The Bessies' Bold Choices
The Bessies Committee announced its choice of two bodacious women to receive awards for Lifetime Achievement and Outstanding Service to the Field: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for the first, and Eva Yaa Asantewaa for the second. Because both women stand at the intersection of dance and social justice, one feels that the Bessies (the New York Dance and Performance Awards) is making a statement in these highly polarized times.
A sketch of each of them:
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is a leader as an artist and as a humanitarian. Her works boldly walked into narrative in the 1980s when most respected American choreography was formalistic. She helped develop the new "epic narrative" field that scholars of postmodern dance speak of now. She commanded the stage, whether in the harrowing Walking with Pearl…Southern Diaries (2005), or the hilarious Hair Parties (2002). She had stories to tell and she was hell-bent on telling them. Her group of Urban Bush Women dancers speak, yell, cuss, dance and sing. (You can see more about their works in Brooklyn Academy of Music's newly posted Leon Levy Archives.)
Urban Bush Women in Zollar's Praise House at BAM, 1991. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Over the years UBW has trained and unleashed scores of fierce female dance artists, including some of today's leading dancers of color like Nora Chipaumire, Christal Brown, Maria Bauman, Marlies Yearby, Marjani Forté and Makeda Thomas.
As a professor at Florida State University, Zollar has inspired countless students. As founding director of Urban Bush Women, she established a strong community engagement program, the Summer Leadership Institute, and—just last year—the UBW Choreographic Center. All of these efforts support the development of women choreographers of color and "other under-heard voices."
Eva Yaa Asantewaa in center, concluding skeletal architecture, PC Ian Douglas
Eva Yaa Asantewaa (pronounced yaSAHNtewah) has earned a reputation as an excellent writer, astute observer, and fair-minded activist. For decades, she has written for Dance Magazine and other outlets (including her own website). Long involved in the downtown New York community, she contributed a female-centered episode to Danspace's Lost & Found Platform last fall. Although she's a dance watcher, not a dance maker, she came up with a brilliant score for each of 20 women of color and one musician for a collaborative piece titled the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds. From all reports, it was celebratory, improvisational, explosive and healing—and it rocked the house. It inspired Hyperallergic writer Alexis Clements to compare it to Anna Halprin's masterwork Parades and Changes, and it stirred up a big discussion online.
You might ask, Is there a connection between these two outspoken, justice-loving women? The answer is: Yes. When Zollar received the Dance Magazine Award in 2015, Eva Yaa Asantewaa wrote the Awards profile in our December 2015 issue.
The dance world has reason to be proud of Zollar and Yaa Asantewaa. See you at the Bessies October 9 at the NYU Skirball Center. Click here for tickets.
Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.
My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.
In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."
An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.
"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.
With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.