Dancer Resting: A Talk with Imma Asher
An OUT exclusive interview with the Brooklyn-based performance artist.
September 05 2017 4:28 PM EST
September 05 2017 9:44 PM EST
An OUT exclusive interview with the Brooklyn-based performance artist.
It's clear before we meet that Imma Asher is a perfectionist. When we do, for lunch at Roberta's in Bushwick, the 31-year old performance artist scrutinizes nearly every word on her resume. She's back in New York after two years in London, spent partially working as a creative collaborator of FKA Twigs. The distance she puts between herself and her output is complicated. "I built those experiences as a young boy," Asher tells me. "I started transitioning afterwards. It feels like those accomplishments belong to someone else. As a trans woman, I feel like I haven't done anything that could be deemed worthy of being acknowledged."
Asher was born in Montgomery, Alabama. As a child, she participated in many physical extracurriculars. She was active in gymnastics, which led to suggestions from her coach that she try dance. She struggled with karate, because her movements were too "lyrical." She explains, "I wasn't able to land the positions, I was moving through them. You have to land the positions for it to work." Her family relocated to Atlanta, Georgia when she was in seventh grade, and stayed there throughout her high school years. By that time, she'd decided what she wanted from school had to line up with her outside interests, and her high school years were spent at The Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
Performing arts school was the right fit for Asher, allowing her to experiment, fail, and figure out what she was good at. She appraises her own talents and interests with a zoomed back lens that often turns the conversation away from herself. "I love love love acting, but I don't think I'm that good at it. I think I'm alright. I'm one of those people that you can tell [is] acting," she explains. "I consider good acting to be when someone is able to disintegrate the performative aspect of talking."
Dress: George Keburia
After her high school graduation, she ran away to New York City. She got accepted as an intern at Broadway Dance Center. She remembers, "I used that as my ticket out. I was staying all that summer, for six weeks, at NYU. I got into an off, off-Broadway show, for a fringe festival. I stayed with every single person in the cast while we were rehearsing and performing, so I didn't have to go back to Atlanta." By the time production wrapped, Imma had been accepted on a dance scholarship to The Ailey School.
"I didn't really like it," she shrugs in between bites of margherita pizza. She concedes that this wasn't always the case. She'd seen the company perform the previous year in Atlanta, and thought they were "it." When asked to recall her feelings of getting accepted, she laughs, "Oh my god! The true gag." It was another form of acceptance that quickly dissuaded her. "I saw myself in almost every single guy that was there. I realized I wasn't that unique, just exactly what they're looking for."
She left the company for a postgraduate program in dance that she did "for two years, in the middle of nowhere in Connecticut. It was great." She returned to Atlanta, this time with a contract for the Atlanta Ballet. She was there for several seasons, but began "really noticing how ballet and dance were all gender-specific. I was like, 'I don't want to lift the girls. Why can't we dance side by side? Why can't it just be something that is more about movement.' The company wasn't like that, and that was a big part of me leaving."
She came back to New York immediately to attend Parsons, originally pursuing fashion design. She loved drawing and conceptualizing, but bucked other foundations, wishing early on she could outsource pattern-making. Still, the program led her to the fashion world. Alongside her studies she worked in retail and interned for stylist Beagy Zielinski, working directly with "clients like Tyra Banks, Andre Leon Talley, Missy Elliott. It was incredible, [but] I don't think I'm meant to be a fashion designer."
Asher changed course again, this time to Fine Arts, and stayed on that track through graduation. The last two years of her studies she was immersed in performance art. "Fine Arts was the tool that ruptures everything else. It follows no rules," she tells me, sounding near breathless with gratitude. "Through that, I was able to discover more about my gender. I was able to form in a way that didn't rely on my gender."
Dress: Palomo Spain
She was working as a "sort of graphic designer" for a company called Deos that made cell phone covers with Swarovski elements while applying to grad school, and taking shifts at a kiosk inside Bergdorf Goodman. She cites Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton as influences for this time in her art practice. She was doing regular gallery shows, creating performances that she could "neutralize, and not feel gendered by, or misgendered by." The only school she applied to was Central Saint Martins in London, because of alumni she admired like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. She got her acceptance letter, and moved to the U.K. three months later.
Asher describes graduate school as less fulfilling than her undergraduate career, but being in London allowed for proxy to projects she was excited by. Her ex-boyfriend was the makeup artist on a shoot for Wonderland Magazine, and notified her of a call for dancers. She ended up being featured in much of the editorial, and bonded on set with covergirl FKA Twigs. They became "friends, first and foremost, but I was a creative liaison. I was able to work with her, and help her see her ideas. I was there as a friend, as a support, and she helped me grow a lot. She took me to the Jimmy Fallon show. She took me to Carnegie Hall to do a tribute to Philip Glass. I would do the casting for the dancers."
She also began her transition in London, and it's changed her priorities: "To give yourself the courage to wake up every day, do your makeup, and go out in public? You get a gold star for that." Back in New York, she performs out of necessity, but says she would trade the life she's built for a "normal job." When I ask her what her goals are, she says "My FFS [Facial Feminization Surgery]," which she's fundraising for. "That's it. I would love to do creative direction, but I've put it on the backburner."
She thinks it's "a funny question" to consider what types of experiences she would want to create going forward. She says, "I just don't feel like I'm there. I'm so caught on social media. I have a strong desire to be a part of something. I see other trans girls online. In a way, social media makes my transition not feel realistic. It makes me feel like I'm partaking in this phenomena that will be gone. I'm just waiting for the day hashtag #TransIsBeautiful will not be a thing anymore. What am I going to do? Where will I land?" For now, Asher is moving through it. She knows she's not doing this dance alone.
Photography: Christopher Garcia Valle
Styling: Kristtian Chevere