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."
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: