When JoJo Boykins was growing up in Los Angeles, she used to attend ballet recitals and wonder why there weren’t dancers who looked like her on stage. Those early disappointments led her to pursue dance and choreography as a career, in hopes that other young Black girls wouldn’t feel the same sense of exclusion she felt while sitting in the audience.
Now a graduate of Purchase College with a degree in dance performance, Boykins is one of several young artists profiled in the new short-form digital series “Rising Artist” from ALL ARTS. Each episode shines a spotlight on the works and personal stories of local students working to make a difference through creative pursuits.
To celebrate the release of the first episode, we corresponded with Boykins about her post-collegiate life and current works-in-process.
Are you currently living in New York City? If you’ve left the city, can you tell us why?
I am currently living in Los Angeles, California. After graduation, I returned home to work and tour with Lula Washington Dance Theater.
You recently graduated from college. Did anything surprise you when you left school and began this new chapter in your life?
Senior year I had planned somewhat of a grand scheme. It’s funny and somewhat corny because you hear it so often as a kid and shrug it off, but life never goes as planned. After college, I planned to stay in New York or to make a quick transition back. Life brought me back home in California and for so many good reasons. I ran into people who opened up new doors for me. I danced with a company in Boston and toured with Lula Washington Dance Theater back home. Soon, for the very first time, I’m going to Alaska to perform with the company; to be in an environment that I’ve never been to and share my art is so fulfilling. None of this, not one moment, was in my “grand scheme.”
Can you talk a bit about your work as an artist?
My work is an outlet to express things that can’t be said or things that have been said but are put on the backburner. My pieces, for the most part, are purely statements on how we as humans operate. That ranges from things simple as how we communicate to how we deal with social injustices or loss. I take what’s happening in the world or what personally affects me and try to evoke that raw emotion. My movement has always been a collaboration between me and my cast members. I love to incorporate the voices of my dancers. It gives them a chance to truly put themselves into the storyline. Meshing together my vision and their voices is truly what brings the pieces to life.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am creating a new work-in-progress presented as a solo. It’s in its raw beginnings. The concept is derived from the quote: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present,” by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. It’s still in the generation phase, meaning I’m making movement from the quote literally and figuratively. This work will be presented May 5th in New York City at the new Rioult Dance Center in Astoria.
What are your professional and creative goals in the next five to ten years?
Choreography has become a part of who I am as an artist — though I don’t want to push aside the dancer I am intended to be. In a few years, I aspire to be in a company that fulfills me. I’m not asking to be in the top-notch, well-known company, but I desire to be in a place where the movement and the company’s aesthetic fill me with happiness. To me, that’s success and the money aspect comes next. On top of that, I crave to share my voice with the dance community and the world. Whether that be me setting pieces on different companies or ultimately owning my own company. I want to be able to contribute to society and raise questions, start a movement, make some sort of change like all artists do.
What are some of the challenges you face or anticipate in achieving those goals?
In the dance world, everyone knows women are a dime a dozen. The girl standing right next to you is your competition. Out of the 100 girls that audition for the same company you have dreamed of being in, they are only looking for two. So, my challenges are the same as the next girl. How can I get “them” to see that they need me out of all these other dancers?
What’s one of your favorite pieces you’ve created, and why?
“Unseen, Unheard, Forgotten” is one of my most recent works. It was created for my senior project performance and later had its New York City debut at the American Dance Guild Festival in October 2018. The concept of “Unseen, Unheard, Forgotten” was so personal to me. The idea of conforming to society and breaking out just hits home. But I believe it is my favorite because of the dancers that performed it. They truly put everything into bringing that piece to life. Watching them brought not only me but also audience members to tears and that right there is what I want to bring to the dance world. I want the audience to be moved by the time they leave the theater. If they leave with the same spirit they came in with, then I feel as though I didn’t do my part as an artist. This piece out of all my works definitely accomplished that.
What advice do you have for current students in your undergraduate program?
Being at school, everyone is fighting to get into that piece and have that certain role. Of course, you’re going to go against people who you think are better than you; their legs are higher; their feet are daggers and they twirl until the fat lady sings. We have ALL had these thoughts. My only advice is knowing and finding confidence that you are the only you and that holds so much value. What you have to offer is different from the person next to you. Walking with the confidence that your whole package deal is an unclaimed treasure is all you need to get closer to what you want. If that wasn’t enough for that audition, then that blessing was not for you. It is NO statement on how good of a dancer you are.
This article has been lightly edited for clarity.