For the film, a collaboration with the composer Everett Saunders and the cinematographer Suzi Sadler, Brooks was also thinking about “Moby-Dick.” But the major focus was the Black body throughout history.
Whales, “because of their blubber, carry all these toxins,” Brooks said. “There’s this whole other aspect to it that brought me to how so many Black bodies were dying from Covid and the amount of toxins that Black bodies carry, whether it’s from trauma or living near brownfields or the cost of poverty. I started feeling that the whale body is very similar to the Black body.”
For Ali Rosa-Salas, the director of programming at Abrons, a virtual work has its advantages with such somber subject matter: The viewer is in charge. “You can pause when necessary, you can play, you can come back to it,” she said. “Processing grief and all the feelings that are to emerge associated with what Mayfield’s research is going to bring up necessitates a slowness.”
Brooks, who calls their practice Improvising While Black, an umbrella that encompasses their teaching as well as choreography and dancing, finds connections between “Whale Fall” and “Letters to Marsha,” a previous work based on danced and written notes to Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender activist whose body was found in the Hudson River in 1992.
“I think a lot about her body in the Hudson River and the cellular kind of existence of bodies in water,” Brooks said. “How even if the body disintegrates, the cells can still survive” and the idea that “her molecular structure may have communed with some of the whales that showed up in the bay last year.”
Recently Brooks, 50, spoke about the solitary life of an artist during the pandemic, the Black body, whales and, somehow, the point of it all: that in decomposition, there is life. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.