Letting Go of Arrival: An Interview with Erin Kilmurray

the Function, 2022. Photo by Jeremy Larson; courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

[ID: Still of four performers mid-motion wearing white or gray tees and sweatpants. One of them holds up a work light while the other three toss color gels and filters into the air. More color gels are scattered on the stage floor along with two different colored extension cords and a laptop resting upon a fluorescent bucket. Behind them, the first audience row lines the length of the stage.]

For nearly twenty years, dance artist Erin Kilmurray has steadily built a presence in Chicago with her tentacular practice, reaching audiences in apartments, nightclubs, music venues, and theaters. Her pulsating performances relentlessly explore the celebration and liberation of women, queer folks, the underground, and the underdog.

This month, we invited dance artist, curator, and scholar Tara Aisha Willis to catch up with Erin as she prepares to remount the Function, which originally premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2022. In the following interview, they discuss Erin’s artistic upbringing, her interrogation of live performance, and the beauty of revision, retelling, and return in her work.

Tara Aisha Willis: What are the inheritances or lineages that you’re bringing to the table every time you enter the studio or start thinking about a project?

Erin Kilmurray: I entered into dance through jazz and hip hop when I was a child and carried out those practices through teenagedom. I trained in church basements and YMCAs, small-town environments. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City and in peak MTV era, I was heavily influenced by music videos, musicals, spectacle — these dance vocabularies.  I also come from dance team culture, like halftime-at-the-basketball-game dance teams, which falls into the universes of commercial dance and also Black American dance forms. In the best and most complex ways those are parts of the lineages that I’m bringing into the studio.

So, my first choreographic influences were Tina Landon, Fatima Robinson, and Kenny Ortega and, honestly, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. And the Knick City Dancers! As a young person, I voraciously followed their dances. At The Dance Center at Columbia College Chicago, I started training in contemporary modern forms and dancemaking practices, and that program really challenged me to become critical of self, of purpose, of intention, of history. The artists and teachers I learned from there included Gesel Mason, Liz Burritt, and Peter Carpenter. I was very affected by Darrell Jones — his presence was everywhere — what a magical teacher, choreographer, and performer. 

Colleen Halloran is another professor who approached mentorship through excitement and curiosity as a way to encourage creative risk-taking and growth. Those folks as a whole brought in expanded ways of thinking that I had not been introduced to, like queer theory, practice as play, and alternative performance forms. I learned hard lessons in trusting myself and worked to not fall into a normative way of working or practicing. 

As a maker, I really learned how to create performance in bars, nightclubs, apartments, music venues, and parties. That’s what I had available to me and those were the cultures I was a part of. During this time I began a burlesque practice. I think my dance practice still reflects that big time.

I was also fortunate to fall into a period of very niche Chicago performance, including being a part of an artistic collective called The Inconvenience. We produced plays, dance concerts, dinner parties, punk shows, and simply anything that we could pull off for very little to no money. I also spent 2013–2017 involved in the Salonathon scene, which was a weekly performance event founded by Jane Beachy in the back of a bar. I ended up sort of being a resident artist there, and the practices and artists from that time are certainly in the studio with me now. I learned a sense of community and collectivity and gathering around performance. A practice of discovering creativity within resourcefulness.

I learned hard lessons in trusting myself and worked to not fall into a normative way of working or practicing. 

Tara: You mentioned the importance of this Chicago scene beyond typical schooling structures. I think your work now is very embedded in and committed to Chicago even as you’re starting to tour to other cities. What has your relationship to Chicago been over time? How has it changed you?

Erin: Great question. I feel like Chicago has taught me to just be cool. I grew up as a Northeasterner and a New York area kid, which is like a controlling, high vibrating place. I’ve lived in Chicago for almost twenty years now and my time has continuously been like, slow down, be cool, play around, ask for help. Also, trying not to get too far ahead and just see what’s around you. To try to see that the things that I need are already here. To me, Chicago feels like boots on the ground. Just do it. Or maybe, just try it? Chicago artists aren’t waiting around for support or recognition or an institution or whatever. Chicago is about just jumping in for better or worse, I have been extremely shaped by that mentality.

Tara: Do you feel like you’ve been shaping Chicago at all? I think other people might say you have.

Erin: That’s cute, I love that! I’ll let other people say that. I feel like it’s tricky. I guess I do feel that I can stand that possibility a little bit. Only recently have I recognized that shaping because I’ve tipped into a period of career and age where sometimes I feel like a dance auntie now, you know what I mean? There actually is a generation of folks here that have grown up in my rooms or adjacent rooms and are creating in response. I am noticing that now, which is awesome and uncomfortable.

the Function, 2022. Photo by Jeremy Larson; courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

[ID: Still of four performers mid-motion wearing white or gray tees and sweatpants. One of them stands, spinning on their left leg, while the other three lay resting on the floor. In the middle of the floor is a silver utility ladder with a disco ball suspended from it, refracting light onto the otherwise dimly lit stage. Work lights, a laptop positioned atop a fluorescent bucket, and electrical cords are scattered around the stage. Both sides of the stage are lined with seated audiences.]

Tara: Could you lay out what the limbs of your practice are right now? What are the big projects? What does the constellation of teaching and dancemaking look like?

Erin: Yeah, I started without any teaching experience: I rented a dance studio and asked people to come to it and that’s how I started a teaching practice. I still run that program when I’m able to but I also teach within academic institutions. It’s actually really exciting because I can start to braid together my movement practice, influences, and creative research into curriculum-based technique classes, which is the first time I’ve ever done that.

Another piece of the constellation is The Fly Honey Show, which I have been helming since its inception in 2010. Fly Honey has a lot of identities. She’s certainly a massive, glittering, pleasure-forward production. She’s also a community project, a devised collaboration project, a gathering space. She’s also a teaching space, processing space, workshop space.

At the moment I am revisiting the Function, which I began in 2020, but of course was writing and dreaming about it before then. the Function is a dance work that asks and imagines what is possible when women and femmes are empowered with the skill to not just imagine but actually build their worlds. We’re restaging that work now — which is a wild experience! I’m really excited and it’s interesting and so much learning. 

I’ve been working on a duet with a collaborator and dance partner, Kara Brody, that I’m dancing in, which I don’t do that often these days! It’s called Knockout and we are playing with themes of liminality, cinematic landscapes, and the distance between attraction and danger. We’re working towards premiering Knockout in 2025. 

The newest limb is some very early musings around a project called Nightshade, which is a collaboration with Ariel Zetina who is a kind of Chicago DJ icon. That work has dreams of being…it’s just not reality yet, but it has dreams for sure. The hope for Nightshade is to be large group work of some kind that will be multi-generational, exploring spaces where grief and celebration collide.

I’m committed to the celebrations and liberations of women and queer people, pleasure, and joy through dancing. More recently, I’m interested in interrogating all the messy, hard-to-name space between all of those ideas.

Tara: Within that span of projects, are there driving intentions, values, or ethos that you aim to have across everything you do? 

Erin: I’m sitting with that in a big way: how do they show up? I am very dedicated to personal agency for artists, a practice of empowerment, which is a complex word, but I’ll commit to it for now. I’m dedicated to questioning live performance, the witnessing of it, and interrogating it along with the proscenium arts in general. Through that interrogation, I’m committed to agitating the space between artist and audience. I’m committed to the celebrations and liberations of women and queer people, pleasure, and joy through dancing. More recently, I’m interested in interrogating all the messy, hard-to-name space between all of those ideas.

Tara: Can you give an example of how one or more of those ethos might show up differently across a couple of your practices?

Erin: I think it shows up in my devising process, my studio approach, regardless of how different the individual projects are. I work to craft ways we — myself and the dancers — are coming into the piece when we are trying to both figure out what we’re making and what versions of ourselves were bringing into the work at any given time, or what versions of ourselves that we are not interested in bringing into that space at that time. 

This manifests differently depending on the container of the work or process — let’s say within a large production, like The Fly Honey Show, which operates with 20 to 30 people in it at any given time and dozens of collaborators versus the Function, which is a small collective of us who are coming in with all of the raw ideas. 

Tara: I want to focus on the Function for a bit. How did that project get started and how have you been sustaining it since then? I know that in the time we worked together on it while I was curating at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, it went through a lot of changes. But then you’ve also performed it since then and you will again soon. How did you know there was a piece there and then take that step to make it exist? How do you hold its shape now as you revive it?

Erin: I love that question. In the beginning of a work, I am curious about if an idea has a pulse. For the Function, the pulse of the piece showed itself the moment that the performers themselves started operating their varying analog, DIY, detritus stagecraft tools. The dancers are operating their own tech, if you will, while also envisioning and building and performing this dance. 

Initially, I had an original group of people who developed the first stages with me. Then, life circumstances brought in a new group of artists to the process to craft towards performance. That was when you and I came into conversation together and it was a ‘proof of concept moment’ where we had developed the strategy and process of how to create, build, and operate this thing, and now had the chance to teach it to a brand new group of people who would then insert themselves into the work. The pulse came when we arrived at that realization of practice and strategy, of being able to do it in the studio, in real time, and in performance.

Tara: How do you return to it after a hiatus, in new spaces and locations?

Erin: The way we’re returning to it is a commitment to the practice of the piece. Every room we’re in, every audience, and in every environment, there’s so little that we can control or have agency over. All we can do — I say “we” but I ultimately mean the performers — all we can do is take care of ourselves. Which is where the idea first started, to give agency. Everything else is just a consequence of the room of the day. Every time we have performed the Function, wild things have gone seemingly wrong, and yet, the performers are practiced in the strategizing of real time adjustments and trust it now, and so then it becomes right again. After getting to perform it a couple of times, I really saw a difference in their understanding. I’ve watched the performers stop the sound and have a conversation on stage and be like, where are we going to go from here? Something gets unplugged or breaks and this is just how live performance goes, but there’s nobody in there but them. We can come back into it because that’s a trusted practice now. It’s not just like how we envision it, build it, and acquire the skills to execute this, it’s also about when things go wrong, how do we strategize to move through it and forward together?

Tara: So you’ve now done the Function a few times and you’re about to do it again. It’s kind of like returning to Chicago?

Erin: Totally. That’s what it feels like. What I’m most excited about for this iteration is that we get to craft our own house. We’re showing it in a warehouse space and have a lot of autonomy to build it out. This will be the very first time with this work that we will get to experience that. It feels different than sitting down in somebody else’s house. I’m so interested to see how that may affect the dancers, and then how that consequently affects our audience. I love a reason to gather around dance. 

Erin Kilmurray at rehearsal for the Function. Photo by Gabi Chavez.

[ID: A black and white photo of a white woman wearing a long sleeved white shirt and baggy pants and their hair tied up into a loose bun. They point offstage while grasping a disco ball in the other hand and standing barefoot in front of a utility ladder.]

Tara: It’s structured in a very specific way where you’re spacing out each performance. To me that reads like, let’s make this a practice of our lives for a month. It’s a weekly occasion rather than the typical handful of shows back to back in a week. I’m seeing more artists in Chicago starting to think in this way. I’m super curious about how that might be a reflection of how audiences flow in Chicago.

Erin: I’m also curious about the dance audiences in Chicago! I’ve had people ask me why I would remount and I think it’s such a fascinating question. Why do people watch the same movie over and over again or see the same band play in different venues? That’s maybe a whole other conversation, but I guess I also just want to test out atypical ways of engaging in dance as a cultural event itself. And I want to trust Chicago dance audiences at this moment with their curiosity.

Tara: Chicago dance audiences come out for their people, you know what I mean? It doesn’t actually matter if they’ve seen the show already. But especially with a show that is so improvised and different every time, it makes perfect sense. Are there learnings from specific previous shows that are influencing how you’re reworking or re-entering it this time?

Erin: Yeah, I think so. First of all, it’s amazing that we get to do this — it’s the second draft of this work in its fully realized way. We premiered the Function at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago with your support, and we really were building it up until the last moment. We did it and we were like, “Now we know what it is, great, but it’s over!” Coming back to it, we’ve been able to be more deliberate about how the work is contained, its storytelling, and reshape the world again based on what we’ve learned.

There is a lot of energy in the Function. This is typical of my dance work in general, but I love a hype moment! I love big energy. It gets real quiet, low, and small energy too, but I love loudness and pulse. That comes from music and nightclub spaces, and my dance team days. Why am I telling you that? Because depending on the room, an audience can get very vocal and encouraging or not. Sometimes that is a blessing and sometimes it is a distraction. The more this company of dancers get to explore how a crowd affects them — when do the dancers need to just focus on their performance and then when is it an invitation to bring the audience in or respond to them — we get more clear about the when and why we are considering their participation in the first place and not just fighting for or against the room we’re in.

I’ve made other work that intentionally elicits a vocal response, over the period of the piece. A couple years ago I made a work called SEARCH PARTY that was built out of sports arena culture and spectatorship. That piece was designed for a really particular response. 

the Function is certainly not rejecting that response, but I haven’t actually built it to elicit that. What is intentional is the choreographic, emotional, and storytelling journey through the hour and how the performers are in relationship with the audience. The hope is that whether or not an audience is familiar with us or not, cheering for the performers right away or not, that we will all go on a similar journey and everything after that point can be affected by it. 

I’m thinking about energy, what the physical realm can provide and where energy goes when the physical body is gone. I’m thinking a lot about grief space and celebration space and the ways in which those can be the same. 

Tara: Yeah, totally. There’s that shift in context. Okay, so there’s the inquiry of the Function and these other projects. You’ve mentioned a future project called Nightshade. Are there other inquiries or explorations that you feel like might be on the horizon? Not necessarily wedded to this piece that you’re gonna make. What are your new questions right now?

Erin: I think many artists feel this way: am I just making the same thing? 

Tara: Okay, so then how are you asking the same questions now?

Erin: Well, I guess what I mean is that the questions all feel extended. The next questions are born of this work, right? So the questions that came up from this work and  didn’t get answered through this work so they promote the next one. I’m thinking about the ambiguous and liminal distance between experience, identities, timeline, and sensations; that’s coming up both in Knockout and in Nightshade and other extended thoughts.

I’m thinking about energy, what the physical realm can provide and where energy goes when the physical body is gone. I’m thinking a lot about grief space and celebration space and the ways in which those can be the same. 

Tara: How are you seeing these questions show up in your practice right now, or do you have an idea of how they might become embodied?

Erin: As a person, and now I’m going back to the Northeast roots, I can be really high vibrating and I search for a sense of control in creative practice by starting with boundaries. Only then can I push up against them and find mad freedom.  

One of the ways that I practice is letting go of arrival, actually stop trying to find a single answer and try it again. I’m just an action first girl. We can sit and talk about it forever, but let’s just honestly dance it and then we’ll know more and we’ll try it again. That is my directing practice, my creating style, and my studio practice. How that’s showing up is moving through and trying the movement, score, and idea while piling all of the influences into a space together. I’m not especially concerned about knowing what they’re doing together so much as what they can do together.

May 23, 2024
Portrait photo of Tara Aisha Willis by zakkiyyah najeebah dumas o'neal.

[ID: A Black woman with short curly hair sits on an armchair in front of bookshelves. She wears a multicolored striped shirt and silver fringe earrings.]

Tara Aisha Willis
She // Her // Hers
Chicago, IL

Tara Aisha Willis, Ph.D.is a dance artist, curator, and scholar. She has performed for Will Rawls, Sandra Binion, Kim Brandt, Yanira Castro, Paulina Olowska, devynn emory, Anna Sperber, and the “Bessie” Award-winning Skeleton Architecture. She is currently a Lecturer in Theater and Performance Studies at University of Chicago and Curator-in-Residence, Dance at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her writings include publications by Center for Art, Research and Alliances; Danspace Project; Center for Book Arts; Getty Research Institute; The Black ScholarWomen & PerformancePerformance ResearchBrooklyn RailMovement Research Performance Journal; and Wendy’s Subway.