The Chronicle commissioned me to write a series of articles on African Americans in dance in advance of the third Black Choreographers Festival, which I preview here. I also talked to a sampling of black choreographers from both the Bay Area and beyond about the lingering assumptions behind that old genre label “black dance”:
“A lot has changed since Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus took the 1940s concert dance world by storm, since Arthur Mitchell startled audiences by partnering white ballerinas at the New York City Ballet, since Donald McKayle created “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” to protest injustices in the South.
Hip-hop dancing, with its roots in the African diaspora, is an international phenomenon. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is now one of the most popular troupes in the world, and contemporary choreographers as distinct as Bill T. Jones and Ron K. Brown are at the forefront of their field.
And yet when UC Davis Professor Halifu Osumare leads a panel discussion next month as part of the Black Choreographers Festival, she hopes to revive an old question: “What is black dance?”
The terminology has long bothered her. “The label buys into the racial divide in America: ‘white dance’ versus ‘black dance,’ ” she says. “But we’re a culture of sound bites and shortcuts. It’s so easy to say ‘black dance’ and think people know what you’re talking about. If black choreographers are doing anything and everything in dance, ‘black dance’ is a misnomer. I say ‘dance by black choreographers.’ ”
Osumare is hardly alone: ‘Black dance’ as a genre label is no longer used as a crutch as it was through most of the 20th century. But conversations with leading black choreographers suggest that the concept still provokes heated debate.
The Chronicle asked four black dancemakers, working in San Francisco and beyond, a deliberately open-ended question: What do you think are the main challenges to African Americans in dance today? Their answers were as individual as their aesthetics, and yet the recurring themes made clear that the assumptions behind “black dance” may still be with us, even if the label is not.”
Click here for the full story.
And I talked with Aesha Ash–formerly of New York City Ballet and now with Lines Ballet–and Ikolo Griffin–formerly of San Francisco Ballet and now with Smuin Ballet–about what it’s like to be a black dancer in the American ballet world. Click here for that story, and for a particularly beautiful photo of Aesha. Incidentally, according to my site stats, “Aesha Ash” brings more ballet fans to this site than any other ballerina (strong runners up being San Francisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan, Lorena Feijoo, and Sarah Van Patten, with Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun quickly gaining ground).
The Chronicle, you’ll notice if you visit sfgate.com lately, is becoming much more multi-media. One immediate perk is this video footage of highlights from Black Choreographers Festivals past. Click through for some great clips of New Style Motherlode, Jason Samuels Smith, Diamono Coura, and others.