The biggest weekend in Broadway is finally upon us: The Tony Awards are this Sunday (airing at 8 pm EST on CBS). While other media outlets might be busy forecasting winners, we're speculating about the dancing we might get to see during the broadcast.
Needless to say, we have a few ideas.
When 59-second clips of "This is America" began to take over my Insta feed last week, I didn't know how to feel. Graphic images from the music video showed the execution of a man with a guitar and the mass shooting of a church choir.
What truly struck me was physical and facial animation of Donald Glover a.k.a. Childish Gambino, as well as the gaggle of children shadowing his movement. Many saw the dance as a distraction from the mayhem in the background.
"Should I watch it to get a sense of what happened, or should I go with my own vision and understanding of the culture?" That's what choreographer Camille A. Brown was wondering in June, when she started work on the Broadway revival of the Antilles-themed musical Once on This Island.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
Points should be given to the dance world for beginning to address the issue of diversity. But have we ever taken into consideration who critiques dance—and the lack of diversity in that area of our community? Or how critics' subconscious biases create barriers to the elevation of non-white artists?
Recently, Charmian Wells wrote a scathing critical analysis of New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas' review of DanceAfrica. Entitled "Strong and Wrong: On Ignorance and Modes of White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism" it took Kourlas to task for critiquing from a place of cultural and technical ignorance.
Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, which performed at DanceAfrica. Photo via Facebook.
Reviews are part of the life blood of artistic sustainability—funders, agents, bookers and audience members use them as guides. Dance critics have a responsibility to the community to do, and be better, or at least have the courage to let the reader know what they don't understand.
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As soon as we started putting together a list of the most influential people in dance today, we knew two things. By the very nature of the topic we were tackling, our final list was going to be:
1. Entirely subjective, and
2. By no means comprehensive.
We wanted to get your input and hear who else you felt should be on the list. So we asked you who we missed, and here's what you told us through email, Facebook and Twitter:
Choreographer Camille A. Brown’s socially conscious work has resulted in major recognition
Fana Fraser and Beatrice Capote in Brown’s BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Camille A. Brown.
Camille A. Brown has always been an artist whose work is based on truth telling—about African-American culture, about racism past and present and how those issues intersect with being a woman. Now, Brown’s Black Girl Spectrum initiative, in which she spearheads workshops talking about these issues, and her newest major work, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, have earned Brown critical acclaim and a slew of accolades.
In the spring, Brown was the recipient of three major awards—the Jacob’s Pillow Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Princess Grace Statue Award.
For Brown, these most recent honors, in addition to another set of prestigious awards in 2015, including a Doris Duke Artist Award, are much appreciated icing on the cake. But Brown says she doesn’t necessarily see these awards as validation.
“I’m just doing me. You have to just speak from your heart and do what you’re doing,” Brown says. “There are so many people out there who tell you what you can and cannot do: ‘You have to be just this. You can’t do this. Don’t do it this way.’ So I feel that this is really about people supporting and encouraging me.”
When asked why she believes she is receiving so many accolades in such a short time, Brown points to the relevance and timeliness of the issues she’s been raising in her work. “I think people are maybe hearing me now or maybe listening more,” she says. “Now that I have this acknowledgement behind me, I can say it even louder. I can say it in different arenas.”
Her upcoming projects include a TED-Ed lesson and a new dance work called ink that will be shown as a work in progress this season. She will also be exploring the possibility of turning BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play into a theater piece. “I feel like my work in musical theater has been where I’ve learned about being a choreographer the most,” she says. “I want to figure out what BLACK GIRL would look like outside of the concert dance world.”
Women make up the vast majority of the dance world. Yet it’s no secret that they’re routinely passed over for leadership positions and choreography commissions, confronted with sexism in the studio and stymied by expectations of how female artists should look and behave. Here, 10 industry leaders open up, candidly sharing their stories, and offering ideas for how we can do better.
Q: What makes you a feminist?
“This spring, I decided that if an organization wanted me to do a piece, I would only say yes if they included a woman choreographer on the program. When I look at some of the playbills of programs I have going up, it’s just like, Really? Only men again? The disparity is kind of insane. If someone chooses not to use me because I’ve insulted them by saying that, I still think it’s worth saying and having that in their ear.” —Kyle Abraham, artistic director and choreographer, Abraham.In.Motion
Q: Do female choreographers make different work than men?
“Definitely. We experience life fundamentally differently, and that affects our physicality and our sensitivity. In The Virgin Suicides, there’s this line that says, ‘We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.’ That’s a really poetic way of talking about the unique humanity of women. There’s a quiet power and also a bubbling revolt, a delicateness and a fierceness that’s a negotiation of pleasing people and not. Men have a freedom we don’t have. As a woman, and as a Latina, I feel like every piece I make is somehow supposed to represent my entire culture. I don’t think white men have that kind of baggage.” —Rosie Herrera, artistic director and choreographer, Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre
Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Gibney
Q: What have you noticed as a female entrepreneur?
“When I opened Gibney Dance Center, there was a huge difference in the way women and men reacted. A lot of women came up to me and said, ‘The space is beautiful and I can’t wait to make work in it.’ Men said, ‘I’d like to show my work in your performance space.’ There was a very different attitude about the plans and programs men wanted. They were making deals. I didn’t get a single business proposition from a woman in that way. It’s up to women to take the reins, and take risks.” —Gina Gibney, CEO and artistic director, Gibney Dance
Rose Eichenbaum for Dance Teacher
Q: How can we help young women in ballet build the confidence to become leaders?
“We have to train leaders. A lot of it is about helping students with their priorities. So many just want to get their leg up, want to be insta-famous. And many are myopically focused on ballet. At Colburn, we expose them to other kinds of dance, and to museums. We offer a unit of drama. It’s so hard for ballet students to talk, to get out there and advocate for themselves. The culture is to be silent and to receive. I have to keep reminding them to find their voice and keep expressing themselves.” —Jenifer Ringer, director, Colburn Dance Academy
Rachel Soh, Courtesy Goebel
Q: What has it been like to rise in the male-dominated world of hip hop?
“I never felt there were different standards for men and women, but a different value placed on what women’s work is worth. But there are a lot of amazing female choreographers making their mark today. My movement style, polyswagg, allows us to use all our woman qualities that the boys don’t have, and at the same time be able to hit as hard as the boys.” —Parris Goebel, choreographer for Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj
Sylvain Guenot, Courtesy Dendy
Q: Why does the dance world trail behind pop culture as far as trans inclusion?
“It’s a private thing to watch on your television. There’s a safety, and that gets taken away when you’re sitting in a theater experiencing a live performance. There are some gender-fluid characters in dance today, but I don’t think you’re going to see a trans person walk out in Esplanade anytime soon.” —Mark Dendy, experimental choreographer who recently created Whistleblower, about transgender soldier Chelsea Manning
Whitney Browne, Courtesy Camille A. Brown
Q: Why is empowering young black women so important to you?
“One time on tour, we asked a high school audience, ‘What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “black girl”?’ Everything was negative and the way they were saying things really made me uncomfortable. I saw people mimicking the gestures that they associated with black girls—snapping their hands, rolling their neck, putting their hands on their hips—and they were pointing to the few black girls in the audience.
That’s why I do the initiative. Black girls need to know that they are valued and they are more than a stereotype. How often are we able to see a black girl’s story through her gaze? We need to talk about the issues, but we also need to show the full spectrum of who black girls are.” —Camille A. Brown, choreographer and founder of Black Girl Spectrum
James Jin, Courtesy Latarro
Q: What is it like to be part of the first all-female creative team on Broadway, for Waitress?
“I’m usually hyperaware of my tone—as a woman, there’s a fine line between speaking too softly and kindly and speaking too harshly. But when you’re in a team that you trust, you can be direct. You just say what you need to say.
Also, we’re women writing about a woman. It feels different when you’re watching because it’s a point of view that we’re not used to. In many other Broadway shows, even if there’s a female protagonist, she still behaves the way a male writer might see her.” —Lorin Latarro, choreographer for Waitress
Julie Mack, THEY Bklyn, Courtesy Pyle
Q: Do outmoded gender stereotypes hold ballet back?
“In my training, I was really discouraged from being strong. There was always the expectation that I would be 15 percent below the typical body weight for my height. Eating disorders come along with that, and then not being able to menstruate—that affects your hormones and emotions and development and your brain. When I stopped ballet, I could think more clearly because I stopped being anorexic. I got a message from my teachers, whether explicitly or implicitly, that I should appear smaller, more fragile, more vulnerable. The archetypes that were presented to me were of women who needed to be saved.
Ballet appears as a very elitist, white, male-run form that will just reproduce the same ideas and images over and over and over again until there is a bigger disruption in terms of types of bodies, genders, race, backgrounds—there’s so much! Having transgender people in ballet companies is what I’m interested in. Bringing in people who have more diverse relationships to their own gender is going to shift the work.”
—Katy Pyle, artistic director of Ballez, an organization and company that explores story ballets with lesbian, queer and transgender people
Jade Young, Courtesy Bond
Q: Do you feel you’re treated differently as a female choreographer?
“I struggle with not being taken as seriously. I look young and I’m in the corps de ballet: I was 16 when I started, and now I’m 33, and I’m still treated as a girl—even when I’m choreographing. I’m not seen as a woman. It’s like I’m pigeon-holed into a box. If I want to do anything I have to initiate it myself.” —Gemma Bond, choreographer and American Ballet Theatre dancer
Interviews by Suzannah Friscia, Marina Harss, Gia Kourlas, Madeline Schrock, Kristin Schwab, Jennifer Stahl and Lauren Wingenroth.
The choreographer’s year of outreach work with her Black Girl Spectrum initiative culminates in a premiere.
Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Camille A. Brown.
Camille A. Brown’s pieces have unflinchingly addressed cultural, racial, gender and social justice issues. Her new work, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, takes her mission a step farther. Over the last year through her Black Girl Spectrum initiative, Brown hosted workshops and had discussions with women across the country about African American social dance and the experience of growing up as black women. From this outreach, she’s created BLACK GIRL, which will premiere at The Joyce Theater in New York City, September 22–27.
What made you want to start Black Girl Spectrum?
I felt there was a need for dance history education to be a little leveled out, to talk about some of the people who were only given a small acknowledgement in some of the books from when I was in school, like Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey. I feel it’s important for me to connect with communities about the black experience.
What have you learned?
It’s been joyous, heartbreaking at times. I talked to younger girls and women about what it is like to be a black girl in society. What are the things they see? What are the perceptions of them versus the reality of who they know they are? It’s sad to learn that a lot of the things I saw as a child are the same things they’re going through now.
How did you create the piece BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play?
My main focus is that we need to celebrate black girls. In our discussions about education, culture and social dances, we talked about what dances they do now, and I incorporated those into the piece. What I’ve been exhausted by is the perception, the angry black woman, versus the reality, the strong black woman. But I think there are enough narratives about that. I wanted to talk about what it is to just be a girl, what it is to be a black girl, what it is to grow up. What does it mean when we embrace who we are? The Spectrum is something I will do past this piece. It’s not just, “Okay, we’ve talked and now we have a piece.” This is work that needs to continue.
You are a TED fellow and received a Doris Duke Artist Award, along with many other grants. What is it like to be at this point in your career?
It’s really exciting. It feels great to be acknowledged. It feels great to have the opportunities. But I’m still fighting. Racism and sexism exist and the dance world is not above it. There is still a clear difference of how females are treated versus males in the industry. It still seems that many critics are unable to comment about the black experience in an informed way. I am fighting on both fronts—being black and a woman.
The Trocks in Swan Lake. Photo by Sascha Vaughn, Courtesy Les Ballets Trockadero.
En Travesti, A Treat
Sometimes it’s hard to know whether to laugh or marvel at the Trocks. So why not do both? Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo bourrée into Philly’s Annenberg Center Dec. 13–15, then post up to NYC’s Joyce Theater Dec. 18–Jan. 6. Among the company’s various interpretations of the classical canon, Ida Nevasayneva’s Dying Swan still stands alone as the ultimate send-up of an aging diva. www.trockadero.org.
While the Kennedy Center has been overflowing with great dance for over 40 years, it has yet to host a full-length tap concert in its main theaters—until now. On Dec. 7, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project presents JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance in the Eisenhower Theater. Stars include 2012 Dance Magazine Award recipient Dianne “Lady Di” Walker (see “Awards”), Derick K. Grant, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Michelle Dorrance, as well as CHRP’s BAM! Ensemble, D.C.’s Step Afrika!, and Rasta Thomas’ TAP STARS. Members of youth tap companies from across the country will also get their chance to sound off. www.kennedy-center.org.
Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. Photo by Eduardo Patino, Courtesy CHRP.
A Constant Flame
For 25 years, Prometheus Dance has been performing its theatrical, highly physical works that address hard-hitting issues—refugee displacement, oppressed women, and those afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, among others. Co-directors Diane Arvanites and Tommy Neblett have made the company a resolute presence in Cambridge, MA, through its performances and educational programs—as well as its Elders Ensemble of dancers 60–85 years old. On Dec. 15, the company throws itself a birthday party/gala at the Multicultural Arts Center. Visit www.prometheusdance.org to view the company’s virtual retrospective, with images, videos, and interviews commemorating its quarter-century milestone.
Jennifer Kelble in Arvanites and Neblett’s Desiderare. Photo by Donny Zaltzberg, Courtesy Prometheus.
About Comedy, By Camille
White Bird, celebrating its 15th anniversary as the Pacific Northwest’s leading dance-only presenter, has several big-name choreographers coming through Portland, OR, this season. But they’ve also saved room for smaller groups that pack a big punch, like Camille A. Brown & Dancers, which performs her latest work, Mr. TOL E. RAncE, Dec. 6–8. In its West Coast debut, the company tackles the history of African-American comedic performance—both the humor and underlying darkness—with Brown’s characteristic theatricality. www.whitebird.org.
Camille A. Brown. Photo by Matthew Karas, Courtesy White Bird.
No Rest for Bourne
It’s been 25 years since Matthew Bourne made his first piece for his company, now known as New Adventures. His latest work, Sleeping Beauty, the pièce de résistance of NA’s 25th-anniversary season, runs Dec. 4–Jan. 26 at Sadler’s Wells, and will tour internationally next year. Like his most famous work, the homoerotic Swan Lake (also set to Tchaikovsky), this Beauty is a modern-day production, as Aurora awakes from her century-long slumber to the present. www.sadlerswells.com.
Keith Brazil and Matthew Bourne in Bourne’s Spitfire, his first hit, in 1988. Photo by Chris Nash, Courtesy Sadler’s Wells.
A party scene gone awry in Texas Ballet Theatre’s Nutty Nutcracker. Photo by Ellen Appel, Courtesy TBT.
You can’t turn right in December without running into a Nutcracker—also known as the bread and butter of companies around the country. After weeks of glittering snowflakes, some troupes switch it up with a “Nutty Nutcracker”—a one (or few)-night-only pop-culture parody that leaves some choreography intact and basically follows the story, but with unexpected cameos. On Dec. 21, the dancers of Texas Ballet Theater will take a break from Nutcracker as usual (which they will have been performing since Nov. 23), for their Nutty Nutcracker. Last year’s production (put together in a mere week) reportedly featured then-newlyweds Prince William and Kate Middleton, characters from The Wizard of Oz, and (obviously) Black Swan’s Black Swan. Expect more of the same this year. www.texasballettheater.org.
Like individual snowflakes, every Nutcracker production is unique. Here are three more done with a twist:
The Jewish Nutcracker in San Francisco, which tells the story of Hanukkah and incorporates world dance styles into its production. Dec. 18–23. www.jewishnutcracker.com.
Of Mice & Music: A Jazz Nutcracker in Austin, presented by the hard-hitting tappers of Tapestry Dance Company. Dec. 6–16. www.tapestry.org.
Boston’s Urban Nutcracker adds Duke Ellington to the Tchaikovsky score, along with hip-hop, ballroom, and Bollywood. Dec. 8–23. www.urbannutcrackerboston.com.
Every year the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers hold a rousing powwow on the Lower East Side. A New York troupe founded in 1963 by a group of Native Americans, the Thunderbird dancers represent a variety of nations descended from Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago, and San Blas peoples. They are not professional, but they’ve handed their dances down from generation to generation. There’s the Caribou Dance (from the Inuits of Alaska), the Buffalo Dance (from the Hopi of the Southwest), and a Jingle Dress Dance (from the Northern Plains). Come see how softly and rhythmically these dancers tread on the earth. Theater for the New City, Jan. 25 to Feb. 3. See www.theaterforthenewcity.net/programs. —Wendy Perron
Raymond Two Feathers (Cherokee) in an Eagle Dance. Photo by Lee Wexler, Courtesy TNC.
Celebrating American choreographers, Gotham Arts Exchange brings a slew of groups to the Skirball this month. They include the NYC companies of Larry Keigwin, Kate Weare, Pam Tanowitz, Karole Armitage, Aszure Barton, and David Parsons, as well as non-NYC companies Ballet Memphis, Aspen Sante Fe Ballet, Chicago’s Lucky Plush, and L.A.’s BODYTRAFFIC (see “25 to Watch,” page 48). Find out more at nyuskirball.org. And in a related marathon, Gotham presents the second annual Focus Dance, which includes Camille A. Brown, Rosie Hererra, Jodi Melnick, Eiko and Koma, and John Jasperse (see “Quick Q&A,” page 40) at the Joyce, Jan. 8–13. See www.joyce.org. —W. P.
Mora-Amina Parker of Camille A. Brown & Dancers. Photo by Matthew Karas, Courtesy Gotham.
2 from Tokyo and 1 from Taipei
Japanese contemporary dance can range from Pokemon-cute to butoh- drastic. This month’s 15th Annual Contemporary Dance Showcase: Japan & East Asia features a variety of dance. The Makotocluv dance company from Tokyo offers a “post-butoh” piece entitled Misshitsu: Secret Honey Room, co-created by founder Makoto Enda and former Dairakudakan dancer Kumotaro Mukai. The choreographer/singer KENTARO!!, also from Tokyo, brings his singing-and-dancing hip-hop group Tokyo Electrock Stairs in Send it, Mr. Monster. And from Taipei, Chieh-hua Hsieh’s Seventh Sense, for his company Anarchy Dance Theatre, promises to be high-tech and interactive—and hopefully anarchic. Jan. 11–12 at Japan Society. www.japansociety.org. —Kathleen Dalton
Seventh Sense by Chieh-hua Hsieh. Photo by Shou-Cheng Lin, Courtesy Japan Society.