Shaneeka Harrell brings Cassius Clay’s time in Miami to life with new dance theater piece

Shaneeka Harrell rehearsing “Cassius Clay.”
Shaneeka Harrell rehearsing “Cassius Clay.”

Petite and compact, dancer and choreographer Shaneeka Harrell exudes power. Her movements write visual verses and make her body a vessel for stories wanting to be told.

And this month, she embodies the spirit of Cassius Clay before he became Muhammed Ali, interpreting his life and times in Miami leading up to the historic fight against Sonny Liston. Harrell’s one-woman dance theater show, From the Corner of Cassius Clay, will be presented Thursday as part of the O, Miami poetry festival.

Born and raised in Miami, Harrell, 36, performed in New York with leading modern dance artists Urban Bush Women and Bill T. Jones, dancing on Broadway and touring the world. She returned to Miami in 2010 and became interested in Cassius Clay after learning that he once ran on the same streets where she grew up.

“I actually didn’t know one thing about Muhammad Ali except for the fact that he was a boxer, and I would see him on T-shirts during black history month,” Harrell says. “I stumbled across a [WLRN produced] documentary called Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami and … I was just amazed. I was like wait, what? He won his heavyweight championship at the Miami Beach Convention Center? Oh wow, he lived across the bridge? It’s my home, it’s the streets that I know!”

Harrell, who grew up in Carol City, began dancing in the magnet program at Norland Middle School in Miami Gardens, continuing at the New World School of the Arts. She left Miami in 1998 to attend the Philadelphia College of Art. After graduating, she spent a year with Urban Bush Women, a gutsy, all-female African-American dance theater troupe, before joining up with Jones, another leading African-American contemporary dance artist. Not only was Harrell a member of his Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, she worked with Jones on his Off-Broadway musicals, The Seven and Super Fly, and on his groundbreaking Fela!, which tells the story of the revolutionary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.

“I was with the company for eight years, and then when I finished, I was an assistant choreographer to him,” Harrell says. “I was in my 20s when I was in the company, and I toured all around the world: Asia, Africa, Europe, South America.”

She returned to Miami in late 2010 to discover a city in cultural transformation, with a burgeoning arts district in Wynwood, a new performing arts center and Art Basel Miami Beach as an anchor to it all. It inspired her enough to stay.

In 2014, Harrell teamed up with Letty Bassart, another local choreographer who heads Thought Loom — a residency program to help Miami artists create new work — to begin developing a piece inspired by Clay. Harrell delved deeper into the story of the boxer’s time in Miami, reading books, watching films and interviewing sources, even studying boxing with a protégé of Clay’s trainer, Angelo Dundee. And she found a kinship with his exquisite movement.

“Just to watch him in the ring was something beautiful,” she says. “The way that he moved was just so lyrical, so smooth. … His agility was very gorgeous to me; it was different from what I had seen boxing to be. He danced! He danced circles around dudes.”

Combining original text, video and art by collaborator Josieu Jean, sound design by DJ Le Spam and direction by Teo Castellanos (another Carol City native), From the Corner of Cassius Clay doesn’t aim to be a biography. Instead, it’s a glimpse of the boxer’s time in Miami in the early 1960s, before he became Muhammad Ali, during a vibrant time for black Miami.

Pride in Miami stands out in the piece. “One of the things that is exciting for me about O, Miami, is that [it is] also all about the Miami story, how they’re about surprising everybody in Miami with poetry and with the poetry of the city itself,” says Bassart. “With Muhammad Ali, he was constantly surprising everyone who came into contact with him, which I think makes sharing this piece so magical.”

O, Miami founder and director P. Scott Cunningham agrees. “The key thing for me about the festival is that it’s a celebration of Miami first and foremost,” he says. “The real point of the festival is for people to really engage.”

Mixing other artistic genres into the festival is one way to do that.

“It’s one of the main strategies we have for expanding the audience for poetry … to prove to the people how flexible poetry is and how modern poetry is interacting with other art forms,” Cunningham says. “We’ve always been super excited to do anything with contemporary dance.”

Just as Cassius Clay transformed himself into Muhammed Ali here, Harrell is re-inventing her artistic identity back in her home town: “When I came home, all I wanted to do, and all I still want to do, is to talk about Miami. I want the rest of the world to know about Miami. If I can do that through my work, I will be satisfied.”

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.

If you go

What: “From the Corner of Cassius Clay” by Shaneeka Harrell

When: 7 and 9 p.m. Thursday

Where: The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami

Info: $10, www.omiami.org.