Goodbye, Baba Chuck
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.
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, he came to dance after taking classes at Howard University, studying with pioneers such as Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and the 6' 6"-tall performer Geoffrey Holder, with whom he learned to embrace his height. Baba Chuck later danced with companies formed by Babatunde Olatunji, Eleo Pomare and Bernice Johnson, among others. In 1964, he saw the Sierra Leone National Dance Company perform at New York World's Fair, then in 1968 formed the Chuck Davis Dance Company.
Davis taught African Dance & Drumming classes at ADF
In 1977 when he took his company to Nigeria. This marked the beginning of years of travel and study, and the beginning of DanceAfrica at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mikki Shepard, the original producer of DanceAfrica recalls, "Chuck Davis built a village. From the very beginning, DanceAfrica was never meant to be just a festival of dance, music, and vendors. For Chuck Davis it was always about building and nourishing community, exchanging ideas, building knowledge, and celebrating and passing on the cultural traditions of Africa and the African diaspora while creating new traditions. The heartbeat of Chuck Davis's village is dance and music."
Baba Chuck was an endearing, yet powerful force to everyone from his colleagues at the International Association of Blacks in Dance, to the very young dancers at BAM/Restoration. Denise Saunders Thompson, president and CEO of IABD remembers: "He helped lay the groundwork for IABD and made sure all benefited from what he had to give. At the close of every conference, he would bring us together in a circle, made us join hands, and repeat "Peace, love, respect ... for everybody!" A mantra that is repeated at every DanceAfrica performance."
For his decades of unwavering service, among many accolades, Baba Chuck received awards from Dance Magazine and The Bessies, plus an honorary doctorate from Medgar Evers College. He is cited as one of America's "Irreplaceable Dance Treasures" by the Dance Heritage Coalition, American Dance Festival dedicated its 2015 season to him, and in 2016, BAM established the "Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship."
Three years ago, Abdel R.Salaam was named Baba Chuck's successor to DanceAfrica. Salaam says, "Forty years ago, Chuck brought many of us together to demonstrate how important the practice of African dance and music are to the living intelligence of African-Americans. He truly believed that dance and music is cultural medicine that has a universal value."
True to form, dance and music remained his medicine until his last days. After one last visit with Baba Chuck, Saunders Thompson says, "We just listened to his stories. Though he was frail, he was lucid and jovial, talking about his next choreographic work, travels to DanceAfrica, his clothes, and even his false teeth. And when I kissed him on his cheeks, and held his face in my hands, his eyes said that everything was going to be all right. I was comforted by his faith."
Baba Chuck's legacy lives on in so many of us.
"Chuck Davis realized his big vision and leaves a unique legacy in dance. Unique because he leaves behind a village of people who don't just attend or perform in DanceAfrica, they own it," Shepard says.
"The love Chuck and I shared is like that of father and son," says Salaam. For DanceAfrica, now in its 40th year, he adds, "As I continue to build on his legacy and trace a path of my own, I will always be true to his vision."
We knew that New York downtown dance darling Okwui Okpokwasili was a big deal. Critics and audiences have been raving about her dance-theater works for years, and the new documentary about her, Bronx Gothic, has attracted the attention of the larger arts community.
But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine she'd show up in a Jay Z video, along with flex dancer Storyboard P. Though we're slightly less surprised to see Storyboard in Jay Z's "4:44" video than we were to see Okpokwasili, we're jazzed that two of our favorites are featured on such a huge platform. (We're also feeling #blessed that we didn't have to subscribe to Tidal to watch this.)
Throughout the years, choreographer Seán Curran has worked with a diverse array of talented collaborators—from Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus to the the Grammy Award–winning King's Singers. But perhaps none are as meaningful as his most recent group of co-choreographers: At-risk teens from the after school program and nonprofit The Wooden Floor.
Curran has been in residence with The Wooden Floor since June, where he's worked with students to build choreography based on their lives and communities:
Their creation will be shown July 20-22 at The Wooden Floor Studio Theatre in Santa Ana, California.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary spend every day making their hard work look effortless and graceful both in the studio and onstage. That's exactly what makes them the perfect spokesmodels for the dance-inspired activewear line, Belle Force.
To celebrate our 90th anniversary, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
This image was captured during a 1978 New York City Ballet tour that took the company to Copenhagen—home turf for Adam Luders (right), who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and briefly danced with the company before joining NYCB as a principal dancer in 1975. Next to Luders is (of course) George Balanchine, in conversation with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. And looking on with a smile? NYCB's current ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
On March 8, 2016, Rami Shafi found himself inspired to film an impromptu dance video of his best friend, Aaron Moses Robin, improvising on Gay St. in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thus was born Pedestrian Wanderlust, a collection of dance videos that has grown to include a monthly improv jam.
Shafi works with anyone who wants to take part in the project, filming videos in locations chosen by the dancers and later adding music. The videos are shot on Shafi's iPhone in one take and, other than the starting and ending points, are entirely improvised. The editing afterwards—including the music choice—is minimal. "I don't like to edit too much. It's just what it is," says Shafi. "I usually can do the editing on the train ride home."
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.