Celebrating Immigrants in American Dance

April 15, 2012

The dance world has been immeasurably enriched by dance artists from other countries. It’s obvious that Cuba and Russia have supplied us with a steady stream of wondrous ballet dancers. But just look at the Martha Graham Dance Company: Its dancers hail from Slovenia, Japan, Italy, Ukraine, China, and Taiwan. Cedar Lake dancers are from Brazil, Portugal, Romania, Puerto Rico, and Korea.

Artistic directors of American dance companies are from France (Cedar Lake), Australia (Houston Ballet), Scotland (Joffrey Ballet), Yugoslavia (Festival Ballet Providence), England (Sarasota Ballet), Denmark (NYCB), Italy (Tulsa Ballet), Finland (Boston Ballet), China (Shen Wei Dance Arts) and on and on.

The Vilcek Foundation

has recognized this influx, and two weeks ago gave prizes to immigrant artists in the dance field. (They also gave prizes in biomedical science, which they do every year.) Jan Vilcek, a biomedical teacher and researcher, came to this country from what is now Slovakia. Late in life he became wealthy through his medical research. He wanted to give back to the country that gave him so many opportunities, so he established the Vilcek Prize.

Mikhail Baryshnikov echoed that sense of gratitude when he accepted the Vilcek Prize in dance. “I’m a lucky man,” he said. “I love to work near other artists and participate in their work.” Presumably the $100,000 cash prize will go toward the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which supports residencies and performances of many artists—from both inside and outside the U.S. (Dislosure: I was on the Vilcek jury committee.)


Baryshnikov with Michel Kouakou
. Photo by Liz Ligon, Courtesy Vilcek.

The second prize, the one for “creative promise,” went to Michel Kouakou, from the Ivory Coast. When he accepted the award (a $25,000 cash prize), he talked about the encouragement he got from another choreographer, Victoria Marks. Michel’s group, Daara Dance, has performed at the Bates Dance Festival and internationally. He now teaches at UCLA. Check him out on YouTube, and you’ll see the kind of fascinating hybrid that this kind of cultural crossover brings that I couldn’t begin to describe.

Laura Faure, Wendy Perron, and Victoria Marks. Photo by Patrick Nugent/Camera 1, Courtesy Vilcek.