Thirteen choreographers from around the Bay Area present work as part of the 11th annual Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now
Feb. 21 to March 1 at Dance Mission Theater. Now entering its second decade, the BCF has increased its scope every year in its project to showcase African American dance by local and national artists during Black History Month.
This year’s festival organizer, Laura Elaine Ellis, curated the program around the question, “What is the legacy of Black dance in the Bay Area?” Yet, when interviewed by SF Weekly
, choreographers expressed a wide spectrum of opinions about the racial implications of the festival. If the premise of the festival is that it contains work identified as the creations of black choreographers, what does that mean for each individual artist who agrees to appear under that title? Participating choreographers Byb Chanel Bibene, Gregory Dawson, Maurya Kerr, Brontez Purnell, Carmen Roman, Raissa Simpson, Reginald Ray Savage, Nafi Watson, and Jamie Ray Wright weighed in.
What does it mean to you to be a black choreographer?
Watson: What it means to be a black choreographer to me is, being able to have a voice in this harsh dance world. I can have my work looked at before the audience even sees the color of my skin, and once they see who I am, and I receive good feedback it makes me feel good that I am a strong young black choreographer with a powerful voice.
Savage: I don't know anything else to be but to be a black choreographer. I'm a black male who happens to do his art and his art is choreography. The only thing I can be is to be a black choreographer. The question should be for you and others: What does it mean to you and others for me to be a black choreographer? For all I've ever known is to be black. That's like asking me what does it mean to me to breathe, to eat, i.e. "What's it like for a black person to breathe? What's it like for me to eat as a black person?" It's not a very good question.
It's like making a statement: Black Lives Matter. Duh. Hell yeah, black lives matter. And so do all lives matter. And to be living in the 21st century and still feel like I must make this statement or watch other people make this statement about my humanity is pretty close to a public insult as one can get, short of having somebody white calling me the "N-word" in public. I can't, black people shouldn't have to make qualifying statements about what it is to be black to do this. Because it is like asking me what is it like to breathe. Really? Twenty-first century? And the question is still, what does it mean to be a black choreographer?
Dawson: I am certain of the fact that my choreographic voice comes from those who carved a path for me. During my 20-year career at LINES, Alonzo King guided me with a wisdom and artistic sensibility that no doubt influences my work today. I am blessed to have had his tutelage, yet I also know that what I create comes from a place deep within my cultural heritage and rooted in my personal identity. I do not see color when I create, but my work inherently makes a statement. I am Black, I am a Homosexual – not always in that order, but working from these truths allows me to be open and giving with my choreography, and to share my belief that all human beings should be free to express their artistic voices with respect, compassion, and a sense of worth and pride.
Kerr: I think the question itself is contentious because it plays into the delusion of whiteness as normative and black as abnormal. One would probably not ask a white choreographer the respective question. I am a choreographer who happens to be black/bi-racial as well as female, tall, thin, adopted, middle-aged, unmarried, etc… My blackness is just one piece of my totality, and it is my multiplicity that charges my art. While racism and misogyny have legacies of violence that my other components don't, I believe that this separation of black dance/art and white dance/art contributes to our society's endemic racial polarization. Because America is without doubt a white-supremacist-capitalistic-patriarchy, there is no White Choreographer's Festival, as everyday in America is a White Male Choreographer's Festival.
I recently posted on Facebook about my amazement, horror, and disgust at realizing that the current seasons of San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet, and American Ballet Theater feature NOT ONE female choreographer or choreographer of color. Because of the systemic inequalities and injustices against women and people of color everywhere, I do believe that platforms like the Black Choreographers Festival are necessary to give space to underrepresented voices, but I also fear that that any coinage of 'black dance' propagates wrongful assumptions and encourages an otherness that is couched in white supremacist pathology. Eventually we need to come into an age of dance… and the marchers continue to march, the protesters continue to shout that black lives matter.
Wright: To me, my role as a black choreographer is one of inclusion. In the way I approach my work, I want to comment on the wider culture from the perspective of a black man who remembers the first victories of the civil rights movement — a time when segregation was no longer imposed upon our people and we had the opportunity to enter the wider American society without fear. In that way, I am constantly mixing cultures, juxtaposing my own background with the general culture of the day.
Simpson: Many people mistakenly try to characterize the works of black choreographers, but this is wrong due to the inherent value of admitting the existence of multiple black identities. A more proper way of self-identifying choreographers is to acknowledge if their artistic identity encapsulates forms of the African diaspora. If you ask someone if they are a choreographer, you will receive an answer. But, if you ask a choreographer why they are considered a black choreographer, you will receive many answers.
Roman: I grew up both in Peru and in the U.S. I bring my experiences from both cultures into my work, exploring becoming a bridge between the two. Afro-Peruvian dance is traditionally performed as a folkloric dance form, I am reinventing the form to be able to express current contemporary themes with it, making the statement that Afro-Peruvians are Here and Now. It is not an ossified culture, but a living, vibrant one with current issues at hand. Through my work I bring visibility to a lesser-known root/ethnic group in Peru, which is the people of African descent.
Bibene: I have to admit I have hard time with this kind of questions, questions about black this or black that, or even color this color that. I see it like a label if not a perpetuation of racial segregation in a way. I’m a choreographer and my race does not define my choreographies. Though, I’m an African choreographer, from the Republic of Congo. To be a choreographer for me is to propose dances that respond to my sensibility of the Art and of my environment, or simply dances based on current situations or a dance inspired by an element of the culture I was born in. Any musical, imagery, or memory that tickle my soul would make me create a dance piece.
Should dance be political?
Watson: No, I don't think dance should be political because it might limit a choreographer’s ability to create movement and to dance.
Savage: Any artistic pursuit is a political statement in a very capitalistic, bottom-line oriented country such as America. It's political based upon the fact that I and some other people who happen to dance, especially, trying to make a living with an art form where I am a second and a half just below taking a vow of poverty as a priest and a full two seconds from being almost a criminal. The energy, the commitment level to an art form where there is NO connection to financial stability, be it black or white, even though on the white end, it's a little higher on the money side, but it still doesn't make any sense to pursue this for no other reasons other than to treat it as a calling, a need, as in I need to breathe, or a willingness to choose this is how I want to die, this is how I want to live. Not a sound business decision. The voices that get heard through this art form, especially black, is borderline certifiable crazy, financially stupid, almost social suicide. But the need to dance is so strong, so powerful, that I personally am forced to love it on bended knee and to know, with a full heart that I will never ever get back what I put into it. For it allows me to embrace the idea of being able to love, without being loved back. I thank you, Dance. And there are those of us who continue to pursue it with all the vigor and commitment and passion of a Moses, of a Dr. King... Because I know for a fact, as I was starting out as a young dancer, my intention was always to be committed to the art form of dance, to dance to feel like Aretha Franklin sang, and as I started to mature, to dance like a wounded animal, as a reviewer once described Prince in performance. Political? Hell yeah.
Wright: To my eyes, one of the hardest things to do is to make an overtly political work without being pedantic and preachy. To be honest, those kinds of works annoy me because of their lack of nuance. However, Robert Moses' NEVABAWARLDAPECE
and Raissa Simpson's Point Shipyard Project
(Part 1) were great political works with a strong point of view and a sense of nuance for their subjects. So dance CAN be political. That said, I think the most political thing a black choreographer can do is exist. The dance world is not always welcoming of black choreographers, particularly those who do not work exclusively with black dancers or do stereotyped work. By daring to choreograph in all forms, the black choreographer is taking his or her place at the table, welcomed or not.
Simpson: My dances are social. I am more interested in the ethical role that dance can play in the social fabric of life rather than playing a part in its political theater. My work is didactic, meaning that it can be entertaining and intertwine a moral lesson for the audience all at once. To the viewer, my dances are abstract paintings set across the canvas of the stage. However, I choose to script my pieces with dialogue by which the sound score adds a deeper layers of the dance intertwined into personal stories of the everyday person.
Roman: I think whether intended or not, all art is political; you are making a statement with your work. The piece I'm presenting at BCF is performed by 3 female dancers, and the female body can be a political issue. One of the themes of the dance is fertility, that's a political topic too.
Bibene: It depends on how anybody could define dance. For me, dance is not just one particular thing; dance or Dance (with big D) is a tool that I have used to entertain my audience happily so they can just get up and shake their body, shake the stress and demons out and go to bed and have good dreams. Lately I have been very conscious of social and political conflicts, may it be in Africa or here in the USA. I have faced and witnessed all kinds of injustices on a regular basis. Then it came down to either respond to that or ignore it. The great tool I have to express myself is Dance, so yes; I have lately been making dances that address political issues. It came out like a volcano. You know that moment when your body can’t contain no more any frustrations, any wrong, it then explodes to dancing to change something, deliver a message or at least give it a try to change something. Especially when you remember that there were people, who thought and lost lives so I can just stand here, make my art, enjoy it without giving back, it’s a little weird removal and insensibility.