Dance in the Age of Black Lives Matter
Dance performances often encourage audiences to escape reality. But on July 7, dance forced the audience at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival to face it. During a performance of And Still You Must Swing, tap dancers Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant stopped mid-show, near tears, and acknowledged the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In the previous 72 hours, Sterling and Castile had become the latest in a string of black men killed by police officers. At a candid post-performance conversation, fellow dancer Jason Samuels Smith told the audience, “These are our extended family members, our cousins, our uncles, our brothers, our fathers…You feel that pain." The evening also included guest artist Camille A. Brown performing the buzzard lope, a ritual that was once danced by slaves. “It was extremely hard," she says, but “understanding the power of movement rooted in the African-American experience made me feel proud of the history that lives in our bodies."
Pride and pain have always been intertwined for black dancers and choreographers in America. Dance has sometimes eloquently expressed this dichotomy. It has also at times reflected the country's indifference to ongoing racial violence and discrimination, allowing discourse to lean on the wobbly pillar of “diversity" instead. But as the Black Lives Matter movement has returned race to the center of the national debate, it has galvanized some artists of color and challenged white dance audiences to confront their discomfort with racial issues.
Renaldo Maurice rehearsing Untitled America. PC Jim Lafferty.
The visibility of Black Lives Matter paired with the echo chamber of social media and the heightened debate of an election year—particularly one that was something of a referendum on the nation's first black president—can make this moment feel unique. In some ways it is, simply because, as Hope Boykin, a longtime dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, explains, “We're present in it, we feel it." Brown adds, “The current sociopolitical climate makes this work even more relevant to audiences."
But both Boykin and Brown quickly add that using dance to respond to racial issues is not new. “Mr. Ailey founded his company in 1958 in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, when incredible speeches were being made, while people were marching across bridges, while people were being beaten and hosed down and had food thrown at them at lunch counters," says Boykin. Brown points to a number of her contemporaries and predecessors who have documented racism and represented the black experience over decades, including Ronald K. Brown, Nora Chipaumire, Marlies Yearby, Eleo Pomare, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.
Whether in the past or today, addressing this contentious national issue can be a creatively daunting task. But transposing the anger, pain and sadness of the outside world onto the body, and then onto the stage, is a burden that dance has embraced. “That's the very foundation of modern dance and this company, to address the issues of the day," says Ailey's artistic director Robert Battle. The company's 2016 winter season at New York City Center illustrates its ongoing contribution to the dialogue on race. Vintage examples include the first piece Ailey made for his company, Blues Suite, a vibrant portrait of a community nearly absent from dance stages at the time, and his Masekela Langage, a 1969 work about apartheid in South Africa. Newer works include Rennie Harris' formidable Exodus from 2015, which includes haunting images of violence in the streets, and Untitled America, by Kyle Abraham, an intimate depiction of the effects of mass incarceration on black American families. Boykin's new work, r-Evolution, Dream, is inspired by the speeches and sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I named it r-Evolution with a little 'r,' " she says, “because the evolution is more important than the revolt, to me."
Beatrice Capote and Fana Fraser in Camille A. Brown's BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Photo by Kirk Richard Smith, Courtesy Brown.
Although Boykin's goal is to connect with audiences, rather than alienate them, it doesn't mean she is offering easy reassurances. She and other black artists are ready to confront audiences. “It is definitely okay for me to tell you that I'm angry, to tell you that my heart is broken, to tell you that you've offended me," says Boykin of her work. Battle agrees: “That's what we're supposed to do as artists, is challenge systems."
Donald Byrd, for one, has been challenging audiences for decades. In the past year, the veteran choreographer, now at the helm of Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater, adopted the season theme “#RACEish" that included The Minstrel Show Revisited, his provocative exploration of the history of blackface. After each show, Byrd invited audience members—mostly white, he points out—to share their thoughts and found that a common response was discomfort, which he welcomes. “If it makes you uncomfortable, you should go running toward it," he says. The theater, he adds, is a “safe place to be uncomfortable."
Brown has long explored the modern American black experience in her work, but the shift in national consciousness has affected the way audiences and presenters receive it. For example, she notes that with 2012's Mr. TOL E. RAncE, an explicit indictment of racial stereotypes that coincided with Obama's reelection, “I got pushback because some people saw America as being a post-racial society," she says. “I was told the conversation was dated and no longer needed to be discussed." She says that last year's BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play is not a political piece, but notes that people's expectations and perceptions of black girls sometimes cause them to view it that way. Some presenters see it as a piece that their audiences need to prepare for. In fact, the work uses childhood games to explore universal coming-of-age themes. “What about seeing black girls playing do people have to get ready for and why?" she asks.
Spectrum Dance Theater in The Minstrel Show Revisited. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy SDT.
Many choreographers resist the expectation that they must use their art to make a statement. Abraham laments the “slack" he's received from some white critics for what they see as “watered down" politics in his work. He defends his freedom to create in the postmodern tradition of abstraction. “I'm not hyper-literal," he says, which he considers one of dance's strengths. “The abstraction of the art form can help people individualize the experience."
Paloma McGregor, a former member of Urban Bush Women and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, founded the initiative Dancing While Black in 2012 to bring the voices of black dance artists to the center of the artistic conversation. She points out that while art and activism may inform each other, for some artists they are separate practices. “They're not making work necessarily about racial justice, they're making work that honors their humanity and vision and where they come from," she says. Even an article like this, which asks black artists to comment on politics in their work, demonstrates the inequity of expectations, since white dance artists are rarely required to explain the politics that they do or do not include in their work. When asked to comment on this contradiction, Brown simply says: “Exactly."
In the current climate, it can be tempting to read politics into every-thing. Audiences and critics see statements where none are intended. “Unfortunately, I have encountered those who insist on labeling surface meanings of race to my works based on the appearance of my dance company," says T. Lang, an Atlanta-based choreographer and chair of the dance department at Spelman College, a historically black college for women. Some viewers and writers can see work by black artists as protests even when the artists themselves make no such claim.
If an artist does choose to address politics, finding the right tone can be challenging. Byrd detects the need for “uplift" from dance audiences, and a desire to “see that there's hope." He wonders whether that hinders some artists from addressing race in more direct ways. “I think artists are conflicted because the public wants a safe delivery system, an easy delivery system," he says.
During the post-performance discussion of And Still You Must Swing this summer, Jason Samuels Smith pointed to another facet of that conflict. White audiences “love the dance moves," he said, “but they don't want to connect with the people and the communities who are creating these dance moves." In other words, we can't cheer a tap performance and ignore the systemic racism in America that shaped the daily experiences of the form's founders and continues to affect many of its practitioners. “If you love the dance, love the people," Smith said. “You can't separate us."
Brian Schaefer writes on dance for The New York Times, among other publications.
Is This a Protest Dance?
Sean Aaron Carmon. Photo by Richard Calmes, Courtesy AAADT.
In July, following fatal shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana and Texas, Ailey dancer Sean Aaron Carmon noticed the tension and despair among members of the Ailey company as they gathered in small groups before a performance of Rennie Harris' emotionally raw Exodus. Carmon sensed the need for an outlet, so he invited them to dance their feelings in a one-minute piece he choreographed to Beyoncé's “Freedom." He filmed and posted it on the company's Instagram account (which he runs). The post went viral, and attracted the attention of The New York Times, which dubbed it a “protest dance," a label that Carmon takes issue with.
“I never said it was a protest dance," he says. His intention was simply to offer a space for release. “If you need to let it out, if you need to dance, if you need to not talk—just do what we do best, get it all out in the studio and then take your fresh self to the stage. Let's do it now," he recalls telling the dancers. In other words, the video, while it may look like a statement from the outside, was intended as a moment of collective processing.
Carmon gave the Ailey dancers choreography that he'd taught at various studios in Houston, Texas, including to some young, white, affluent students in the suburbs. Dance became a conduit to discussing the country's racial history and contemporary reality with them, and their parents, who were invited into the room. “I'm telling them, 'You have a teacher who dances for a company that was founded because of things like this. Because I couldn't have had a place to dance before 1958…You have to understand that things haven't changed as much as you think they have, as much as you're being led to believe they have.' "
Carmon was encouraged by the positive response to the video, and hopes to further develop the work. He says of the racial issues involved, “I'm not done with it, America's not done with it, I don't think the world is done with it. And I know that the Ailey dancers aren't done with it, either." —BS
Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:
"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...
Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...
Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...
Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."
Happy National Tap Dance Day!
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.