Early in Jeremy McQueen’s dance film, “Wild: Bird of Paradise,” a young Black man played by lead dancer Khayr Muhammad, is lying in a field in Yonkers, New York, as a song plays in the background: "What if there were no police, and no jail, and no bail, give me chances to fail and not get buried?" Then the young man hears the voice of a police officer shouting, “Show me your hands!” followed by the sound of a gunshot. Muhammad passes out, entering a dream state where he is joined by five other young Black men dancing in bright sunlight on the green grass.
With this scene, McQueen was imagining a space where young Black men could express themselves without fear of police violence. “There’s a level of trauma that comes with being a Black man in America, of constantly feeling like you never know, when you leave your house, if you’re going to make it home alive,” said McQueen, a Bronx-based choreographer and dancer.
“Bird of Paradise” is the final installment of McQueen’s four-part dance film, “Wild,” which he made to amplify the voices of criminal justice system-involved youth. The film is presented by the Black Iris Project, founded by McQueen in 2016 to create both classical and contemporary ballets that are rooted in Black history or Black experience.
“Ballet has often been seen as being elitist, very distant from things that are happening in the world,” said McQueen. “And so I felt it necessary to bring ballet into the 21st century by covering topics like juvenile incarceration.”
As a young, queer, Black person who was beginning to immerse himself in choreography and dance in the 1990s and 2000s, McQueen felt like he was being asked to fit into a White, Euro-centric aesthetic of ballet technique. “My teachers would say things like, ‘Ballet is the foundation for all dance,’” he said. “Now that's completely debatable, because that idea is really rooted in white supremacy.”
Though he never felt completely at home with ballet, he loved the artform, and was moved by story-driven pieces such as “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty," which reminded him of his favorite children’s books. He continued his dance education by studying modern dance, tap and jazz, and graduated from the Ailey School/Fordham University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2008.
“Wild” had its origins in a piece the Nashville Ballet commissioned McQueen and morgxn, a singer/songwriter, to create in 2019 that was inspired in part by Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Additional inspiration for the film came when McQueen went to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. There, he saw a photograph, taken by Richard Ross, of an adolescent boy in a detention center in Mississippi. In the portrait, the walls behind the boy are covered with sketches and affirmations; the words “North or Nothin,” written next to a drawing of a spaceship, stood out to McQueen.
“It really made me think about the challenges this young man must be going through at 12 years old to be sequestered into this tiny room with almost no way out,” said McQueen. “All of a sudden, it just clicked, and I said, ‘This is “Where the Wild Things Are.”’ I loved how Max, the young boy in the book, was able to think beyond his circumstances. He was really able to use his imagination and his creativity to imagine a world where he reigned supreme, and he was loved and valued.”
In 2020, McQueen applied for a Soros Justice fellowship from the Open Society Foundations to create a ballet; he was the first choreographer to receive this fellowship. (Disclaimer: The Marshall Project also receives funding from the Open Society Foundations.)
McQueen worked with nearly 50 different artists, performers, composers and filmmakers to create the four installments of “Wild.” The first film, “Overture,” looks at the underlying reasons why young men and women might find themselves entangled with the criminal justice system, including the school-to-prison pipeline. The second film, “These Walls Can Talk,” shows a young man celebrating his 14th birthday behind bars. The third film, “The Journey Home,” is about what happens to young men after they are released from detention. The final installment, released in November, is intended to capture the challenges of what it is like to be a Black man in New York City.
For “Bird of Paradise,” McQueen created movements inspired by the phrase, “I want to be free,” in American Sign Language. Throughout the ballet, the dancers hold their hands behind their backs almost as if they are in handcuffs. At another moment, the men form a line then run in different directions as if fleeing the police, evoking birds in flight with their movements.
McQueen said he wanted the dream segment, which features young men in jewel-colored durags, to show the vibrancy of an Afro-futuristic fantasy in color, backdrop and costume. “Throughout my life, I’ve been in situations where if I were to walk into a room with a durag, I would be treated in a certain type of way,” said McQueen. “But here in this fantasy space, these young men are able to be their authentic selves and choose clothing without fear of persecution.”
In the middle of the dream scene, lead dancer Muhammad stands tall, other dancers gathered at his feet. With this tableau, McQueen hoped to convey that people’s present-day struggles are rooted in the past. “It’s this idea that we are not walking alone,” he said. “So even though Khayr may have gone through this one experience, there are so many others throughout history who are there with him. They are there rooting him and keeping him grounded.”
The producer of the film, Colton Williams, wanted to show a contrast between the scene where Muhammad is walking in the Bronx and the dream sequence. “We wanted it to go from chaos to escapism, with a kind of relief at the end,” he said. The portions in the Bronx were filmed using a handheld camera, to create a sense of realism. Using a drone and camera on a dolly, he was able to create a sense of fluidity to the dream section. Also important to Williams and McQueen was a transitional moment in the film, where Khayr raises his fist and the camera pans to a latticed dome, signifying a bird in a cage.
Muhammad awakes to find himself back in the Bronx, in a world that is tinged with gray. McQueen’s “Wild: Bird of Paradise” offers art as a way to come to terms with the trauma that young Black men face when dealing with the criminal justice system.
“They're vying for and craving peace, a place where they can just be themselves, express themselves, rest and recharge,” he said. “The boy in the dance lives, but I think really what happens to the boy next, or what happens to this ‘character’ next, truly lies in what we as viewers do to help support people like that young man.”
“Wild” was co-commissioned by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, CUNY Dance Initiative and the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, with additional support from New Music USA, Dance/NYC’s Coronavirus Dance Relief Fund & Dance Advancement Fund.
The film is available to watch here until January 31, 2022. In February, it will stream on CUNY TV. On March 17, 2022, there will be a live performance of “Wild” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.