Theresa Ruth Howard reports on Dance/NYC’s Race and Dance forum (with response from Baraka Sele, July 2)

Earlier this spring, Dance/NYC sponsored a panel on dance and race. Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa contacted panelist and Dance Magazine chief Wendy Perron (whose race issue is now on line), and Perron enlisted Theresa Ruth Howard to file a report for Foot in Mouth. (I asked for an opinionated report, as Howard had been a vocal participant in the forum.)
Theresa Ruth Howard is a former member of Dance Theater of Harlem. She currently dances with Armitage Gone! Dance and teaches ballet at the Alvin Ailey school in New York. As a freelance writer, she has contributed to Pointe and Dance Magazine, as well as The Source.
Here she is:
Historically, race has been a difficult subject to discuss. It’s loaded emotionally, ethically, and personally. As members of the human race we are all affected in one way or another, whether we choose to enter the discourse or not.
On May 8, Dance/NYC took the issue on with a town forum entitled “Dance and Race.” In the organization’s SoHo office, there were about 25 of us. It was interesting to note who was in attendance: young dancers, former dancers, students, directors of dance programs, company managers, agents, and choreographers. There was a great diversity in age, from college students to the mature. However–and this did not surprise me–there was less diversity when it came to race. The audience was heavy on African American and Hispanic, light on Caucasian, and feather-weight on Asian. I mention the breakdown, as it informs the direction of the discussion.
The panel was moderated (albeit loosely) by Baraka Sele, presenter for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. At times she seemed more of a sixth panelist than a moderator.
The actual panelists included Virginia Johnson, former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and current editor in chief of Pointe; Pedro Ruiz, frequent choreographer for Ballet Hispanico and commissioned to set a ballet on the Joffrey, former principal with Ballet Hispanico, and teacher at the Ailey school; Ronald K. Brown, founder/director of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence dance company; Charles Rice-Gonzalez, producer for BAAD!, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance; Helen Wu, director of the New York Chinese Cultural Center; and Wendy Perron, former dancer with Trisha Brown and current editor in chief of Dance Magazine.
Sele opened the discussion with a single question: What if “a lack of diversity,” as we call it, is just a matter of aesthetics? Perhaps choosing to have an all white, black, Hispanic, or Asian company is just the look the choreographer or director desires: do we have the right to say it’s wrong?
Brown relayed a story about a young girl who, after seeing his company, asked why he only had black dancers. In fact, there’s a Filipino dancer in the company; it was about what the little girl was seeing. As for a director’s aesthetic preference, he said he hired the person who can hit the step with the feeling he’s looking for. Later he spoke of turning down an offer to choreograph a piece for a ballet company that would celebrate the opening of a slave museum. He is interested in telling his grandmother’s stories and has a vested interest in doing so respectfully and artistically. Upon visiting the museum later, he felt his instincts had been right. “It was just too clean,” he said of the museum; there is nothing about slavery that is clean.
Sele then asked Rice-Gonzalez and Wu about how they deal with perceptions around “ethnic dance.” Rice-Gonzalez spoke of Arthur Aviles, choreographer for and cofounder of BAAD!, who fights the stereotypes. People hear the word “Bronx” and “dance,” and automatically think “salsa.”
Wu explained that as director of the Chinese Cultural Center, she had come to the panel to help find new ways to present traditional Chinese dance. Where Latin and African dance forms make people want to get up and join in (with the misconception that it’s just a whole lot of shakin’ and no real structure), Chinese dance is more austere and distant, making it harder for those not familiar with it to connect. Her work at the Chinese cultural center is to find ways to make it accessible.
She pointed out that there was only one other Asian in the room, at which point it became clear to me that when we in America speak of diversity, race, and racism in dance and elsewhere, it is still very much an issue of black and white. The reason is rooted in our history. The emotional DNA between African Americans and Caucasian Americans is very specific, bringing up things–painful, ugly things–that we don’t want to acknowledge or address. The history is not usually as fraught with Hispanic or Latin people, or with Asians. In fact, Asian dancers are relatively well represented in both modern and ballet companies. (Certainly, it could be better.) To be quite honest, it often comes down to blendability–if you are an African American woman (dark males have less problems in this area) and you are darker than a white woman with a Hawaiian Tropic tan, it may give some ballet directors pause.
Which brought us to the world of ballet, where the “lack of” is glaringly obvious. Gia Kourlas’s New York Times article “Where Are All the Black Swans?” had just detailed as much. Johnson took the lead, stating that African American dancers (including herself) are often steered away from ballet as a career by the very teachers who trained them. The few who make it to a professional level are often alone, causing a pressure and stress for which young dancers are often ill prepared. Johnson voiced the need for mentoring dancers of color, in order to support them in environments, of school and company, that can be daunting.
The African American male dancer AndrĂ© Zachery asked about getting “acceptance” from the dance world, which people pooh-poohed. This greatly irritated me. We so like to believe that we should not be seeking acceptance from…anyone! A few things up to this point had stuck in my craw. I felt compelled to say that acceptance is an important and necessary aspect of what we do. We do need to be accepted by critics, the public, presenters, and definitely funders.
The second issue that bothered me had to do with aesthetics. Sele had mentioned not “getting” postmodern choreographer Ralph Lemon’s work, because it wasn’t what she had “expected” to see. This is a large part of the problem with dance and race: Why does dance by people of color have to look a certain way for the audience to “get it”? Why do people assume an African American’s work has to take on issues of race in the most obvious ways, while white artists can paint in broad strokes and a plethora of palettes and be accepted and often applauded for the stretch? People may be bemused by a black ballet choreographer such as San Francisco’s Alonzo King–who melds “downtown” ideas and concepts with the incongruent and a torquing, extra-elastic classical technique–but it isn’t what they expect.
Perron reminded us how the choreographer and former Cunningham dancer Gus Solomons Jr. dealt with his alienation from the “black community” for being an abstract artist: He called himself an “Oreo.” My theory was that he had called himself out as the world would see him; he is no less black for it. He was addressing the schism that affects many people of color in America–the cultural schizophrenia that has you torn between what you look like and cultural sensibilities that can often be informed by your own particular economic background, which may or may not conform to the usual in America. Trying to communicate this is touchy and bound to offend someone, because the sheer reality of it is hard to deal with.
Okay, enough of what I said.
There was talk about the diversification of companies being “hard” to do, and one had to “work” at it. Elisa Monte–who deserves special mention as a choreographer and director who can actually change the situation–took issue with this personally, as her company is highly diverse. She said she simply hired the people who were the best for the job.
Someone suggested that Alvin Ailey is considered the epitome of the African American modern dance aesthetic: it’s often assumed that young African American dancers do dance for it, or ought to. Michael Moore, the company manager of the contemporary ballet company Complexions, spoke of how the troupe had lost two dancers to that juggernaut. Moore felt that with one of them, it was less her true desire and more the seduction of obtaining the very thing that supposedly every African American dancer covets.
The young African American male Winston “Dynamite” Brown–a dancer with Taylor 2, Paul Taylor’s junior company–spoke about the reactions he gets from people for being in a “white” modern dance company, ranging from incredulity and confusion to pride and support. He enjoyed representing diversity not merely in that company but to the dance world–proving that indeed we are more than Ailey.
Then the discussion moved “downtown,” where people of color are few and far between, except for a few golden tokens that have been taken under the wing. Unfortunately, this downtown train of thought was derailed. Not really addressed by our moderator, it is still at the core of the issue. The absence of color on the downtown scene creates the perception that people of color don’t do this type of work. Closer to the reality, I think, is that the downtown venues are slow to acknowledge these artists. They are not underrepresented so much as underpresented.
A young African American ballet dancer from North Carolina School for the Arts echoed Johnson’s sentiments about the lack of support for African American women in ballet. She mentioned the pressure she encounters at school to change her major. With the collapse of Dance Theatre of Harlem, there’s not been anyone to look up to who looks like you, she said, and that’s been hard. (Yet another reason mentoring is desperately needed.)
Sele closed by asking us to be vigilant, to educate others, to have conversations among ourselves, and to change the lexicon. As the group dispersed, there was talk of the issues we hadn’t gotten around to–important issues, such as funding and presenting. Dance/NYC executive director, Robert Yesselman, committed to continuing the dialogue in the future. It proved far too vast for a mere two hours.
Finally, though, what was learned, gained, or changed? Somehow we go into these discussions thinking that this time the magic words will be spoken to solve the problem–or at least eradicate all obfuscation. Usually you leave with more things to ponder and the desire to do something. So you spend the next few days running it by people and in the end, yes, there is something learned, gained, and changed. But solved? That’s another story. The truth is, until the power people enter into this discussion, change will be slow, if it happens at all.
As Rice-Gonzalez pointed out at the beginning of the discussion, quoting a line that dancer-choreographer Andrea Woods speaks in a piece of hers, “We have changed the laws, but not the people.”
~Theresa Ruth Howard
Eva responds:
From jazz to science and all points in between, even in matters of everyday survival, African diasporan people have been experimenting for a very, very long time. And that’s just for starters.
It’s satisfying to see that artists of color just keep on keeping on, whether or not they are categorized or understood or loved as experimenters or anything. Everyone doing what he or she needs to do, being their genius selves and not paying attention to the naysayers.
My thanks to Theresa Ruth Howard for accepting Wendy’s and your invitation to report on this forum. I regret that I was not able to attend it, but this huge and multiheaded issue will not go away tomorrow, and I’m sure there will be other opportunities to pick up this discussion again.
Apollinaire responds:
Thanks again for this report, Theresa Ruth. One thought on the underpresentation of experimental artists of color in downtown venues: I think the common assumption that people of color don’t experiment may be part of the problem. But another part is that “experimental” is defined in such narrow terms that it doesn’t include experiments within or between given dance traditions: experiments in ballet, such as Alonzo King has done, or experiments in tap, as with Savion Glover, Roxane Butterfly, Ayodele Casel and others, or experiments in hip-hop, with lots of dancers in New York and the outer boroughs.
I recently watched a breaking class at Peridance in which the teacher, Ephrat Asherie, had set breaking steps to a salsa rhythm. The effect was amazing. One of the students, a seasoned hoofer–I didn’t catch her name–was working to infuse hip-hop moves and rhythms into tap. (Of course, this is nothing new, but the iterations change as fast as hip hop does.) After class, they ran off to a dance jam way downtown. Why isn’t any of that showing up at Dance Theater Workshop, for example?
You’re only counted as experimental, it seems, if you work solidly within the tradition of modern-dance experimentation. How absurdly tautological! The effect, I think, is to underpresent a lot of artists of color whose postmodernism has to do with the mixes they make of various traditions.
Wendy Perron, of Dance Magazine, offers this clarification:
Hi all,
I just want to clarify one thing: when Gus described himself to me as an “oreo” (and this was many years ago) there was no sense that he felt alienated from the black dance community. After all, he had danced with Donald McKayle. But aesthetically he was drawn to Cunningham, and I think the term had something to do with where he grew up and where he went to school (MIT). ~Wendy
From Baraka Sele, curator at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center:
Here it is July 2, and I am just now seeing this review of the Dance and Race panel discussion I moderated May 8 for Dance/NYC.
Yes, I am not at all surprised that I seemed more like a panelist than a moderator. I am passionate and opinionated about the arts (not just dance): That’s what folks get when they seek me out–passion and opinions that have accummulated over a 25-plus professional career as an artist and performing arts curator, consultant, and producer for arts organizations throughout the United States.
Please know that after a discussion with the staff of DANCE/NYC, I was given the latitude and luxury to conduct the panel as I chose.
A few other points I would like to address and clarify: Theresa Ruth Howard didn’t mention that I first saw Ralph Lemon’s work more than 15 years ago. For the past six years (2000 to 2006) I served on the board of directors of his production company, CROSS PERFORMANCE, INC. I have supported Lemon’s work as a funder (Africa Exchange) and a co-commissioner on more than one occasion.
Also, I do not curate or program artists based on press or promotion packages, videos, DVDs, CDs, etc. I program artists based on LIVE performance. And, yes, often I do not “get” the work–this is not a sin!
As a responsible curator, I almost always take the time to return to the work of artists I do not understand to research their aesthetic, context, form and methodology. I also meet directly with the artists themselves. I usually spend two to five years learning about the work of an artist with whom I am not familiar but may be interested in presenting. I don’t present the work of artists I like, I present the work of artists who I think are making important contributions to our cultural landscape and who challenge our preconceived notions (including my own) about what it means to make art in the 21st century.

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  1. Claire Willey says

    Theresa Ruth Howard wrote: “This is a large part of the problem with dance and race: Why does dance by people of color have to look a certain way for the audience to ‘get it’? Why do people assume an African American’s work has to take on issues of race in the most obvious ways, while white artists can paint in broad strokes and a plethora of palettes and be accepted and often applauded for the stretch?”
    Many people allow the communal definition of race to limit them, rather than simply being themselves and allowing others to change their definitions of race. Howard seemed to think that a large part of the problem is the pressure of audience expectation, but I would disagree.
    The audience sees *the work* first and foremost–usually having no idea who the choreographer is, where he/she comes from or what he/she looks like (unless the choreographer is a part of a racially driven festival). A good choreographer will be appreciated for making beautiful work no matter what his or her background.
    Alonzo King, Ralph Lemon, and Gus Solomons Jr. perform in some of the most prestigious concert halls in the U.S., often to sold out houses and rave reviews by major critics. I can think of a thousand choreographers (of all races) who will never reach such heights.
    In her post, Howard said, “Sele had mentioned not ‘getting’ postmodern choreographer Ralph Lemon’s work, because it wasn’t what she had ‘expected’ to see.”
    This is an important and interesting comment. However, it doesn’t serve as an example of the response of an average *audience member*! Baraka Sele is a presenter for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and therefore one of the group of people who ultimately decides which companies get to perform, where, and how often. Unlike the average audience member, she would have received a press packet about Ralph Lemon before she ever saw a performance. So, it is no wonder that she came to the theater with preconceived ideas!
    How much do presenters judge choreographers purely on their press packets? Does race factor into the decisions about whom to present, when and how? And how much does the way a dance is presented affect the views of the audience?
    I don’t know. But this is a serious issue that needs to be considered.

  2. Theresa Ruth Howard says

    I know I’m a little late but to comment on Ms.Sele’s response- your style as a moderator is your style; I was not questioning the freedom granted you to run the panel as you saw fit. Your accumulated knowledge and expertise in the field were no doubt reasons for your being chosen to moderate. Passion and opinion are wonderfully stimulating. I was merely reporting on what took place, and on that note, I did not mention your history with Mr. Lemon because the extent of it was never discussed in that forum. How was I or anyone else in the room to know your history with Ralph Lemon and his work? I was simply relaying what was expressed at the event; at that time you did not communicate those things; therefore… I never implied that it was a “sin” that on first sight you did not “get” it. I actually thought it was kinda cool that at some point you did- I wish others were that open to possibility. However, had you gone into detail about your relationship to him and his work, it would have been a different story. In addition no one is questioning your record or process as a curator-I’m not sure how that came into play but it was not even an issue in your role as moderator. One has nothing to do with the other.

  3. gurlsouth says

    Any suggestions on where I can purchase 2 or more DVD’s showing young african american girl dancers? it’s a gift for my 4 year old niece. Any suggestions to a website would be great! Thanks

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