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Why Aren't We Seeing More Work By Black Choreographers?

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Byb Chanel Bibene and Chris Evans in Evans' 'Reconstruction Study #1', part of the Black Choreographers Festival at Laney College (Photo: Alan Kimara Dixon)

Angst is the title of Kendra Kimbrough Barnes’ new piece for the summer season of the Black Choreographers Festival (BCF), running Friday, Aug 26 through Sunday, Aug. 28 at Oakland’s Laney College. The dance was born from interviews of African American youth grappling with debilitating anxiety – at a time when fraught images of the violent deaths of young black men have rallied communities across America.

Barnes was the epitome of serenity as she took her dancers through rehearsal in an Oakland studio recently, shaping small, piercing gestures and big acrobatic lifts, and adding emotional color to movement. While Angst will premiere in November, Barnes will preview an excerpt in this summer program.

Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble
Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble (Photo: Alan Kimara Dixon)

BCF includes artists from outside the Bay Area – this year there’s the JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble from Los Angeles – but focuses on presenting local talent. The event has built a loyal following over the 11 years of its existence, largely within the black community. But despite this success, developing broader audiences remains a challenge — not just for this festival, but also for black choreographers and companies around the U.S.

A slim pipeline

Across the nation, a sprinkling of black arts festivals and a few presenting organizations offer strong support for black choreographers. These include Danspace Project and the Joyce Theatre in New York, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and CounterPulse in San Francisco. Plus, Alonzo King LINES Ballet and the two largest predominantly black dance companies, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Dance Theatre of Harlem have produced a few well-known choreographers.


Yet outside the hip hop world, the pipeline of black choreographers remains slim, though the number is growing. The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, expects the number of black choreographers in the upcoming edition of its directory to rise to around 100 in 2017, up from 36 in 1995.

From the pioneering days of Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, Alonzo King, Blondell Cummings, Dianne McIntyre, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and others in the mid- to late-20th century, growth in opportunities to see the work of black dance-makers does not seem to have kept pace with the innovation that is going on in the dance world at large.

“We’re having more conversations about black dancers and their exclusion from mainstream and avant garde dance,” said Kyle Abraham, a fêted African American choreographer, and one of several artists I interviewed for this story. “Before, there was only an ‘Ailey box.’ It’s less specific of a box now, though still limited.” In his own work, Abraham fuses elements of hip-hop, jazz, African dance idioms, and modern dance to create a fine, bitter heat.

Chris Smith, Shari Rhone, Marie Pellefigue of JazzAntiqua Ensemble
Chris Smith, Shari Rhone, Marie Pellefigue of JazzAntiqua Ensemble (Photo: Joe Lambie)

Festivals remain a critical platform for the exposure of African American choreographers, as they have for Camille A. Brown, who is recognized for her socially conscious work. Yet she chafes at being labeled a black choreographer. “Limitations are placed on choreographers of color right out of the gate,” Brown said. “We are also still dealing with the ‘one black dance company on our roster a year’ mentality from some presenters. ”

Deborah Vaughan, who in 1972 co-founded Dimensions Dance Theater, one of the oldest African American dance companies on the West Coast, agrees. “One of the things that really upset me was to be put in a box,” Vaughan said. “We’re black, so we should do African dance.” Dimensions brings an excerpt from The Town on Notice to BCF this season, a project inspired by community reactions to the gentrification of Oakland.

Some choreographers are looking beyond festivals to address the issue. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a Brooklyn-based choreographer and the leader of the dance collective Urban Bush Women (UBW), recently launched a choreographic center to nurture black women choreographers.

Dimensions Dance Theater in 'The Town on Notice'. Conceived and directed by Deborah Vaughan, choreography by Latanya Tigner and Colette Eloi
Dimensions Dance Theater in ‘The Town on Notice’. Conceived and directed by Deborah Vaughan, choreography by Latanya Tigner and Colette Eloi (Photo: Edward Miller)

But the odds are still heavily stacked against choreographers of color. Choreographer Fredrick Earl Mosley, whose popular workshops have united veterans and newcomers, calls out grant application processes that he said are, “inaccessible to artists who are not considered ‘mainstream.'”  Mosley said that funding bodies are often  just looking for choreographers who are already successful.

Forbidding world of classical ballet

While some African American choreographers have made headway in the contemporary dance field, the world of classical ballet is even more forbidding to black artists. Of the three largest American ballet companies, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet last staged work by African American choreographers  in 2000 (Christian Holder) and 1994 (Donald McKayle) respectively. And four black choreographers have come through the portals of New York City Ballet’s eminent Choreographic Institute, which has offered two-week residencies to about 150 up-and-comers since its founding in 2000.

Alonzo King staked a singular outpost in the industry with his establishment of LINES Ballet in San Francisco in 1984. The dance pioneer has gone on to influence a number of choreographers of color.

Partly inspired by King, newcomer Jeremy McQueen is creating ballets rooted in black history and in the African American experience.  McQueen’s collaborative, known as the Black Iris Project, just unfurled a triple bill of new work, all grounded in classical ballet, at New York Live Arts, which drew sizeable non-dance audiences. Madiba, McQueen’s ballet inspired by the life of Nelson Mandela, will be featured in Ballet Across America next April, a Kennedy Center program curated by ballet superstars Misty Copeland and Justin Peck.

David Boyce, Byb Chanel Bibene and Chris Evans in 'Reconstruction Study #1'
David Boyce, Byb Chanel Bibene and Chris Evans in ‘Reconstruction Study #1’ (Photo: Alan Kimara Dixon)

LINES alumnus Gregory Dawson founded his own company, dawsondancesf, in 2007. He unveils a new work at BCF this season, inspired by the life of 18th century castrato singer Farinelli. Dawson danced with LINES for nearly 20 years. He says he has been inspired by King’s philosophy and process, and acknowledges that he’s borrowed formal elements from King’s vocabulary, too. “Consciously or not, I’ve borrowed or inherited an aesthetic which is discernibly within Alonzo’s lineage,” Dawson said.

Come for the dance. Stay for the struggle.

A few weeks before BCF, I sat in on a rehearsal for Reconstruction Study #1 at Richmond’s MilkBar. The work-in-progress is a collaboration between dancer-musician Chris Evans, Congolese dance artist Byb Chanel Bibene, and musician-composer David Boyce. It’s based on several stories including that of Jim Coble, an African American man who killed ten white people in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in the early 20th century.

Evans suggested to her partners that they kick off rehearsal with improv for a section of the piece that deals with rage. Boyce’s saxophone waxed mournful then threatening, while Evans glided seamlessly between floor and cello, conjuring an ominous thrumming.  She and Bibene traced their own tortuous paths on the studio floor, rarely looking at each other even through the occasional tense moments of contact, yet somehow intimately connected.

This happened to be the evening when America was recovering from the blistering “Make America Safe Again” tirades of the Republican National Convention, girding for the next slogan attack.

“Talking about rage, did you watch the convention last night?” Boyce said to his colleagues. This stuff is classic.”

“Does this make you think about leaving America?” Evans asked Bibene.

“No, of course not,” replied Bibene, who is a survivor of the civil wars that devastated the Congo in the 1990s. “This country has laws. You stay for the struggle.”

The Black Choreographers Festival Summer Series runs through Sunday, Aug. 28 at Laney College, Oakland.

Dimensions Dance Theater revives Project Panther on Saturday, Oct. 15 at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party.


Urban Bush Women brings Walking with ‘Trane, an extended riff on the legacy of the legendary John Coltrane, to the Ford Theatres in Los Angeles on Saturday, Aug. 27.

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