Ever since Raja Feather Kelly became a go-to choreographer for boundary-pushing Off-Broadway shows around 2016, he’s been bringing his experimental sensibilities to more mainstream theatre work.
But when I spoke to him just before he’d be moving into the Lyceum Theatre for his first Broadway show, A Strange Loop, he was wondering if he’d finally graduated into a production too big for his unconventional methods—or at least one of them.
“I don’t like to use a God mic,” he said. “I like to run from my tech table up to the stage, and tell an actor to do something in the middle of a scene, so we can all immediately experience a new idea at the same time and see if it works. I’m curious how many steps I’ll get on my Apple Watch running from the balcony all the way down—the theatre is much bigger than the houses downtown.”
Kelly has done a lot of running around over the past six years—not just up and down the aisles of theatres but among the many productions to which he’s lent his distinctive approach to movement. Since his first Off-Broadway choreography credit, Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro at Signature Theatre, he seems to have had a least two shows running at almost any given time. In June of 2019—not a month typically known for generous dance and theatre offerings in New York—I saw three Kelly-choreographed productions in one week: We May Never Dance Again, by his own dance/theatre company the feath3r theory, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview at Soho Rep, and the Off-Broadway premiere of Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop at Playwrights Horizons. I didn’t intentionally seek out his work—he was just everywhere.
This season has been similarly busy for the 34-year-old: In December, the feath3r theory’s Wednesday at New York Live Arts reimagined the 1975 crime drama Dog Day Afternoon as a vehicle for the question, who is allowed to tell whose story? Aleshea Harris’s On Sugarland ran at New York Theatre Workshop in February and March, a Sophocles-inspired modern tragedy in a war-torn Black community, in which Kelly’s movement facilitated ritual and remembrance. Now the musical Suffs, on which Kelly is credited as both choreographer and creative consultant, is retelling the history of the battle for the 19th Amendment at the Public Theater. And A Strange Loop is poised to open on Broadway.
It’s surprising now to learn that early in his career Kelly felt that he didn’t belong in either the dance world or the theatre world, with his own work bridging the two in ways that neither seemed interested in fully embracing. That changed rather suddenly a few years ago, as a flood of recognition from dance gatekeepers (three Princess Grace Awards, a Dance Magazine cover and Harkness Promise Award, several prominent fellowships, and more) arrived at around the same time that he began working extensively in theatre.
It is perhaps because Kelly doesn’t fit into the traditional role of a choreographer that he has become so in-demand, at least among directors looking for a thought partner rather than someone who solely offers dance steps. “For me, choreography encompasses everything: design, dramaturgy, costumes, language,” Kelly says. “If there’s a plight that I’m after in the theatre world, it’s that the role of the choreographer is more than you think it is. It’s not just about the dance phrases; it’s about making sense of the physical life of a production.”
This is reflected in the way Kelly works: He wants to be involved from the earliest point of development, and doesn’t understand why choreographers are sometimes left out until a production is on its feet. On the other hand, he prefers not to create choreography ahead of time in a separate room, but to work instinctually, making movement on actors in the moment.
Suffs director Leigh Silverman says that in her collaboration with Kelly, this process is like layering, as they take turns taking passes at scenes or songs to elaborate on each other’s work, “constantly articulating and re-articulating our vision.” The result is movement that is constructed from the inside out rather than the outside in, building on the scene work and on the specific performers in the room.
Whether those performers are dancers with a capital D matters little to Kelly. Indeed, one of his talents lies in helping actors who aren’t comfortable with movement be more assured in their bodies, says A Strange Loop director Stephen Brackett (he/him), who adds that Kelly achieves this by endlessly celebrating them. Kelly says that since he began working on Jackson’s show—about a struggling Black queer musical theatre writer and his embodied “Thoughts”—the cast has evolved from being intimidated by movement to being “my Strange Loop dance company,” he says. “There’s so much confidence and rigor that they put into what they’re doing. And they do it in such a way that I feel like you would not even notice how much choreography is there, which is always a beautiful thing for me.”
Kelly’s work, both for his own company and for theatre, does tend to be intricately, densely choreographed, yet so woven into the fabric of the show that a layperson’s eye may not even read it as choreography. “He’s always looking for an idea that’s more complex than a giant, beautifully danced number,” says Silverman. “What he considers a display of his talent isn’t about a perfectly executed feat of dancing, but a perfectly executed feat of storytelling.”
Kelly remembers the time a dance critic gave a negative review to a feath3r theory production because she thought it was all improvised. “The company was like, ‘That’s so annoying, I wish she would know how much trouble we would get in for not doing the same thing twice!’” Kelly recalls.
Choreography so seamless it seems to be nonexistent may serve the shows Kelly works on, but it is complicated for his ego. “I’m afraid that if people don’t know that I’m doing it, my work is not being seen,” he says. More importantly, he says, he wants audiences to know that “there’s so much hard work going on—the effortlessness of what’s happening is due to rigor and craft.”
Kelly’s growing popularity as a collaborator suggests that his contributions are being noticed. This summer, he’ll work on the Rachel Chavkin-directed Lempicka at La Jolla Playhouse. He calls it a “high-octane Art Deco fashion show” about the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka as she escapes the violence of the Russian Revolution. Engaging with the work of a visual artist feels like a challenge uniquely suited for Kelly, who has long been obsessed with Andy Warhol.
“People often ask me why I’m inspired by Warhol—they don’t see a connection between Warhol and dance,” he says. “You know, dance for a dancer is a physical art form, but dance for an audience is a visual art form.” That’s why Kelly “thinks about the theatrical experience as a whole. My access point is just primarily through the body, as a means of expression, but also as an object of design.”
If Kelly sounds like someone who wants to direct, that’s because he does. (He made his Off-Broadway directorial debut with the acclaimed 2020 production of Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die at Second Stage Theater.) Another, less expected item on his bucket list: “I’m desperate to make a ballet,” he says. “I like the idea of that kind of scale for some of the ideas I think about. And I don’t want to do the things I always do and just call it ballet. I want it to smell and look and feel like a ballet, but my take.”
He’s also at work on a new piece for the feath3r theory, about a group of people who travel to the sun to cover it with mud. Unlike most of his company’s productions, which blend text and movement almost equally, this one will have a first act that is essentially a play, and a second act that is a dance work. “I’m curious about how to dramaturgically take people from a theatrical experience that’s based in text to a theatrical experience that’s based in movement,” he says. “And how that thread becomes seamless between the acts.”
If anyone can make it work, it’s Kelly.
Lauren Wingenroth (she/her) is a New York City-based writer with bylines in Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher, Playbill, ESPN, Fjord Review, and others.
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