Markeith Wiley learns by osmosis. The dancer/choreographer freely indulges his appetite for art and culture, constantly redefining himself.
“I’m not just Markeith,” he says. “I’m also black, a vegetarian, an atheist, a cook, a writer.” His origins as a dancer are equally eclectic. “Everything I acquired growing up goes into my style—modern, hip-hop, theatre. Everything.”
That “intersectionality,” as he calls it, is the inspiration for a solo piece he’s working on—his first in six years. It’s an intensely personal exploration of identity that emphasizes Wiley’s hybrid nature, blending hip-hop’s rhythmic athleticism with the fluidity of modern dance.
Until recently, Wiley had been more focused on his role as artistic director of the New Animals, a dance company formed largely from his cohort at Cornish College of the Arts. In addition to teaching dance, Wiley has choreographed for theatre groups Washington Ensemble Theatre, Saint Genet and the Satori Group. He’s danced at Spectrum, Velocity, On the Boards and with the Atomic Bombshells at the Triple Door. His vast, genre-spanning vocabulary of movement makes him a popular collaborator—and his easygoing nature doesn’t hurt.
Wiley started performing young. Raised in Long Beach, Calif., he began breakdancing in the second grade, joined choir in junior high, and then auditioned for the school musical at his girlfriend’s behest. “I was breaking and doing musical theatre at the same time,” he says. “I would say to my friends, ‘I’ll be back in two and a half hours.’ Then one day they followed me. I was kick-ball-changing, and they were like, ‘Why are you here?’”
At 18, Wiley discovered classical and modern dance and shifted his attention away from musical theatre. “I saw this piece—I wish I could travel back in time because I probably wouldn’t like it—it was called I Bleed Now and it was all set to the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack. It was super moving. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’”
His first ballet class at 19 years old was tough; he was learning alongside women who’d been training since toddlerhood. “But then I realized I don’t need that,” Wiley says. “I can still make dance, I can still make something of value.” His first serious attempt at modern dance choreography came during his time at Riverside Community College.
“I just dove in and kept going,” he says. “I knew I had to figure out what my voice may or may not be.” After a successful Cornish audition, Wiley moved to Seattle seven years ago, studying dance, choreographing two student productions a year and teaching hip-hop at various Seattle studios. By his junior year, Wiley and his friend Joe Sodd III had emerged as standouts among their classmates. “People were approaching us and saying, ‘If you make a dance company, I want to be in it,’” Wiley says.
That summer, Sodd was murdered in his hometown of Minneapolis. Wiley dropped out of school—he couldn’t bear to be there—but returned the following year. Now the New Animals, the company Sodd and Wiley had planned to lead together, is in its fifth year. Last fall, they performed their third evening-length show, Tre, created in memory of Sodd. An emotional closure, certainly.
Despite his obsession with dance, Wiley would often rather see theatre, read a book or attend an art opening than see a work of dance. An openness to new ideas influences his ever-evolving aesthetic. One particular experience, he says, changed his life forever.
Wiley was working on a project with choreographer Alice Gosti, and she wanted her performers to write about an emotional time in our lives. Wiley wrote about the woman he’d moved with to Seattle, about falling out of love with her and being unable to tell her.
“I had to perform that,” he says. “That was eye-opening, life-changing. That’s when people saw me as a performer, not just a dancer. Alice pulled that out of me, and now I don’t know how else to perform.”
The New Animals are headed back into the studio this month to start work on their next evening-length show. When discussing the company, Wiley is in awe: “I’m taking people who have this refined training that I lack, meeting them halfway and making these beasts. Making these new animals.”
Hometown Long Beach, Calif.
Greatest inspiration My kith and my kin
Achilles’ heel Affection and booze
Current obsession Food, Chance the Rapper, James Blake, Dayna Hanson
Photo by Mike Hipple