In non-pandemic years, Ani Taj Niemann, founder of The Dance Cartel and a producer, choreographer, and dancer, would be involved in multiple projects, bouncing between dance, theater, and music. Her genre defying shows are infectious, sexy, goofy, and gloriously sweaty. Any given event could include ballet performed to Boyz II Men, house music mixed with modern dance, hip hop, Brazilian Batalá drummers—maybe some video art projected on the walls. You might come to the venue to watch the talented dancers, but by the time they’re through with you, you’ll be dancing right along with them. Probably covered in glitter.
It feels criminal that we can’t work through our pain right now by coming together for another gloriously messy, joyous night.
In March of 2020 Niemann was in Italy, prepping for a show on a cruise ship. It was cancelled and she came back to New York just as the city shut down. We spoke with her about creativity in quarantine, how to have a joyful dance party on Zoom, directing music videos remotely, and what the New York State government should do to bring the arts back.
Can you describe what you do and what you make?
Well now I make sourdough [laughs]. Typically, I work between theater and dance performance and party experience, and sometimes in the music world as a choreographer and director. And I love to create experiences where a whole crowd of people is galvanized into movement themselves. So you could describe a lot of the things I [do] with Dance Cartel as a dance-driven variety show with an absurdist sensibility. A lot of high endurance dance will take place and sweep things into a party by the end of the night, although we adapted to all kinds of environments; sometimes we were performing in galleries or museums sometimes in public parks or outdoor spaces.
I love, love, love collaborating with musical artists because my father was a musician and that’s just deep in me.
What were you doing around this time last year?
The beginning of 2020 was, professionally speaking, a really good time for me. I was going into a series of projects.The biggest thing, which is so funny and unexpected as a detour or new pathway in my working life, was building an immersive dance show, variety show, absurd party for a new cruise line for Virgin, something I never would have thought I would say I was doing. In February of 2020, we were installing it on an unfinished ship, in a dry dock in Genoa in Northern Italy, an interesting place to be right before the pandemic was hitting.
[The cast and crew] were in this dry dock installing this wild immersive queer, wacky, zany dance experience on a ship that was still having doorways finished. And then we teched the show between Genoa and across the Mediterranean and went around Portugal and landed in the UK, in Dover. And then we flew back to New York and about a week later, everything shut down.
What did you think you would be doing?
One of my closest collaborators, Sam Pinkleton and I were actually about to go and do a production of Rocky Horror out in San Francisco immediately after that and then I was supposed to come back to New York, or to DC actually, and do a production of Big Love.
So it was a back-to-back series of projects I was quite stoked about and they all went to sleep. Some of them may return and some of them won’t because of the realities of theater budgets and the big heartache and hit that some of these institutions have taken.
There was a lot of energy swirling at that time and a lot of excitement creatively speaking, and also I’m in a position of great privilege and have a lot of gratitude that those things even had a shot and in many ways, those communities have continued to take care of each other even though the projects aren’t happening right now.
How has your creative process changed this year?
For me there’ve been a lot of different ripples in that process. The weekend that we shut down in New York, I reached out to some people that had been on the ship together, and some DJ friends and close collaborators, Sunny Hitt and Sam and Jenny Gersten and we started doing this Social DisDANCE thing, an online dance party now that we were going to do our year anniversary in about a week, which is wild to think about.
So I would say in some way, some creative energy rolled immediately into that purely because selfishly I had this realization of, Oh gosh, we’re not going to be able to dance socially in any capacity, for I thought two weeks or a month, and as it’s turned out, it’s been a really long road and I’m very, very glad we’ve had that.
What is Social DisDANCE?
It essentially was a way for us to channel our love of dancing in social spaces, into the Zoom format. We encourage people to light themselves at home if they want, there’s no pressure. I hate when people say Wear a costume to the party, I want permission to be wacky, but I don’t want to have to. Our DJs send us a mixtape that we broadcast live so that everyone is hearing the same song at the same time, which I think is an important part of dancing together.
We’re not producing something that we’re hoping will go viral or will sell, it’s just a place to be in community and practice with other people. I need to dance with people, it’s fuel for me so that’s one way. In so far as creative output for me, I’d say it’s very mercurial, there have been periods where it just felt undeniable that I had to surrender to being fallow, and just not being in a generative state and focusing on cooking, which I know a lot of people have gotten better at.
Who is coming to Social DisDANCE?
I love that it’s weirdly a little bit global, although of course a lot of it is in New York and in LA, but there have been folks who are older who come to the party. So there is one upshot of this format is that people who might not feel emboldened or comfortable going to a live dance club can just get on their Zoom and do this if they want to, which is my favorite thing in the world. A member of our community and dear friend’s mother comes to the party often, I think from North Carolina. I don’t know how old she is, but she’s not someone you would expect to see at a nightclub.
I’m interested in how and whether artists are supporting each other right now—have you felt supported by your creative community?
Yeah, it’s a really interesting question because I think the answer goes into opposite directions. In my experience, in some ways this has been a remarkably internal and quiet period. I don’t want to lament my situation, it’s very fortunate in so many ways but as a theater and dance party creator, as someone who works in that specific arena, part of what has made this time so painful is the alienation from the primary fuel for my specific creative obsession, it’s just not available. A large part of what I do is literally about people sweating on each other in a room and breathing heavily.
So [there’s] that stuff, but then there’ve been [other] periods and I’m like, again, just grateful that there’s a little mini ecosystem of creatives around me who are like, Oh, do you want to do this video? I’m thinking about releasing something in the fall. Or, Should we do a photo experiment?
Another thing that has emerged is I’ve had collaborations with people I’ve never met in person.
Speaking of the work you’ve created with people you’ve never met in person, you directed a music video for the song “Privacy Invaders,’ by the band Occurrence, entirely remotely. Tell me about what that process was like.
Ken [of Occurrence] who reached out to me, gave me and the dancers a lot of free rein to be playful and to craft that the way we want it to, which I thought was just really, really lovely and creatively generous of him.
It was really fun and came out of left field because I think at that point and still now, we were all so Zoomed out. We’re so tired of being in this format of little boxes but we knew we didn’t really have an alternative way forward, so we decided to just embrace that form and build a little bit on things that had been enjoyable about the Social DisDANCE format. I learned a little bit about things that work and don’t work for dancing in these little squares and how do we light ourselves? How do we production design in our own homes?
And I reached out to two dancers that I’ve worked with pretty extensively, both of them were on the ship actually. I really appreciated being given a blank canvas and a fun, funky song. One day I will meet him but right now we’ve become really friendly and what a weird gift, I’ve listened to his album and heard a play that he’s working on. That’s a really, again, an interesting space of what collaboration looks and feels now, you can visit with somebody work on the internet and not have ever actually shared coffee.
What do you think about other virtual dance and theater events? I’ve been thinking a lot about missing being part of a crowd usually as an audience member, but I’m wondering what you think about it as a performer?
My take is obviously subjective, I think there are ways, and I think there are other theater artists who may say they’ve really found a [good] sense of this. For example, Theater in Quarantine has been doing it beautifully. I don’t know if there’s necessarily a sense of the collective experience when I’ve watched it. I feel that what I see presented is really effective and creative and generative but do I have a sense of my fellow audience members? Not in the same way.
I don’t have an analogous experience digitally that really hypes me the way being in a crowded room does. Outdoor events have been that, the protests were about something very different, but there was a sense of sharing 360-degree dimensional space with other humans. DisDANCE did one outdoor event and that felt really wonderful, it’s outside but it still gives you that sense of “here are bodies with me.” I don’t know that there’s a replacement for that feeling and that’s a scary thing to say, cause I actually don’t know when it will come back. So it’s not to say, no, none of it is worth it. The digital transformations we’re taking on I think are important and they are a way to get through it.
How do you feel about how the government (national, state, local) has supported the arts during Covid? What do you wish they were doing?
I have to at least acknowledge gratitude that as a freelancer I can receive some unemployment, but there’s no safety net for most freelance artists. And so many people in my community are just scrambling. There have been a couple artist-oriented grants or relief things, that I applied for, probably two dozen of them and I got two or three, and I’m really, really grateful. Those are a big deal, I wish they were all over the place. And I wish all of my artists community had access to them. There can’t really be too much extra support right now.
[In New York] there’s this [attitude of], “Oh, theater is going to come back in a partial way, starting in April.” Which I’m pissed about and mistrustful of because it just feels a ploy to get the economy going again and putting people at risk which I think is not cool because I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’ll see how that goes.
What I wish was happening is real estate. There’s so much empty space, just sitting there and so many artists who are trapped in their frigging living room trying to make something happen. And also not just artists, but low income folks, people without homes because there are so many fucking empty retail spaces right now. But here’s the thing that I do stay mad about is how much empty space there is and as I understand it’s generally being claimed as a loss but more economically advantageous for big real estate to claim that as a loss than to lower the rent and have a small business in there, which I think is a really [awful] policy and I don’t understand all of the ins and outs of it, but make that space available.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.