A Dancer and Her Tools: Onye Ozuzu’s “Project Tool”

Onye Ozuzu performs at the Chicago Cultural Center with award-winning work and a plan for survival.

“I was at the edge of the world and I thought: ‘I could stay out here’ and the thing that I wanted most was a sprung wood dance floor," says Onye Ozuzu, Dance Professor and Dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts. The idea came to Ozuzu during a residency at Chulitna Lodge Research Institute in Lake Clark, Alaska. Ozuzu’s revelation turned into what is now “Project Tool,” an ongoing work which centers around building and performing on dance platforms, hand-built by Ozuzu and her team of dancers. Through the process of using hand-held tools and legacy processes, the multi-faceted project explores the relationship between mind, body, and tool. “Working with wood means learning how to negotiate movement around the material,” says Ozuzu. “It’s all about balance—knowing when and how much to exert. It’s all dancing.”

“Project Tool” is currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center. Ozuzu and her team—dancers Jessica Marasa, Anna Martine Whitehead, Keyierra Collins ’16, and Keisha Bennett ’16—worked together to refashion the Garland Gallery into a live workshop-gallery-installation space. Ozuzu wanted to create an immersive environment so audiences could see the dancers (none of whom had previous woodworking experience) building the hexagonal platforms themselves.

Onye Ozuzu's "Project Tool" at the Chicago Cultural CenterOzuzu and Jessica Marasa perform on the hexagonal sprung wood dance platforms designed by Steve Silber and built by the five “Project Tool” performers. Photo courtesy of William Frederking.

On the night of the performance, Dance Associate Professor Raquel Monroe, who has seen the work in various iterations, was struck by how it responded to different spaces but still retained a “sense of women’s work.” Monroe adds, “It’s overwhelming to see the amount of work the dancers have done to create the floors and how the floors created the movement for the dance.”

During the performance, Fashion Studies Chair Colbey Reid found herself thinking about the ways in which “the distinction between the body, materials, and space was degraded by the performance. The performance really called attention to the way tools serve as mediators between these different entities…in some ways eroding the distinction between them.”

“I don’t think the performance was examining the interaction between body and space in abstract terms,” Reid adds, “but rather the specific historical and material practice and its impact on communities of black women.” Fragments of spirituals are scrawled on the walls throughout the space, “directly referencing the transformation of strenuous labor into a spiritual practice in American slavery (and beyond),” says Reid.

Onye Ozuzu's Project Tool Poem by Matthew Shenoda Matthew Shenoda’s poem, entitled “Work,” is hand-lettered onto the interior wall of the sanctuary room in the center of the “Project Tool” space. Photo courtesy of William Frederking.

The space is also filled with artifacts and materials to interact with, including videography by Jovan Landry and a poem titled “Work” by Matthew Shenoda, Dean of Academic Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Professor of English and Creative Writing, which is hand-lettered on the interior wall in the center of the room. Elsewhere, audience members are invited to contribute their answers to a wall that asks: “What is your tool?”

Ozuzu has many ways of answering her own question. On the matter of why she’s going out of her way to create her own tools, it begins with the craftsman’s desire for sustainability. “I wanted to know that I can make the object that I need to do the thing I need to do.” But, Ozuzu also views it as "a response to evidence that that systems as designed are not meant for our safety or sustainability." As an artist, she says, she is engaging her facility to prepare for and provide safety for herself and others.

Part of learning how to build her own tools and creating dances through the process has helped to demystify the process of creation. In many ways, Ozuzu has used “Project Tool” as a “coping mechanism, a performed antidote to the destabilizing of [her] wellbeing in the context of being a person of color in America in 2018.”

Onye Ozuzu's "Project Tool" at the Chicago Cultural CenterWhitehead and Ozuzu perform during "Project Tool." Reid described the scene as a "fluid connection between the floors that a dancer performs on and the body that a dancer performs with [coming] into very sharp focus." Photo courtesy of William Frederking.

“As a dancer, learning to work with wood, I’ve had to learn to listen to the wood,” says Jessica Marasa, one of the dancers in the show. “There’s also such a spirit of collectivity between all of the dancers and the material we’re working with.” Ozuzu and her dancers have worked on the project together for over a year. The process has strengthened their relationship to the material, dance, and—most importantly—to their histories. Ozuzu goes on to say, “I want to be less subjected to our current economy of living. I want to be more realized. I’m trying to connect to my ancestors. I’m trying to be free.”

Next up, Ozuzu will be taking “Project Tool” on the road through a commission with Links Hall, a collaboration which garnered a 2018 Joyce Award. Links Hall is proposing to take the dance platforms into outdoor spaces, such as alleys, basketball courts, or into abandoned buildings. That means taking the dance platforms to spaces that might not currently have access to them. With Links Hall, Ozuzu is looking at three locations—Chicago, New Orleans, and Haiti—to explore the connections between them as sites of culture and creation.

"Project Tool" at the Cultural Center from Onye Ozuzu on Vimeo.

"Project Tool" presented two performances at the Chicago Cultural Center on February 2nd and 3rd in the Garland Gallery. The exhibition is open to the public until February 9.