by Aiano Nakagawa
Heather Stockton is a Bay Area artist and storyteller. She is the artistic director of Wax Poets, a multidisciplinary and collaborative dance collective in Oakland. She creates dance pieces, dance movies, documentaries, soundscapes, and is a dance educator. We are so excited to share her story and interview with you. Enjoy.
Aiano Nakagawa: Do you identify as a feminist? And what does feminism mean to you?
Heather Stockton: Absolutely. Feminism means justice and equality for any individual. It’s about claiming space so any marginalized individual can have their rightful space. It is to have a voice and an act to do - to express. That shouldn’t be a privilege, it should just be.
AN: What type of artist do you identify as?
HS: I am a feminist, multidisciplinary artist, storyteller. I used to say I wanted to be a “holistic artist” meaning that I wanted to be a creative agent that could access a bevy of tools to create work. Now, my goal is to have a language that is accessible to as many people as possible. To me, that means being able to use video in a way that speaks to someone, make sound landscapes, and use dance and movement in a way that can connect others to their own experiences. I want to create worlds that individuals can step inside of and feel a visceral connection to their own story through the vehicles that are facilitated for them. My hope is just to facilitate experiences, offer platforms for individual’s voices to be heard, and for people to find a connection to their own stories through the stories of others. I realize that we each have a voice and some other voices really need to be heard and listened to.
AN: How did you get involved in the different mediums you work with?
HS: I’ve been choreographing for 15 years and I’ve always danced. I have such a passion to dance and move but [growing up] I did competitive dance. I knew it was bull... I felt we shouldn’t be competing against each other but instead be celebrating each other: our bodies, our movement, and the way that we express ourselves. It just felt completely counter intuitive to put a number on it and judge it and so I said “Forget this! I’m not doing this anymore.” Then I went to Riverside City College which I think has one of the most amazing dance departments in the country. The faculty completely supports their students. They worked so hard to fund our work. One year I was chosen to have a documentary made about me and my choreography, the amount of resources given to me was unbelievable. They care, they care so much. Learning about the art of dance at RCC, the impact is has on the world, and the potential it has to be a catalyst of change is what changed my mind and inspired me to dance again.
I auditioned for Cornish College in Seattle and was told, “Technically, spiritually, intellectually you have everything that we’re looking for in a dancer, but due to your excessive weight we cannot let you into the program at this time. If you need to speak with a nutritionist and get on track maybe next year you can audition again.” This devastated me. I had never felt that rejection. I mean of course in competitive dance it was incredibly body-shaming, terrible, and anxiety inducing but I always found some way to shake my stuff and move. Coming from RCC where they celebrated every individual, I thought dancing was about celebrating bodies. I moved to Seattle anyways, because my partner at the time was accepted to [Cornish].
I stopped dancing for a couple of years and pursued my intellectual side. I went back to study technology, botany, and alternative energy and resources. This is when I really flourished in discovering all the different sides of me that I could connect to dance and other art. This is when I started working with music (Seattle has an amazing music scene.) I lived in the center of Capitol Hill and could walk 5 min to any show. I had full saturation to all types of music. This inspired me to know how to create music.
At that time I also started taking a lot of pictures and realizing that photography really spoke to me - finding moments and capturing them spoke volumes to me. I dabbled in a lot at Seattle Central, got my AA degree, and realized there was a huge part of me missing. I was depressed but then I started taking hip-hop dance classes at Westlake Dance Center. When I stepped inside I learned that hip-hop is improvisational in nature and offers a space for individuals to come in and have a voice and dance. I started training pretty hard in that because it felt so good. I felt so welcomed, invited, and celebrated. My body was celebrated and commended for being who I am and being able to move the way that I do. That lead me to audition for a show in Seattle that Amy O was choreographing.
During this time I was also showing art in some spaces. I was doing this thing called “Trash Art.” I would collect trash anywhere I found (I had heaps of trash in my closet) and I’d repurpose it into something (usually trees) just to try to bring awareness about what our trash is.
I did the Freedom Project (which I still want to continue) where I give individuals the space to talk about their ideas of freedom. You know, freedom has such a heavy connotation in the US but what does it actually mean to individuals?
Then the summer before grad school I was working with some of the most talented music artists I’ve ever come across and realized that my most satisfying experiences in art were in group collaboration. It’s in conversation. It’s all of our voices working together for a common goal.
From there I knew that I just wanted to create a space where people can have conversations and come together. I want people to be able to show work. It’s so hard to show work. It’s so expensive. But if there’s an umbrella we can all work under to support each other then that’s ideal and that’s how Wax Poets came to be.
AN: What does freedom mean to you?
HS: It changes all the time, but in this moment freedom means having complete agency over everything I do without limitation, oppression, or fear. It's knowing that society, categories, structures, capitalism, and consumerism are all a game. That’s not what’s real. Freedom to me is knowing that what’s real in life is the love, empathy, compassion, honesty, and respect. It’s something we work to share and show people everyday.
AN: What is your relationship with dance now?
HS: I dance when I need to feel happy and healthy. I think it should be accessible to everyone. I think that if dance and creative movement were offered in schools it would revolutionize our children. It would give them tools and greater access to knowledge and ways of learning. Facilitating an experience where a child can be in their own body or feel embodied... I mean can you imagine? That's why as a dance educator my goal is to facilitate a safe space in which ANY body can have creative agency to express themselves and discover personal empowerment through embodying movement.
AFO: What is the value do you find in mixing media?
HS: I started choreographing 15 years ago and right away I started working with composers because I found that I had a vision for what I wanted and that vision felt limited by using somebody else’s work that was created for their own purpose. I there was a discrepancy in appropriating that. I pretty soon wanted to work with composers to create a vision together to work towards our story. It is always really satisfying to find the apex of connection and be like “That was it! We worked together to create this thing and it resonated!!!” It brings the project to a place where it couldn’t have been before. The summer before grad school I was working with some of the most talented artists I’ve ever come across and realized that my most satisfying experiences in art were in group collaboration. It’s in conversation. It’s all of our voices working together for a common goal.
AN: How did you learn about film editing?
HS: I started Black Rose Movement which was a project based, anarchist dance company which is when I started doing my dance films. I've always had knowledge from movement, expression, and dance and knowledge is power. The more knowledge you acquire, the more tools you'll have, which will make you more accessible to the world. I felt a hunger to know how to do everything. That’s also how I feel strongest in my feminism - I don’t want somebody else to do it for me, I don’t want to ask someone to do it for me - I just want to know how to do it all so I can take care of business myself. And that's what I did. I started educating myself through experiences and I read as many books as I could. I took classes and bought myself a camera and taught myself how to make dance film. I remember working on my first dance film, I stayed up all night editing it and in the morning I watched it and cried. I cried because I felt like I’d found one of my life’s callings. Screen dance gives us [dancers and feminists] the most amount of agency. We control the frame. We tell you what to see. We can slow down each frame to really help you feel the disgust, or the shame, or whatever you want to convey in that moment. You can do your damnedest through film.
I am really confident in my editing skills and I think that I have a finesse and sophistication that is of benefit to projects. I think my choreographic experience and my rhythmic sensibility really informs what I make. I think I have the skills and with skills come responsibility in how you use them. I don’t want to just do it for myself because I think that self indulgent work and art is empty. If you’re serving only yourself, then what are you doing? Why?
So now with my video work I want to offer my services to anybody or any organization that deserves to have their voice heard. Ok, I know “deserves” is kind of a weird word, but video and media are everywhere and are the most accessible in our day and age. Today, video may be the greatest platform for voices to be heard and shared. I hope to be able to work with people who can open people’s eyes.
AN: Can you tell us about your latest film project?
HS: I’ve lived in the Laurel District for the last 4 years and I have always been aware of my white presence and aware of adding to the gentrification of the neighborhood. In the last year the Lauren District has swiftly going through cultural and socioeconomic changes. There was a diner called "Full House Cafe” that I would always go to and smile so big because it was the community, in that diner, every week. Kirk was the lead cook and I honestly think everyone went there for him. He’d always come out to greet and socialize with everyone. He knew that food brings people together and creates connections, love, and laughter.
Then one day I went to go Full House Cafe and it was closed. I thought “Oh no.. Oh no. This is it...” And sure enough a new diner came in. It was a really swift, really swift change. The new diner is owned by a younger white couple that brought in (and are still bringing in) people from Berkeley and more privileged areas which has really changed the Laurel District.
So I thought “what am I going to do with this information?” For starters I decided to support other business that have been around for a while. I found out Miliki’s was serving breakfast so I went in there, and who was in there??? Kirk! I was like “What are you doing here Kirk?” and he was like “Actually I have this really amazing story… The community of the Laurel District got together and was like ‘Fuck this! We want you to come back.' So they worked with Miliki’s to start breakfast.” I asked what he was doing in terms of promotion for his breakfast at Miliki's. He said he's not good at the whole "facebook thing" and told me he put his picture in the restaurant window, but still people didn't know. I felt like that was a moment where I could lend my video making services and use my skills to help Kirk share his story.
So often, businesses in these gentrified neighborhoods are consolidating because they’re working together to still exist.
Support the businesses that are invested in the community and that have been around for years. Decide where your dollar is going and make it an intentional choice.
I've separated my dance work and documentary work because I don’t want my personal work to be attached to the documentary work. I want to be hyper aware that I am in no way taking credit for their stories. I want their stories to be their stories. I just want to be like “Hey! Please support them!” So you can find my personal dance work on Vimeo and the documentaries on Youtube (about We media).
AN: Tell us about Wax Poets.
HS: Wax Poets is a multidisciplinary dance collective that works together to create work that speaks to space, people, culture, environment, and to the human experience - whatever that may mean. It is run by Garth Grimball, Jeanette Jing Male, and myself. We each have our strengths and we support each other in our strengths but also challenge each other in our weaknesses too. Wax Poets is project based, so if an individual wants to create something that is somehow speaking to something relevant, it has to be in collaboration with another artist. It comes from my value of working with others and getting outside of yourself to communicate and work with someone who can add to the conversation.
AN: How are you funding your projects?
HS: Up until now… serving those tables [laughs]. With WaxPoets, our last show was completely self funded by Garth and Janette (and a little by myself). Thankfully we have just been sponsored by Dancer’s Group which means that we’re now attached to a nonprofit and can apply for grants. My utmost priority is paying the people that I’m working with. It’s about respect. People are giving their time, energy, and efforts. Let’s put high value and premium on that. We’re all working artists, we’re all trying to make it by. When I was dancing with Amy O in Seattle, I was dancing for love and I was happy. I had no idea how much I was getting paid - I would have done it for free, but when that check came and it was the amount that it was... Let me just say I had never felt so respected as an artist, performer, or dancer. I want to give that feeling to everyone I work with.
AN: What are some words of wisdom for us all?
HS: For today… Embrace it all. I think living a healthy life is embracing the uncertainty, the doubt, the fear, the courage, the strength, the love, the respect, the insecurities, the confidence, the empowerment. They’re all just different shades and textures. I try to challenge myself not to get stuck in any of those and just to remember that the complexity of life is exactly that. Embrace it. Get knowledge and be aware of your impact. We all have a galaxy inside of us that is limitless. To get stuck in these categories and boxes and limited ways of thinking is like living in life without color. I want to see all the colors. I want to taste all the colors. I want to feel all the colors. Embrace the galaxy inside and outside of you.
Note: This interview has been condensed for length and some paragraphs have been rearranged for a more linear reading experience.
Thank you Heather for your time, honesty, and vulnerability. To learn more about Heather and her creations, visit her websites: heatherstockton.com and wax-poets.com. Keep up with Heather's dance films and documentary films.