It was May 2000 and Noele Phillips was set to take the stage at LaGuardia Community College for the first time with fellow dancers Amin Jai and Kiki Beckles.
“I’ll never forget,” said Phillips. “I was so excited to be a part of this dance with them.” Her performance would decide whether she could be a permanent part of the newly formed Kraven Seneca Dance Company, she said, and she was determined to make it.
That dance turned out to be the beginning of a 13-year partnership that is just now coming to an end with a final show Oct. 20 at the Bronx Art Academy of Dance. In that time, the three have performed around the Bronx spreading strong messages about the effects of racism and homophobia through dance.
Back in 2000, all three were students at LaGuardia. Jai and Beckles had only been dancing together for two or three months before Phillips joined them. “I met them both separately,” said Phillips. “I saw Kiki on campus one day and I was like, ‘Oh shoot there’s another black girl,’ and we began to hang out. I knew of Amin from seeing him dancing around the college,” she said.
Jai had formed Kraven Seneca a year earlier and Phillips wanted in. She got her shot in March of 2000 when Amin allowed her to start practicing for the May performance that would serve as her trial run. He even raised the stakes by giving her a solo. Phillips wasn’t fazed at all. “It felt good,” she said. “I got a chance to show off and go hard.”
Phillips went on to do just that during their performance in May, becoming an official principal dancer. At the time, the company included Jai, Beckles, and five other dancers, a format that would change over the years. “We used to call ourselves Destiny’s Nieces,” Phillips said. “Dancers have come and gone but we always stuck.”
Their joke refers to Destiny’s Child, the popular girl group led by Beyonce Knowles. The group’s line-up went through a series of changes throughout the years but ultimately Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams remained until the group decided to split up and pursue solo careers – another decision that the two groups have in common.
After 13 years of putting their lives into Kraven Dance Company, Jai, Phillips, and Beckles have decided to close the company and go their separate ways. “I feel it’s time,” said Jai. “Creatively we are in different places.”
Jai claimed the decision to close had nothing to do with financial issues. Grants from organizations like the New York Road Runner Foundation have supported the dance company. They also receive a lot of personal donations during benefits they’ve held and through the web. They have been able to acquire residencies, which allow them a certain amount of hours and a performance in different venues.
Jai is heading to California to pursue his love of sound-work — a technical term in theater that ranges from writing scores for films and plays to producing music for artists. Jai wants to do the latter. He currently is a track coach in the Bronx through the New York Road Runner’s Foundation. He also teaches dance at Allegra Dance School in Greenwich, Conn.
Phillips — who works during the day as a customer service coordinator for New York & Company — has been submitting head shots to different dance agencies. Phillips also hopes to develop the dance classes she currently teaches at KS JAMM in Brooklyn. “I want to expand where I teach throughout New York City, and create my own workshops in African and modern dance,” said Phillips.
Beckles plans to take lots of dance classes while trying to figure out what to do next. “I feel like I’m having the hardest time with this whole process,” she said. “My life was so much Kraven, I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”
Kraven’s performances deliver provocative messages. “Strange Fruit,” for example, is based on a lynching. Jai’s most personal dance is called “Classified: Faggot;” it represents his real-life struggles growing up as a gay black teenager.
Phillips describes the solo dance as a kind of autobiography for Jai. The piece has a lot of visual effects. Viewers see a video of where Jai grew up and hear a recorded narration while he’s dancing. The moves represent his realization that he was gay, the reactions of his family and friends, and his struggle for self-acceptance. It ends with him almost committing suicide.
“Being that vulnerable and open, it takes a lot out of you,” said Jai. “Some people say thank you after the performance, others cry; I just hope it makes someone change their mind about ending their life. That’s something you can’t take back.”
“It makes you feel like, wow, if he didn’t do XYZ, he wouldn’t be here today,” said Phillips. “It makes me happy he is who he is.”.
The final performance will include seven new dances and six old ones. There will also be some video footage. The event is open to the public. Tickets cost $20 and can be reserved through BAAD at (718) 842-5223 or Kraven at firstname.lastname@example.org.