Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Interview


 Disappearing into the Work



A Conversation with Coral Messam
by Maori Karmael Holmes



Photography by Adama Jalloh
Styling by fashion designer Samson Soboye





Coral Messam. Photo by Adama Jalloh.




Coral Messam has always felt the calling to move. Growing up in Wolverhampton, an industrial coal town in the English Midlands, her Jamaican-born father, a cobbler and factory worker, would play reggae records on weekends. Messam would be transfixed in their grooves.

Messam’s career in the arts has been broad. She initially wanted to be a fashion designer but then embarked upon a career in dance. Messam studied at the University of Leeds and then with dancer L’Antoinette Stines and drummer Emmanuel Nii Okai Tagoe, among others. She later apprenticed with the Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble. Messam also spent time as an actor and is trained in wellness practices—specifically yoga, massage, breathwork, and nutrition.

Messam has constructed a career as a performer, choreographer, and movement director (a title new to me and one with which I’m now a bit obsessed). Perhaps this initial training in visual arts has lent itself to her unique capacity to use bodies and movement to construct tableaux.

In Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, her work as choreographer and movement director (which included intimacy coordination) contributes to not only one of the best films of 2020, but quite possibly a dance sequence never seen before in a narrative feature. The skanking and wining of the performers in the dimly lit room of the reggae blues party, an underground sanctuary space common of the period in London, is the predominant and affecting performance of the film. One can’t negate the impact of peering in on such intimacy, especially during a time of worldwide lockdown, when the majority of folks haven’t been to a party, let alone a house party, in over a year. It’s completely breathtaking.

A perpetual tinkerer, in her work Messam is less concerned with objects and more with making worlds. In 2020, she also worked as movement director on Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, arguably one of the best series of the last decade. She has several projects coming up, including a return to theater. We conducted our interview via conference call in late February 2021, with Messam at home in London.



You have to understand bodies, an awareness that builds over time, and protect and create a safe space for people. 


Maori Karmael Holmes: What did you want to do as a child and how did you imagine what your future would look like?

Coral Messam: Like most kids, I didn’t have any inhibitions. I was one of those kids that didn’t like clothes, and whenever I heard music, I would just dance in front of the TV. Although I didn’t have the words then, I now realize I was having a spiritual experience. My dad would put on records on a Sunday afternoon—a mixture of different types of music, but mainly reggae because of where I come from. During the summer, music would be blasting out of my house—artists like Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh. I would be in the garden listening and hearing the bass.  

This had an effect on my subconscious, and while I didn’t want to be a dancer per se, I thought that naturally everyone dances. At that point, I wanted to be a fashion designer because my mom was a seamstress. My mother would make the clothes that I designed, and kids in school would ask who made my jacket. I planned on fashion until college; I hadn’t yet learned that dance could be a career.


MKH: Did you see yourself as an artist, or did you feel that as the child of immigrants, you were pushed to choose a solid career path?

CM: I was really lucky. My dad was a country man and came from a trade but told me that I should do what makes me happy. So anything I did, I always felt I had the support of my mom and my dad and not the pressure to be a doctor, nurse, or lawyer. They supported my dreams.

Coral Messam. Photo by Adama Jalloh.

MKH: What was the journey from being a dancer to becoming a movement director?

CM: I started as a dancer then acted for a while. I had a multifaceted background in terms of performance and wanted to bridge the two. This moved me into directing around 2009. Shortly after, I became a dance assistant for a show at the National Theater, Death and the King’s Horseman. The play was to incorporate dance. This shifted my mindset about roles, and I received my master’s degree a few years later because I wanted to understand this practice more. It remains important for me to be fluid.

MKH: Would you explain the difference between a movement director and a choreographer?

CM: The difference is that a choreographer is creating dance sequences set to music. A movement director’s responsibilities are the physical—looking at the physicality of an actor, looking at characterization, and looking at the atmosphere. It goes a bit deeper underneath the skin. For instance, if you have a character from the 1920s, you have to look at the structures of how you can build the character. What are the different ways of approaching them? What methodologies will be used? The role has much more range. You have to adapt and problem-solve. Sometimes this means doing far more than what we are paid to do—I look after the bodies of dancers and actors; I act as a physiotherapist. But now I’m solely here to create art. I can create a safe space, but my job is also to create the physical world and bring the script to life.

MKH: As a movement director, what does the process of preparing for a project look like?

CM: Each project is different, but what I generally do, whether it’s a period piece or a contemporary modern piece, is meet with the director and ask what they want. I do my research and try to disappear into the piece. I’ll turn to the library, books, the internet, and interviews. I also love going to galleries. If it’s a period piece, I want to go to a gallery that has work from that time period and context. I gather some of that physical world into my being. I’m also a massive fan of mood boards, particularly for TV and film. I think they are fundamental, because the medium is visual. I will collect images and cut stories and pictures of memories, and that’s a piece of my process. Lastly, I’ll physicalize what the world is. So if I’m looking at a Nigerian wedding dance, I will physically do the dance—fit it into my skin to understand what that means. What does it mean to the body to move in a particular way?

 
Coral Messam. Photos by Adama Jalloh.


MKH: In that vein, can you talk about the emerging field of intimacy coordination?

CM: Someone asked me whether what we were doing was intimate, and I realized I had been performing and cultivating intimacy as a movement director. I’ve been navigating bodies and their interplay when they’re in a volatile or vulnerable state without necessarily knowing the guidelines. That is where intimacy direction came from. You have to understand bodies, an awareness that builds over time, and protect and create a safe space for people. You can’t assume that they’re going to be OK in the room, especially when looking at things such as kissing or being nude. When you’re a yes person as an artist and teacher, there is an importance in teaching yourself and your actors how to say no and finding the power in that. That can allow you to enjoy the experience of acting in an intimate space, knowing that someone has your back and your body is protected. This enables us to be able to do the work without being vulnerable in a way that is detrimental.

My previous experience with and love for burlesque also taught me about bodily freedom. When I taught burlesque dance classes to women, I took pride in creating a space where they could feel good in their bodies and be kind to themselves. So this evolution makes sense.


MKH: You’ve worked on two of the best projects released in 2020, Lovers Rock from the Small Axe anthology and I May Destroy You. What was it like to work on these two projects and have your work on display in these different ways?

CM: For I May Destroy You, I was the movement director. I coordinated the physical dance pieces. However, my connection to Michaela Coel stems from a show I conceived and directed called Run It Back (2018). It celebrated Black British rave culture and music. In the piece, I was asking questions about how we tackle the N-word in music and the misogyny and homophobia of certain dance styles and genres. She came to the final show and asked me afterwards if I would choreograph for a show of hers. A year passed, and she got in touch with me, and that’s how that relationship began.

As for Steve McQueen, I had been watching him since Hunger in 2008, and at that time, I told myself I had to work with this man. My friend Hazel Holder, who is a voice dialect coach on Small Axe, told me I had to get involved. At this time, I got an email from BBC Productions asking me to meet Steve McQueen, and I called my agent to get this sorted. I was nervous because it was crazy to me that I would be sitting down with him. But he felt like my big brother. I gained even more respect for him because he didn’t ask about my credentials; he already knew them. He asked me about my childhood and its relation to music. I talked to him about my family and my upbringing. I remember my siblings going to these parties and the music my father would play. I wanted to be a part of this project. It was a chance to reawaken the era and indulge and delve into this time. I looked at documentaries and spoke to people as a part of my research. I asked my friends and family what this time felt like for them. Translating the movement and dance style was a privilege—to be a part of this fabric and to be able to help tell this story.

In working with these young actors, I realized they don’t dance like this. Dance has moved on to a dance style where we don’t understand the intimacy, intricacy, and skill that we see in Lovers Rock. It is a skill to quiet the mind, to let you connect with another human being. I’m sure you remember when you hear the dub play, you hear the crackling of the music, and then it starts. That is an experience in itself. They don’t have that. So I tried to bring them back to a time where they could slow down, appreciate the music, and appreciate dancing with another body in a very intimate, respectful, and sometimes dignified way. I played both the observer and academic but also delved into the spiritual side.


What happened in that room was literally beyond us. It was ancestral.




MKH: Can you talk to me about the skanking scene?

CM: With that scene, we had a prior rehearsal. However, on the day we were to shoot, we were told we would immediately do the scene. But I knew I couldn’t ask the artists and supporting actors to go in cold; we had to make it into a spiritual space. So I cleared out the catering area and put a speaker in there, and asked for the actors to feel the music and get into the reverb and the dub. I wanted them to get into the world that Steve McQueen wanted, to let loose and lose their inhibitions in a way we don’t ordinarily see Black bodies do. We needed to physicalize those bodies being free. And what happened in that room went beyond what was taught; what happened in that room was literally beyond us. It was ancestral. I remember watching the screen thinking, What is going on? When the actor takes off his top, I realize that probably didn’t happen in dances, but the actor went to a space that Steve and I could not control. They took it somewhere else. It was spiritual and very humbling at the same time. As we wrapped, I cried. I was blown away.

MKH: In the history of filmmaking and photography, there is space where the spirit and the camera interact. Certain Indigenous people do not want to be captured on film. You hear about how for Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992) or Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), the ancestors show up on set.

CM: And that’s the love and where it comes in.

MKH: What is your dream project?

CM: At this moment, I would love for Steve McQueen to produce Run It Back and make it into a film. I would say, Come, Steve McQueen, come co-produce this—please God, make this happen. I know he’s very interested in Black British rave culture.

MKH: What are you working on next?

CM: I’m working on a short film called For Love, but everything has been postponed due to lockdown. After that, I am working on another project I cannot say that’s coming up in April or May. Then I’ve got to put on a theater production called Paradise. That’s going to be opening at The National in July. I definitely plan on more TV and film projects. One project is a period piece that is supposed to be happening sometime in May. And then I’m going to bring Run It Back to the theater in August.





Coral Messam. Photos by Adama Jalloh.



MKH: Do you see yourself continuing to alternate between film, television, and theater projects forever?

CM: I think so. I’m very interested in the TV and film medium. I was transitioning into that area anyway. I’d been moved by a lot of other influences. There’s contemporary artists and musicians that I’m obsessed with. I’m a massive fan of Melina Matsoukas and the way she shoots; her eye is phenomenal. I love Lena Waithe’s writing. I adore Solange and how she’s mixing dance forms with art and film. I’m into Burna Boy, not [only] because of his music but because of its ethos. I love how he talks about his culture in a very proud way. I’m really interested in Kerby Jean-Raymond. I’m really feeling how he uses his art. I love the meaning behind his label and what he stands for. I’m so moved by that and so satisfied by where he’s going and his work. I’m excited to see Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). I’m just starting to get to know Shaka King’s work, but I’m really interested in this pool of directors.

MKH: There is an unfortunate movement that takes issue with Black British actors “taking” roles from Black American actors—Judas and the Black Messiah and Queen and Slim (2019) come to mind. For the broader public to raise this issue feels challenging. I believe it comes from a scarcity model and a xenophobic place. Can you share your opinions on this?

CM: When I heard Lena and Melina talk about the process of making Queen and Slim, they talked about how that is a mistake. That if we start dividing into “us and them,” then we are separating ourselves. I know Daniel Kaluuya said the other day, when the question came up, he felt Black British actors should listen. We are in this together. I don’t come from the mentality of us taking away from each other. My experience in my dance journey through Jamaica, Cuba, and the US showed me we are a part of the same fabric. We have similar experiences. So no, I’m not going to have that divisive mentality because look at the way hip hop has brought change and influence from America to the UK. We have to look at the bigger picture and be very careful with labels because then we start to dissect ourselves and our power.

MKH: How do you find refuge from our culture of overworking?

CM: I’m really good at that now. I know how important it is, especially for Black women and women of color, to get rid of the notion that self-care is selfish. I love looking after me. I am a massive fan of flowers and candles. I also like to work out, and I have started getting my headphones out and going to the park during lockdown. I vibe out and find solace with the trees. I pretend no one’s watching and find refuge in nature. But I am longing for a beach holiday. I am an island girl, of course. And my family, friends, and laughter are my medicine. I could laugh for days if I could make a living from it. Laughter is where I find my joy—also long baths and stretching. I let my spine be on the floor and let the Earth take me and support me.

I also try to remember to take off the veil of strength as a Black woman. Sometimes you have to say “I can’t be there for you now because I can’t be there for myself. And I have to set these boundaries, because there’s only one me.”



Coral Messam. Photo by Adama Jalloh.


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Maori Karmael Holmes is a curator, filmmaker and writer. She founded BlackStar and serves as its Artistic Director and CEO. Her writing has most recently appeared in The Believer, Blavity.com, Film Quarterly, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance, and We Inspire Me. Maori was a 2019-2020 Soros Equality Fellow and is currently a Visitin Scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania.


Additional transcript editing provided by Hope Steinman-Iacullo.