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Osamu Inoue, courtesy Harris

It makes sense that Dance Magazine long ago dubbed Rennie (Lorenzo) Harris the "high priest of hip hop." When the often shy, Philadelphia-born choreographer founded his company Rennie Harris Puremovement in 1992, he planted a prodigious seed in the dance world. Then and now, Harris' mission has been to examine, preserve and share the culture of hip hop, decisively away from the commercially exploited view.

Harris remembers that when he started in the '90s, it was rough; a lot of his work was direct, so picketing and policing RHPM shows was the norm. But that time also harkened the birth of his well-thought-out launch of street dance onto the concert stage. There was the politically charged March of the Antmen, the pointed look at brotherhood and neighborhoods in P-Funk, and the tour de force Students of the Asphalt Jungle. His chilling solos, Lorenzo's Oil and Endangered Species, screamed chaos, contradiction and culture. In the 2000s, Rome & Jewels, his first evening-length work, garnered a Bessie Award. Facing Mekka followed, celebrating women of hip hop.

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On Sunday, the dance world lost a gentle giant: Dr. Charles R. Davis, known to most as "Baba Chuck," the man who bridged the world of African dance and drumming between Africa and America.

Davis, 80, died from complications due to cancer. As founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble (1983) and DanceAfrica (1977), he'd become everyone's mentor and teacher. He stood an impressive 6' 5'', and always had room for one more hug.

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Magazine

A new chapter

 

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DTH.

 

The dancers of the new Dance Theatre of Harlem Company are psyched. “We’re pumped,” says one. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for a really long time,” says another. “I’m really excited,” says a third. The group, currently on tour, will have its New York debut in April at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.

 

After an eight-year hiatus when the performing company was forced to shut down in 2004, DTH returns with much of the same passion that the institution was built on. In 2009, founding member and former principal dancer Virginia Johnson was named artistic director, taking the reins from legendary co-founder Arthur Mitchell.

 

Johnson is passionate about the company and speaks intimately about the early years when it was like a home. In those days, DTH was just about the only place where young African-Americans like Johnson could dream of becoming a ballet dancer. Now she is giving back.

 

“My mission is to continue to give people the access to something that they believe in—dancers of color who don’t fit in but who will work to create something for themselves.” In a 2011 interview with Dance Magazine, Johnson said that she’d like the new company “to be a diverse company with a majority African-American. We were never exclusively African-American, even in the early days. We were about providing opportunity, because back then no one was hiring us…Now, people want to hire us, so I’m going to be in competition” (see “Dance Matters,” April 2011).

 

Virginia Johnson: ”The best part of my life is watching these people blossom.” Photo: Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DTH.

The number of blacks in ballet history is small, but topping the list are Janet Collins and Arthur Mitchell. Collins broke ground in 1951 as the first black prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera, and in 1955 Mitchell was the first black dancer to join New York City Ballet full-time. Mitchell would debunk the appalling notion, held by many at the time, that there could never be black ballet dancers. In 1969 he set out to prove that “there are black dancers with the physique, temperament, and stamina, and everything else it takes to produce what we call the ‘born’ ballet dancer.” At DTH, Mitchell introduced the world to such luminaries as Keith Saunders, Robert Garland, Charmaine Hunter, and Johnson.

 

But after more than 30 years of wowing audiences around the world, the company ran into insurmountable financial difficulties and had to go on hiatus. The DTH school, under Endalyn Taylor and overseen by executive director Laveen Naidu, never shut its doors, though. And that’s fortunate for many reasons, including that about half the new company members either trained at the school’s Professional Training Program (PTP) or are from the DTH Ensemble, begun in 2008 by Mitchell and Naidu and directed by Saunders.

 

The youthful Ensemble became the physical face of DTH, appearing at colleges and other venues. Meanwhile, Johnson, Naidu, and the board began preparations for the debut of the new company. This, Johnson notes, gave the dancers time to improve technically and hone their artistry. Instead of large-scale productions, smaller pieces, according to Johnson, gave the company the opportunity of “freedom with new works.” In reconstituting DTH, she has scaled back with a keen eye to the realities of our times: There are now 18 members instead of 44 as in the original company.

 

The buzz and the challenge were again ignited. But for Johnson, in the end, the auditions were “disappointing because it was difficult to find dancers of color at the level needed.” Quoting Mitchell, she says, “They had to hit a high C. If they couldn’t do it, then this wasn’t really the right place.” Dancers who were finally chosen hail from across the country, as well as Sierra Leone, Australia, and Brazil. Some have danced with companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet, BalletMet Columbus, and the Australian Ballet.

 

“My heart still bleeds for the ones who didn’t make it,” says Johnson. It was “tough, especially since DTH is about inspiring young dancers.” Johnson concludes, however, that “we are on the path we began. We said we would bring the company back in three years, and we have. We will bring DTH to its full glory—but it’s not a done deal.” Sincerely she adds, “The best part of my life is watching these people blossom. I’m so proud of them.”

 

Da’Von Doane (foreground) in Gloria, by DTH resident choreographer Robert Garland, at Vineyard Arts Project. Photo: Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DTH.

 

And who are the dancers of the new company? Dance Magazine spoke with three of them—all as committed and enthusiastic as Johnson.

 

With her long, elegant line, Gabrielle Salvatto, 23, had been training at DTH since she was 7. A Bronx-bred girl, she also attended the School of American Ballet, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and the Juilliard School. After graduating Juilliard, she joined DTH’s PTP program for a year. Salvatto remembers the long company audition process in New York well. “I think they were surprised because so many dancers showed up, so they had to break up the audition into two days.” Though it was always a dream for Salvatto to join DTH, now with her debut looming she jokes, “I’m freaking out a little bit.” One reason could be that this is her first time dancing a principal role. Salvatto says this debut is humbling because she sees herself as “a role model for young dancers of color.”

 

Da’Von Doane, 24, was a standout member of the DTH Ensemble. Unquestionably a strong stage presence, Doane absorbs the most intricate movement, molds it to his liking, and delivers it with verve. Growing up in Maryland, Doane was one of very few dancers of color on track to become a classical dancer at the Salisbury Dance Academy. He also studied at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, and the Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre. In 2008, he joined the DTH Ensemble. Now as a member of the professional company, he hopes to help retain the legacy. He says he “wants people to see DTH as the leading organization it was before.”

 

Ashley Murphy is an exquisite chameleon in her ability to effortlessly shift from an elegant épaulement in classical works to sharp and piercing angles in contemporary works. For Murphy, 27, DTH was always a destination. She remembers seeing a DTH performance when she was only 3 and being sure that that was the place she wanted to be. Years later, seeing Mitchell and Johnson on YouTube cemented her ambition. A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, she was a member of Louisiana Dance Theatre and later trained in New York at the Joffrey Ballet School and The Ailey School. In 2002 she joined DTH’s Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble, a group that performed in local schools. Murphy rose through the ranks as a member of PTP and graduated to DTH proper under Mitchell for one year before it disbanded in 2004. She returned to join the Ensemble when it was founded in 2008. Excelling in a range of roles, she was nominated for a Clive Barnes Award last fall.

 

For the New York debut, Johnson says, “I want to bring the company into the 21st century.” She promises an eclectic repertoire that includes the Balanchine classic Agon (1957), the Black Swan pas de deux staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, and contemporary works, including resident choreographer Robert Garland’s Return (1999) and Gloria (2012), Helen Pickett’s When Love (2012), Donald Byrd’s Contested Space (2012), and a restaging of Ailey’s The Lark Ascending (1972). 

 

Finally, notes Johnson, The story that I hope Dance Theatre of Harlem will tell again is of the power of the arts to transform lives. We look forward to inspiring a new generation of dancers.”

 

 

Charmaine Patricia Warren writes on dance for The Amsterdam News and teaches at The Ailey School, Ailey/Fordham, Hunter College, and Kean University.

 

 

 

 

The history goes like this. African Americans in dance have had to gather on their own to celebrate the black tradition in American dance. Modern dance pioneers Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield held the “First Negro Dance Recital in America” in 1931, and Guy and Alison Burroughs organized a second one, called “Negro Dance Evening,” in 1937. Much later, Alvin Ailey started his company of primarily black dancers in 1958, and Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook formed Dance Theatre of Harlem for black ballet dancers in 1969. Brook­lyn Academy of Music hosted a momentous three-day festival of blacks in dance in 1983.

 

And in 1988, the International Association of Blacks in Dance assembled to follow in this tradition. Twenty-two years later, IABD is now a force that continues to make this happen. The IABD annual conference has become a forum where African Americans can ask questions and not only get answers but help—particularly in terms of getting visibility. This kind of nurturing is what IABD has always been about.

 

But even more than that, for young African American artists who perform at an IABD conference, it is almost sure that they will make a connection that will help launch their career. This is not by chance: It is part of the mission of the conference to continue the artistic lineage. And it is part of the spirit of the community that older artists give a hand to younger ones.

 

Two examples are Camille A. Brown and Rennie Harris. Both were “seen” at an IABD conference, got work, and their careers took off. Brown showed a piece at IABD in 2006 and caught the eye of Ailey director Judith Jamison, who quickly commissioned her. The result was The Groove to Nobody’s Business (2007), which put a different look on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Clearly influenced by urban cool, Brown re-created a ride on the New York City subway with familiar characters, whose daily grind comes through in movement. The tempo is quick and the energy is highly theatrical. Brown’s terse yet fluid movement digs deep into the ground but soars with equal lilt as the cast plays musical chairs, vying for a seat. Brown was instantly recognized as a new voice on the scene (see “Quick Q & A,” Dec. 2007).

 

Today Brown speaks of how IABD embraced her. “The founders of IABD encourage you to believe that you can do this,” she says. “The love that we received was immeasurable. IABD gives you the space to grow.”

 

Harris’ story is similar. Baba Chuck Davis, founder of DanceAfrica, met Harris at an IABD conference and invited his then three-year-old company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, to present Students of the Asphalt Jungle for DanceAfrica 1995 at Brooklyn Academy of Music. This was not traditional African dance. Here there were bulked up, bare-chested, sneaker-wearing men of RHPM in loose-fitting white pants who ravaged the stage with their brand of hip-hop-meets-traditional-African-dance. They jumped like the Maasai, and they balanced on their heads and spun; they isolated their movement like East Africans, or they snaked through popping and locking. The BAM crowd went wild.

 

Harris reflected on being introduced to the concert dance arena through IABD. “This was a major paradigm shift for my company,” he says. “We were proud to be black, but we were like most hip hop heads at the time: We only claimed ourselves; we didn’t acknowledge our African lineage. I became determined to research and educate the masses about our heritage through hip hop. IABD provides an opportunity to continue the legacy of black expression within American culture.”

 

These exciting beginnings for Brown and Harris brought them a great deal of visibility. Others have followed similar paths; for instance, Christopher Huggins, whose dynamic Enemy Behind the Gates was seen at a 2001 IABD conference. Huggins has subsequently created pieces for many companies, including Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and Louisiana Dance Theatre, as well as IABD regulars Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and Ailey II.

 

Choreographers must be IABD members for at least two years before they are considered for a festival, and often spend much of that time preparing by creating, rehearsing and testing their works. Then they send in a reel of their work, and if chosen (by committee), they participate in the festival by performing, teaching, and/or speaking on a panel. Once there, this is the place to network, share, and be empowered by African American dance icons that they may have only read about. Previously celebrated legends include Katherine Dunham, Carmen de Lavallade, Donald McKayle, and Eleo Pomare. Camille Brown, who was a student at University of North Carolina School of the Arts when she first attended, says she was afforded the rare opportunity “to be in the presence of legends.”

 

At the helm, from day one, was founder and artistic director of Philadanco Joan Myers Brown. Back in 1988 she was awarded $5,000 from the Pew Charitable Trusts to make her dream a reality. Myers Brown made good on her dream when approximately 80 black dance professionals—including Lula Washington, Louis Johnson, Denise Jefferson (director of The Ailey School), the late Jeraldyne Blunden (Dayton Contemporary Dance Company), Cleo Parker Robinson, and Ann Williams (Dallas Black Dance Theatre)—attended this first IABD conference.

 

Each year attendees take master classes, go to provocative political and educational panels, and participate in intergenerational dialogues—plus they get to network and party. Panel discussions cover a range of topics, including the history of African American dance, dance in historically black colleges, the business of dance, issues of artistry, and teaching methods.

 

The theme of this year’s conference, co-sponsored by Philadanco and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is “Back to Basics: Strengthening our Institutions for a New Generation.” From January 13 to 17, Rennie Harris, Zane Booker, Gaynell Sherrod, Kim Bears-Bailey, Karen Brown, and Germaine Goodson will lead classes. Attendees can expect the midnight African dance class with Baba Chuck Davis, plus a late-night hip hop class. The rich array of panel topics includes the goals of presenters in the electronic age, how women of the diaspora are contributing to the arts, career transitions, and alternative medical care for men.

 

An evening titled “Meet the Philadelphians” will present Rennie Harris Puremovement, Kulu Mele African American Dance & Drum Ensemble, Zane Booker, Eleone Dance Theatre, and Danco 2. A different program includes Urban Bush Women, Philadanco, Dallas Black Dance, Lula Washington Dance Company from Los Angeles, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble from Denver, and Camille A. Brown.

 

From 80 participants in 1988, to up­wards of 600 participants today who converge from across the country—and from Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean—the conference continues to grow. Over the years, the conferences have been held in Los Angeles, Denver, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Dallas, Dayton, New York, and Toronto.

 

As Myers Brown looks towards the future, she affirms, “I’m still amazed that the conference continues. Outsiders don’t see or feel the need, but we know there is a need.”

 

 

Charmaine Patricia Warren is on faculty at the Ailey/Fordham BFA program and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. 

 

Pictured: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Camille A. Brown's The Groove to Nobody's Business. Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy AAADT

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