Firebird photo of Nejla Yatkin by Enki Andrews
Nejla Yatkin Credit: Enki Andrews

The city is heating up thanks to Nejla Yatkin. As part of the Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks series, the 2023 Guggenheim Fellow and Chicago-based choreographer will engage visitors in 16 interactive pop-up performances featuring Firebird dances and bird movement meditations from June 7 to July 1. She’ll also lead four family-friendly workshops in preparation of the Firebird Parade on July 8. Click here for details, and read on to get to know Nejla in this exclusive Rebellious interview.

Janet Arvia: What key elements inform your work?

Nejla Yatkin: First and foremost, I draw inspiration from the human body itself. It serves as the fundamental instrument of expression, existing since the dawn of humanity and predating verbal communication. The body holds immense power and significance in my work, allowing me to explore a range of movements and expressions that transcend cultural boundaries.

Nature and natural phenomena also play a crucial role in shaping my artistic vision. I find inspiration in the diverse landscapes and elements found across the world. The beauty and rhythms of nature find their way into my choreography, adding a layer of organic and elemental expression to my dances.

As someone with a multi-cultural background, I am fascinated by the ways in which distinct cultures combine. This curiosity drives me to explore diverse geographic locales and engage with various dance traditions. I have received training in European Dance Theatre, American Modern dance, Butoh Dance, Middle Eastern dance forms, acting techniques, and Pantomime, all of which inform my artistic palette.

Moreover, history serves as a rich source of inspiration for me. I believe that by understanding and honoring the past, we can create meaningful work that resonates in the present and future…In recent times, I have delved into reflecting on my nomadic ancestry, which has greatly influenced my creative work. Drawing from my pastoral nomadic heritage, I embody the spirit of travel and regeneration, moving from place to place and sowing creative seeds. This nomadic approach has allowed me to intimately connect with diverse communities around the world, enriching my choreographic tapestries with multiple cultural influences.

JA: What are the benefits of connecting communities through dance?

NY: Dance enhances social intelligence by promoting meaningful interactions and building strong interpersonal connections. When we dance with others, we engage in a shared language that transcends verbal communication. This fosters empathy, understanding, and collaboration, as we synchronize our movements, share emotions, and express ourselves collectively. The joy and exhilaration experienced through dance create a sense of unity and togetherness, creating a unique form of human connection.

JA: Why is it advantageous to perform outside in parks opposed to inside of a traditional theater?

NY: By embracing the outdoors, performances reach a wider audience, foster community participation, create a deeper connection to nature, unleash artistic possibilities, and enhance community cohesion. But also it goes deeper than that because dance has an ancient and profound connection to nature, embodying its rhythms, patterns, and wisdom throughout history.

From ancient civilizations to indigenous cultures, dance has served as a celebration of nature, a way to connect with its essence, mourn its losses, and seek wisdom from its elements…Circular movements symbolize the cyclical nature of life, mirroring the cycles of day and night, the changing seasons, and the cycles of birth and rebirth. Curves emulate the graceful forms of rivers, plants, and animal movements, capturing the organic flow and beauty found in nature. Lines reflect the structure and symmetry seen in landscapes, representing the order and balance of the natural world. Waves embody the undulating rhythms of the ocean, symbolizing both its power and tranquility. Spirals, reminiscent of natural phenomena like seashells and galaxies, evoke a sense of growth, evolution, and interconnectedness.

Through dance, we tap into the inherent wisdom of nature, connecting with its energy and unlocking a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Dancing in harmony with nature allows us to rediscover our place within the intricate web of life, reawakening our senses, and cultivating a profound sense of awe and respect.

JA: What do you hope people come away with after interacting with the Firebird dances and parade?

NY: I believe that even the tiniest acts of connection hold immense power, both for ourselves and for others. Through the medium of movement, I strive to create these connections and offer them to the world. By engaging in these tiny acts of movement together, we can create a ripple effect of connection and spread it to others.

Ultimately, my aspiration is for people to feel a sense of profound connection, a vibrant sense of community, and a joyous celebration of life after interacting with the Firebird dances and parade. I hope that through these experiences, individuals will discover their own inner joy and tap into the creative power that resides within them.

Ms. Arvia is a Rebellious columnist and movie critic; entertainment ghostwriter; award-winning artist; and grant-winning filmmaker.