Dance Matters

December 17, 2009



Exporting Modern Dance

Three Companies, with help from the U.S. State Department, pack their bags.


American modern dancers are hoisting the U.S. flag and heading abroad. From January to March the inaugural tours of DanceMotion USA, a new partnership between the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Brooklyn Academy of Music, will send Urban Bush Women to South America, Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence to Africa, and San Francisco’s ODC/Dance to Southeast Asia. Each company will offer concerts, workshops, and master classes in three countries per continent during monthlong tours. The three companies kick off the program stateside on January 22 at George Washington University, where they will preview the tours’ repertory.


During the Cold War, American dance companies often traveled under the State Department’s auspices. But the Cold War’s end meant that funding for international arts programs dwindled. According to Colombia Barrosse, head of the State Department’s Cultural Programs Division, the current tours are an experiment to fine-tune what will hopefully become a core State Department program dedicated to dance touring.


Barrosse feels the program’s potential outweighs its challenges. “Touring dance is very expensive and complicated,” she says. “But knowing that dance was such a popular way for us to showcase not only our talents but to have a dialogue with other countries, we decided to launch a pilot program.”


The State Department issued a competitive call for a producing partner in 2008. Since being selected, BAM focused on identifying artistically excellent companies with experience in community engagement and working with embassies in countries designated by the State Department.

BAM executive producer Joseph Melillo says creating a program tailored to each country’s needs was a primary goal. “This is not a formula that’s being replicated,” says Melillo. “Each country has different venues, different nongovernmental organizations, and different resources and needs.”

The best example of creating infrastructure to facilitate the tour: neither Rangoon nor Mandalay, two of the Burmese cities ODC will visit, had suitable theater spaces. DanceMotion USA is helping each city build outdoor stages.


Urban Bush Women’s artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar says she was eager for her predominantly African American company to join the program because of the Obama administration. “I’m very excited to go to these countries at this time—to work for an African American president,” says Zollar. “The things he has done with his presidency make it clear that there’s a shift in who has access to the power.”


Representing the U.S. does not mean these companies don’t already have international connections. Evidence artistic director Ronald K. Brown describes himself as “an African American man making dance from the perspective of being raised in Brooklyn and using vocabulary from Guinea, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire.” He says touring Africa will be like looking into a “twisted mirror.”


Brenda Way, ODC’s artistic director, says DanceMotion could foster more international relationships. She hopes to meet artists with whom ODC could partner to connect their San Francisco dance center to the larger Pacific Rim community.


Way knows cultural diplomacy’s value. She and fellow ODC director KT Nelson traveled to Asia 20 years ago with State Department support. Way remembers, “We’d never been in a region where dance was so much a part of the culture. It was a perceptual turning point in our careers. It allowed us to understand our expressiveness as American.”


Zollar says she’s most excited about exactly those simultaneous recognitions of similarities and differences. “It’s about examining your assumptions,” she says. “What do we think we understand and what will be the surprises?” —Clare Croft



From the Streets of Brazil

Grupo de Rua de Niterói touches down in the U.S.


Bruno Beltrão’s power-packed dance company, Grupo de Rua de Niterói, injects a new urban energy into Brazil and beyond. Like beautiful but wild graffiti, Beltrão’s special brand of hip hop is physical and aggressive, with strains of capoeira and lyrical movement. While GRN has performed in more than two dozen countries, the company comes to the U.S. this month for the first time.


This is not your typical hip hop choreography. Beltrão blurs boundaries by using surprising choices of music, from pulsating, electronic rhythms to silence. Beltrão, who took dance and philosophy classes at the University of Rio de Janeiro, uses improvisation to create his works. In rehearsal, a camera is always on, capturing improvised movement that can be turned into choreography.


“Bruno is always looking for something new on top of the things that are already new,” says GRN dancer Kleberson dos Santos Gonçalves. “This is very demanding on us, and especially for Bruno, who has to put together this puzzle with the pieces we supply. We are always searching for a way to occupy space differently.” And they have chosen different kinds of spaces to occupy, including outdoor spaces as well as in traditional theaters, on college campuses and in urban centers.


Beltrão’s role as one of Brazil’s loudest voices in hip hop began in his native Niterói, a city near Rio de Janeiro, where he was first a gymnast and a soccer player. At 13 he became interested in dance through the city’s clubs and through the music videos of MC Hammer, Michael Jackson, and Salt-N-Pepa. “There were no political pretensions,” says Beltrão. “It was the pure love of the hip hop vocabulary that drew me into dancing.” With his friend Rodrigo Bernardi, Beltrão put together steps to show on Saturdays at the clubs. At 14, after studying hip hop, Beltrão began to teach it. With the help of another teacher, Rose Mansur, Beltrão started his company when he was 16. Because of his affinity for young people, Beltrão is very involved in community outreach. Beltrão gives master classes and puts on student performances.


In Beltrão’s latest work, H3, nine athletic dancers run backwards at top speed. Rapid footwork and B-boy tricks are punctuated by abrupt pauses. Dancers battle each other one on one, performing for each other—the audience simply witnesses the movement onstage. GRN brings this work to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire Jan. 7–8, then travels to the Wexner Center in Ohio, several venues in southern California (including several dates in L.A. presented by REDCAT), and On the Boards in Seattle later this month. The tour continues in February with stops in Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, Oregon (presented by White Bird), and the Walker Art Center in Minnesota. Before heading back to Brazil, GRN takes over NYC’s DTW Feb. 20–23. —Holly Cavrell



Photo by RJ Muna, courtesy BAM