October 27, 2014

Artful Action: How Dancer Hattie Mae Williams Combines Art, Activism, and History

Choreographer Hattie Mae Williams and her dance troupe, The Tattooed Ballerinas, are presenting site-specific performances at two historic sites in Miami: Miami Marine Stadium and the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables.
Choreographer Hattie Mae Williams (left) and her dance troupe, The Tattooed Ballerinas, are presenting site-specific performances at two historic sites in Miami: Miami Marine Stadium and the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables.

Miami native Hattie Mae Williams is on a mission to change how we see public spaces. And she’s set her sights on her hometown.

Through her Miami Sites Project, Williams, a recipient of a 2013 Knight Arts Challenge Miami grant, is celebrating two of her city’s iconic, historic sites: Miami Marine Stadium and the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, which is celebrating its 90th birthday this year.

Her method? Dance.

Williams, a choreographer and dancer who graduated from both the New World School of the Arts in Miami and Fordham/Alvin Ailey in New York City, is choreographing a site-specific dance and film at both sites with her dance troupe, The Tattooed Ballerinas. The idea, she says, is to explore the history of these two sites, their place within the city, and their current life.

Filming at Miami Marine Stadium was completed earlier this fall, and the film will debut on November 15 at The LAB Miami. Her Miami Sites Miniseries episodes will debut at the Miami Dade Book Fair on November 21. Early next year, the film, along with other elements of the project (like interview footage and photographs) will be part of a larger gallery show. (The Venetian Pool piece is currently on hold.)

We checked in with Williams to ask her more about her work and why historic places inspire her.

How can art, and dance, in particular, transform a public space? And what do you hope your site-specific performances achieve?

To see people moving in a public space frees up the routine and learned etiquette of how we are “supposed” to interact and function in a collective space. This phenomenon of site-specific work, which is as old as the day is long, also liberates us to dance, pray, practice, sing, and sit still, not only in our public shared spaces but our private spaces, as well.

Through site-specific dance performances, the Miami Sites Project will explore the past and present of Miami Marine Stadium and the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables.
In addition to site-specific dance performances, the Miami Sites Project has a film component. Other elements of the project, including photographs and interviews, will be part of future gallery exhibits and festivals.

How do you choose sites, historic or otherwise, for your performances?

I am a visually driven person and am attracted to a site first by its architecture, landscape, and the possibilities of shapes in its negative spaces. I also choose sites based on the relationship, or lack thereof, with the community surrounding the location. This leads to looking within our learned interactions with the site, the history of the place, and how we feel and act when in the space during our daily routines.

I am also passionate about the act of reclaiming public spaces through artful thinking, community engagement, and performance. In choosing historic sites, the decision is predominantly driven by several questions: How was the site used in the past, and by whom? What is its significance to the communities’ cultural, social, economical, and political ideas today? And what are the narratives told about the site, and in what mediums has it been told?

Can you tell me about your Miami Sites Project?

The Miami Sites Project has organically grown into a multiple-layered project that has given birth to many smaller works. The elements included film, music, photography, dance performance, and installations.

The Miami Sites Project consists of the Miami Marine Stadium site-specific dance film and the Miami Sites Miniseries episodes. The Miniseries episodes were filmed and performed with my company, The Tattooed Ballerinas, guerrilla-style in various public locations throughout south Florida. The Marine Stadium project will be presented as a larger event where photographs, b-roll footage, documentation, and live graffiti acts will make up the landscape of the film. (Both works will be presented in various locations, happenings, and festivals, in the meantime.)

I am a Miami native, and I wear this identity very proudly, even throughout my 15-year career in New York City. I've always felt a sense of responsibility to return and motivate. I am a product of performing arts high schooling and beautiful outreach arts and youth programming here in Miami. This saved my life and influenced me as an artist and activist. I am also very aware of the huge social, political, racial, and economic divides that ultimately weaken our cities’ connectedness through the human experience and sharing of cultures, music, dance, food, and narratives. The Miami Sites Project is my attempt to bridge some of these gaps through artful action.

What is it that drew you to Miami Marine Stadium, specifically?

The stadium sits on a very dense layer of narratives that the island Virginia Key holds. I was drawn to the history. Also, the fact that the stadium has been abandoned for 20 years, and an independent organization, Friends of the Miami Marine Stadium, and local graffiti and mural artists have taken ownership in the rebirth and movement towards its renovation and community use. [This] really inspired me as an artist who works towards positive change.

I wanted to be part of this movement and bring another perspective in how the space can be celebrated through dance and film. I am drawn to things that are overlooked, unrecognized in our daily activities, and whose history can be all too forgotten. The Miami Marine Stadium, in all its glory, beauty, and symmetry, is endangered of having its history forgotten and doors shut indefinitely. This film is preserving a time and place in Miami’s history.

The Tattooed Ballerinas performed their site-specific dance at Miami Marine Stadium.
The Tattooed Ballerinas performed their site-specific dance at Miami Marine Stadium.

Can you tell me about your performance at Miami Marine Stadium?

[Our dancers were] Katie Stirman, Melanie Martel, Iwalani Martin, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and [me]. The dancers wore solid, vibrant tops with brightly colored leggings whose geometric patterns complimented the rich graffiti-soaked walls. Visual artist Loni Johnson created the wild, hip sneakers for each individual’s character.

The music was composed by artist Datamouth, who uses the sounds and elements within the stadium’s landscape and creates a mash-up of sounds from the bay and spray paint cans with a percussive drive. Dipping in and out of tones and dynamics make up the lovely soundscape for the film. The choreography compliments the vast space and abstractly tells stories of the stadium’s opening day tragedy, narratives of the water, and stories heard from the community.

And what drew you to the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables? What is so special or interesting to you about that site?

The main thing that drew me to the Venetian Pool was the fact that I grew up here in Miami, and traveled as far south as I did north, and [yet] had never heard of the Venetian Pool. How could this be? A historic gem in my city that I never heard of or had the pleasure of swimming in as a child? The history and the natural quarry rock that the pool was built from and the daily draining of the pool also intrigued me, but mainly the history in the demographics and happenings that took place in the pool’s past and looking at how the space is currently used was the allure.

In terms of future projects, do you have your sights set on any other historic sites around Miami, or anywhere else?

The possibilities of dance, performance, and film are everywhere I look, in sites both historic and not. I am very much interested in Stiltsville, the Dorsey Memorial Library, and Miami Beach Senior High School, to name a few. I travel often and am always seeing sites where I would love to create and collaborate with local communities and artists in the efforts of reenergizing and reframing spaces. I intend to use my company, Hattie Mae Williams -- The Tattooed Ballerinas, as a vehicle to bridge communities together in site specific/context specific projects all over the country.

Miami Sites Project - The Miami Marine Stadium - Feast Video from Datamouth on Vimeo.

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The film will premiere Saturday, November 15, 2014 at The LAB Miami. If you're in the Miami area, check it out!

Location: 400 NW 26th St, Miami, FL 33127
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Cost: $10 suggested donation to go towards the Knight Foundation Arts Challenge Grant (matched funds)
Phone: (305) 507-3660

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

Join us for PastForward Online 2022, the historic preservation event of the year. Registration is open!

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