She Follows Where Her Pen Takes Her
Photography by Roy Rochlin
When she was growing up in Greater London’s Thamesmead district, Shantell Martin probably would have thought the New York City Ballet was not only a world away in distance, but also a world away from what she dreamed of doing with her life. Now the prolific contemporary artist has added a balletic achievement of sorts to her list of accomplishments. No, she hasn’t donned a tutu and hopped on stage—but she was named the ballet’s seventh-annual NYCB Art Series partner earlier this year.
“This project has been a highlight for sure, and it was such an honor to work with everyone at NYCB,” Martin says. “It was also incredible to perform or be in conversation on each of the special artist nights.”
The NYCB Art Series invites one standout artist each year to collaborate with its dancers and use the inspiration of their movements, performances, and interviews to create site-specific art that is shown at NYCB performances in Lincoln Center during the company’s six-week winter season. Carrying on a strong tradition of the ballet’s partnership with visual artists that dates back to 1964, the NYCB Art Series has previously showcased artists FAILE (Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller), JR, Dustin Yellin, Marcel Dzama, Santtu Mustonen, and Jihan Zencirli. “Architect Philip Johnson and NYCB Founder Lincoln Kirstein curated a permanent collection for what was to become one of New York City’s great public spaces and included works by Jasper Johns, Lee Bontecou, and Elie Nadelman,” says the NYCB website. “In more recent years, other leading and emerging artists—luminaries like Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel, and Santiago Calatrava—have collaborated with the company in a variety of ways on and off the stage. Art Series builds on these traditions.”
“This was the seventh artist series at NYCB, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next,” Martin shares.
“I started the project with a number of in-person interviews with dancers from the company,” Martin says. “Quotes from these interviews later appeared in the installation itself in the form of written words in the artworks, floor, and fabricated seating that came out of the ground."
Through her collaboration, Martin studied the NYCB dancers during rehearsals for weeks and spoke with many of them individually about their artistic processes and inspirations. “Essentially, the result was a larger-than-life installation in the home of NYCB at Lincoln Center,” Martin says. Her black-and-white linework art spanned the upper windows of the center lobby (this was a huge mural that read “Who Are You”), lined the walls on each floor of the atrium, and even stretched across the floor. It was also featured on the cover of the season’s playbill.
“I started the project with a number of in-person interviews with dancers from the company,” Martin says. “Quotes from these interviews later appeared in the installation itself in the form of written words in the artworks, floor, and fabricated seating that came out of the ground. It was also great fun drawing for hours and hours during the onstage rehearsals for ballets like Liebeslieder Walzer, The Nutcracker, and Justin Peck’s new work, Principia.”
This endeavor is just one of many lofty undertakings for Martin, whose work has become revered for its realness and her stream-of-consciousness style of creation. She has lived in New York City on and off for the past decade and is currently an adjunct professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab. Her work has been seen in group shows at the Digital Graffiti festival in Northwest Florida, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of the Moving Image, in solo exhibitions at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, and in a seventy-five-minute performance with Kendrick Lamar at Art Basel Miami 2016.
Despite her impressive résumé, Martin remains as down-to-earth and humble as ever, finding that staying true to herself is the only thing that has ever worked for her professionally—and obviously it’s working really well. “I’m definitely leaving this experience more open-minded,” she says of the NYCB Art Series, “and I encourage all that have not been to see a ballet to please do so.”
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