With Spirit and A Spark

September 28, 2008

Evidence, the acclaimed, Brooklyn-based ensemble of Ronald K. Brown, swirls, pumps, and springs across the stage. One dancer swerves away from the audience, her powerful swimmer’s torso rising from the low dip in back of her costume. Slipping through singer Nina Simone’s mix of swing and polish, she faces us again with the sly smile of a cabaret chanteuse. Her jaunty smoothness is pure Simone on an upbeat day. In this dancer, you detect a similar indivisibility of musical chops and knowing attitude.


The dance is Brown’s Come Ye. That woman is the incomparable Shani Nwando Ikerioha Collins. It’s a sure bet that when she takes the stage, she will deliver not only the movement but the core, the bedrock, the very meaning and spirit of a dance. In the midst of Brown’s sensational performers—everyone steeped in a vocabulary that marries elements of ballet and modern dance, West African and club dancing—Collins always digs deep into the music and strikes sparks, catching and instructing the eye.


“Shani is what we like to call an old soul,” says Thomas DeFrantz, who taught Collins in the Hollins University/American Dance Festival graduate program. Before he met this accomplished MFA candidate, he’d long marveled at her performances with Evidence. “She’s provocative, compelling, a wondrous interpreter of Ron’s work,” says DeFrantz, a noted dance author whose area is theory, history, and criticism. “When Shani’s in the room, all these spirits come as well. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also challenging for a young artist because she has to figure out which spirit she wants to follow and honor and which one she needs to push away.”


Indeed, multiple spirits fill Collins’ life: dance, choreography, academic inquiry, and social activism. She serves each of these with a sense of responsibility and openness to its particular challenge.


Observing a preteen Collins spending her first of many seasons at the American Dance Festival, Brown never doubted that she would one day join his troupe. “Her physicality was right on point,” he says. “There was a generosity that I was attracted to.”


Thinking back to her very first class with Brown, Collins, 28, admits she was not so sure of herself. “I stuck out all over the place,” she recalls. “My arms were everywhere. My feet . . . well, I was very young.” But she grew into it. “It always felt good,” says Collins. “Ron always talks about how the feelings shift, and I got a good understanding of what the dancing should feel like, even if I wasn’t doing the movement quite right. About my third year in the company, I could express myself; a natural warrior quality was coming out in the movement. People called me ‘gangsta.’ I was like, ‘I finally got it!’ ”


Camille Brown, formerly with Evidence and now an independent choreographer, became her friend and roommate when they were both fresh recruits to the troupe, adjusting to the slippery, multifaceted technique. “There was a lot of material to learn in a little time,” she says. “We helped each other as much as we could.” Asked what makes her colleague’s dancing special, Camille Brown utters the word “Fire!” She continues: “Just the fire, the attack is beautiful.”


“It was about figuring out how to express the fire,” says Collins. “Ron doesn’t like it when people ‘hit’ the movement all the time, very sharp like you’re just trying to wear it out. He’ll say something like ‘Calm down,’ and tell me how to use my fire.”


Indeed, whether finding the precise degree of rage to channel in Brown’s intense quartet, Walking Out the Dark, or letting the energy of faith fill up and spill through her pliant body in Truth Don Die, Collins has always given a dance everything it demands. She received a 2006 Bessie Award “for her fierce devotion to the artistry of dance and for her unquestionable excellence during her tenure with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence.”


Becoming Shani Nwando Ikerioha Collins (a.k.a. SNIC) was a long process, and it took a village. A first-born daughter—her mother’s previous pregnancies ended in miscarriages—Collins was given her two middle names by a family friend from Africa. They reflect both her mother’s sorrows and her ultimate joy (Nwando) and the importance of belonging to and serving something greater than oneself (Ikerioha). Raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her kid sister Phakiso (now a documentary filmmaker), Collins drew from a rich heritage that included people involved in education, music, and civil rights.


Her father came up in the Black Arts Movement and served as bodyguard to the outspoken poet Amiri Baraka. He remembers carrying baby Shani to activist meetings, resting her basket right on the table where she remained well-behaved and, one imagines, absorbed the atmosphere of fervor and discipline. Her mother, trained in classical piano, imparted her love of Chopin. This year, Mrs. Collins traveled to New York to play live for her daughter’s piece Lullen in a New Plantation Economy, presented by Dance Theater Workshop.


“Think globally, dance locally” might have been young Shani’s motto. She recalls her earliest dance lessons—Cabbage Patch Kids routines at a Greensboro studio called Salimah Dance Co. Her parents next enrolled her in Beryl’s Love Dance and Music Showcase, where she studied tap, ballet, jazz, and African dance and took part in competitions. She later tried out for the North Carolina School of the Arts but didn’t have strong enough ballet chops. To beef up her technique, she trained with Greensboro Ballet; she eventually made it into NCSA’s summer program and graduated from their high school conservatory.


In 1993, as a scholarship student, Collins began a happy, enduring relationship with the American Dance Festival. She was eventually taken under the wing of Donna Faye Burchfield, visionary director of dance studies at Hollins University and dean of ADF’s school. Having earned her BA through Hollins’ fledgling baccalaureate program in 2001, Collins secured her MFA from ADF. She has received its Martha Myers Choreography Award and a place on its faculty. This past summer—her third as an instructor—she taught technique classes and shared a repertory class with her former mentor, Dianne McIntyre.


“Dianne taught me that I don’t need to put everything I learn in a dance,” says Collins. “I just got the DNA results back from my African ancestry test. In my mind, as an artist, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll make this into a piece.’ And Dianne was like, ‘No, you just need to sit with that for a while and be able to call it up when it’s time.’ ” Collins continued: “I also learned from her how to use live music, and to step out of my comfort zone, to open up my body to new qualities of movement.”


Asked if racism had ever tainted her early experience, she says she felt judged because of her race and physique and was ostracized when she was on her college swim team. She remembers being steered towards Greensboro Ballet’s modern and jazz classes and away from ballet. She felt her instructors and fellow students thought her body type was out of the norm. “It was like, ‘What is she doing here?’ I’m too swaybacked; my butt sticks out too much. It was really weird. ‘You don’t look like a dancer. You’re so fat!’ ”


This quiet and serious youngster needed a change of scenery. Accepted into the 1996 Ailey Camp, the summer program for inner-city kids, Collins came to New York and roomed with an aunt who helped her feel at home. Slightly unnerved by the highly competitive atmosphere in New York studios, she relied upon the grounded philosophy and Africanist spirit of inclusiveness that Reginald Yates imparted in his classes at Ailey. She dreamt of having the kind of all-out fun that she saw Earl Moseley’s students having (see “Delivering Diversity,” Summer Study Guide, Jan. ’08). And she remembered that her parents had taught her to know her own mind and to go for what she wanted.


Over the years, Collins has performed with Urban Bush Women, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Nathan Trice/RITUALS, David Dorfman Dance, the National Dance Company of Mozambique, and Makeda Thomas’ Roots and Wings Movement. In 2005, she formed her own troupe, Eternal Works, as structure for her choreography as well as her “Breaking Out” workshops for the empowerment of black women.


“Shani has made some interesting work about black women’s history,” says DeFrantz. “Full of ghosts—the memory of things we know are still in the room but we might not see.”


Stoked by her experiences with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s socially engaged Urban Bush Women, Collins has also begun to pursue a strong interest in community healing and empowerment. With sister Phakiso, who first conceived their “Breaking Out” workshops while a student at Howard University, her new plans include broadening the reach of “Breaking Out” to churches, schools, and neighborhood centers. She also wants to establish an ADF exchange program with an African nation and to study more about women and sexuality in African cultures.


Collins carries the fire of enthusiasm wherever life takes her—into a circle of women who have the courage to share and witness one another’s stories; into a studio with young students seeking affirmation; and before an audience transfixed by the power of dance. But she does so with humility and a memory of how it felt to be unaccepted.


“I am no master,” she says. “Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. All the different parts of the body work together. At heart, that’s how I want to do it. As the African proverb says, ‘When two women work together, they can do anything before noon!’ ”


Eva Yaa Asantewaa is a NYC-based dance critic and hosts a podcast, Body and Soul.