Forever Young: Jumatatu Poe Explores the Immortal Image

Posted By : Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe

28-year-old Jumatatu Poe is ready to be old. “It’s a tactile thing–I want to know what it feels like,” he explains. But growing old doesn’t sound so bad when you think about immortality as much as Jumatatu does. It’s a topic he’s exploring in his new piece Unstuck for the Live Arts Festival’s 8 (eight choreographers / eight new works) and at the free workshop he’s leading this Saturday from 12–3pm at UArts.

Jumatatu isn’t talking about the Tuck Everlasting fountain of youth type of immortality–exactly. The piece is inspired by a question that he posed to students at his alma mater Swarthmore College, where he is now a dance professor: “What if there were only this moment . . . forever?” One way that he delineates that kind of immortality is in the interactions we have with people we meet and never see again.

“What is that immortal image that I leave with them, that they can morph whatever way they want, and that I’ll never have any relationship with? There are all these me’s running around that don’t have much to do with the me I’m creating,” he says. That’s not to rule out the fantastical–Jumatatu loves “glitter and magic and fancifying things.” He calls his pieces “urban fables” because of the way that he abstracts the world we exist in, using fairy tales and fictional creatures as symbols to talk about social phenomena.Unstuck, he says, is connected to a larger piece he’ll eventually create about a vampire love story.

Perhaps his love for fantasy is an attempt to balance the academia he says he was surrounded by growing up. His family, with four younger sibling and three older half-siblings, lived in practically all of the Sans and Santas of California. When he was 14 they moved to Philadelphia so that his parents could go back to school full time, his father earning a PhD in African-American Studies at Temple. Jumatatu wanted to become a biomedical engineer, a dream that lasted “about 2 weeks into college.”

After the jump: the making of a dancer and the hypotheses on the function of art.

Although he performed in community theater from a young age, he had never taken dance until college, when he enrolled in contemporary African dance at Swarthmore because it was a popular class. The style was called Umfundalai, a technique developed by Kariamu Welsh, the founding artistic director of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe and a professor at Temple.

“I had cultural connections to it,” says Jumatatu of one reason why the class set him on a path of dance study, “and I could connect it to the dances that I grew up doing with my cousins,” like the butterfly. He finally stopped denying that he was destined to pursue a career in dance when he had to decide between getting an advanced degree in dance or education. He chose the MFA dance program at Temple, but says, “Even if I had ended up studying education, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten away from dance.”

His work with choreographer Merián Soto introduced him to the idea of “energetic modes”—”a way of aligning, streamlining, and focusing physical ideas with emotion, and generating movement from that.” Jumatatu has developed his own modes like “Intestinal Mode,” and “Bounce Mode.” For Unstuck he’s working on a new mode tentatively called “Immortal Mode” to express those eternal iterations of ourselves that he’s concerned with.

Jumatatu’s idea of immortality in identity isn’t as fantastical as it may seem. The Millennial generation, he says, has more opportunity than other generations to create seemingly everlasting images of themselves online. One of his favorite quotes from Daniel Nagrin’s Dance and the Specific Image emphasizes the interaction between fantasy and reality in art:

“For me, the fantasy world clarifies the ‘real’ world. Experiences in the world of imagination help me live in the ‘real’ world. The last two sentences could very well serve to delineate the function of art. I should add that I use quotes around ‘real’ because in art it is an ambiguous word when juxtaposed to ‘fantasy.’ If there is fantasy, it exists, and if it exists, it has a reality that may need defining—but it does exist. Thus, a ‘fantasy’ in this sense is as much a part of reality as what we are prone to call ‘real.’ If this were not so, actors, dancers, musicians and poets would be out of work.”

Jumatatu says that quote can explain how in his practice, within the ‘fantasy’ of every performance the feelings he brings up and expresses onstage are a ‘real’ part of his identity. “They’re there, even if they’re dormant and you don’t usually indulge in them . . . it’s a release, a different existence.” And if for Nagrin the function of the fantasy in art is to clarify the reality of life, then Jumatatu’s idea of the function of creating immortal images connects to another function of art—as a way to exercise control over the legacy you leave behind (which may in itself be a fantasy).

“We want to be remembered,” says Jumatatu, “we need that to feel validated.” Dance, in its impermanence as an art form when compared to a painting or monument, feels tenuous in that sense. “You can think about how at the Martha Graham School they study her technique, so she lives on in their bodies . . . but how much of that is real?”

“I’ve been surprised by the way I’ve lately been thinking about death objectively, he explains. “I don’t really believe in objectivity–we can’t escape from the effects of personal experiences–but recently I’ve been separating death from the person who died. . . .What happens when it happens, that moment that lasts infinitely, how many people we are in that instant. It’s a definite conclusion. In death we don’t have control of our identity . . .”

“Oh god,” he laughs, “I’m so morbid!”

For details about the workshop or to reserve a spot, e-mail molly_at_livearts-fringe.org.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos by JJ Tiziou and Lindsay Browning.