Over the summer, FKA twigs released her stunning EP and short film, M3LL155X. It’s an unbelievable work of art, one which, as we stated at the time, gets better and better the longer you watch. The video explores stages of womanhood: pregnancy, sexual submission, sexual empowerment, aging. It also touches on twigs’ love of voguing, with a scene featuring a crew of incredible voguers.
As a former professional dancer (see “Video Girl”), the art form is an essential part of twigs’ presentation, in everything from her videos, to her live shows, to her lyrics. She uses dance to communicate so many of her ideas and without this form of expression she’d be an entirely different kind of artist.
The choreography at her shows is beautiful, the emotions evoked, visceral; I’m not embarrassed to say they’ve made me cry. Twigs views dancers as her collaborators, not her back-ups, and she gives them individual showcases. During her Congregata tour, she left the stage for segments at a time, allowing voguers like Benjamin Milan and Deshaun Wesley to take over the performance. In addition to looking insanely cool—do any of this people have bones?—it gave each dancer a platform to shine.
One of the M3LL155X’s standout tracks, “Figure 8,” was unveiled earlier this year with Zane Lowe on Beats 1. Described by Lowe as “an absolute banger,” twigs said the track was inspired by her vogue lessons with dancer Derek Prodigy, with the term “figure eight” serving as a metaphor for vogue’s nonstop hand motions. “That is fucking cool,” replied Lowe.
Derek is fucking cool. Born Derek Auguste, Derek’s stage name is actually Jamel Prodigy, referring to himself as Derek FKA Jamel Prodigy, with the FKA standing for “forever known as” (he told us that media outlets consistently misreport FKA twigs’ name as “formerly known as,” when both he and twigs “are forever”).
Auguste was born in the Bronx, raised in Harlem, and has been dancing since childhood. As a teenager in dance school, he frequently lost out on major roles due to his height (he describes himself as “vertically challenged”). His confidence shaken, Auguste discovered vogue as a means of escape, a way to dance without professional pressure. He has been a dedicated voguer since the age of 17, first joining the House of Blahnik, and then the House of Ebony, which eventually became the House of Prodigy.
Until a little over a year ago, Auguste had given up professional dancing, only voguing on the side. He was working in restaurant marketing when he met twigs at Vogue Knights, a ball in New York City. Auguste didn’t know who she was, but he agreed to give her lessons. They met in the studio the next day, and they’ve been frequent collaborators ever since.
Auguste has since performed with twigs at Congregata, was featured in her “Glass and Patron” video (below), and serves as a choreographer and voguing mentor of sorts. He quit his day job, and now teaches vogue at Broadway Dance Center, where we met. He is incredibly warm and effusive, greeting me with a giant hug. Auguste is passionate about his art, and he speaks rapidly, like he desperately needs to get the words out. We discussed twigs, appropriation, and the culture of voguing.
Derek FKA Jamel Prodigy with FKA twigs on the set of "Glass and Patron"
Noisey: How would you describe your style of vogue?
Derek Auguste: Very confident, very sharp, and serious. I don’t normally change my facial expressions, because if I change my facial expression, it breaks my concentration and everything goes out of whack. I’ll forget a phrase or break the fluidity of a phrase. So I just keep a very straight face.
You performed at Congregata which was the most incredible show I’ve ever seen in my life. How did it come together?
Congregata was a concept that twigs came up with, around the time she came to New York and started workshopping. Congregata, in Latin, means to congregate or come together. And so she wanted to pay homage to all the different styles of music and dance that inspired her. For most artistic people, it’s a collaborative effort, and a lot of people don’t really pay homage to the people they learn from, but not twigs. So she put all her friends together and pulled together the showcase. It pretty much showcased all of us not just as dancers, but as featured artists in the show. So that was her respect back to us.
Could you tell me a little bit about filming the “Glass and Patron” video?
It was cold. [Laughs.]
Yeah where was that filmed?
It was shot in a forest in London. It was really cold that day. But again, working with twigs, she has this maternal energy. She looks at me like a mentor, a big brother, but she’s like my sister. She just kept everyone very comfortable. We just laughed, and we vogued, and we kept our body heat up so we didn’t freeze, but it was very fun. We were on set for about 22 hours. But she’s such a hard worker. There are so many of my friends that have workshopped vogue with a lot of performing artists, recording artists. If you’re on set with a lot of high profile artists, usually dancers don’t even see them until they’re on set. But twigs was in the greenroom with us, just having fun and voguing, and that made the experience much better.
I was reading this article in The Guardian about Paris Is Burning where you were interviewed, and you referenced Madonna and how she sort of represented herself as the Mother of Vogue. How would you say that twigs’ representation of vogue has changed?
A lot of people, at least right now, think that “gay is becoming the new black.” Everybody wants to be alternative. What was taboo at one point is now something everyone wants to be a part of. And I only want to share my art when it’s with people who are truly inspired by it, not with people that are just like, the market is open now. At the time, she [Madonna] didn’t really celebrate, say, Jose Extravaganza the way she needed to. Yeah he was right there next to her, but I wanted more talking points. Twigs allows me to have a voice. You interviewing me right now, I think that’s something that she would want me to do. She wouldn’t want it to seem like she is the vogue mother. She understands that she is still a student, and that she’s learning.
So what do you think of the representation in general? I feel like voguing is having this cultural moment, like in Magic Mike XXL. What do you think of it becoming more mainstream?
Again, I like the fact that it’s being recognized and acknowledged. However, it is pop culture, it’s becoming pop culture. All of these things that come from my community are becoming pop culture, and I think that’s because we are becoming more popular, we are becoming more recognized. It’s about time that people of the LGBTQ community are recognized for their full lives. It feels good to see more of me on television. So I love it, as long as it translates to authenticity. Some girls, when they see me in the street, are like “work honey!” and to me, it’s not an insult, because a lot of people don’t know better, that’s how they think you should greet an openly gay male.
However, I would like it to be a little more authentic. If that’s how you really speak, then do it, but if it’s not really what you give, then don’t do it. It’s all about being transparent and authentic. So if it’s authentic, I love it, if it’s just some marketing angle—“Let’s throw some voguers in there, the gay people will love it!”
It’s a little bit gross.
Rehearsing with twigs. All photos courtesy of Derek FKA Jamel Prodigy
So you’ve been voguing for 16 years in New York. What’s different about the scene today as opposed to when you were first starting out?
Integration. It’s a lot more integrated. The culture is becoming international now, and there’s a lot of females that are budding in the scene. Lots of countries are opening up—there are houses in Sweden, in Russia—so I love that. Back in the day it was such an underground culture that stemmed from ostracization from the outside world, so we created our own celebrities and stars and legends and statements. Now, to see that it’s being recognized, that’s a big change. Because back then you would never see some of the talent in the community teaching at Broadway Dance Center, or voguing onstage with Madonna. It would be like one or two, but now everyone’s doing it. Most of my colleagues are making their bread and butter off of voguing, and back then it was just something fun to do. We were taught that voguing was underground. It wasn’t a career. I wasn’t taught to take my art seriously. So meeting twigs, an authentic creator—for her to appreciate my craft, that’s what made me leave my desk job. I’m a performer, and I’m a creator, so it feels good to just dance.
Derek Auguste is working on his own show, a combination of dance and visual art, set to debut next year.
Jocelyn Silver is a writer living in NYC. Follow her on Instagram cos she doesn't really use Twitter.