Davon Suttles of mela is a Chicago tap artist who collaborated with Peter Campanelli to create Past the Heavens, an exploration of queer relationships with religion, told through original gospel music, tap dance, and mixed media. This moving piece will be a part of our upcoming multi-arts experience, The Memory Place, centering cultural memory and hidden histories June 1-11. We caught up with Davon to discuss their tap career and inspiration for this piece. Don’t miss it — get your tickets here.
PIVOT ARTS: You’ve established an impressive early career in tap – your work with M.A.D.D. Rhythms Dance Project just showed at the Auditorium Theater alongside tap guru and MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient, Michelle Dorrance, and her company. How did you get started in tap and why has it continued to be your main creative form of expression?
DAVON SUTTLES: I actually started dancing around the age of 9, similar to how most “boys” start: by waiting in the lobby for your sister to exit her class so often that you yourself end up getting dragged in! But after about 2 years of classes my teacher/mentor Ellen Keane, executive director of Keane Sense of Rhythm, pulled me to the side one day and told me, “I see so much potential in you. You should come check out my pre-professional tap dance company for youth!” Once I stepped into the world of the actual tap dance community it was a wrap! I instantly fell in love with the variety of rhythms, dynamics, and just sheer technique that was readily available for me to obtain and make my own.
PA: Pivot Arts will be presenting your work Past the Heavens, as part of the upcoming Memory Place project. The piece explores queer relationships with religion. What inspired you to dive into this relationship in particular?
DS: I think that gospel music is probably one of the most underrated music genres period! Especially when you take into account the impact it’s had on pretty much every music genre stemming from the African diaspora, and the impact those have had not only in American culture but globally! So I had originally conceptualized this show solely as an ensemble of tap dancers, dancing to some fun arrangements of old gospel songs then throwing in a few songs of my own! But as of recently I’ve been on a journey of self healing my childhood wounds, and I know many of queer people have tumultuous relationships with religion, myself included, so I really wanted to explore why for many religious communities that preach the necessity of spreading love and communal support, but then live the antithesis of said lifestyle, especially when it comes to people of the queer community. So I decided that no matter what, when I decide to do this show, that relationship must be explored.
PA: Not only are you choreographing this piece, but you’re incorporating original gospel music into the performance as well. What discoveries have you made about your creative process for making music versus your process for choreographing dance?
DS: They’re actually pretty similar since a major aspect in tap dance is music. The only major difference being mitigating how I’m going to create these rhythms with my feet and then shape and block them in a way that can further a narrative.
PA: What are you hoping will resonate most with audiences through this piece?
DS: To chose love and kindness as much as possible. And if that is not something provided by your current loved ones, move on and find it elsewhere. Chosen family is still a family.
PA: The Memory Place explores cultural stories and our collective past. What Chicago landmark would you say most embodies your personality and why?
DS: Hmmm I’m gonna go with Garfield park and conservatory because why not.
Many thanks to Davon for diving deeper into their artistry with us! Don’t miss your chance to experience their incredible work as part of Pivot Arts’ The Memory Place, running June 1-11.
photo by William Frederking