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By Wendy Perron
The Bessies was a love fest at—and for—the legendary Apollo Theater. Most dancers just love the music it represents—embedded in the sidewalk out front are plaques for James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and lots more. On Monday night, many presenters and awardees rubbed their hands on the “tree of hope,” which is a stump downstage right that was a tradition during the Apollo's famous amateur nights. We cheered tapper Mabel Lee, who had danced on that stage as a chorus girl back in the day. And when Carmen de Lavallade presented an award, she told us that she had danced there with Duke Ellington’s band. (She got a hearty laugh by imitating the Duke greeting people with four kisses and saying, “One for each cheek.”) The fantastic, fabulous, and funny host, Bebe Neuwirth, reminded us that Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Dr. Jimmy Slyde, and Katherine Dunham had danced on the Apollo stage.
Harlem is drenched in dance history. Did you know that choreographers like Jack Cole, Frederick Ashton, and Jerome Robbins came uptown in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s to soak in the shows? Influence has a way of looping around again. For instance, Cole blended jazz, modern, and “ethnic” in countless musicals, influencing choreographers from Alvin Ailey and Talley Beatty to Bob Fosse and Michael Kidd.
Another connection: The documentary films of social dancing that Mura Dehn shot at Harlem’s Savoy in the 1930s and ’40s were used as a source for one of Trisha Brown’s works. At the Bessies, Trisha was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. She responded to the overwhelming ovation by saying, "I wonder if I did something right. I’ll write you all a letter."
And now that the Bessies have expanded into ballet, nominees like Marcelo Gomes, Christopher Wheeldon, and Wendy Whelan were making perhaps their first trip up to 125th Street. (For a complete list of the awardees, nominees, and presenters, click here.) It was like a housewarming to warm the theater up for dance, because Apollo producer Mikki Shepard announced that plans to bring more contemporary dance to the Apollo. (Ballet Hispanico performs there in December.)
It’s not only the Apollo that is bringing more dance to Harlem. Next month Jacques d’Amboise’s National Dance Institute inaugurates its new home on 146th Street near Frederick Douglass Boulevard. NDI, which is all about giving kids the joy of dance, is already going into some NYC public schools, including 3 in Harlem. Its new building is called the Center for Learning and the Arts. Of course the Harlem School of the Arts is already there, and we got a glimpse of its charming students at the Bessies.
Pretty soon, Harlem will be hopping with ballet too because Dance Theatre of Harlem is in the process of re-booting itself under the leadership of Virginia Johnson (who is now on the Bessies committee). So, not only will we be seeing an updated version of DTH, but the students at the DTH school will have professional artists to look up to, and that means enrollment will grow.
We usually think of the Harlem Renaissance as the period in American history. But for the dance world, Harlem is being reborn right now.
From top: The Apollo marquee; Bessies producer Lucy Sexton and host Bebe Neuwirth; Trisha Brown receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. All photos by Christopher Duggan.