Dance/USA and the race issue

Dance and race: Confronting the elephant

Pennsylvania Ballet founder Barbara Weisberger (left) with Brown and Luckman: Can we get along? (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
Pennsylvania Ballet founder Barbara Weisberger (left) with Brown and Luckman: Can we get along? (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)

As Terry Fox, a long-time mover/shaker in Philadelphia's dance community, sees it, "There was a wave of dance that began across the nation in the '60s when the National Endowment for the Arts was formed and regional companies were encouraged and supported. It crested in the late '80s when the NEA came under attack and its effectiveness was greatly diminished." We were talking during the annual Dance/USA conference held in Philadelphia earlier this month.

Surely economics will always be an issue for dancers and dance companies. But the elephant in the room at last year's conference in San Francisco was the absence of discussion of racial issues.

Philadelphia, by contrast, is a city with a large African American population and a strong tradition of black dance. It's the home base of the iconic dance maker Joan Myers Brown, the African American founder of Philadanco in 1970. (To read my appreciation of Brown, click here.) So at this month's Dance/USA conference in Philadelphia, the race issue was squarely faced on several levels.

Hurricane Sandy's wake

The keynote address by Aaron P. Dworkin, founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a national non-profit that focuses on breaking down stereotypes about blacks and Latinos in classical music, opened the conference, which also included two multi-hour racial equity training sessions and a workshop. Joan Myers Brown received Dance/USA's "Ernie Award" for service to the field (named for the late Ian "Ernie" Horvath, a founder of the Cleveland Ballet). Another award recipient, Sharon Gersten Luckman, former executive director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was also on hand to receive kudos from a nearly packed Perelman Theater.

The conference included trade topics like insurance coverage— no small concern to dancers since Hurricane Sandy, whose floods ruined costumes and other items at several New York companies, most notably Martha Graham. But Philadelphians were more concerned with other issues.

Brenda Dixon-Gottschild— professor emeritus at Temple University and author of The Black Dancing Body and, more recently, Joan Myers Brown and the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina— prepared a conversation about racial bias that she called "Can We All Get Along?" with Joan Myers Brown, Lela Aisha Jones and Deneane Richburg as panelists. Prior to the session, several conferees were designated to submit a race-related conflict situation in which they'd been involved, which were read aloud (some anonymously).

Ignored by her teacher

Norma Porter Anthony, a former dancer and now editor/publisher of Black Dance, recalled her training at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. "One summer I took ballet class at the Maryland Youth Ballet to strengthen my ballet technique," she said in her example. "It was my first experience of being the only black dancing body in a class with white ballet teachers." One teacher ignored her, she said, and the students barely spoke to her.

Later, when she took a dance minor at American University, Anthony once more found herself in the minority. But "this time I was more confident in my technical training as well as life experiences as a black woman," she said. "I owned the space and refused to be treated as if I didn't belong. My instructor was from Hungary, and he and the students were surprised that I could execute ballet movements. Instead of hiding in my shell, I decided to shine bright and brown, because I had just as much right to be there as everyone else in the studio."

Parading at the Barnes

Aside from giving out awards and organizing conferences, Dance/USA lobbies for dance with local and national legislatures. It also assists dance companies, presenters and promoters with such issues as fund raising, production and audience engagement. Lois Welk, director of its Pennsylvania affiliate, has created a truly valuable rental program that allows troupes to rent spaces in tandem with other troupes.

Many dance troupes took advantage of the conference to present showcases of local dance at spaces like Christ Church Community House, Drexel University's Mandell Theatre or the Performance Garage for the 445 dance lovers who attended the conference. They included dance makers like Septime Webre, artistic director of Washington Ballet, artist representatives like Ivan Sygoda of Pentacle and presenters like Randy Swartz of Dance Celebration.

Institutions like the Barnes Foundation, which hosted the opening night reception, also invited local dance companies to perform. Anne Marie Mulgrew reprised her utterly charming and painterly Umbrella Dance, replete with ladies in white gowns and parasols parading on the west side of the Barnes' grounds. Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers offered an excerpt of his recently premiered Mandela Project. He and his four dancers, wrapped in pleated brown paper sheathing by Hua Hua Zhang, seemed rapt in deep introspection as they wound through the cocktail crowd, oblivious of us.

Pennsylvania Ballet's ambitions

Out on the east grounds near the museum's reflecting pools, Merián Soto's four dancers slowly and silently balanced ten- to 12-foot-long tree branches on their heads, shoulders, elbows and knees in one of her Branch Dances, a project she's worked on for several years in the Wissahickon woods and other outdoor spaces. These pieces looked especially elegant at the Barnes, which has given many Philadelphia companies dance space because, as the Matisse dancers in its arches suggest, it's a place for dancing.

The conference was scheduled to coincide with the Pennsylvania Ballet's spectacular season-closer of modernist ballets, perhaps its most rigorous program in recent years. The Ballet's 33 dancers had to learn JiÅ™í Kylián's dramatic 1981 work, Forgotten Land, Matthew Neenan's poetic At Various Points (a world premiere) and a reconstruction of William Forsythe's historically significant and difficult Artifact Suite. On opening night they hadn't yet fully inhabited all the dances, but by Friday night they seemed finally at home in them. (To read Jonathan Stein's BSR review, click here.)

Hope for the future

A session on the Local Dance History Project was led by Terry Fox, who now runs the Philadelphia Dance Projects, which presents a handful of national exchange programs between other significant dance cities like Seattle and Minneapolis each year. The panel included Michael Biello, a Philadelphia dance fixture through the '80s who now contributes a valuable institutional memory to the Dance History project. Among its achievements, this project has designed an interactive website with a timeline between the mid-'70s through the '80s that will trace the evolution of artists and performances through photos and video.

While issues of race are important to address, to me this Local Dance History Project is one to watch. It's there that we're most likely to see how vital minority dance has been to the dancing life of Philadelphia.

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