Meet the Black Women Who Paved the Way for Postmodern Dance Today
Bebe Miller, PC Julieta Cervantes
Today, black women like Okwui Okpokwasili and Nora Chipaumire are dominating the New York City downtown scene with tenacity and genius. Just this summer, Okpokwasili's solo performance Bronx Gothic was featured in Andrew Rossi's documentary by the same name, and Chipaumire premiered #PUNK as part of the French Institute Alliance Française's Crossing the Line Festival.
In celebration of these trailblazers, we're highlighting some of the influential black women who came before them, and have been changing the game in the downtown dance scene for almost four decades. They continue to thrive and survive, although in the case of Cummings, posthumously. As young dancemakers, we have to know the shoulders on which we stand.
The Bridge | Blondell Cummings navigated between modern and postmodern dance with charismatic gusto. Her cross-cultural activism led her to host workshops for dancers and non-dancers alike. She encouraged participants to dive into issues like menopause, life cycles, family and food. Cummings' work, from Chicken Soup to The Art of War/Nine Situations, was radical and revolutionary. Cummings passed away in 2015.
The Matriarch | Dianne McIntyre's illustrious career spans over four decades in dance, theater and film. Her unique approach to movement and musicality spawned generations of dancers charged to explore new conversations between sound and the dancing body. During Come Around Part IV , McIntrye embodied the physical manifestation of sound, fluctuating between her own world and that of the musicians and exuding a meticulous playfulness that drew you from one moment to the next.
The Pathfinder | Bebe Miller, artistic director of Bebe Miller Company, grew up taking dance classes at Henry Street Settlement House with Alwin Nikolais dancer Murray Louis. Her young movement world was composed abstract lines, shapes, space and volume which would later marry with elements of humanity, virtuosity and emotion. Today, Miller balances spending summers at Bearnstow camp, creating new work and touring with her company. Up next for Miller is In a Rhythm this November at Wexner Center for the Arts.
The Organizer | Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is the founder of Urban Bush Women, now in its 33rd year and still a powerhouse of performance. The company highlights social issues through movement and music, and gathers communities for annual workshops including the Summer Leadership Institute and The Generative Dancer. Zollar encourages thoughtful young leaders to move, shift, sustain, resist, yield, reimagine and remain curious about dance and art-making. She is a 2015 Dance Magazine Award recipient and in October will receive the Bessies' Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Wild Child | Nia Love is an artist, performer, activist, mother, grandmother and educator. She is an enormous force, gentle truth teller and vessel of memories. Her work wraps curious commentary around blackness and embodied memory while destabilizing notions of performance, place and power. From hosting Epic Memory Labs that explore self-care, domesticity and memory around a potluck feast provided by participants, to serving as a Racial Equity Advisor for Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Love is an inspirational force reshaping what it means to be a woman, mother and artist.
The Beacon | Charmaine Warren is a vivacious performer, historian, consultant, writer and professor. For years, Warren performed with David Rousseve/REALITY, a multidisciplinary/multicultural company. She is the founder of the Montclair Dance Festival series "Dance on the Lawn," and co-curated Harlem Stage's E-Moves for 11 years. Today, Warren stays busy offering a living legacy of dance through her writing and remains an advocate for dance in NYC.
The cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise in rehearsal. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed
Akram Khan loves to dive into genres he is unfamiliar with. While his own movement vocabulary is a hybrid of kathak and contemporary dance, he has choreographed a new Giselle for English National Ballet, collaborated with flamenco artist Israel Galván and made a dance theater duet with film star Juliette Binoche. Now, in between touring Xenos, his final full-length solo, and several other projects, he's found time to tackle kung fu. Khan is part of the collaborative team behind Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a blockbuster musical based on themes of migration and the fight for survival, running June 22–July 27. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and featuring a score that remixes songs by Sia, it's part of the inaugural season of The Shed, a new venue in New York City.
I'm a Broadway dancer with a long second toe and the nail is always bruised. I had thought switching from pointe work to dancing in character shoes was the answer—I felt great for several years until recently. What's the problem?