significant challenge has been creating work that authentically reflects my true self and genuine identity. We all wear public personas and private ones that are intimately connected to us. My personal struggle emerged when I confronted my thoughts and emotions about my past, prompting me to shed the mask I wore. A proud moment occurred during my senior year at Purchase College when I collaborated with Shota Miyoshi, a current member of Hubbard Street. Together, we crafted a solo titled When The Arrow Hits. This piece resonated with my desire to strip away insecurities in my artistic expression, gaining confidence in telling a story that mirrored the essence of my past and present. This newfound confidence led me to create an artistic passion project titled project:MEMORABILIA, which birthed a trio with myself and two collaborators, Beatriz Castro and Caleb Patterson. The trio, titled PSYKLE I, strengthened my belief in self-expression and fueled my commitment to self-study for refining references. PSYKLE I delved into the exploration of a dream that had haunted me with fear and anxiety, depicting my transitional phase from reality to dream. This piece involved conversations around psychology and memory, while project:MEMORABILIA drew inspiration from the concept of interference theory and my familial relationship with my mother, grandfather, and great-grandmother.
5. Can you describe your creative process?
I employ various methods to create movement and pieces. I learn from improvisational videos I record, craft games using objects, and engage in world-building with those objects. Music serves as an atmospheric influence, and at times, I use one score to inspire movement before replacing it with a different score to explore qualitative differences. One of my preferred creative pursuits involves UNO cards. In essence, I assign colors as directions and numbers as the quantity of movements allowed. Special cards, like a reverse, enable the reversal of the previous movement if not the same color as the prior card. If the reverse card differs in color, the movement transposes to match the color of the reverse card. Wild cards prompt improvisational movement respecting the color they select, and so forth.
6.What do you do when you are not creating? What things outside of the dance industry inspire you and fuel your creativity?
It's amusing how sometimes not being creative is the most creative thing we can do. Life itself is the epitome of creativity. I engage in various activities to soak in experiences, spending time alone, meditating, visiting art museums, strolling through bustling streets or tranquil nature, listening to music, refining my skills in photography, videography, and music. Taking classes outside of my standard genre, like street styles such as house and hip-hop, helps my understanding of versatility. I cherish moments with family and friends, indulge in anime and foreign films, delve into psychology and philosophy, and read manga. All these pursuits have interconnectedly influenced my habits and interests. Anime, manga, and foreign films provide perspectives that enhance my photography, while art museums deepen my understanding of color theory, benefiting my video and photo editing. My connections with family and friends continually fuel my storytelling drive, offering a unique narrative beyond the confines of words. Ultimately, I find my time to be with myself and my needs.
7. What is next for you?
Currently, I'm touring with A.I.M by Kyle Abraham, marking a year with the company. This experience has broadened my perspective, fostering greater positivity and awareness regarding the crucial role artists play not only in our country but globally. Dance is a universal language, and my desire is to create with that appreciation in mind. The meetings I attend are approached with respect and as a tribute, hoping to influence others to do the same, or at least contemplate the idea. I relish engaging with communities, sharing the essence of dance and its expressive power. It instills hope that the future will be shaped by passionate individuals motivated to share their knowledge and ideas.
8. Is there a piece of advice you'd give to younger or emerging artists?
Invest in your interests. The key lies in how well you care for yourself, your loved ones, and your surroundings. Kindness is a powerful force. Treat those who've spoken to you with the same tone. Embrace both compliments and criticisms, acknowledging that more opportunities exist than you may be willing to recognize. Work diligently, but also prioritize rest. Mistakes are inevitable; embrace the falls and accept this reality along with your aspirations. Avoid rushing toward your goals to prevent burnout. Listen and learn from those with more experience, trusting their guidance. Trust your intuition and intellect; many opinions can influence your ego, mind, and soul. Allow for moments of stillness to focus on your presence. Discover your true self and lead from that place. Take pride in your progress and relish the learning process. Above all, remember to breathe deeply— your breath is your spirit— and remember your reason for starting.
A quick look at Kar’mel Small's work