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EQUATORS Hartford Review

Arien Wilkerson Dances For Their Life

Lucy Gellman | December 17th, 2018

Hartford Arts Paper | Dance | Arts & Culture



Arien Wilkerson is a choreographer, and multi-disciplinary artist working with movement, video, and installation based in Hartford, CT. As the Artist-in-Residence here at SPACE he will be performing his latest work EQUATORS this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday, October 12th- 14th. This performance explores environmental injustice and its link to racial injustice. EQUATORS is presented in conjunction with Portland Dance Month.


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The Directors Discretionary Fund Award from the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund -TNMOT AZTRO PERFORMANCE ART AND DANCE INSTALLATION LLC

$5,000 - Arien Wilkerson - Hartford, CT


Fiscal Year Awarded:  2018

Program: Universal Womb is a Hartford based community artistic initiative focusing on womxn of color, the needs of womxn of color, listening to womxn and any womxn who is affected by structural racism, economic inequity, addiction, lost and mental health. With input from our developing audience; asking womxn of color what stories and issues they feel should be told Universal Womb creates, performance works, installations, discussions,  photo editorials and musical dramas that educate, build and assets the stories and issues many womxn face.

For more info on this work visit: Universal Womb Page


Unrestricted prize recognizes excellence and accomplishment

The New England Foundation for the Arts is pleased to announce the 2018 awardees of the Rebecca Blunk Fund. Each of the three recipients will receive an award of $3,000 in unrestricted support for the creation of new work and for professional development; the awardee:

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Grant Recipient


Hartford, CT
Project Title: 
EQUATORS depicts how the most marginalized populations on earth experience the adversity associated with climate change.
Fiscal Year Awarded: 
Grant Amount: 

National Endowment For The Arts BIG READ RECIPIENT

For 2018 Arien Wilkerson was selected by the Hartford Public Library to create a performance Installation as part of the NEA Big Read program. The NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. The Hartford Public Library chose the book Citizen An American Lyric by Poet and Author Claudia Rankine with a grant amount of $3,000. Arien completed the project April 2018 and you can see the project in the "NEWEST INSTALLATIONS" tab above. 

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Taken at the Hartford Public Library. Claudia Rankine on the left, Arien Wilkerson on the right

Taken at the Hartford Public Library. Claudia Rankine on the left, Arien Wilkerson on the right



Arien Wilkerson is fueled by his blackness, queerness, and desire to bring the language of movement to Hartford’s North End.

Nine-year-old Arien Wilkerson stands on his grandmother’s porch, popping, locking, and dancing along to the jeers of his North End neighborhood friends who yell, “Do the Michael Jackson! Do the Michael Jackson!” This makes Wilkerson’s mother wary. If her son bends to their will now, then who knows what they’ll get him to do later in life? “My mom would say, ‘Stop putting on a show for people; this isn’t HBO!’” Wilkerson remembers. “‘They want HBO, they can go watch it in their living room!’”

Nearly 16 years later, Wilkerson is walking through his favorite spots in the North End of Hartford. It’s a neighborhood pegged with familiar labels like “pretty rough part of town,” “scary,” and, according to a notable Hartford publication, “one of the capital city’s neediest areas.” Wilkerson doesn’t deny this perception, especially when he points to specific spots on his block: the place he found a dead body; a backyard where he saw his neighbor being chased by police; the corner where his childhood friend, Kerry Foster Jr., was shot 13 times.

It’d be easy to think of Wilkerson as someone who’s persevered as a dancer despite his disadvantaged surroundings. But it’s his life in the North End, with all its complexities, that yields the knowledge he taps into when choreographing performances and connecting with a live audience. “My energy and my purpose, my ’hood-ness, my queerness, my blackness—it all definitely comes from these streets,” he says.

Wilkerson started dancing at the Artists Collective when he was 12 years old. He speculates that his mom brought him to dance because of a heavy suspicion that her son was queer (her hunch was correct, as it turns out). She figured the arts could provide her boisterous child with a safe space for expression and even social mobility.

After just one class, head instructor Jolette Creary demanded that Wilkerson come back. “People are born with some type of supreme talent, and I was born with this inner cunning, and a desire to be on stage and map it out. Jolette knew,” explains Wilkerson. “The minute I hit the stage, it was a wrap.” He danced in his first show one week later. Wilkerson quickly became Creary’s star student, assistant, and rehearsal director. This success led him to the unprecedented position of entering Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts in his senior year of high school.

Deborah Goffe, dance maker and director of Scapegoat Garden, was impressed with Wilkerson even before she saw him dance. “There was a way that he was watching the dance that seemed to be beyond his years, and deeply attuned to what is possible in dance.” Goffe has worked with Wilkerson since these early years, and is clear about the nature of their bond. “Back and forth between teacher and mentor, but also as a colleague. Iron sharpening iron, in some ways.

“He’s dynamic and a gorgeous performer,” she continues. “He really cuts through space in a way that’s compelling for people.”

Wilkerson hangs out in one of his childhood haunts, Willie Ware Park. By Brittany Solem

Wilkerson dances with seamless variety, marrying nearly a dozen disparate styles of dance in just a few awesome moments. “Movement can be so enticing, attractive, hypnotic, and so alluring,” says Wilkerson. “I dance for the dogs a lot”—his grandma has two teenie mutts—“and they love it; they sit and watch. They’re so intent. You can hone somebody like that.”

This fluidity and variety is not exclusive to his approach to movement. In the same way Wilkerson transitions from modern dance to breakdancing to ballet to jazz to West African dance, he’ll take you on a winding conversational ride in which he shamelessly professes his love for barebacking in the same moment he hands you a book on labanotation (a system to analyze and record human movement). His performative affect never wanes and is in constant flux.

His time at the Artists Collective and the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts certainly shaped Wilkerson. But it was Israel that birthed the transgressive queer consciousness and playful approach to identity that sets him apart from other dancers. “I was sitting at home, dreaming of wearing dresses and skirts,” he recalls. “When I went [to Israel] and I saw the fashion and all the gender-fluid people and all these big-ass, beardy, tattooed punk dudes fucking gender-fluid men, I was like, ‘Oh, this is hot.’ It was then and there that I knew I could be myself, and someone would love me crucially.

“I was more like Kanye in high school,” he continues. “But when I went to Israel and came back, I realized I can be Mykki Blanco. I can be Junglepussy. I can be an intelligent, brown, queer, forward person who doesn’t have to rationalize who I am and what I want.” Undeniably, our social institutions present a specific set of challenges for individuals who are unapologetically intelligent, brown or black, queer and forward. Even Wilkerson, with his endlessly candid joy and intense work ethic, cannot fend off all the flies buzzing around the stinking pile that is institutional racism.  

“I’ve been there,” says Goffe. “I’ve been the only choreographer of color in Hartford who gets ignored.”

Wilkerson responds to this fucked-up system by divesting from institutions that do not want to understand his message. On social media, he posts detailed call-outs about the lack of access and visibility for people of color in Hartford’s performing arts scene. “I try to have more tact than I used to have,” he admits.

Some people find his approach to critiquing these structures confusing, because part of his audience is white. Wilkerson explains, “The white folks who come to my performances come because they want to learn something. They want to reevaluate. People say, ‘Think about the fact that your [production] crew is all white’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but they fucking know. They get it.’”

Wilkerson’s not interested in bending to the will of certain arts organizers, or in making work for the sake of funding. Instead, Wilkerson envisions the work he wants to make, then personally funds his performances. “I don’t want to do this thing where I only go to places that have money, and I only make their work,” he explains, “because then I’m building a repertoire of work I don’t even like.”

Even though Wilkerson had several sold-out shows in 2016, and about a half dozen other performances commissioned or accomplished though TNMOT AZTRO, his performance art and dance installation company, he still can’t attain a stable position in the system. After selling out three Projector Series shows at Real Art Ways in 2016, “I’m still broke and I was not getting funding,” he says. “So I was either tricking or working at a restaurant in order to make money for putting on shows and paying artists.”

“He’s doing the hustle a la 1974,” says Goffe.

“Why is it that I have to live in the community, work my ass off, and [they] hire people from Los Angeles to perform here?” Wilkerson asks. “Just give me the space, give me the crew, give me the money, and stand the fuck back.” This is partly why he doesn’t perform in classic prosceniums or black box theaters. Recently, he’s been performing in galleries and museums, fully embracing the challenge. “I like working in those confines because they have mad rules. So many things you can and cannot do. I love that we’re a company from the North End performing around thousand-year-old paintings.”

In EQUATORS, Wilkerson responds to climate change using an eroticized queer aesthetic. By Brittany Solem

In EQUATORS, Wilkerson responds to climate change using an eroticized queer aesthetic. Photo by Brittany Solem

EQUATORS, which was staged at Housatonic Community College, is the most recent piece produced by the TNMOT AZTRO team and explores the intersection of environmental justice, racial justice, and “how racial divides are manifested in homes, neighborhoods, and geography due to impacts of zoning, segregation, and gentrification.” Clearly, Wilkerson’s intellectual and creative preoccupations are varied, vast in scope, and a bit daunting.

Wilkerson is particularly taken with a specific element of the sculpture David Borawski installed for him to dance through during EQUATORS: the metal chain he uses to pull himself up. “Right now, I definitely still feel like I’m on that chain. I still feel like I have to wake up every morning on that chain. I have to take myself to sleep at night holding the chain. Having something hold you up is such a gratifying experience, but also scary.”

Though there’s no doubt Wilkerson is a rogue, hustling to fund his own shows while actively raging against the institutions that still aren’t quite sure what to do with him, he does have a lot of staunch supporters. His newest group of dancers at TNMOT AZTRO are enthusiastic, skillful, and ready to support their fearless creative director. He is nearly in tears when he talks about his new team. “I’m such a baby. I’m so emotional. I cry,” confesses Wilkerson. “I’m a crier.”

Additionally, there are some organizations and individuals outside the world of dance and performance art that have the cultural clout needed to support Wilkerson’s mission. This past summer, he became the youngest person to receive the Spirit of Juneteenth Award from the Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which celebrates community and cultural leaders. And Kristina Newman-Scott, Connecticut’s director of culture, values his transgressive approach to public discourse and performance. “He’s definitely one of our change agents,” says Newman-Scott. “He’s not afraid to ask questions, or tell you what he’s thinking”—she laughs—“which is appreciated. For him, being young, African American, male, queer, and coming from the world of performing arts, it’s never going to be easy.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” she adds, “for Arien to be the next Alvin Ailey?”

Certainly, Wilkerson could easily head back to the tattooed boys in Tel Aviv, or dance with his friends in different companies across New York City. But that’s not his definition of success. “I’m very invested in bringing high art and fine art back to the ’hood, and back to where I grew up,” he says. His biggest preoccupation is with “build[ing] a language where young queer people and young black people can talk about art. [The North End] is rough and I can’t fight that,” he continues. “I can’t be the guy who’s like, ‘stop the violence, stop the madness,’ but my art can.”

Despite his lack of reliable funding, Wilkerson wants to stay in Hartford. He wants to show the North End his truth, instead of leaving it behind. “I don’t want to do that to Hartford,” he laments. “I don’t want to threaten my city. I feel like I already threaten people enough.”

This piece originally appeared in the October/November 2017 issue. If you’d like to read more articles from that issue, click here.

Subscribers can also see an exclusive gallery of outtakes from our amazing photo shoot with Arien Wilkerson.

Arien Wilkerson – Dancer, Artistic Director – TNMOT AZTRO
Top image: EQUATORS at the Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Photo by Brittany Solem
John ArvanitisAZTRO Boy

Crossing Equators with Arien Wilkerson

Hartford dancer and artistic director Arien Wilkerson explores climate, murder, and queerness in his new show EQUATORS.

In a performance space in the furthest corner of Housatonic Community College, Arien Wilkerson steadily paces towards the middle of a darkened set. Red, white, black, and silver chains hang from beams out of sight. Black and white buckets litter the floor, while above them, two strangely familiar red gas cans seem suspended in mid-air.

Wilkerson lies on his back and tugs at one of the chains, struggling to pull himself up while an ominous symphony of brass and string instruments meld with a cacophony of insect noises, the kind of bugs that chirp and whine during the hottest days of summer. By the end of EQUATORS, Wilkerson has changed outfits five times, rearranged the buckets according to a mysterious map projected above the set, and nearly seduced each audience member with several sexually charged spotlighted dance solos.

Through movement, sound, film, and conversation, Wilkerson and his team want to explore how the most marginalized populations on the planet will experience the adversity associated with climate change. Additionally, they want to lend dignity to the spaces where young black men are murdered by police, the same places rogue politicians characterize as “hell.” “[We are] taking weather and environment and transposing that upon a dark feeling of exhaustion and death,” says Wilkerson, “not just losing people. but the way that environment feels during that loss.”


Despite the artistic examination of the clash of climate, human-made boundaries, police violence, bodies and our environment, EQUATORS is a legitimately entertaining piece. Wilkerson is an expertly expressive dancer. He’s been dancing since age 12 and has been traveling the world, honing his talent, since he was 16. His decade-plus experience studying movement is on full display here, as he steps, pops, and strides through the buckets, chains and hanging gas cans with the purposeful movement of a mountain cat or a busy New York City commuter.

When away from the props on the set, Wilkerson is moving in almost complete darkness, save the special lighting for solos done in key parts of the set, “I can roam in the darkness throughout the entire piece or I can step into the light,” says Wilkerson “We wanted to light the show like a work of art and not a dance piece.”

Arien WIlkerson performs EQUATORS at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport Connecticut

Though the performance as a whole is a thoroughly collaborative production, (set design by David Borawski and lighting design by Jon-Paul Lorroco), it’s Wilkerson’s queer aesthetic that makes the performance unique. “It’s queer as fuck,” says Wilkerson. “This is the queerest thing I’ve ever done. I wear a lot of dresses, I wear a lot of platform heels, I want to just take it there. I was feelin’ some type of way after Moonlight, and just wanted more of that proper representation of queer people.”

Unorthodox lighting techniques, transgressive gender expression through costuming, and the practiced movement of a queer body stand out in EQUATORS, asking audience members to interrogate their expectations of someone like Wilkerson, a young, black, queer person presenting himself not as a disenfranchised minority identity category but as an individual within a fertile creative climate asserting his expertise and wielding his kinetic power.

Wilkerson plans to expand the performance and stage EQUATORS in different locations throughout Connecticut via an upcoming sponsorship from Real Art Ways.

Arien Wilkerson – dancer, artistic director TNMOT AZTRO
Top photo Arien Wilkerson performing EQUATORS at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Connecticut | All photos by Brittany Solem
John ArvanitisCrossing Equators with Arien Wilkerson


"Spirit of Juneteenth" Emerging Choreographer Honoree

JUNE 16TH 2017

TNMoT AZTRo Performance Art and Dance Installation, LLC

By Ashabi Rich for The Dance Journal

The Projector Series 1.5
Presented in collaboration with Vox Populi Gallery and Little Berlin Gallery
Installation Design: Arien Wilkerson and Joe McCarthy
Sound Designer/Composer: Wrex Mason

The organic VOX POPULI and Little Berlin galleries are collaborating to showcase TNMoT AZTRo Performance Art and Dance Installation, LLC from Hartford, Connecticut for a three day, six-performance run ending Saturday, June 24, 2017.  Two shows per evening, in the VOX Blackbox, at 7 and 9, are a testament to their stamina. The company was created in 2010 by then 18 year- old founder and director Arien Wilkerson. The Projector Series 1.5, is a cross gallery, multi-media “set of performance installation works blending dance, live digitally composed music and Film based visual media.”  Utilizing live video streaming,” light, sound, spatial manipulation, the human form, movement as modes of inquiry and engagement between audience and performer, as well as the lager community beyond” (web), there are video clips of James Baldwin and Sun Ra along with live rapping by DomsentfromMars.  Lots of tight choreography executed with strong technique and complete command of intent and expression illustrates attests to a thoughtful intellect intentionally applied to be relevant to positive change in our present society.

Co-curated by Vox Populi’s Jim Strong and Little Berlin’s Eric Preisendanz, the show is introduced as a work of sensory overload_ a ”Digital Purgatory”; but, I  call it a sensory feast!  “Fresh”, “Creative”,” Innovative”, “Exciting” and “Fascinating” are descriptive adjectives that come readily to mind while viewing  ”The Projector Series”.  Company members Henry Olivo, Joseph Heitman, Lauren Horn, Erica Nelson, Kailah King, Arien Wilkerson, and Greg Dearons II give us a serious range of technique and style so wonderfully utilised in this company.  Modern, Cake Walk, Ballet, B Boy, Hip Hop, West African, Crunk, Jazz, and Break Dance are interwoven in seamless, delightfully surprising solos, duets, and all- members- in offerings. Black Lives Matter and the victims of police shootings are memorialised. The politics of division and disengagement via economics, race, and gender are also addressed.  In interviews, Wilkerson states a mission to create “revolutionary ideas within performance” and to have “marginalised communities to be inclusive” within the patronage choices of the local elites. He seeks to have local talent, in any physical locale area, be recognised. This recognition should be manifested by choosing such talent for performance engagements on a regular basis.  He also seeks to have a permanent home performance base, in Hartford, where training and performance can happen, particularly in small, intimate settings of 75-100 people. His vision brings to mind the tablao style of Flamenco dance.

Wilkerson opens the performance through an interaction with the audience.  He instructs you to breathe fully, aligning your spine and planting the metatarsals firmly on the floor. Take that lead and allow your vessel to empty in order to refill with this young genius’ work. By so doing, you will leave full, fulfilled, inspired, and refreshed.


About Ashabi Rich

Ashabi Rich, a Norristown native, began dancing at A.D. Eisenhower High School's extra-curricular dance club. While attending Swarthmore College, she continued in modern dance through the college dance club under Patricia Boyer. Ashabi later went on to major in dance at Temple University studying with Hellmut Gottschild, Eva Gholson, and Patricia Hobson among others. While at Temple she performed with the East Indian Dance club (Kathak). She was a company dancer with John Jones (USA), Robert Crowder's Kulu-Mele, and a guest dancer with Alo!Brasil. She has studied dance under John Hines, Faye Snow, John Jones and Robert Crowder. At the American Dance Festival/Connecticut College Ashabi studied under Clay Taliaferro, Walter Nix, Gay Delange, and Thelma Hill. More recently she has studied under Gilset Mora, Renee (Onyin) Harris–Hardy, Youssouf Koumbassa, Dorothy Wilkie, and Cachet Ivey.

Ashabi is a Certified Reiki II practitioner in the Mikao Usui lineage. She is a martial arts aficionado having studied judo, Praying Mantis kung fu, Shotokan karate (Teruyuki Okazaki), Akido (Yukio Utada), Jujitsu-Shotokan (Andrew Lyn. Sr.), and Wing Chun Kung Fu (Frank Wyatt). She is SAG-AFTR membership eligible from the movie-In Her Shoes(screen credit Asabi Rich.) She has recently been accepted into Temple University's Klein College of Media and Communication, pursuing an MS in Globalization and Development Communication.

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THE PROJECTOR SERIES 1.4 press & interviews

BL&D Interview - Arien Wilkerson

He's too black, too vocal and too flagrant. He's also one of the few indispensable figures in hartford's ever-continuous push to art and cultural prominence. Say hello to the city's new brash monarch.




Ony: Thank you for coming out today, man.

Arien: Thank you for inviting me. I like interviews. I never get a chance to talk as much, so it’s cool.

Ony: I mean, we have conversations like this all of the time.

Arien: Right.

Ony: Which is interesting to me because I can tell you - I have learned a lot about community art in terms of what art can do for the community through a lot of things and a lot of initiatives that you’ve propelled or that you’ve been apart of. Whether it’s Tnmot-Aztro, whether it’s Hartford Denim Company [or] even helping out with The Brother’s Crisp in some ways, even helping out with Breakfast Lunch & Dinner and de Muerte, you know what I mean?

Arien: I threw the Saint Colt birthday bash. That was fun.

Ony: Why Hartford? And what drives you to push the art community as you’ve done so far?

Arien: Well, the only reason why it’s Hartford is because I’m born here. It’s as simple as “rep where you from”. I also believe that if you can’t make it where you’re from, then you can’t make it anywhere. I feel like it’s the opposite of people who are like, “Oh! I left Michigan or I left Indianapolis because there’s nothing there for me.” And that’s fine because sometimes there isn’t. But if you can’t make it there, then why are you leaving to try to make it somewhere else?

Ony: Fair point.

Arien: I felt like that was huge to me. Do I want to go out there and shuck and jive and sell myself for a place that could eat me alive if I don’t know it? So I think that’s kind of what it was: being comfortable and being uncomfortable at the same time. Being comfortable to be here and then being uncomfortable to know that, ‘OK I want to go, but I can always come back.’

Ony: So for the Hartford arts community, how do feel you’ve been doing? What are some areas you wish you could improve on personally? And then as Hartford artists, how can we all get together and improve on that to push it so that we can all make it where we are?

Arien: To be honest, I’ve never looked at what I’ve done. [laughs] Just because I haven’t looked at it. I think it’s a little bit of both. Predominantly, one big help was Hartford Denim Co. That was a huge help from coming back from Tel Aviv. Being able to have a platform to be young as fuck, and to be working right next to Kristina Newman Scott and Andres [Chaparro] and Lauren [Varjabedian] - whose last name is impossible to say. It was interesting because I was very young. No one knew the concept of just see things for what they are and do what you can. Not try to get everything done because you feel like it has to be done. Do what you can do without asking for help and then the rest will come.

Ony: Got it.

Arien: So I think it was a lot of that. That Hartford Denim “Do It Yourself” mentality - kind of like surviving in the wilderness that I approached in a sense of surviving in this urban wilderness. People and politics are just as crazy as fucking animals in the fucking wild. [laughs] They’re the same thing. So approaching it like that, just being very animalistic and aggressive. I think from now to then I’ve been less aggressive than I was before because now I feel like the much more important I’ve [gotten], the less aggressive I have to be with people who won’t listen to me. But when I first started, I was just aggressive as fuck you know? I think that was something that’s interesting. And I still [am aggressive] in a sense of being able to approach anything with an open approach.

Ony: I personally like the aggression because I think it’s on both sides of the coin.

Arien: Right.

Drea: Describe more of that aggression. What's that like?

Arien: I think that aggression is just being able to approach someone right in their face, look them in their eye and say, “Hey, what do you do? How does it help me? How does it help this city?” and them being like, “What? Haha. Hi, I don’t know what I do.” or “I don’t know how I approach the city.” Or some people being like, “Hi, I’m so and so. This is what I do. This is how I approach the city.” You know what I mean? It’s being flat as fuck. There is no bush. There’s just you and I and this Goddamned desert.

Ony: You’ve been a real art advocate especially for the North End.

Arien: Yeah. That’s kind of how I started, too. I think it was predominantly from being in Tel Aviv and that was the last place that shook me up with realizing the difference between a refugee and a citizen and really understanding what that was like.

Ony: What do you mean by that?

Arien: Just seeing how you can be in the same place and still be very separate from someone. OK, so we’ve kind of “deleted” racism, so what? We’ve kind of “deleted” the idea of bigotry.

Ony: In Tel Aviv?

Arien: Just everywhere. We’ve so-called "deleted" it. Racism so-called doesn’t exist anymore, bigotry so-called doesn’t exist anymore, but it does. Racism still exists, bigotry still exists - you know what I mean? Seeing that idea and seeing a real refugee next to a Jew and though he’s Black and that person’s Jewish, or that person’s tan and Palestinian, they’re all citizens but people still [place them separately].

The Matrix of Denomination. That’s what someone said to me. “Things that separate you,” and that got me thinking about when you take your SATs [and it asks], "Are you male? Female? Black? White? Asian?" Shit like that. When you apply for your food stamps - just everything. Census Bureau, you know? “How many people live in your home?” Those things didn’t make sense when I was younger. Or it just didn’t make sense because I wasn’t looking at it like that until then.

Ony: I feel like you translate some of that into your work, too.

Arien: Yeah. I guess. I feel like there’s always a sense of identity in my work. Everything trickles. There is a path that you walk down. It’s never a journey. It’s an 'immersive experience', which I think is cool. You’re immersing yourself into something and then getting out of it.


Drea: How old are you?

Arien: I’m 24!

Drea: So you’re 24, you sound like this razor-edge of a person. How did growing up hone that? How did you sharpen yourself to get to this point?

Arien: Just from not having anything. Just from the ability to live with not having anything. Then you start to know what you want, you know? And start to know what you need and not only what you want. Like, “What do I need?”

Drea: What do you need?

Arien: What do I need? That’s interesting because it’s a difference. It’s like, do I need stability or do I not need stability? Do I need money or do I not need money? Now as I get older, it’s hard for me not only to define what I need but to say what I need because everyone needs the same shit! I’m kind of like, “I need that. But that person needs ‘that’ too.” I’m starting to realize that everyone’s really the same in that kind of context of everyone needs money, everyone needs stability, everyone needs consistency, [and] being able to go back to the same thing or to do something new and still have the same basis.

I was talking to my friend George who is a volunteer at the Boar’s Head Festival and he is apart of the Hartford Symphonies Orchestra. He was like, “No matter what, we always have 400 people in our shows a night. We know the starting base of any amount of money that comes to see Hartford Symphony Orchestra is 400 people. It can go more than that, it can go less than that. But we know we always do a range of 400 people in the audience,” or some shit like that.

The point he was trying to make is the idea that they have something consistent. So no matter what, they know that they have 400 people that are always going to see a show or 300 people that are always going to see a show at Hartford Symphony Orchestra. It’s that kind of idea of being able to maintain that and that’s what I feel like every artist needs: that consistent thing that you can go to. When Rihanna drops an album, she has an album, a video, a tour, then vacation, then she does it again. Every artist needs that.

Ony: Can you talk in general about Black Boy Jungle and The Projector Series and if someone were to come see the show at Real Art Ways, what they should expect from The Projector Series?

Arien: Well, Black Boy Jungle is completely different from The Projector Series because Black Boy Jungle was interesting in a sense that I just feel like The Projector Series and Black Boy Jungle are climate pieces because I choreographed them at weird times. Every time I think about The Projector Series, it’s always done in the winter and we’ve always done it in November, December, January. We’ve always done this piece when it’s cold. [laughs] I’ve always found that to be very weird.

And with Black Boy Jungle, we made it in the summer. I feel like Black Boy Jungle is the story of American identity told through reggae music, which was fun because I’ve always wanted to use reggae music. I’ve always wanted to use Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and King Tubby and I’ve always wanted to indulge in that type of, still, very political way of thinking. Reggae music was so political back then. In the 60’s and 70’s, it was more political than what it is now. And they said more than what you can probably say now.

There were songs like “Straight to the Capitalist’s Head”, as titles. Just sharp edge, you know? They’re not missing anything and that to me was important as fuck. Let’s just take the essence of being able to be next to your fucking father on the island in the God damned truck, driving down the road with your hair in the wind meets who am I? How am I going to define myself? Where is it that I come from? What is the idea of an American, the perfect American? How do we make up an American? How am I an American but still have ancestors that link me to a place that is not here? Am I essentially American or am I not? How does that define everyone? Especially in my company. [Black Boy Jungle] was about them. It truly was about the members of the company that I have. I have six beautiful dancers and they’re all different. Literally. One’s Greek, one’s Buddhist - he is Malaysian - one’s Mexican, one’s German and Polish and half-Black, one is West Indian.

Ony: What's The Projector Series?

Arien: Now The Projector Series was cool because like I said to you before, it’s a work of iteration. It was a one man solo done in a room [at about] 17 minutes long. A 17-minute solo that was non-stop moving. I kept changing, and everything was happening in front of the audience. When I changed clothes, when I did everything, it happened in front of the audience - it was a one-man show. I liked it because I’ve never done a one-man show before.

Coming from dancing in companies to doing a one-man show was fucking scary, but it was exhilarating as fuck because you start to defy what you want versus what you need. As artists, what do I want to say and what do I need to say? So that was kind of fun too.

Drea: You said that it was broken into pieces? The Projector Series?

Arien: It was kind of done like that. It was a 17-minute long solo then it became a one-man show that had duets that spurt over time. I had two dancers just to perform in two different sections of the work. Then I kind of stopped and I don’t know. I think that’s weird now that I think about it.

Drea: Now that you’re thinking about it, what made you do it that way though?

Arien: I think it was more so because of the timeline of it. I was actually apart of the first hip-hop dance company in Connecticut and that was 'the thing'. I was the Rehearsal Director of the company. We performed everywhere. The Riverfront - everywhere. It was like 'the thing' and it was cool because I still have the picture in the brochure and the 2014 featured events of my face and me dancing. It was really cool, it was a really great year.

Before that, it was just weird for me because I left this company and I wasn’t necessarily dancing and Tnmot-Aztro wasn’t necessarily about “dance”. I felt like I could get dance from somewhere else [while] Tnmot-Aztro was about being able to say things that I couldn’t say through not dancing. It was fashion, photography and film. A lot of films we just did a lot of impromptu films on cellphones and fucking bullshit-ass cameras and it was just about being on the block and really not having [anything] and not having [anything] to do and really being bored. When you’re really bored and really have nothing to do, you really start to figure out what it is that you want to do and what it is that you need to do.

Ony: How did you get the name Tnmot-Aztro?

Arien: That’s so funny because I found the ‘Tnmot’ and my boy found the ‘Aztro’. The Aztro came from Quasimoto. That’s really cool just because we fucking love Quasimoto and we love Madlib. That's just a mutual thing. I'm a hip hop kid, so before ballet and before modern dance and African and West African styles, there was hip-hop. I would never have known dance if it wasn't for that so that has always been first and foremost to me within the company. It has to stay connected to ‘the root’ of the street.

‘Aztro’ came from Astral Black and Astral traveling and the whole Quasimoto vibe of getting high and motherfucking making art, you know? We love to smoke weed and we fucking love to make art. The ‘Tnmot’ - I didn't want something that was Spanish, I didn't want something that was Greek, I didn't want something that was French. I wanted to find something that was really interesting to me. So I looked up Macedonian language and it's a really hard ass language. There was talk about it being Russian or it being Turkish. It's the south Slovak language. It's Middle Eastern enough. It's hidden [and] people have to look it up which is kind of fun. I wanted something that was just hard. ‘Tnmot’ means “team”, so it's just ‘Team Aztro’. And ‘Tnmot’ can mean “team” or it can mean a “hard substance”. So the idea is that rocks are built together in one big clump.




Ony: You're a very energetic guy. You have a lot of energy and you talk fast. I have never understood you as a human being until I saw you teach dance, and when you were in your element, I understood for the first time who Arien was. How did you get introduced to dance and in what ways do you feel like that represents who you are?

Arien: Well, dance and language is like any other language. I’m not fluent in a lot of other languages as I should have been, so I feel like dance makes me bilingual. Before you watch out for sounds you watch out for movements. It’s a language. I didn’t see it until I was a lot older, but I started dancing because I was just bad as fuck growing up. Nothing else [would stick], you know? I loved Gene Kelly. I knew, also, that I liked men from the time I was five, so I knew I was a homosexual. I knew all of these things about myself, so I was just like I need to figure out how to defend myself. It was more about me figuring out masculinity as opposed to the language of moving. So when I discovered hip-hop, I was always dancing. [When I was younger], they would always be like, "Arien, dance. Dance. Dance. Dance. Dance." And it was sloppy and it was horrible, but it was filled with a lot of energy and a lot of passion and a lot of just raw ability. But it didn’t become a conversation until I started b-boying.

Ony: So you learned masculinity through dance?

Arien: I learned masculinity through dance and through watching male dancers growing up. I actually watched more male dancers growing up than I watched female dancers. My parents were like, ‘OK. He likes to dance, so let’s try to put on males who dance’. What Black home did not like Michael Jackson at that time? So you were always able to watch shit like that and that was easy. I guess getting older and my mom realizing that I was different, [and me] realizing that I was different than everyone else, she brought me to Artist Collective. It just kind of happened like that.

I met a woman by the name of Jolette Creary. She’s the owner of Studio 860 and she asked me, ‘What are you doing on Saturday? Come back.’ And that was that. It was like boom! Started dancing. And I stopped for like a year to go play baseball because I guess I still wasn’t even convinced that I going to dance. I was going to play sports or do something masculine. Baseball sucked and my mom was like, ‘Fuck it. You wanna go back to dancing? Because apparently, that’s what you’re good at.’ My parents - thank God - are smart with not forcing you to do what you’re not good at. It was more of ‘Stick to what you’re good at’, which helped.

Ony: What’s next?

Arien: I mean, that’s the thing: I don’t even know. With this piece, it’s funny as fuck. It’s my decadence. Everybody has that one work, or has those three works. Sylvester Stallone has ‘Rocky’. Everyone has the best thing that they made. It’s that idea that I’m talking about. It’s kind of scary to have something that you know is good and will always live forever, even after you die.

Drea: What’s your ultimate trademark project look like to you?

Arien: This.. Is.. Not it. But at the same time, I don’t think that I know what my trademark project is because I haven’t had the ability yet to hit it on the nail. The only reason why this is possible is because we know how to do it again. It’s the resource of how to do it again. I don’t know how to do Punching Bag again. It was created in a space that was sourced from an individual that I might not be able to use those resources again.

Ony: Just to be clear: Punching Bag was the work you showed at Open to Anything.

Arien: Yeah. We can maybe do Black Boy Jungle again, but how do I get 30 vintage trunks from all over the world? That’s what the theme was. Black Boy Jungle was a reggae piece set in Ellis Island and Ellis Island happened way before the psychedelic reggae movement happened. How do you even do that? [laughs]

Once I understand how to source the things and do the things again, then you can start to obtain my work. You really can’t obtain my work because it’s not a painting, it’s an installation. That’s why I say that it’s an installation because it’s not like The Nutcracker. You can do The Nutcracker during any season just because you wanted to. Everyone knows it. It’s something you can source out of anywhere because it’s an easy story to source. It’s my resources. Getting the city on my side would be fun but that’s interesting within itself because I don’t think [Hartford] is ready to support someone who thinks more than they probably think. Everything has to exist in order for things to be done. The city needs to already see that I can fill a place with 200 fucking people every fucking time before anyone reaches out. They don’t give a fuck about what’s new. They don’t give a fuck about the idea of ‘small’.

Drea: So how did you do it without ‘their’ help, so to speak?

Arien: Well money, yeah. But once you get the money, it’s just the right planning. Simple as that! It isn’t someone else saying ‘Do or die’, it’s you saying, ‘Do or die’. If you’re not moving forward then you’re just not moving. I feel like that’s a huge factor to how we did it.

Ony: I feel like now [Hartford] is in a great position to really help some budding artists.

Arien: They are! They absolutely fucking are.

Drea: Agreed.