On a weekend in early June, hundreds of protesters marched through the rainy streets of Aspen to call attention to systematic racism and police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
The protest was organized by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer, Jenelle Figgins, along with local resident Sájari Simmons. Together they co-founded the racial justice organization, Roaring Fork Show Up in June. The advocacy group works to dismantle systems of racism and oppression through demonstrations, education and virtual events in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Thank you guys for coming out and I also want to challenge your comfort,” Figgins said at the June gathering. “I want to say, ‘What took you so long to realize this was happening, what took you so long to wake up?’”
Figgins emphasized the need to do more than protest police violence. “It’s not just an isolated incident,” she said. “George Floyd is the catalyst, so why is everyone making such a ruckus about one man? It’s the entire system that needs to be thrown out.”
Now, Figgins will debut her latest solo dance performance, “AL(L) Ready Ancestors” at the Skye Gallery in downtown Aspen on Thursday, Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. She will dance inside of the gallery while the audience will watch from outside.
Aspen Public Radio reporter Eleanor Bennett recently spoke with Figgins about the intersection between her dance and her work with the Black Lives Matter movement.
How did dance find you?
There was definitely a lot of rhythm in my childhood. My older sister was a professional ballet dancer, so I was introduced to movement through her. I also come from a really artsy family. We're heavily involved in music, so I was listening to music and learning music from a young age. My uncle is one of the original African drummers of the Malcolm X Park in Washington, D.C. Yeah, definitely had rhythm and movement instilled in me from the beginning.
You’ve been dancing with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet for five seasons now, what first brought you to Aspen?
I wanted to be amongst artists and in a company that really prioritized creation. And I thought that this company had a beautiful reputation for that. You know, being able to build and create something for myself, I just wanted that chance. I also wanted to get out of New York and find a place where I could practice building community. I have a good amount of chaos existing in me and I wanted to be able to find some peace and just be in nature a little bit, you know?
You once said, “I want to continue to learn by pairing movement with aspects of humanity.” How do you see the intersection between your dance and your advocacy work with Roaring Fork Show Up?
I think they go hand in hand. Activism is just being engaged in your humanity, you know, in the humanity of others. And so I find a lot of inspiration in seeing how people are engaging their bodies in ways that they haven't in the past or how certain spaces can constrict a body, can uplift a body, can amplify that. And that's what's really interesting to me right now, watching how the human spirit finds its way through different things. How people navigate spaces and relationships and the different dynamics that come out of that. And we see that literally in every moment of the day, you know. There are just varying examples of how the human experience is reaching and gasping for air to really thrive.
Why do you think dance is such a powerful way to communicate issues of systemic racism?
I think non-POC directors, artists, choreographers, creators, and even audiences often have a hard time, especially in ballet companies, imagining black bodies in these classical roles. When you think of ballet and you think of Swan Lake, you picture a line of lily-white women. Dance and ballet in a lot of ways is just a pillar of Eurocentric ideals and it reinforces a lot of those racial systems and structures that you wouldn't immediately recognize. So I think it’s a great tool to be able to break those systems. Dance is really, it’s bodies. And bodies are things you can't deny. Even though race is a construct, you can't deny a black body from a white body. In terms of how we talk about race, it kind of puts it in simpler terms. Because at the end of the day, dance is for everyone. Ballet is for everyone. It's just the historical constructs that have continued to instill discomfort in black artists and have continued to push black artists out of these spaces.
What do you think are the next steps for Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley in terms of confronting systemic racism?
I actually think we need to stay on the step that we're on for a little while longer, which is acknowledging all the ways that it exists. I think people get really shocked at even the smallest instances of racism and it's easy for some people to doubt. The more that Aspen learns its history and has maybe a little bit of a “look at themselves in the mirror” moment, I think will help. And just continuing to research and understand Aspen history and the dynamic with the Ute people because without indigenous sovereignty there really can't be much room made in terms of black sovereignty. And the more that folks stop asking black people what to do and start interviewing white people about how they feel about this stuff. Like unveiling those truths because on the surface, people can say, “Yeah, I stand for this and I agree with that,” but behind closed doors and where they're putting their money is completely different. So yeah, how about Aspen put their money where their mouth is, and also stop asking black people about how they can fix these problems and actually have real conversations with themselves.
I was struck by something else you said recently: “As long as we have safe white spaces like Aspen there will be no justice. We all have to have safe spaces.” Being one of the few Black women in Aspen, I imagine this can’t be an easy place for you at times -- and with your talent and skill as a dancer, it seems like you could go anywhere. What keeps you here?
That is such a good question because it definitely changes. And I honestly feel myself often in a fight or flight mode living here. What has kept me here primarily has been my job in dancing with the ballet and being able to create in that capacity. Aside from my job, when I first moved here, I definitely was just very impressed. If there was ever a question of how I needed to be or how I needed to react in a situation, I could look to the mountains and see how still they were, how unafraid they were. I could look to the river, you know, those things really do have a hold on you. But recently this summer doing all of the activism work that I’ve been doing and just navigating that space I have been on the fence about leaving or staying. As of now, I’m definitely staying because I feel called to do more work. I feel very proud of myself for stepping out of my shell. A lot of the things that were pushing me to leave Aspen have actually come around in the last few months. I was definitely feeling discouraged by not feeling like I had a community that I could trust here and that cared. There are still some ways in which it's frustrating living here and seeing everything that's going on in the world, but I just know the impact that this community can have. And if I can help mobilize that in any way, then I think that I should stay and try to do that to the best of my ability.