Karyn D. Collins, is an award-winning journalist and adjunct professor, based in New Jersey.
She is also director of the Hugh N. Boyd Journalism Diversity Workshop for New Jersey High School Students.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
Choreographer Ronald K. Brown sees himself as a weaver—of movement, but more importantly, of stories. "When I started my company Evidence 33 years ago, I needed to make a space for what I thought of as evidence—work that tells stories, so that when people saw the work, they would see a reflection or evidence of themselves onstage," says Brown, now 51. "That was my mission, my purpose."
Fast-forward to today: Evidence has become a mainstay in the modern dance world and Brown is now considered a vanguard among choreographers fusing Western contemporary dance with movement from the African diaspora, including popular dance and traditions from West African cultures like Senegalese sabar.
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.”
Misty Copeland's well-chronicled journey to becoming the first female African American principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre has helped jumpstart conversations about racial representation in ballet companies. But how Copeland's success may influence ballet training still remains to be seen. Of course, she's already helped launch ABT's Project Plié, which seeks to boost racial and ethnic diversity in ballet through partnerships with organizations like the Boys & Girls Club and with other companies, including Ballet Austin, Cincinnati Ballet and Orlando Ballet.
But there are other U.S. ballet companies making a deliberate effort to hire black dancers. Since 2013, Charlotte Ballet has partnered with Dance Theatre of Harlem to hire DTH students for Charlotte Ballet II. “In an audition with hundreds of dancers we'd only see one, maybe a handful of black dancers," says artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. “But we are in America and the world is very diverse and we have to do something ourselves." This season, Charlotte Ballet will have two African American dancers in the main company, both hired through a regular company audition. The second company has one African American dancer; another was offered a contract through the DTH initiative but declined.
The Washington Ballet is also taking a more proactive approach to diversifying its company. This season, it has launched a new program called Let's Dance Together and has brought Arthur Mitchell on as an artistic adviser specifically for the initiative. The program aims to bring in new dancers of color, provide a stronger support system for its pre-professional students who come from diverse backgrounds and promote choreographers of color. Former DTH dancer Ashley Murphy has also joined the company, though Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre was careful to point out that Murphy was not recruited. But he says attracting a dancer of Murphy's stature was a part of his long-held goal to improve diversity at the company. “We have always had a commitment to diversity, and as a Cuban American I was sensitive to the fact that even though Cubans have always been part of ballet, I was still somehow an outsider to some degree."
These are just the latest in a series of efforts by The Washington Ballet, which have included regularly turning to Mitchell and DTH artistic director Virginia Johnson for valuable advice and bringing in Copeland last season to perform with Brooklyn Mack in Swan Lake. The company's roster this season will include three black, five Latino and three Asian dancers out of 21 total. “We have made a real effort to send out a message to the ballet world that this is an organization that welcomes dancers of all cultures and complexions," says Webre. “It's really taken some time for directors to feel comfortable talking about this subject, but now the topic is out in the ether. Misty is a big part of that. And people aren't just talking now, they're really trying to find ways to do something about it."
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.
Opportunity meets struggle in New Jersey’s dance scene.
Hanan Misko and Xiao-Xuan Yang Dancigers of Nimbus Dance Works. Photo by PeiJu Chien-Pott, Courtesy Nimbus.
Most consider New York City the nation’s dance capital. But just across the Hudson River lies a great wealth of dance that is often forgotten. “I think the reputation of New Jersey’s dance scene and its caliber of dance has grown. It’s stronger than it has been in the past,” says Lisa Grimes, executive director of Dance New Jersey, the state’s consortium of dance organizations, which boasts a membership of 30 companies and 200 individual artists, including Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company, Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, Nimbus Dance Works and Roxey Ballet Company.
But there are challenges unique to dance in New Jersey. Unlike most states, it doesn’t have a dance epicenter—a major city or university—to serve as a primary home for its dance scene. And because of New Jersey’s proximity to NYC and Philadelphia, audiences and donors tend to be attracted to those cities’ larger and more well-known theaters. “There isn’t a real regional scene in that sense,” says Douglas Martin, artistic director of Princeton-based American Repertory Ballet. “Most of the companies out here don’t have a home theater like a traditional regional company. We have to do more publicity to get people to realize that performances are happening.” Regional venues like New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the McCarter Theatre in Princeton and the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University mostly present internationally recognized companies and very few local artists.
Still, there are benefits for choreographers who choose to live in New Jersey, like access to talented dancers in neighboring cities. Strong university dance programs, including Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and Montclair State University, give artists a place to teach and set work. (Even so, rental space is limited, forcing a lot of choreographers to commute to Manhattan for company rehearsals.) There’s also major support in funding regional dance. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts, for instance, offer grants and fellowships only open to New Jersey artists. Dodge awarded $450,000 to 16 dance-specific organizations in 2014; the State Council has given $460,000 to 12 for 2015.
“I see pluses and minuses to working in New Jersey,” says Randy James, artistic director of all-male troupe 10 Hairy Legs. “There is still this thing of ‘Oh, you’re from around here?’ It’s the thinking that homegrown isn’t very good. But we’re starting to see that change.”
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Ronald K. Brown's company, Evidence, celebrates 25 years.
As a little boy growing up in Brooklyn, Ronald Kevin Brown was in perpetual motion. His mom joked that it was hard to get him dressed for preschool because he was always dancing around and wouldn’t stand still. By second grade, having seen a performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Brown was leading his cousins in making up dances in his family’s living room.
But for one reason or another, Brown never received serious dance training as a kid. He didn’t want to be the only boy in one class. At another point, his mother went into labor just when Ron was about to audition for a scholarship at Dance Theatre of Harlem. He took that as a sign that he should focus on being a good big brother. When he tried to apply to a performing arts junior high school, he was not accepted because he lived outside the district. “Something was always getting in the way,” Brown says.
These days nothing is getting in Brown’s way. He’s one of the hottest choreographers in contemporary dance. His kinetically exciting style—a fusion of African and Caribbean dance, hip hop and modern dance—has been embraced as much for its rich cultural context as for its overt spirituality. The company has performed all over the world, and Brown himself is in demand as a choreographer, teacher, and mentor.
At the American Dance Festival, where Brown has been a popular teacher as well as a performer, director Charles Reinhart says Brown has an uncanny connection with students. “He has such a strong, peaceful inner force. It comes out like the shepherd to the flock,” he says. “You just walk into the studio where he’s teaching, and before he starts you feel this aura coming from him. It’s so positive, so secure, that you already know it’s going to be a great class.”
This month Brown’s company, Evidence, A Dance Company, is celebrating its 25th year. The anniversary season at Harlem Stage looks back on Brown’s dances dating from 1996. For audiences, it’s a chance to experience a range of Brown’s work; for Brown, it’s an opportunity to gain perspective.
“All I have to do is look at the Ailey organization or talk to Donald McKayle, who had a company before I was born,” Brown said recently at his company’s home base, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. He also keeps in mind what Katherine Dunham, the iconic figure who pioneered the study of African and Caribbean dances, told him once at ADF: “Just don’t let us down.”
That’s “us” as in the black community.
Though he’ll turn 44 next month, Brown still has the trim, athletic look of a dancer. There’s no gray in the close-cropped beard or hesitation in his movements during rehearsals. Only recently has the choreographer begun taking himself out of his dances so he can focus on his dancers. But he still jumps back in if he has to.
“He’s trying to dance less, but he’s such an amazing dancer,” effuses Arcell Cabuag, who does double duty as a performer and the company’s associate artistic director. “His energy onstage is at 150 percent. He pushes you to take it to another level.”
Brown had decided, by high school, to become a storyteller via journalism. Performing was never far away, though. He got involved in theater and laughingly recalls that he was the guy doing cartwheels, splits, and other bits at the school talent show. But after graduating a year early from high school, he finally stepped into a dance studio. He’d taken a Graham class during the summer and was chagrined to discover he couldn’t get the hang of rounding his back in a contraction.
Suddenly journalism was put on the back burner. Brown turned his focus to dance, working nights and studying during the day with the renowned modern dancer Mary Anthony. As he began to develop his choreographic voice, those around him pushed him to consider using dance to tell the stories of his community. “I was hanging with a lot of writers and they were writing about our identity and legacy. One of them said, ‘Your work is in the dance,’ and I said, ‘Hmm.’ That gave birth to Evidence.”
Brown was 18 when the company gave its first concert in 1985 at the Mary Anthony Dance Studio. “It was with the idea that we must represent our families, our teachers, our ancestors, and that we must have a sense of responsibility.” When his first concert didn’t lead to instant bookings, he performed with Anthony’s company and Jennifer Muller/The Works and studied choreography with the legendary Bessie Schönberg.
“My first pieces were in street clothes, sometimes in sneakers. As I was learning different techniques, I was just moving and whatever came out came out,” he says. “Those early pieces were very physical. It was about how physical could I be while I told these stories?”
By the 1990s Brown had begun to explore a constantly expanding menu of movement from a range of cultures. His movement mélange draws from street dance, modern dance, capoeira, and other elements from the African diaspora. It’s a fusion that Brown says he arrives at naturally each time he begins to move.
His vocabulary is anchored in lightning-fast rhythmical footwork that mixes a samba-like step-ball-change with the high stepping of West African styles like manjani and linjin. And then there is the high-flying, darting move in which dancers hurtle through space, front leg bent, back leg stretched, arms flung back. Watching it, one feels the urge to move—as if the dancers’ energy has been sent out into the audience to jolt you out of your seat.
Dancer Tiffany Quinn says she learned quickly that the best way to pick up Brown’s “gumbo” approach was to stop trying to identify what he wanted the dancers to do. “The first time I took his class I thought, ‘This is crazy. What am I doing?’ I learned that at first, you have to just follow him,” says Quinn, who has been a company member since 2004. “Once you feel it in your body then you can break it down, pick it apart, and say, ‘Oh, OK. This is an arabesque turn into Afro-Cuban movement.’ When he’s creating, he goes into this zone and you just have to keep up with him. It’s really kind of cool.”
Cabuag recalls encountering Brown’s work at The Ailey School when he was a student there. “I wasn’t on the right floor for Ron’s workshop but I could hear the music. I asked my ballet teacher if I could use the restroom and went upstairs to that music and auditioned,” says Cabuag, who has been with Evidence since 1997. “There was a big sense of culture and spirituality. I felt drawn to it right away.”
While Brown has been lauded for his infectious, full-bodied fusion, his work has also been criticized by those who feel traditional dances should not be tampered with. But after a series of trips to the Ivory Coast beginning in 1995, the choreographer says, he began to see his work in a new light. There, he observed a range of styles and settings, from traditional dances at family gatherings to street dances at nightclubs. The dancers he met took fusion in stride. “They would say to me, ‘Why do you African Americans worry so much about what is authentic? When you touch it, it is something else. What we do in the village is different than what we do in the hotels for the tourists,’ ” Brown recalls. “I started to understand that as long as the integrity was intact, I could use different dance forms as resources. It was very freeing for me.”
Brown is the oldest of four children and has always taken his big brother role seriously. He would be the one to tell his siblings, “Make sure you come straight home from school.” Since his mother died 14 years ago, he has gotten even more involved. His nephew Ame Bender partly inspired Brown’s Two-Year-Old Gentlemen (2008). (According to an interview in Time Out New York, when Uncle Ron asked the then 3-year-old to be in the piece, the child replied, “Let me think about it.”) A celebration of brotherhood, Two-Year-Old Gentlemen will be graced with a cameo appearance by Ame, now 5, when it is performed at Harlem Stage (see sidebar).
His sense of responsibility has stretched to include faraway dance communities that he feels a kinship with. On the recent State Department–sponsored tour of Senegal, South Africa, and Nigeria, (see “Dance Matters,” January), Brown encouraged other artists to teach and respect their art form. “We have to support each other and then all the rest will come.”
Spirituality has remained a constant theme in Brown’s work—whether the choreographer is blessing his studio with sage, talking about how the ancestors speak to him, or using gospel music. Some of his works have overtly religious themes, like Grace, the tour de force he created for the Ailey company in 1999.
In Grace, a priestess figure leads a group of congregants upstage towards a shaft of light, suggesting deliverance to a state of grace.
Brown says he knows such overt spirituality is not in vogue in the contemporary dance world. But for him, there is no separation between the body and spirit, dance and prayer. “Spirituality is always with us and it’s always a part of my work,” he says. “For me, love and God are the same. If you feel love and are lifted up from my work, that’s great. That’s what it’s all about.”
E-Moves celebrates 25 years of Ronald K. Brown & Evidence
June 17–19, at Harlem Stage Gatehouse
Program 1: For You, Better Days, Incidents, and To Harm the Dangerous
Program 2: Two-Year-Old Gentleman and One Shot
In honor of Father’s Day, Ron Brown will conduct a workshop for boys and their elders on June 19. See www.harlemstage.org.
Watch video of Evidence at dancemagazine.com.
Karyn D. Collins is a freelance writer based in NJ.
Pictured: Juel Lane, Ronald K. Brown, and Arcell Cabuag in Brown's Grace. Photo by Basil Childers, Courtesy Evidence
It's been 50 years since Arthur Mitchell joined the New York City ballet and became the first African American to rise to prominence in an American ballet company.
Mitchell, who founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, may be the most famous dancer to push open doors in the ballet world. But there were others, including Janet Collins, the first black prima ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet; Raven Wilkinson, the first black ballerina of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; and a generation of dancers like Billy Wilson and Sylvester Campbell who made their careers abroad with companies like the Dutch National Ballet.
The question is: Did they push the doors wide open, or just a crack? Are there more opportunities now than before? The answer seems to be: Things are better, but only to a point.
“Yes, you have one or two black dancers in a lot of companies—mostly men,” says Joselli Audain Deans, PhD, a former DTH dancer who teaches at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. “That’s better than it was for dancers from the 1930s through the ’60s who couldn’t even study in some schools,” Deans says. “But if a company does take African Americans, we’re almost always in the corps. Is that progress?”
Andrea Long, a principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, says the fact that DTH (currently on hiatus) is still the single major avenue for African American ballerinas to be principals illustrates how far the classical world still has to go. “Very few mainstream companies are going to say, ‘Hey, let’s give this black girl a chance; let’s make her a ballerina,’ ” says Long, who was in the New York City Ballet corps for nine years before joining DTH. “I made my decision [to leave NYCB] because I didn’t dream of being in the fifth line of the corps in the back. I wanted more, so I joined Dance Theatre of Harlem.”
Some dancers say they are optimistic about current opportunities. “I think it can go either way,” says Michael Smith, who dances with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. “Your ethnicity can play in your favor. I personally have not come across any problems yet. I feel like here everyone is so different and each of us is able to bring our own thing to the table.” (The Joffrey’s embrace of dancers of color dates back to the 1970s, when Gary Chryst and Christian Holder became popular lead dancers.)
Cleopatra Williams, a corps de ballet member of Houston Ballet, says that her generation is reaping the benefits of battles fought before. “A lot of communities have been reaching out to put ballet into the lives of young minorities. That is how I began dancing,” she says. It also helps, she adds, to have Lauren Anderson, who is the only black female principal in a predominently white company, in Houston as a trailblazer. “She’s my role model,” says Williams. “I’ve been blessed to have her in close proximity.”
But Williams has encountered her share of prejudice, including one instance she remembers when another child refused to hold her hand during a classroom exercise and called her the “n” word. She eventually learned to be unphased by such incidents. “You can’t focus on that,” she says. “You just have to keep going.”
For many artistic directors, the question of opportunities for black dancers, given the multitude of situations they face daily, is not a priority. “It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about,” says Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Roy Kaiser. “I have about 40 dancers in the company and about 4 dancers of color, and they’re there because they’re good dancers. It’s that simple.”
Edward Villella, artistic director of Miami City Ballet, says, “My responsibility is to hire talent. We probably have 14 or 15 different nationalities here. For me, the most important thing is not to discriminate in any matter, shape, or fashion. What I do is hire human beings, no matter what their ethnicity, based on certain abilities that suit our repertoire.”
But Oakland Ballet artistic director Karen Brown, who danced with DTH for 22 years, says artistic directors could make a conscious decision to have an ethnically diverse company. “[Black dancers] are being marginalized,” says Brown, who is the only African American woman heading an American ballet company. “The only people who have the power to make the changes that need to be made are the artistic directors. You have to decide you’re going to have a dancer of color. It doesn’t just happen.”
Gerard Charles, artistic director of BalletMet Columbus, says he made it happen with the help of former colleagues like Keith Saunders, ballet master for DTH. “I enjoy the interaction of all the different body types, racial types, skin tones,” says Charles, who now counts three black dancers in his company. “To me, it’s a stimulating atmosphere. I think it’s also important to reflect our audience.”
Whether or not opportunities for black dancers is a paramount issue for artistic directors, it is the proverbial elephant in the room for black classical dancers. Certainly, their primary focus is on dancing. But when you’re the only black person in the dressing room, or there are only one or two others in company class, at some point the issue comes up.
Aesha Ash says the constant pressure of being the only African American woman in the New York City Ballet was part of what pushed her to leave the company. After seven years in the corps, she joined the Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Switzerland in hopes of finding better roles. “I actually stuck around [for so long] just because I was the only black female. I would see a handful of little black girls [who were studying at School of American Ballet] and tell myself I had to keep going for them. There were people who would stop me on the street and say, ‘You’re the sistah up there doing her thing. Alright.’ I felt like I was on a mission,” Ash says. “But I got tired of feeling different. I wanted to be looked at just for my art. I felt everything about me was so different—my body type, my curves, my hair, my skin color.”
Ash recalls a particularly disquieting moment: “I remember one time we were working on Swan Lake and the woman who had come in to stage it told us, ‘I don’t want see any tan bodies on the stage.’ Well, what am I supposed to do? I guess I’m the dirty swan. Everyone is putting powder on to get as white as possible. What am I supposed to do? Those little things just got to me more and more.”
But even now with Béjart, Ash remains frustrated with the way she is often cast. “I have a soft side, but I’m always cast in stuff where there’s all this fierce, raw energy. I’m so tired of hearing that this is me. It was like that at City Ballet, and here at Béjart I still get that,” she says. “I’m not always this strong black woman on a mission. I don’t always want to move my hips. OK, we can do that. Next. We can be soft also.”
Roger Cunningham, also with Béjart, says he was told that he would never get promoted out of Boston Ballet’s second company. “I was 16; I had been in the second company for two years,” said Cunningham. “The artistic director at the time said, ‘Roger, you’re a lovely dancer, a handsome boy. But I don’t ever think I’ll take you into this company.’ I told him I was going to prove him wrong. When he finally decided to take me [into the main company], he said, ‘Well, you made a liar out of me.’ ”
“From that point on,” Cunningham continues, “I knew how many walls I was going to have to knock down. I wanted to do the prince roles and the grands pas de deux. And I did it all, from the Cavalier in The Nutcracker to the pas de trois in Swan Lake.”
Cunningham says he drew strength from his teacher Sylvester Campbell at the Baltimore School of the Arts. Campbell, known as the “black Nureyev,” had danced with the Dutch National Ballet and was also a member of the pioneering New York Negro Ballet directed by Ward Flemyng in the 1950s. Says Cunningham, “Sylvester had told me to be ready to prove myself, that I would have to be twice as good to make it. When this situation happened in Boston, I was ready.”
Misty Copeland, the only African American woman in American Ballet Theatre, says, “It’s still very rare to see African American women [in an American ballet company]. I think it’s a little bit easier for men because there’s always a shortage of men dancers.” Copeland was invited to be a soloist with DTH and says she considered it. “But I have so many goals I want to accomplish with ABT,” she says. “They’ve never had an African American female go very far, so I want to stick with it and be that person.”
It’s not only prejudice that holds black dancers back. Other issues include family pressures to opt for high-paying careers, limited access to intensive training, and a lack of role models during training years. The number of African American students on the professional track, although growing, remains low. The result is that not many African Americans show up at professional auditions.
“I would love to have more African Americans,” says Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet. “But to to give you an example, I just had an audition with 95 people. Only 6 dancers were black. And that’s more than I usually see.”
For now, DTH continues to be the go-to destination for African American dancers, especially women. During the hiatus, DTH dancers have found temporary work (the men getting bookings more easily than the women). But they look forward to returning to DTH, hopefully soon.
“I’m a firm believer that DTH is going to make it back,” says Long, whose husband, Laveen Naidu, is the company’s new executive director charged with restoring the company’s financial stability. “But it would be really, really sad if this great organization was not to exist.”
Despite, or maybe because of the obstacles, many dancers focus on the positive. Says Cunningham, “For me [the focus is to] block negativity, work hard, and give the most I can give to the people who pay to see me do what it is I love—dance.”
Karyn Collins is dance critic and entertainment writer for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.
New Jersey Ballet
Wilkins Theatre, Kean University
Union, New Jersey
October 23, 1999
Reviewed By Karyn D. Collins
When New Jersey Ballet celebrated its fortieth anniversary last season, the unspoken question for many ballet fans in the Garden State was how this little troupe has managed to hang on all these years.
Founded and still headed by former American Ballet Theatre dancer Carolyn Clark, NJB has remained a steady and reliable presence in New Jersey's dance community. While it is the state's oldest dance company, it is the second largest in terms of funding and number of dancers. But while other, younger troupes have grown larger, won bigger grants, gained more national attention, and attracted flashier names over the years, somehow NJB has persevered. Why?
Its focus on ballet's classical repertory, mixed with a neoclassical nugget here or a fluffy entertainment vehicle there, has been key to helping them retain a loyal audience. While following this formula has worked for this fifteen-member troupe, finding good repertory to add, as well as maintaining dancers who can handle the rigors of the existing repertory, has in recent years proven to be the challenge. The troupe's forty-first season opener showed that NJB is working to meet both challenges.
For now, the troupe appears to be having more success in finding dancers (about half the troupe has joined within the last two seasons) than it has had finding new repertory.
That was evident in its performance of George Balanchine's Allegro Brillante. Led by an impressive Julia Vorobyeva and Andrei Jouravlev, NJB's dancers showed how they can dazzle when given a good piece of choreography. This Allegro lacked something in its attack, but there was a welcome warmth and clarity to the performances that more than compensated.
Jouravlev showed off his superb partnering skills, performing with control and quiet finesse. Vorobyeva was equally sparkling in her pas de deux with Jouravlev, but she was shaky in some of the quick passages of pique turns and pirouettes.
The corps de ballet was equally impressive, but this is where the dulled attack showed.
The classical repertory that is NJB's calling card was represented by a dazzling Esmeralda pas de deux by Rosemary Sabovick-Bleich and Konstantin Dournev. Sabovick-Bleich, in particular, is that rare dancer with the technical strength to toss off the tricks like multiple fouette turns, but she has the artistic maturity to bring out more subtle nuances as well.
This performance also marked the company debut of Chinese ballerina Yan Li, featured in the white swan pas de deux from Swan Lake. Unfortunately, Li's Odette was impassive and distant, leaving her gorgeous line as the only element to savor.
The premiere work on this bill, Michael Vernon's Western Sweet, was an uneven bit of puffery dressed up in cowboy boots and Stetsons.
The program was rounded out by the choreographically fussy ensemble work, Verdi Pas de Six, performed by former NJB principal Elie Lazar.
With a solid crop of dancers on board for the season, it appears that the search for good works for NJB will continue to be its major challenge.
Nicole Trerise and John DeSerio in “The Lady Is a Tramp,” in Michael Smuin’s Fly Me to the Moon.
Photo by Tom Hauck, courtesy Carla Befera & Co.
Skirball Center, NYU, New York, NY
August 9–13, 2005
Reviewed by Karyn D. Collins
Michael Smuin is a master of entertaining ideas. Throughout his career he has demonstrated a showman’s flair and a knack for eye-catching works. But Smuin’s choreography wears thin quickly. Five minutes of swooping lifts and bright smiles can be charming. Two hours gives one too much time to note its shortcomings: the predictable choreographic patterns, a lack of connection between dancers and between dancers and music.
Surely the concept of an evening of dance set to Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin contributed to the packed houses greeting the San Francisco-based company. The double bill offered an edited version of Smuin’s Dancin’ With Gershwin and the New York premiere of his Fly Me to the Moon.
Of the two works, Gershwin fares better, though it is not without its problems. Each Gershwin classic, interpreted by artists from Lena Horne to Fred Astaire to Peter Gabriel, creates its own tableaux; some make more sense than others. “Do It Again,” a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, is a witty delight, spoofing the Hollywood glamour acts from movie musicals. The adagio from Concerto in F, a mini-drama about two couples who change partners on the sly, suffers from cardboard characters and fake ardor. “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” a tribute to Fred Astaire, is a clever duet for Vanessa Thiessen and David Strobbe, wielding canes and tap shoes. Unfortunately, they look like, well, ballet dancers trying to tap—stiff, overly careful, and laboring through elementary-level choreography.
The Sinatra tribute, unfortunately, amps up the clever and cute levels. Sinatra was one of the great interpreters of American pop standards. His voice could suggest a playful wink, a seductive come-on, a life of hard times, or the brash bravado of a playboy. Sadly, Smuin’s choreography merely skims the surface of these songs, and the dancers rarely reveal anything more than a broad smile and a game demeanor. In “That’s Life,”Shannon Hurlburt’s cool is overdone to the point of corniness. The part tap/part pointe adagio “The Way You Look Tonight” looks more Lawrence Welk than swinging cool. And the finale to “New York, New York,” with the entire cast high-kicking in snap-brim hats, is a groaner.
Fleeting moments of magic reveal a glimmer of what might have been; for example, Ethan White’s deadpan boredom opposite Robin Cornwell’s earnest (and exhausting) antics in “I Won’t Dance.” And you almost forget the choppiness of “Moonlight Serenade” when Celia Fushille-Burke and James Strong mesmerize you with a lingering look or a caress. But the banal and the humdrum snuff out these few flickers of brilliance. See www.smuinballet.org.
Isaac Spencer in Nacho Duato’s Gnawa
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Joyce Theater, New York, NY
August 8–20, 2005
Reviewed By Karyn D. Collins
It’s not easy being a chameleon. For a top repertory company, three components are essential: a repertoire that fits the abilities and look of the company, careful attention to the integrity of each work, and dancers who are willing and able to adapt themselves to any style.
Hubbard Street Dance is that rarity, a company that does all three to the highest degree. Since its founding in 1977, it has consistently defied description. It’s a jazz company. No, it’s a modern company. No, it’s a contemporary company. But titles don’t matter. The fact is, Hubbard Street doesn’t fit into one category. It’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that. More important, the little bits of this and that are all done to perfection.
In two programs chock-a-block with premieres, the company brought several works made especially for it. And it was interesting to see what different choreographers brought out in these dancers.
The world premiere, artistic director Jim Vincent’s Uniformity, was as much a wry statement on interpersonal dynamics as it was about the versatility of the company. To some degree there was a story to the outfits: corporate suits in the first section, parochial school uniforms for the second, and retro ’70s casual for the third. But this was really about relationships—the briefcase boys fighting for a seat of power that ultimately belongs to a woman; the schoolyard skirmishes, from mind-games to kick-butt battles; and the party crowd, kissing and dissing, showing that it is indeed possible to be lonely even in a crowd.
Movement-wise, Vincent employs a propulsive fusion of moves—hip hop pops, jazz moves pushed backward and off the axis, and hardscrabble twists and turns in keeping with the urban battle-zone scenarios he creates.
A New York premiere, Gnawa, Nacho Duato’s first work for the company, explored a different side of Hubbard Street. Gnawa takes us into the midst of tribal rituals, centered around a couple who celebrate and revel in the elements of water, earth, and fire. The community around this couple moves through a series of formations, the repetitions building with an intensity to match the swirl of music around them. At times they seem propelled by the music; at others they are the music. It is a hypnotic whirl that draws us into his almost religious experience of movement and music. See www.hubbardstreetdance.com.
From "The Next Step"
New Jersey Tap Ensemble
Memorial Auditorium, Montclair State University
November 5, 2004
Reviewed by Karyn D. Collins
At a time when even the most established dance companies are struggling to survive or folding altogether, celebrating a 10th anniversary is a milestone. For the New Jersey Tap Ensemble, the achievement, celebrated with a gala concert, “The Next Step,” marked a major happening in both New Jersey’s dance community and the larger tap community.
Artistic director Deborah Mitchell founded her company based on her experiences as a protégée of hoofer Leslie “Bubba” Gaines, as part of the Rhythm Queens tap duo with Germaine Goodson, and as a performer in the film The Cotton Club and Broadway’s Black and Blue.
The gala featured the 14-member main company, a group of 20 teenagers, and a trio of young children in a revue-style mélange of energetic group numbers. Repertory staples dominated the program, including Mitchell’s Jersey Bounce, a stylish ensemble number patterned after Black and Blue. It showed off the company’s panache and facility with the major tenets of rhythm tap, from stop time to flashy, vaudeville-flavored moves. Although entertaining, many of these works revealed a sameness that made one long for more daring explorations. Mitchell’s Moon Suite, though, offered a refreshing change with its polyrhythmic celebration of the song “How High the Moon.”
Mitchell performed a brief but touching tribute to her mentor that included her re-creation of Gaines’ celebrated jump-rope tap act and a solo of shimmering subtlety to a song he often performed to, “Begin the Beguine.”
Joining the festivities was a trio of guest artists, all noted performers who call the ensemble home—Karen Callaway Williams, Maurice Chestnut, and Parris Mann. Their solos, besides emphasizing the individual artistry and personality that are integral to rhythm tap, shed light on this company’s role as an incubator for young talent.
Sharing the stage with the celebration of the past was a nod to the group’s future. Savion Glover’s work-in-progress for the company took the stage in a segment aptly called Unfolding a New Work. Its intricate rhythms—from swing to hip hop—and sudden bursts of individual flourishes served as an intriguing harbinger of the company’s next step.
For more information: www.njte.org