Growing up in Houston, Texas, in the 1960s and 1970s to parents hailing from Louisiana, David Roussève was surrounded by music and the arts. "My father was a jazz musician. ... I started out as an actor as a child, doing really bad versions of Sesame Street in Houston," he chuckled in a phone interview with Windy City Times. "I was a jazz baby. ... I wanted to do musical theater.… I hated the artsy/fartsy stuff!"
The now Los Angeles-based choreographer and artistic director of David Roussève /REALITY maintains that dance can and should be accessible and entertaining, attributing this belief to his early training in "commercial, 'razzle dazzle,' jazz… which I'm not dogging at all!," he said.
It wasn't until entering college at Princeton University with the intension of becoming an attorney that Roussève got a taste of the "artsy/fartsy stuff" he so disliked in his youth. Instilled from a young age with the desire and expectation of participating in social change, it was at Princeton that he said he "began to understand that the arts could be a part of a larger dialogue." Roussève studied politics, theater and dance, and African studies, giving credence to his growing notion that dance could serve as both a platform for dialogue between and among cultures, and still be entertaining. He formed his multimedia, multicultural company REALITY in 1989 with the intension of doing just that.
In his first visit to Chicago since 2009, Roussève and his company visit The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago Feb. 5-7 for a presentation of his evening-length work Stardust. Written, directed and choreographed by Roussève, Stardust is the story of Junior, a contemporary African-American gay teenager who the audience meets only through projections of text messages to unknown recipients.
Dubbed a "coming-of-age story for the Twitter generation," Stardust began in 2010 as an investigation into the role technology plays on intimacy, in response to what Roussève observed in younger generations living more and more of their lives with and through technology. As the story developed, Junior's character began to take shape through a desire that he represent a marginalized sector of society. It wasn't until after the piece was finished that Roussève began to see the connections between Junior and himself, and the greater conversations forming around queerness, race, and religion.
In this regard, certain aspects of Stardust are metaphorical, if not autobiographical to Roussève's experiences coming out in the 1970s and 80s, and yet, Junior is a contemporary character whose life does not necessarily resemble his own. Though Roussève considers the work as personal to him as any, this would be the first in the company's history in which he would not play the protagonist. "I felt so liberated when I took a step away," he said. "I wanted to work with a new movement vocabulary and not have it be hindered by what my body could do, or what my vocabulary is, and what an aging body can do and not do." What began as a desire for a more physical, full-throttle ( his word ) movement vocabulary generated by his dancers resulted in Roussève really seeing his work for the first time. A disengagement from the stage also afforded him the energy to invest in multiple layers of production, and an ability to work side-by side with his many collaborators, including dramaturge Lucy Burns, who worked through the process from beginning to end. Roussève claims that limiting his time onstage may be the start of a new trend, and while he plans to continue to make solo work that is largely driven by text, full company works will feature him less and less.
Particularly important to Stardust is a greater conversation about how marriage equality is at odds with a religious and cultural paradigm that does not always embrace queer people, particularly in African-American communities. The fictional character of Junior drives the piece in a very real and relevant direction that Roussève didn't initially anticipate. "The piece [is] really a response to not only the fight for marriage equality but also the conversationthe tensionbetween the religious community and the LGBT community. That's the core of the piece. Whether one believes in God or not is almost irrelevant, but those who do… the LGBT community is disenfranchised from the spiritual world. By saying that God doesn't accept who you arethat seemed like the ultimate oppression to me. Stardust is my response to that conversation, which I did not realize in the process of making it," he said, joking that the work could be likened to a rorschach test that was once perceived as something different than what it is to him today. It is a conversation that takes different shapes in the various communities he's visited; having presented Stardust in urban cities and rural college campuses, to totally black, totally white, and entirely mixed audiences, he's had equally fruitful and fulfilling dialogue on a topic for which many communities previously had no springboard.
David Roussève/REALITY will visit Feb. 57 at 8 p.m. at The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $30; call 312-369-8330ïż˝or see colum.edu/dancecenterpresents .