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Finding The Power
The history goes like this. African Americans in dance have had to gather on their own to celebrate the black tradition in American dance. Modern dance pioneers Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield held the “First Negro Dance Recital in America” in 1931, and Guy and Alison Burroughs organized a second one, called “Negro Dance Evening,” in 1937. Much later, Alvin Ailey started his company of primarily black dancers in 1958, and Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook formed Dance Theatre of Harlem for black ballet dancers in 1969. Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted a momentous three-day festival of blacks in dance in 1983.
And in 1988, the International Association of Blacks in Dance assembled to follow in this tradition. Twenty-two years later, IABD is now a force that continues to make this happen. The IABD annual conference has become a forum where African Americans can ask questions and not only get answers but help—particularly in terms of getting visibility. This kind of nurturing is what IABD has always been about.
But even more than that, for young African American artists who perform at an IABD conference, it is almost sure that they will make a connection that will help launch their career. This is not by chance: It is part of the mission of the conference to continue the artistic lineage. And it is part of the spirit of the community that older artists give a hand to younger ones.
Two examples are Camille A. Brown and Rennie Harris. Both were “seen” at an IABD conference, got work, and their careers took off. Brown showed a piece at IABD in 2006 and caught the eye of Ailey director Judith Jamison, who quickly commissioned her. The result was The Groove to Nobody’s Business (2007), which put a different look on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Clearly influenced by urban cool, Brown re-created a ride on the New York City subway with familiar characters, whose daily grind comes through in movement. The tempo is quick and the energy is highly theatrical. Brown’s terse yet fluid movement digs deep into the ground but soars with equal lilt as the cast plays musical chairs, vying for a seat. Brown was instantly recognized as a new voice on the scene (see “Quick Q & A,” Dec. 2007).
Today Brown speaks of how IABD embraced her. “The founders of IABD encourage you to believe that you can do this,” she says. “The love that we received was immeasurable. IABD gives you the space to grow.”
Harris’ story is similar. Baba Chuck Davis, founder of DanceAfrica, met Harris at an IABD conference and invited his then three-year-old company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, to present Students of the Asphalt Jungle for DanceAfrica 1995 at Brooklyn Academy of Music. This was not traditional African dance. Here there were bulked up, bare-chested, sneaker-wearing men of RHPM in loose-fitting white pants who ravaged the stage with their brand of hip-hop-meets-traditional-African-dance. They jumped like the Maasai, and they balanced on their heads and spun; they isolated their movement like East Africans, or they snaked through popping and locking. The BAM crowd went wild.
Harris reflected on being introduced to the concert dance arena through IABD. “This was a major paradigm shift for my company,” he says. “We were proud to be black, but we were like most hip hop heads at the time: We only claimed ourselves; we didn’t acknowledge our African lineage. I became determined to research and educate the masses about our heritage through hip hop. IABD provides an opportunity to continue the legacy of black expression within American culture.”
These exciting beginnings for Brown and Harris brought them a great deal of visibility. Others have followed similar paths; for instance, Christopher Huggins, whose dynamic Enemy Behind the Gates was seen at a 2001 IABD conference. Huggins has subsequently created pieces for many companies, including Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and Louisiana Dance Theatre, as well as IABD regulars Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and Ailey II.
Choreographers must be IABD members for at least two years before they are considered for a festival, and often spend much of that time preparing by creating, rehearsing and testing their works. Then they send in a reel of their work, and if chosen (by committee), they participate in the festival by performing, teaching, and/or speaking on a panel. Once there, this is the place to network, share, and be empowered by African American dance icons that they may have only read about. Previously celebrated legends include Katherine Dunham, Carmen de Lavallade, Donald McKayle, and Eleo Pomare. Camille Brown, who was a student at University of North Carolina School of the Arts when she first attended, says she was afforded the rare opportunity “to be in the presence of legends.”
At the helm, from day one, was founder and artistic director of Philadanco Joan Myers Brown. Back in 1988 she was awarded $5,000 from the Pew Charitable Trusts to make her dream a reality. Myers Brown made good on her dream when approximately 80 black dance professionals—including Lula Washington, Louis Johnson, Denise Jefferson (director of The Ailey School), the late Jeraldyne Blunden (Dayton Contemporary Dance Company), Cleo Parker Robinson, and Ann Williams (Dallas Black Dance Theatre)—attended this first IABD conference.
Each year attendees take master classes, go to provocative political and educational panels, and participate in intergenerational dialogues—plus they get to network and party. Panel discussions cover a range of topics, including the history of African American dance, dance in historically black colleges, the business of dance, issues of artistry, and teaching methods.
The theme of this year’s conference, co-sponsored by Philadanco and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is “Back to Basics: Strengthening our Institutions for a New Generation.” From January 13 to 17, Rennie Harris, Zane Booker, Gaynell Sherrod, Kim Bears-Bailey, Karen Brown, and Germaine Goodson will lead classes. Attendees can expect the midnight African dance class with Baba Chuck Davis, plus a late-night hip hop class. The rich array of panel topics includes the goals of presenters in the electronic age, how women of the diaspora are contributing to the arts, career transitions, and alternative medical care for men.
An evening titled “Meet the Philadelphians” will present Rennie Harris Puremovement, Kulu Mele African American Dance & Drum Ensemble, Zane Booker, Eleone Dance Theatre, and Danco 2. A different program includes Urban Bush Women, Philadanco, Dallas Black Dance, Lula Washington Dance Company from Los Angeles, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble from Denver, and Camille A. Brown.
From 80 participants in 1988, to upwards of 600 participants today who converge from across the country—and from Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean—the conference continues to grow. Over the years, the conferences have been held in Los Angeles, Denver, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Dallas, Dayton, New York, and Toronto.
As Myers Brown looks towards the future, she affirms, “I’m still amazed that the conference continues. Outsiders don’t see or feel the need, but we know there is a need.”
Charmaine Patricia Warren is on faculty at the Ailey/Fordham BFA program and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Pictured: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Camille A. Brown's The Groove to Nobody's Business. Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy AAADT
When Rachel Hamrick was in the corps of Universal Ballet in Seoul, her determination to strengthen her flexibility turned into a side hobby that would eventually land her a new career. "I was in La Bayadere for the first time, and I was the first girl out for that arabesque sequence in The Kingdom of the Shades," she says. "I had the flexibility, but I was wobbly because I wasn't stretching in the right way. That's when I first started playing around with the idea of the Flexistretcher. It was tied together then, so it was definitely more makeshift," she says with a laugh, "But I trained with it to help me get the correct alignment so that I would have the strength to sustain the whole act."
Now, Hamrick is running her own business, complete with an ever-growing product line and her FLX training method—all because of her initial need to make it through 38 arabesques.
For the new Broadway season, Ellenore Scott has scored two associate choreographer gigs: For Head Over Heels, which starts previews June 23, Scott is working with choreographer Spencer Liff on an original musical mashing up The Go-Go's punk-rock hits with a narrative based on Sir Philip Sidney's 1590 book, Arcadia. Four days after that show opens, she'll head into rehearsals for this fall's King Kong, collaborating with director/choreographer Drew McOnie and a 20-foot gorilla.
Scott gave us the inside scoop about Head Over Heels, the craziness of her freelance hustle and the most surprising element of working on Broadway.
Dance in movies is a trend as old as time. Movies like The Red Shoes and Singin' in the Rain paved the way for Black Swan and La La Land; dancing stars like Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers led the way for Channing Tatum and Julianne Hough.
Lucky for us, some of Hollywood's most incredible dance scenes have been compiled into this amazing montage, featuring close to 300 films in only seven minutes. So grab the popcorn, cozy on up, and watch the moves that made the movies.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
If you want to know how scary the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s, come see Ishmael Houston-Jones' piece THEM from 1986. This piece reveals the subterranean fears that crept into gay relationships at the time. Houston-Jones is one of downtown's great improvisers, and his six dancers also improvise in response to his suggestions. With Chris Cochrane's edgy guitar riffs and Dennis Cooper's ominous text, there's an unpredictable, near-creepy but epic quality to THEM.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.
Chantel Aguirre may call sunny Los Angeles home, but the Shaping Sound company member and NUVO faculty member spends more time in the air, on a tour bus or in a convention ballroom than she does in the City of Angels.
Aguirre, who is married to fellow Shaping Sound member Michael Keefe, generally only spends one week per month at home. "When I'm not working, I'm exploring," Aguirre says. "Michael and I are total travel junkies."
Akram Khan and Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine) is not a pairing we ever would have dreamt up. But now that the music video for "Big God" has dropped, with choreography attributed to Khan and Welch, it seems that we just weren't dreaming big enough.
In the video, Welch leads a group of women standing in an eerily reflective pool of water. They seem untouchable, until they begin shedding their colorful veils, movements morphing to become animalistic and aggressive as the song progresses.
Savannah Lowery is about as well acquainted with the inner workings of a hospital as she is with the intricate footwork of Dewdrop.
As a child, the former New York City Ballet soloist would roam the hospital where her parents worked, pushing buttons and probably getting into too much trouble, she says. While other girls her age were clad in tutus playing ballerina, she was playing doctor.
"It just felt like home. I think it made me not scared of medicine, not scared of a hospital," she says. "I thought it was fascinating what they did."
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.