Comment

How #aborigines #Cher and #dance came together

20180303_150654.jpg

When I boarded the plane for the 15-hour flight to Sydney, I did not have an itinerary with our rehearsal and performance schedule over the six days I'd be working there.  But somehow, I knew that I would connect with the First Nation. I would find time, by hook, crook or sleeplessness.  

You see, the last time I was in Australia, I had just read Marlo Morgan's cultural immersion testimony, Mutant Message Down Under.   This only encouraged to me to refresh my research on everything I thought I needed to know about the aboriginal community there.  And when I got there, I bought lots of aboriginal art from the artists with corresponding perspective and DNA.  This way, my house could receive these vibes every day, and my walls would remind me daily how simply and wholly and positively life can be lived. 

So I had to connect.  And the universe (or perhaps a kind mimi spirit) responded. In January of this year, a small, but powerful contingent of First Nation dancers came to the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference (IABD) 30th Anniversary conference and festival, bearing a wonderful energy of exchange, presence and warmth.  And my downstairs neighbor reminded me that she was a dance presenter over in Sydney and that she could connect me with local concert dance forces there.  

One of them invited me to do a full interview at Koori Radio, Sydney's First Nations radio station.  I couldn't have been more thrilled.  I hopped on the train, to Redfern, had a beautiful latte in a small cafe near the station, and then sat with Gavin, the show host who connected the hashtags of this post long before I did, for over an hour.  

We covered a lot, connecting dots of a circles that include, among  many other things, IABD, his background as a dancer who trained at NAISDA Dance College, aboriginal embrace of Cher as First Nations family because of her Cherokee descent, and my experience in Australia during their Mardi Gras a second time.  (For the full interview, please visit https://www.mixcloud.com/mako-khan/in-conversation-with-jamal-story/ )  It was ultimately the most fulfilling full-circle, aha moments I've had this year. 

The good news is that the year is not over and I have a sense that I will be back there in 2018.  I plan to connect even more firmly with this corner of the black diaspora, and through its serene spirit of inclusion show where more of these oft disparate hashtags converge. 

I can't wait.

Comment

Comment

On Playing Jesus

Sonny-Jamal.jpg

After our third performance of the Luminario Ballet show Breathless, the man in this picture approached me, his eyes shining, and told me I was amazing.  I He said, “I am 90 years old and I’ve seen a lot. Watching you up there invigorated me. It makes me feel like I have more life in me yet.”

There is no greater compliment than this, of course.  No review gets you to the level of joy and divine clarity of purpose that this kind of moment__and human being__provides.

It also helped me to reconcile right away all of the demons I faced over the processes of The Last Supper, a 45-minute aerial/dance extravaganza that explores the hypothetical of Jesus, Mary and Judas going to Coachella. Although another work of mine was featured in the show, The Last Supper was the only piece I danced. And last year, as much as I was intrigued with the idea of it, I had issues to work out before I could commit to helping choreograph the work. Fortunately, Judith, the co-choreographer and mastermind of this, was unfazed by my challenges. That I had never been to Coachella, for example, or that inasmuch as I resemble the Jesus described in the Bible—woolly hair and all—I had no personal connection to the grunge music canon she wished to invade. I had to research Weezer and The Sweater Song before I could figure out how it might serve as the backdrop for the Crucifixion.  I grew up with Nina Simone’s Take Me to the Water, not The Talking Heads Take Me to the River.  This was not my scrapbook to mine.

Then there was my deficit of ego.  How did I think I was worthy of playing Jesus?  The lingering DSH (dance self-hatred) is ever evident in the fact that I not once bothered to judge whether others, like John Legend in the upcoming live version of Jesus Christ, Superstar, should play Jesus. No, this question mark was reserved only for me.  (NOTE: Most pre-social-media-age dancers, especially those who have had extraordinary careers, suffer from DSH, but if you need more clarity, please ask and I will blog about it subsequently).

The good news is that last year, I had no space for such issues.  I had specific, narrow windows of time with my aerial partner Sheila to work out our Mary/Jesus hammock duet, and only a week to choreograph the dance material I was responsible for. During the course of all this, I figured it out:  Jesus is about humility, dummy, not ego.

Other than a persistent foot injury to navigate, I had fewer issues this year, especially after friends and family members, who are (thank God) often merciless in their honest responses to anything I’m in, enjoyed the show and me in it last year.  They bought my Jesus.  And it dawned on me that there are only a few other artists I know who could—and would—agree to the technical and aerial challenges the show promises.  For example, just to make the entrance on to the stage during the Resurrection requires that I climb a silk in the third dark wing, wrap myself in a lock and then hang out until the preceding duet ends.

All of this was worth it the minute that Dorsay, the woman pictured, brought over to me her brother Sonny, a nonagenarian who saw the assassination of MLK when he was my age and whose grandparents were probably slaves.  He said, “I felt so energized – it made me realize that I could fall in love again.”

My cousin Benny, who is more like a sage uncle, turns 90 this weekend.  And shortly ago I received the link to a feature on a 91-year-old trailblazing physician in Harlem. https://www.facebook.com/heyirisdotcom/videos/1705054572895222/   They, and Sonny, have taught me so much in the last few days, not the least of which is that as long as you're here on the planet, living continues until you decide it stops.

And clearly, minor injuries notwithstanding, I'm not done living on stage.

Comment

Comment

Artists of Ailey Petition

AOA.jpg

We don’t do it to get rich, this so-called artist "thing." We do it because we must. For years, the one piece of advice I have offered elite professional dancers trying to balance out the art/business binary is to ask for what they are worth relative to what the employing organization has to offer them. It is a paradigm often more fair than anything that happens in the business world, where most professionals (for better or for worse) demand standard compensation irrespective of their employers’ resources. But I would never expect to make with Lula Washington Dance Theater, a struggling nonprofit, what I make with Cher.

That said, when there are means to pay artists, as is the case with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, those means should create livable salaries so that dancers can simply dance - not search for second jobs to keep up with the rising cost of living in New York City. Dancers in the most decorated collection of black movement artists in the world dancing the most seen ballet (Revelations) in the canon of modern dance ever should not be worried about making ends meet, especially when their associate artistic director makes $1.3 million a year, the presiding artistic director half a million, and the artistic director emerita (legend notwithstanding) $217K – and that was in 2015. Don’t take my word for it; a quick Google search will pull up the I-990 tax document that is public record for all nonprofit organizations. Pages 16 and 43 of the 2015 return are particularly noteworthy: 
https://projects.propublica.org/non…/organizations/132584273

The dancers have launched a petition asking for support for their pursuit of fair wages, a movement whose first large public moment was their boycott of an annual Kennedy Center gala designed to raise millions for the company every year. As an advocate for dancers/artists and a board member of SAG-AFTRA, the sister union to AGMA who stands behind its Ailey dancer members, I urge you to sign this petition.

Understand that this is not an assault on the legacy of Alvin Ailey, nor a declaration of war on the art his company produces. It is simply a call to action that big business ideals not invade and exploit artists in an artistic space - or at all.

By supporting the dancers, you are supporting the Ailey vision. You are supporting high art. 
You are supporting what’s right.

After all, there is no performance without them.

To sign, click here. 

https://www.change.org/p/aaadt-i-support-the-artists-of-ailey

 

Comment

Comment

Why I was devastated leaving Black Panther (spoiler alert)

Panther.jpg

It is a glorious film.  It is a symphony of black excellence, from acting to wardrobe to direction to storytelling.  It is a festival of authenticity. It is a mining and then remix of the lesser understood, often ignored beauty (and wonder) of African technological advancements, especially in Giza where brown and black genius is still plain and utterly visible. It is a testament to the nurturing in our relatively small village of black performing artists, as several folks my colleagues/friends and I know are in the movie with lethal vibranium spears or holding down the title role.

              It is all the things. And I love it with fervor.

              Yet I found myself overwhelmed with devastation on several occasions throughout the experience.  It started with the moment T’Challa dropped into a forest as Black Panther to help rescue a group of young women being carted by militants across Africa.   The fight sequence was exciting, and the forward momentum of the storyline__he “froze” shonuff__brilliant.  But it was not enough to slow my tears over the real Boko Haram girls—there is no Black Panther to rescue them. 

              My Vulcan self kicked in soon after: of course the “what if?”of Wakanda is only possible to display if contextualized with current, real-world tragedies affecting black people.  To leave these out would imperil the thesis statement central to the movie.  But the paradox for me is that during each moment of poignant realism, I had to face my pain about it.   There were respites of course__the visual festival of Wakanda in its balance of technology and natural surroundings, the glow of age hierarchies and corresponding respect within the culture, the sense of humor both in global and afro-specific punchlines. But my melancholy persisted.

              Black Panther took the worst parts of our current situation as black folks in the diaspora permanently scarred and culturally disfigured by colonization and presented us with a mecca that had only two options:  one, to continue to live in cultural black utopian isolation while ignoring (in large part) the devastation inflicted on its brethren, or two, colonize our colonizers by inverting the status quo, thus becoming our oppressors.   I couldn’t shake it. After all, these two options were played out in the war between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger throughout the movie, orchestrated with aplomb to remind us that no villain exists in this clash.

              And though T’Challa offers us a third scenario at the end, the sharing of scientific, and thus synonymously, cultural riches with the world via UN treaty, there is little historical information to justify the feasibility of such a gift.  White colonizers have always leaned heavy into using might and weaponry seasoned with xenophobia to disempower and eliminate aboriginals in places they wanted to be.  Pizarro did it to the Incas of Peru.  Cortez did it to the Aztecs. And for good measure, they did it to each other as well; the Vikings collected Slavic and British slaves for five centuries.    And while one could argue that pre-colonial peoples of color are also guilty of participating in acts of conquest with each other, none have resulted in or aimed for the annihilation of entire civilizations based on supremacy.

              So it is hard to rejoice in the possibility that even with a Wakanda in the Motherland, we might get Anglo participation, that those who sit on their thrones of patriarchy might be interested in black and brown concepts like cooperative economics and collective work and responsibility and community momentum.  Cousin Erik, whose sociopathy was clearly a consequence of his successful climb from racial oppression through the American dream scaffold (thank you Marvel for not getting in the way of all this real talk), experienced the “No” of this firsthand.  His suggestion was that we simply skip the UN part, the efforts at peaceful ascension together, the inevitable attempt to pilfer technology that did not require a ransack first, and then jump to the part where it’s us or them.

              Perhaps I’m too cynical, or maybe just worn down by everything from Philando Castille to Trump.  Perhaps I need to hold out some hope that today, as white patriarchy has taken a huge hit with Weinstein and Spacey and the like, T’Challa’s ideals have promise.  And maybe when I see the movie a second time (yes, of course I’m going back), dryer eyes will have room for the audacity of hope.

              In the meantime, Wakanda Forever.

Comment

1 Comment

Take a Gorgeous Breath

20171215_134502(0).jpg

I had experienced these failures before. 

Yoga had  happened to me in in 2003 in Germany somewhere, and earlier this year when a friend yanked me from the decline bench at my gym and dragged me into his hot yoga class at Crunch one Sunday.

              But this was yoga by Karine Plantadit, dance goddess, life coach, Tony award nominee, ex-Ailey-an, humanitarian and good friend. In a pre-production rehearsal with a handful of other mature artists, the rehearsal directors made the mistake of pairing us for the exploration of a Warren Carlyle Latin number; much to rehearsal their regret, I (we) had more fun doing this than anything else this holiday season.

              So when Karine invited lovely chocolate youngster Ahmad, whose name inspiration our mothers' shared, to try her Yang Yin class at noon on Sunday, I was inspired to go to.

              The class was so full that there was a waiting list for cancellations. One woman came in asking about class at another time and, upon hearing Karine’s name, said, “Oh yeah, the one with the funky hair? I like her, she’s cool.”

              Cool?  Really?  Instant indignation with “Why don’t you know who she is—Google her dammit!” righteousness ensued.  Which was good, because now I had something to tame in this yoga class, right?

              I walked into the room and picked one of the last two spots available, up against the stairs in the back of the room.  I spread my mat out and laid the towel over it, only so that Karine could suggest that I move to the front of the room right in front of the door where she came in.  It dawned on me once I did so that the area I left was the only place from which she could actually teach.

              Thus commenced the first of my series of failures.

Horizontal, face up, taking wonderful breaths, inhaling generously through my nostrils and sending from my mouth, I heard Karine ask us to use the blocks to rest our open thighs. Odd. But I put the blocks on top, wondering if perhaps the sensation of even a little bit of weight was all the body needed as impetus to make the inner thighs let go…

              Karine took the blocks off and re-positioned them under my knees for support. Oh, that’s what she meant. Resisting laughter out loud at Microfailure #1 was necessary so as not to disrupt all the Zen in the room, which I did anyway shortly after to make Microfailure #2.  You see, the moment I realized that my upper body was too tight to facilitate Downward Dog without substantial discomfort, overcompensation and weakness, My hands slid away from me often, lowering my hips, sweat from the heat filling my eyes giving me "Apocalypse Now!" I had to laugh at myself.  It couldn’t be helped. Because I might not make it to the end of this movie.  

              Then I was okay for a while with the Yang portion, robust movements that required us to move in and out of Downward Dog and into things like Warrior 2, which my hips loved. Figure eights for infinity because this is life. Glimpses of Sun Salutation.  Karine’s musical voice driving us through with warm reminders—take a beautiful breath, take a gorgeous breath. I surrendered, stopped worrying about whether someone might open the door into my head during the flatback. I celebrated my newfound maturity of not making fun of the poses and renaming them as I did years ago to the chagrin of my mini-(better-than)-me adopted family Kyle when he became a yogi.  Yes, yes, sure. Cherie, I am yoga...

              Until she asked us to stand on one leg, open up the back hip, look up into the sky, grab our hearts with both hands. And then grab the leg with the back hand to stretch the quad.

              “Balance is not stillness but constant motion, a series of small movements…”

              I have been dancing professionally for 20 years and the majority of it has seen no dearth of ability to be on one leg, do some impressive things on it in fact. But in this moment, no combination of small movements was going to keep me balancing on this leg.  I tried to look up to the ceiling and felt myself falling the five inches into the yogi beside me, a professional with handstands and cobras under his belt. I grabbed the wall desperately to keep myself out of fallonmyassana (sorry Kyle, old habits die hard).   Thank God Karine put me there.

              The only thing more devastating than this Epic Failure #1, was getting to do it on the other side.

              My Zen was gone.  It was on the floor next to those blocks I didn't know how to use. Now, I was just trying to survive.

              The good news is that I figured out why yoga is so hard at first for bodies like mine. Hypertonic muscles fire all the time, involuntarily and with no effort.  It used to be a huge problem for me learning dance technique because I could not disengage the specific muscles that were prohibiting me from achieving whatever small task was at hand—plie, tendu, lengthening, whatever.  Success in dance for me has been an evolution of letting go of the right muscles at the right times so that I can get to a neuro-skeletal connection and feel space in my joints.    

              I’ve figured it out with the staples/fundamentals of most modern and ballet techniques (ask me if you want this scintillating information).  So in dance, I can be efficient. I can find a space of peace and Zen inside of complicated movement because it takes only moments to figure out efficiency in them and transcend my physical self.  Introduce me to something new and now I have to learn the vocabulary so that I can get out of my head, which applies a Matthew Bourne approach to moving that says "fire everything at will."  It just means I need to (and will) take a few more yoga classes to get there__maybe a lot more.

              Understanding this nugget was my Big Success in class until we got to the Yin part, the smaller moon consciousness that involves introspection.  Stretches.  Deep lack of thought.  Internal consciousness.   Smaller movements. I remember years ago when a critic said to Donald Byrd that I was going to be a brilliant dancer once I figured out how to do handle small movement. How ironic—now they are my safest space. I told Karine after that I need an entire class of Yin Yoga, please. 

              The beauty is all the laughter that comes out of experiences like these, knowing that all of these failures are actually not failures at all, but gifts of having nothing to prove.  Why did it take so long to get here?

              Please go take Karine’s class.  I don’t care what she’s teaching. Yoga, dance, martini mixing, Home Depot shopping, whatever.  Currently, she’s at Modo Yoga in the West Village, 434 6th Avenue.

              Just make sure you sign up hours before you go…

1 Comment

4 Comments

Auntie Brenda

20160720_133957.jpg

Since we are in a ceremony meant to celebrate Brenda, I have to admit she would be pissed if I didn’t tell this story. Years ago, I invited her and my mother to the Opening of The Color Purple, my first show on Broadway. When we got to the red carpet event, she stood before a cluster of my esteemed colleagues and corrected my introduction:  “No, no, I’m his ghetto auntie Brenda.  Those other ones you meet are just faux aunties.”

I had been trying forever to get my mother and aunts to try the Lush store lotion, Sympathy for the Skin.  Not normally one to buy into cosmetics zeal too much, I thrust this product upon them, justifying the price tag with regular accounts of how moisturizing it is. 

This is what I use now at the hospital.  I find that when our loved ones can’t do for themselves, all we can do is pick up where they left off.  With stage four cancer, most of it is up to God.  But the parts that we can cover, we cover.

 Of course beyond her address on Marcelle, there was very little ghetto about my ghetto Auntie Brenda.  She took care of most of the people in her life, took no short cuts, and saw far beyond the immediacy of her environment. Inasmuch as I’m a dancer/aerialist, she is far more brave. Tried exotic foods.  Invested in new workouts before it was a thing.  Bungee jumped from the Queen Mary when she was 56…

She doesn’t believe in ashy skin at all, is as pissed that nobody has addressed it as she is that the partial paralysis from the stroke has left her tongue motionless to say anything.  Fortunately, my luggage was still in the car, Lush sympathy for the skin in it. So I lotion her legs, letting her know that my mother would fall completely apart before she could even get it on her hands. 

She was a baby boomer who refused to live her life in fear, who understood loyalty and taught me, by example with Mom, how to be a good friend.   And she constantly chastised me for taking too long to take over the world.

I start to feel odd, halfway expecting Auntie to jump up and holler at me for the impropriety of it all.  A nephew had no business rubbing anything on her thighs. Mid-thigh would have to be as far as I went.  The crime is amplified by my aunt’s usage off these legs – she had become so skilled at salsa over the past ten years that I dared not attempt to dance with her, my vocabulary unsuitable.  The temptation to insist the nurse conduct this moisturizing passes; she has been more than kind so far.  I watched her turn my aunt over on her side earlier to prevent bedsores.   

If Auntie could talk, she would say to pull the plug, except that there wasn’t one to pull.  This was bout number three with cancer; stellar genetics and will helped her win the first two.  Her family has several cancer survivors, and a few octo- and nonagenerians, so she is prone to outliving loved ones.  She is also a realist. With a mouth. “You know, nephew,” she told me only a few weeks before, “you have to hurry up and make some money cuz me and yo mama are too old to be out there on the corner. Don’t nobody want no old snatch, and you have to take care of us.”

So it makes sense that this festivity is about living, really living, since she showed us, her family, friends, associates and colleagues how to do it. We’re all blessed because she helped fashion nooks of heaven right here, long before she got to the real one.  I'm sure if she is in the ghetto there, every angel wants an invite. 

[Brenda Josenberger passed 10 weeks ago after a second stroke related to deterioration from a chemo/radiation combo treatment. The italicized text is from remarks I made at her homegoing celebration August 17.] 

4 Comments

Comment

Sikiliza

 Where are the highway lamp posts???

Where are the highway lamp posts???

I’ve been 40 only two weeks and it is clear I’ve not learned enough to see it coming.

 On a tour of the state-of-the-art facility I would be working in for a week, Deb, the energetic, robust and spirited woman who hired me, pointed to the lodge up the hill and instructed me to follow her there.

 “So just make sure when you open the room door and the closet doors, you want to go slow just in case there’s a rattlesnake or bobcat in there,” she said casually. 

 “I’m sorry, a what?” 

 “Yeah, they’ve been known to sometimes end up in the lodge or on the grounds; we’re out here in mother nature territory so you’re bound to see something,”  she said. 

 “I see how this works, you neglect to tell me this stuff until—“

 “After you get here, correct.” Add smart to the list of adjectives above. “And now you’re here!”

 “Here” is Stallion Springs, home of Woodward West, a sprawling, 23-acre gymnastics/parkour/biking/skateboarding/action sports paradise of a summer camp for hundreds of kids that I might have killed to be one of back in the day.    They have foam pits in not just the gymnastics gym, but also the airplane hangar sized building where athletes on wheels could negotiate landing flips and tricks with their bikes.   The high profile nature of the facility I was clear on.

 Bobcats and rattlesnakes? No.

 In fact, I had a whole different set of concerns based on an advance research that the closest thing to a city, Tehachapi, is a conservative small town fond of homogeny and comfy in xenophobia, where an interracial relationship might invite property damage.  Woodward West is a cultural oasis twenty minutes away, which meant an idyllic drive from the freeway through sprawling wine country with one screen-saver-worthy vista after another.  But until I got there I should be concerned.

 Like any individual with a pulse and an imagination and an afro, I worried. I had seen Get Out twice.  Its eerily stunning and effective theme song Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga - Swahili for “Listen to your ancestors, run” -  played in my head.  And even though I had made it to Stallion Springs, the ruddy Steinbeckian men who hopped out of the gray, battered pick-up truck at the lone gas station down the road gave me cause for pause. And the waiter at the lone diner across the street unnerved me with her accusation that I wasn’t from there.

 But none of this turned out to be the issue.  The guys at the gas station were affable, Sikiliza came back only at night driving through Blair Witch pitch, and that same waiter yucked it up with me at lunch the next day.  In fact, save the Chinese proprietor of a massage parlor in town who chose audacious racial profiling on two of us (another blog for sure), I suffered no reasons to get out.

 Except maybe the Nat Geo Wild realness. When we got to the lodge that first day, Deb clapped her hands hard three times during the tour of these grounds.  First to get to the stairs, then to exit the hallway to the promontory where I could see the prison housing one of the Menendez brothers and at one time Charles Manson, and then once we got to the room.

 “We own the lodge so there isn’t really a front desk....” Clap. 

 “We convert wind into energy and then sell it to Los Angeles for electricity....” Clap.

 "Why the claps?"

 “Just to startle anything that creatures that might be in your way.”

 Insert pearl-clutching shriek of horror here. 

 “And what happens if I see an animal that isn’t paying Woodward for occupancy on these grounds?” I asked.

 “Just call me and I’ll call the maintenance people to get rid of it.”

 You mean I can’t just pick up the old school Dial M for Murder phone on the counter next to the bed for anything other than to try it as a weapon?

 I was way off. I needn’t worry about dying in a tumbling pass or going missing forever.  It was the potential for annihilation by a snake or bobcat or gaze of raccoons.   

 Or an elk.  

 Yes, days later, Deb recalled how an elk made recently stood there next to her car, threatening it and her.  She had the nerve to show me pictures.  I promptly added the damage waiver insurance to the rental car, so that if I survived I wouldn’t have to pay for the pieces of the Kia that were left after the elk had fun. (I should point out that Deb drives a Kia too.)

 Now she made up for all of this of course.  She took us wine tasting. I hung out with Bart Conner.  I choreographed a quick dance on Laurie Hernandez.  And she surrounded me with beautiful 20-somethings hell bent on giving me no time to remember I had just turned 40.

 But dammit did she ever make me challenge my nature fears. And make me  regret not having  paid more attention to Morgan Freeman’s voice on the Discovery Channel whenever it was on in the house. Before we leave racial profiling completely, note that we’ve never seen Morgan out there with the lions and elephants.

And I have to write Michael Abels and thank him (or curse him out) for that movie theme...

Comment

2 Comments

On Tony

He taught me a huge lesson about auditions and self-esteem right off the bat. 

The first time I ever toured with a legendary artist, the show was confronted with a dancer injury and a side-lined swing.  The show needed someone right away, and the director could think of no one with the skillset to cover the guys, as we each brought special things to the table.

“How about Tony James?” I offered.

“Who’s that?”

“Tony James!  Don’t you remember? He was amazing at the audition. We applauded when it was his turn.”

“Really? What does he look like, remind me…”

I was stunned.  I couldn’t understand how anybody could forget:

It was the final callback and the legend was sitting in the front of the room watching each of the “specialty” folks do our thing.  Tony took off his shirt and shoes and stood in the corner, a pair of black jazz pants hugging his massive thighs. There were sinewy, caramel muscles on top too. And when they started the music, he commenced to do everything.

By everything, I mean everything.  Sort of like the 20 acrobatic tricks Velma Kelly says she and her sister Veronica did in their double act with “splits, spread eagles, back flips, flip flops one right after the other..." Except that Tony danced between his tumbling passes and X-outs, this on a hard studio floor without the protection of a sensible Nike. 

I was awestruck.  Pissed (I was next). Enamored.  Envious. And the first to applaud DURING a freestyle that was surely a precursor to Simone Biles’ floor routine.

How could they not remember? 

I understood, processing that people have goldfish memory and MTV Cribs attention spans, that no matter how talented we are, we can never rely on employers to remember it when it counts. Nor can we assume that the organization of the hiring process in commercial dance (or acting for that matter) is gushing with common sense.

I insisted that they look for his perfect headshot. Upon reviewing the video (imagine!), the creative team was excited once again and sought him out.

Not to disparage the creative team, or digress too far from the emotional gravity of Tony James having departed this planet, but this lesson has never left me.  It has colored my experience and restricted me from personalizing the other side of the table.

I’ll also never forget Tony.  We got to hang out for the short time he was on that gig (the first of many times over the years). Throughout the stress of getting the show up, he was always affable, good-natured, sanguine, unencumbered by streams of negative consciousness.   Nothing was too, too serious and I always wanted to be around him.  He was all the things—Timon playful and Genie shrewd, boy-next-door cute and threatening stud bootylicious.

He even had me convinced that his eyes were really green until he confessed his contact lens concealment techniques. 

“You want to know how I do it?” he told me one night, a gigantic grin on his face. “Go ahead, tell me I have beautiful eyes.”

I bit, moving in toward him in the organic way that people always do when giving this compliment.

“Thank you!” he said, as he turned his head in slow motion and lowered his lids shut so that the smile could upstage my efforts.

I laughed for two days behind this.

That's the other lesson. The Biles-worthyfloor routine, amazing jumps and energized dancing were buoyed by the fact that people wanted to be around him.  So through my devastation about yet another memorial fund replacing a wonderful artist too young to be gone, I am reminded to smile.

Doriana, a dear friend__and also boss for many years__told me that during the 80's, when she had lost so many friends in the space of only a few years, she coped by telling herself that they were simply on tour.   This is an applicable strategy and I'm borrowing it.  I'm sure God tours too.

And If Tony is on that one, our maker is getting a good kee kee.

And a split.

 

To donate to the Tony James Memorial Fund to help with his arrangements and the fund, please click here.

2 Comments

Comment

Elite

Tuesday, November 1

Osaka

 

I like to think I’m an elite traveler.  I get to the new city unafraid, on a mission, and walk with the velocity of somebody who knows where he’s going better than even the people who live there.  In this way, I’m truly a soloist, moreover than even in dance than in any other aspect of my life including dance. Like the stoic spy from any Hollywood blockbuster who knows languages, topography, civil engineering and cultural nuances of every major city in the world.

Except that I’m not this person outside of my mind. 

Especially not in Japan.

But this does not stop me.  I am famished, you see. So once my ever-so hospitable hosts chaperones me to the Daiwa Roynet Hotel in a part of Osaka I haven’t bothered to learn the name of yet, I swoop out of it in my Zara black Matrix coat, make a left down the street and walk briskly until I see something that looks fetching.  The place two blocks down on the corner is promising, so in I go.

When a place is so small that the seven people in it turn to look at you when you walk in, it’s hard not to commit to it.  Think bar/restaurant where television investigators or police chiefs of assistant DA’s show up to vent or unwind, only a third the size.  Sam Jackson’s curse words wouldn’t have even had room, let alone an actual Tarantino fight sequence.

So I sit at the bar, understanding that the host—a little more Waffle house vet than obsequious Japanese woman—doesn’t speak English really. She has some scant sense of the language, which is that she is fluent in comparison to my Japanese.   She asks if I want a drink, and when I suggest no, she pushes the point, helping me understand it is mandatory with a menu.

“Sake” is a Japanese word I do know.  I say this.  She brings me a menu that has about 10 different kinds (there are that many?) of sake. I pick one with authority.  After all, I am an elite traveler.

She then brings me a food menu with nothing but the three full alphabets with which Japanese is written. I gag. The Kenji is intimidating. I understand the prices and that’s about it. Not a picture anywhere.  I surrender my elite traveler status and confess the obvious, that comprehension on my part is futile. 

She points to a space of wall behind and above me with pictures of entrees.  I pretend to know what is depicted on the pictures.  She starts to explain, and the word “pasta” jumps out.  Then I shamelessly point to it like a small child, feeling very much like an insipid, stupid American.   She nods emphatically.

Twenty minutes later, as I sip sake that will certainly leave me unable to walk the 50 meters to the hotel after, she comes out with a beautiful black bowl of ramen and broth with fish. Yellowtail? Mackerel? It doesn’t matter. It is divine.  Go figure I come to Japan and the first meal I have is the authentic version of the one I used to have as a kid because it was easy to make and great for lower income and/or single parent households. 

The older gentleman at the table with two women walked by and said a few words in English I understood, welcome, thank you, medical. Before I could put the last one together, my more relaxed waiter now said some things in English connecting to the “medical” part of the conversation.

“Show. I watch…” she said, trying to find more words. 

“Show, show, a medical show?”

“Grey Anatomy.”

“Grey’s Anatomy!!!!! Yes, I love it! It’s great isn’t it?”

“Yes! Yes! The doctor die in sixth season.”

“Dr. Sheppard. Patrick Dempsey!”

This was the connection I needed to feel okay.  There in the too-small for TV/film restaurant/bar with no translator, this waiter was connecting to me in a big way about a vital ingredient for human sustenance, wait for it -

“I don’t speak English but I watch! I like, like the Chinese girl," the woman says.

“I love Christina Yang.”

“Yes! Yes! Yang!”

“But you know it’s human. Of course you understand anyway…”

And this was my introduction to elite traveling alone in Osaka. Maybe God was co-signing on my taking this teaching gig, where the primary communication between me as a sensei and the dancers in each class will be body language, by connecting me with a person through a television show using "anatomy" as a super-metaphor.    My lesson:  people all over the world love Grey’s Anatomy and if there is ever a language barrier, Shonda Rhimes is a good place to start. Maybe when I make it to Brazil on a dance performing or teaching assignment, I can say Annalise Keating when I run out of my limited cursory Portuguese…

 

Comment

Comment

Arigatou Gozaimasu

  Public restroom at Moronomiya subway station in Osaka. There is no filter on this shot.

Public restroom at Moronomiya subway station in Osaka. There is no filter on this shot.

I broke down and did it. For the first time in 15 years I had a McDonald’s cheeseburger. And fries.  I was starving.  You see, the reason that the Japanese are so enviably snatched is that they eat smaller portions, and I don’t mean European-size small. THIS is something different, on a Pai Mei torturous eat-that-bowl-of-rice-and-walk-up-those-stairs-with-two-buckets-of-water kind of way (yes I realize I went to China just now but bear with me cuz I'm about to ping pong you through worse).  If I order a fish entrée, it’s hard not to see an appetizer because America has ruined me in yet this way as well. Turns out that I’m not a fat bitch inside by myself – America is comprised only of fat bitches and the degree to which our ginormous stomachs need sating is proportional to our degree of ruin... 

The point is, I was starving, dreadfully and hurtfully.  Last night I went to two different restaurants to eat, first in a shrimp joint that served the crustaceans with heads and shells on (I peeled, avoiding being grossed out) and then at a random place where I had chicken skewers and fries. 

So today I had to just do one meal that didn’t make me want to suffer the embarrassment of ordering two full entrees in the same sitting.  As I sat with my cheeseburger,  which miraculously tasted like it came from a real cow, and drank my coke that was mostly real ingredients in a small cup instead of the trough of water and chemicals they sell at home, I had an epiphany about hospitality.  I had been wondering why everywhere I’ve been abroad this year, people delivered it in spades, genuine hospitality..  The Israelis went out of their way, coloring our endeavors with education about the whys, hows and cultural origins.  The Bajans were equally lovely, resort expectations notwithstanding. The Japanese are on a whole other level, somehow obsequious and relentlessly proud at once.

Between fries, it occurred to me that perhaps genuine national warm welcome is engendered by connection to a sturdy culture steeped in thousands of years of tradition.  The sharing and cultural exchange is built into the pride; what I experienced abroad this year is the native interest for visitors to not only behold the unifying legacy, but to feel it too.

It was never more clear until I got to Osaka, mainly because the Japanese, beyond being hospitable, are exemplary.  I stood over the subway platform and saw a railroad free of refuse, litter, rats. My awe followed frustration that I could find no trash receptacle anywhere to dump my litter because these folks believe in finishing their ingestibles before making it to the station, let alone the train.   The people here respect their stuff. 

So it’s no wonder that when I walk into a class, the students stand and greet me with a chorus of welcome before giving me their undivided attention to gather whatever information I have. They call me sensei because they trust that the people who hired me know what they’re doing.

And this is why I have felt like such an alien when people discuss America in terms of cultural pride. I can’t relate.  We have jigsaw-pieced together a construct of culture that takes bits and pieces of every settler (read: invader) who showed up.   Our cultural scaffold is theft, which is why I try to contextualize my censure of Beyonce (see link of her xeroxing  European choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s work for her video to understand how I got here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDT0m514TMw); she’s all-American.  Anyway, thievery is just one part; the instruction manual had other steps.  Devalue the natives. Snatch the resources. King the robber barons—these are not judgments yet, I’m just at what actually happened in America.  Then incorporate whatever fragments of culture from England, Spain, France and other colonialists to make something new.  Add the Puritan work ethic, for example, and convince everyone that following it means success.  This is our Cliffnotes, fast-track path to national culture.

Don’t get me started on where black folks fit in, since our culture-ancestral reference points were annihilated on the boats. Let’s forego the re-appropriation debate and just jump to facts:  the White House was literally built by black people, which is why when Barack was campaigning to be in it, I shouted Hallelujah at Michelle revealing that she felt nationalism for the first time at age 46. I was right there with her (now we’re at judgment).  If our contributions extend beyond economy- and brick-building, it is because black excellence has often been a direct reflection of suffering. The lion share of our patents, from Sarah Boone’s ironing board to Charles Brooks’ street sweeper, were borne as solutions to hard labor (pun intended).  And the hymns and rhythms that became sediment for the entire American songbook were first sung in field of fatigue.

So even with our inclusion, we’re back to theft and oppression ONLY as common cornerstones of a melting pot American culture.  How then, would we arrive at genuine pride about it? Something tangible other than our celebration of difference and the option to not rebel?  No matter how “free” we are in our system, Americans don’t get to not participate in it and live there. So how do we teach our kids to respect a country that shows them every day the brutality of its nervous system, the sketchiness of its skeleton? 

I’m not letting millennials off the hook here, just identifying other things that play into the profoundly beautiful arigatou gozaimasu (#thank you) I’ve experienced here in Japan. And let’s be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that Japanese legacy is absent horrors. Ask the Chinese and they’ll gladly tell you. Also, many would find an imperial nation so steeped in regimen Borg-ish in the most unappealing, Orwellian way.  My guess is that a Japanese homosexual banished from his family for disgrace might prefer American tradition, until of course he makes it to a Southern Baptist church that agrees with his folks.  I maintain, though, that an old nation with an ancient culture is clear on the composition thereof, good and bad, and the value is—in this case—clean gumless sidewalks, a freakishly low homicide rate and trains that arrive and depart on schedule to the second.

For me, the South is as close as we get in the States. There is a clear persistence of mores and customs that dictate how people ought to speak to, respect and host each other (there’s the legacy), heinous chattelization of black people notwithstanding (there’s the horror).  With the cultural status quo clear, I can better understand the Southerner who delights in feeding me home-cooked dinner while telling me between my bites that I’m going directly to hell for sleeping with a man.

Which brings me back to these fries. Real potatoes were involved.  Because the Japanese equivalent of the FDA believes people should eat actual food.   I have more to think about on all of this of course; we’ll see what happens during the morning sushi meal…

 

Comment

2 Comments

Hiplet?

Years ago in Glasgow, the Cher Farewell Tour I was on intersected the Dance Theater of Harlem UK Tour.  After gushing with rehearsal directors Keith and Kellye Saunders about running into other black people on the street, I took company class and spied on a rehearsal. I watched the Robert Garland ballet Return and became a huge fan of the dancer doing the “Mother Popcorn” solo set to James Brown at the top of the ballet.   Please allow me to digress:  Dionne Figgins was tremendous because she was able to apply star power and black girl magic to the already challenging job of negotiating classical steps with old school, vernacular jams our parents did at dance halls back in the day (i.e., the slop, the four corners, etc.). This was a rehearsal, yet Dionne danced 100%, not a single step taken for granted.

I was off that night and able to see the DTH concert.  It seemed that Dionne was understated. She was dedicated on the pointe shoe and then physically inhibited in vernacular steps. The incredible flip between ethereal lift and booty back black that awed me hours before was missing.  It turns out that she had been given a note by then Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell to dial it back. Too much hip, too much weight, too much getting down into the ground.  This was a ballet company, after all.  The dancers needed to look dignified.

I was horrified.  It devastated me that a visionary who leveraged his unprecedented privilege in classical ballet with a garage to train young, otherwise rejected black folks in it saw no value decades later in offering social dances belonging to our “classical” form equal respect.  The slop needs to be revered and fully danced with all the information—in this case the heaviness and stank and sweat and years of recovery from slavery—as sou-sou, releve and fifth position.  Honor needs its life in both idioms, even if they are choreographed into the same eight counts.

This is why I have a hard time with the “Hiplet” these young ladies are doing.  It’s not that I cringe at the fusion of ballet and hip hop. But this fusion should recognize and respect the specific attributes that authenticate them both as art forms, and the difficulty of maintaining the key ones (especially in a point shoe) through this merger is tremendous.  To do disservice to point shoe mechanics for the sake of a groove doesn’t make us better or imaginative or new. It makes us irreverent.   Because the truth is that critics, employees and colleagues (myself included) would never have forgiven Dionne had she forsaken classical ballet specificity just because James Brown was screaming on the track.

As much as I’m happy to see my young sisters on Good Morning America, I can’t forgive compromises on ballet technique in this context any more than I can stomach the re-appropriation of hip hop by white folks who lack the information (see third paragraph since a lot of those things apply here too).  Please note the qualification—not all white people, just those who make no effort to understand the origins of hip hop and are unable to connect to whatever rhythmic imperative our black grandmothers involuntarily bopped their heads to.  The reason dancers cringe when we see the theft is that there is profound audacity in building on a dance language when the perpetrator lacks the fundamentals.

In the case of Hiplet, we’re talking about masterful usage of the feet, articulation of the arch, precision on the box, a second-nature relationship with fifth position, and a whole lot of other things that non-dancers would be bored silly reading in this blog. That mastery needs to be there in spades before we get to the butterfly or the cabbage patch. The evidence is there in the first two counts of eight, when the ladies are in place approximating very classical footwork that comes straight from the syllabus.  You shouldn’t fly the plane before you ace the simulator.  You oughtn’t reverse two-and-a-half somersault dive from the platform until you’ve worked out flipping dry in a harness. Most would call it dangerous; so is subjecting an unskilled foot to the precarious nature of toe shoe. The bottom line is that this Hiplet presentation wasn’t ready to put before the five million folks who watch Good Morning America.  

Nor was it ready to be shared on Youtube prior.

So that we’re clear, this is not about shaming young people.   I want these girls to succeed; my investment in the first ever audition for black ballerinas by IABD in January was about seeing that they have places and opportunities to dance professionally.  If Homer is able to profit from this buzz in a way that will result in enrichment, financial opportunities, scholarship and maybe master training for these ladies, fine. I mean them no ill will.  But otherwise, this prematurity does the young ladies in the video few favors.

Consider this:  Misty Copeland, and a slew of her contemporary black colleagues whose names the world unfortunately does not know, honored and respected that point shoe and all the expectations therein.  Every trite expression applies:  She defied the odds. She persevered to make history.  Whatever doors she didn’t break down, she walked through them ready to win.  She did not get there presenting sub-par point technique. This video provides the naysayers, ballet “purists,” and racist gatekeepers of classical ballet a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for perspectives that impeded Misty’s—and her predecessors'—ascent.

God knows I am so happy that Homer Bryant has, like several dance teachers with fewer resources than they deserve, taken up the mantle of bringing young people to dance. And God bless him for opening his mind to ways of keeping kids invested. But there has to be a balance (pun intended) between reach and integrity—and if anybody wants to find funding, I’d be happy to fashion a solution that will get these kids closer to this balance, along with the fusion they are after.

In the meantime, can we stay out of cockpits and off of diving boards, shall we? 

2 Comments

1 Comment

Inspiration

I was only in the plush Uber for three minutes when SIRI announced over the speaker: “Bitch, oh you faking today, huh. Okay.”

There was a lot to process but before I could get it together, the dreadlocked brother driving said, “I’m so sorry about that man. My girl issues all up in the car. Faking? This thing said ‘bitch’ so it might as well have done ‘fucking’…”

Then I put it together completely.  And without a complete re-hashing of my war on technology, this moment reaffirmed that at the very least, conveniences like automated text message notification sharing in the car creates a management problem.

Especially if you’re an Uber driver.

With a rider. 

Who was at this point laughing hysterically.

“It’s all good, man, no worries,” I said.  “Sometimes they get upset…”   Yes, I know it was terrible to egg him on, but I was leaving DC, where I had spent the majority of the week investigating how a 2013 conversation between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks about black female voices could be fleshed out with movement on six black women dancers at Howard University.  For the third time in my career, I had completely cast aside male perspectives (including my own, to a certain extent) to make something resonant about women; I deserved to hear this dude.

“I met her at the club and she was supposed to be a one-night stand. She caught me off guard. I’m not gone’ lie. It’s like when I’m dealing with her I’m dealing with myself.  I’m used to sticking with my normal thing.”

“What’s the normal thing?”

“I call it Build-a-Bitch.”  Uh oh.  “You take a six or seven and turn her into an eight.  I don’t mess with females that are too established because they start acting like you need them.  This one is established. She’s a sweetheart but she been through a lot with men and it’s made her cold. But you know, I’m feeling shit for her now, so I might have screwed up.”

Whoops. Maybe not this dude. 

“She got me all messed up man. And then there’s my girl…”

“By that you mean the one you’re with?”

“Yeah, yeah, you know the one I been kicking it with for years.  But we’ve been through a lot. Trying to live together, working stuff out and but the chick that texted is pissed I’m still boning old girl…”

I was riveted. I had missed the last few episodes of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, so this was delicious.  But I had to make sure I had taken care of business first.

“I told you Dulles, right?”

“Yeah man, and don’t worry. I’ll get you there.  People always trip when they find out I’m a paraplegic because when I’m driving this car, I gets it in.”

He was proud for sure, articulating five syllables of paraplegic (you didn’t know there were five?) as if saying Heisman Trophy winner. This is when I peered into the front seat to see the hand controls.

“Did it cost you a lot to get this car hooked up for that?” I asked.

Get it hooked up? It would have cost $1500 to get it hooked up. But I did it myself for $300.”

It’s important to note that I gave myself a quiet mental reminder to apologize to everyone who loves me for getting cozier in the car instead of pulling him over right away in exchange for a new Uber. I figured with yet another 501c3 needing me to perform (for love) services they could not afford, God probably was going to keep me on the planet intact for a while longer, so I wasn’t worried.  

Despite the hubris, and the sexism, and the irony, and the presumptuousness, I clearly had a lot to glean from this experience.  Here was a man who did not have a mastery of a specific trade, or English, or full usage of his legs. Yet he did not share my deficiency of ego.  It made me start to wonder where in the path of artistic development did my legs—like those of so many dancers—surpass my ego’s capacity for admiring what they can do.

“…yeah I’m not looking for nothing. I just wanted to show her there are good dudes out there. But, I had to ask for more. I opened Pandora’s Box and I guess you have to be prepared for whatever comes out of it…”

On some level, this man was an inspiration for my ego to do better.  It is finally time to do everything I need to do for self.

“…then I got beat up by her son…”

“Naw man, really?”

“Look, no man in his right mind is going to watch a kid disrespect his mama. I called him on that shit and he knocked me out of my chair, and got to swinging. He’s a teenager so I told his mama to get him to stand down cuz if I had rolled over on his ass it would have been game over…”

Yes. The one-man show that I sat down one summer three years ago and wrote finally needed to happen. Because if this man could dance, or do a shushunova, or tumble a combination pass, he would be a superstar.  Actually, with social media the major life-connecting artery that it is, he still might be one anyway; it turns out his paralysis is temporary. 

“Once I get through this physical therapy, I’ll be back walking again, man. I’ma miss the footage I get from my iphone from my chair height though. I be pretending I’m texting and I get the good ass shots. They don’t even be knowing.”

My show. It’s coming. 

1 Comment

Comment

The Body of Color in My Voice (Entire Piece)

Watching the Melissa Harris-Perry debacle underscored a problem that I have seen for years with successful, top tier black women who are exemplary at their craft: they often lose agency for their voices.  Either the gatekeepers (often white men) keep these women dangling like chandeliers from the glass ceiling, or the sisters are removed from the ballroom altogether.  When I stood in the front of the studio at Howard University and looked at almost a dozen promising brown women who have Melissa Harris-Perry promise, I realized that they thus have the same opportunities to be silenced; the responsible thing to do was address it in making a ballet.   

It was ambitious as all hell. In five days I had so much to address:  creating a piece from scratch, committing the women to using the discipline in their bodies, erasing the slavery-based, self-hatred-submerged notion that ballet technique is the only codified language of dance that matters, erasing the ladies' notion that a deficiency in it means a lack of worth to the field, and eliminating the general fear of a process they did not think they were capable of.  These objectives were more challenging to reach on some days than on others, but I knew I was asking a lot. Of both myself and the room. 

But we made it to the other side. And I reminded them that this is about them, and that while I am the dance maker, they are the authorities on what it is to be a black woman today, that the piece does not succeed without their information. 

Of course, when they enter the  world of the performing arts as professionals they will feel it more; dance does not excuse these women from CNBC-style shutdown.  I’ve watched friends experience it on Broadway, in television and film, and in dance companies. In fact, the black women who run some of the dance companies that inspire the Howard University students have spoken about the mountainous funding treks they take just to present their dancers and choreographers in concert.  It dawned on me that even the meteoric rise of friend and colleague Misty Copeland is a reminder of all the equally gifted black ballerinas whose brown bodies never made it into companies where their artistic voices could be heard and adored.

Since I was there to help with the first ever audition held specifically for such bodies (see "dipping a black toe in" blog for that), this experience has continued a theme for me.  So I urged my dancers to watch or re-watch the 2013 dialogue between Perry and bell hooks, the full 90 riveting, poignant minutes of which is on Youtube. In addition to text from it, I used the music of Laura Mvula, a performer who, in the spirit of Nina Simone, includes the politics of her body and color in her art.  (Unfortunately, Youtube has restrictions that prohibit me from posting the video with Mvula's music.)  

I've since met Melissa Harris-Perry and was as blown away by the episode of her new show #nerdlandforever that I saw shot live at the pop-up Museum of Drug Policy as I am by her general gumption. Please check her out. 

Comment

1 Comment

The Body of Color in My Voice

Watching the Melissa Harris-Perry debacle underscored a problem that I have seen for years with successful, top tier black women who are exemplary at their craft: they often lose agency for their voices.  Either the gatekeepers (often white men) keep these women dangling like chandeliers from the glass ceiling, or the sisters are removed from the ballroom altogether.  When I stood in the front of the studio at Howard University and looked at almost a dozen promising brown women who have Melissa Harris-Perry promise, I realized that they thus have the same opportunities to be silenced; the responsible thing to do was address it in making a ballet.   

It was ambitious as all hell. In five days I had so much to address:  creating a piece from scratch, committing the women to using the discipline in their bodies, erasing the slavery-based, self-hatred-submerged notion that ballet technique is the only codified language of dance that matters, erasing the ladies' notion that a deficiency in it means a lack of worth to the field, and eliminating the general fear of a process they did not think they were capable of.  These objectives were more challenging to reach on some days than on others, but I knew I was asking a lot. Of both myself and the room. 

But we made it to the other side. And I reminded them that this is about them, and that while I am the dance maker, they are the authorities on what it is to be a black woman today, that the piece does not succeed without their information. 

Of course, when they enter the  world of the performing arts as professionals they will feel it more; dance does not excuse these women from CNBC-style shutdown.  I’ve watched friends experience it on Broadway, in television and film, and in dance companies. In fact, the black women who run some of the dance companies that inspire the Howard University students have spoken about the mountainous funding treks they take just to present their dancers and choreographers in concert.  It dawned on me that even the meteoric rise of friend and colleague Misty Copeland is a reminder of all the equally gifted black ballerinas whose brown bodies never made it into companies where their artistic voices could be heard and adored.

Since I was there to help with the first ever audition held specifically for such bodies (see "dipping a black toe in" blog for that), this experience has continued a theme for me.  So I urged my dancers to watch or re-watch the 2013 dialogue between Perry and bell hooks, the full 90 riveting, poignant minutes of which is on Youtube. In addition to text from it, I used the music of Laura Mvula, a performer who, in the spirit of Nina Simone, includes the politics of her body and color in her art. 

If you are in the D.C. on April 8 or 9, please see these dancers.  You will be as edified as they are supported by your presence. 

 

1 Comment

Comment

dipping a (black) toe in

This is all Misty’s fault.

I mean, if she had not made history with American Ballet Theatre by becoming the first black woman principal there, there may not have been such a profound appetite for finding her archetype for other companies. Perhaps The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) would not have had such a plump turnout from white ballet organizations in its unprecedented black ballerinas audition.

Well, maybe it’s not all Misty’s fault. IABD has been holding an annual audition for black modern repertory companies for 26 years. Dancers convene at the conference and festival, often hosted by one of the five founding legacy companies (also founded by black women), crowd a room and get seen at what has become a job fair of sorts.  Kids and pre-professionals can come on a different day to compete for scholarships and acceptance into various programs as well.  So, the ballet remix of this is rooted in context.

Guilt may be to blame too.  Ballet companies are surely over-burdened by scrutiny and pressure to make their ballerina rosters look more genuinely American, instead of keeping women of color cramped beneath the pink nylon ceiling….

Or so these were the prevalent assumptions I heard before the historic event this past Sunday.  Whatever the reasons, these above alone, in combination or not at all, people showed up. The artistic directors and representatives of Ballet Memphis, Colorado Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem (perhaps a given), Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, as well as representatives from Dance/USA, Pennsylvania Ballet II, Washington Ballet, Nashville Ballet, Jacob’s Pillow and School of American Ballet fought weather and airport dramas to watch 101 women of color in pointe shoes—40 of whom were walk-ins—jam the bars of Studio A at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance building.   The adjudicators and their associates lined the mirror as if courtside at the NBA playoffs for three hours despite the hiccups that besieged the audition.

There were hiccups. Delores Browne, who was a principal dancer with the New York Negro Ballet in the late 1950’s and whose honor of classical tradition (ironically) moored her in using only a live accompanist, drummed her thigh to keep time for plies. Well, at least until I acquiesced to Cleo’s insistence that I play anything until the back-up accompanist showed up (Mrs. Browne’s thigh was probably a better idea but I’ll save commentary about my personal failures and Cleo’s persuasion gifts for later).  We probably should have sequestered potential students from potential company hires right from the whistle.  And the marley floor, perfect for modern, often barefoot repertory dancers but unusually too slick for pointe, took several ladies down.  But whatever. As I said, NBA playoffs.

We weren’t fazed either really.  On some levels it was okay that this event wore no costumes.  Everyone could plainly see that IABD is the not-so-little engine that would, despite copious odds, and oiled for years by a grocery list of grassroots volunteers who supply elbow grease wherever money is missing.  Rather, everyone could plainly see IABD period.  In fact, this audition had shone out, providing a platform for over 100 women of color—buoyed by the absence of a white prototype to pulverize confidence—to dance classical ballet before a row of its gatekeepers.

Admittedly, I did not consider the power of this when confronting naysayers, most of whom are well-respected black dance peers with stellar careers and Copeland-commensurate talent. Their worries were not unfounded. Years of disregard for turn-of-this-century pointe shoe paragons like Tanya Wideman-Davis, Ayesha Ash, Ebony Williams, Christina Johnson, Tai Jimenez and Theresa Ruth Howard (whose thoroughly researched blog on history’s neglect of their predecessors/pioneers remains online), offer little hope that sudden interest in black ballerinas is more than just minstrel cooperation. It’s beyond the possible shame I mentioned earlier. Overt racism, even in the name of tradition, is not en vogue these days. and Misty has provided ballet with a face that fresh, young consumers now want to see in spades—isn’t the American way to capitalize, 16th century traditions be damned?  

And here we are, an entire black organization with a Next Generation Leadership arm I am a part of, helping the exploitation with this audition. I understand my colleagues. But what I didn’t know to tell them is that before this audition, courtside front row folks had convened with IABD head Denise Saunders Thompson, Malik Robinson, Joan Myers Brown (who was a ballerina long before she founded Philadanco) and their constituents to have a conversation. In the wake of Misty’s promotion and meteoric stardom, along with a desperation for every person with a pulse to see her dance, the issues were laid bare on the table.

The seeds of this revolution will not be televised; out of respect for the sensitivity of the subject matter, the discussion details will remain confidential.  Ayisha McMillan-Cravotta, colleague, friend and academy director of the Charlotte Ballet School, was able to nevertheless assure me that there is a “genuine desire to have more women of color in ballet companies.”  Companies have noted the decline in black women showing up to auditions, a truth she can speak to with authority as a black ex-ballerina herself, having danced with both Houston Ballet and Charlotte Ballet.

“There are layers and layers happening there,” Ayisha said.  “You get tired of going after a goal or contract when you get messages back, unspoken and unwritten cues that say ‘This is not the place for you.’”

Without her saying as much, I imagine this insidious practice made it into the room too.  Still, she satisfied my audacity of hope. 

“What I like is that there were enough faces around that table who have been working at this for more than 20 years as a clear initiative,” Ayisha said.  “Maybe they were smaller companies so they don’t get a lot of press.”  She also cleared up the Misty factor, happy that “in that room, there was clear understanding and knowing by name who came before her.  This is not an ignorant bunch of [white] people who didn’t know Raven [Wilkinson] and Lauren [Anderson] and Janet [Collins]. There were directors in there who have had successful work, even in misguided attempts to get black ballerinas.”

Denise Saunders promises this is only a beginning. 

“We must continue to do the work and the conversation must now turn into action.”  

The implications for IABD, for which she is the sole volunteer employee have been made more plain. 

“We of the African Diasporic Dance Community are of value and can be resourceful in creating a pipeline, serving as a conduit/bridge to link the field together,” she said. “And we can be of assistance by connecting some of our members to the ballet organizations that exist in the members’ communities and help with introductions.”

What else has come out of this for us? 

“The biggest thing to come out of all of this is trust,” Ayisha said.  As the only person who has been on both black dancer and director/administrator sides of this specific conversation (a tricky negotiation), she gets the questions.    

“What is going to make [black dance organizations] want to trust me enough to send your dancers to audition for our program?   What is going to make you trust that I’m going to create access to ensure that when they get here they will have an equitable experience?”

Outside Cleo’s building, a lattice of bars protect the windows.  Through one of the small diamonds, I was able to capture the hazy image at the top of this blog.  I’m glad that the dust on the glass limited resolution; this way the collective power of brown skin throws into relief traditional balletic ideals.  We are forced to see that the total significance is bigger than individuals both against the mirror and on the marley could ever be alone.

And perhaps there it is. Turns out this thing has a lot more body than even Misty. We’re just at its toe and maybe that’s the point. 

Comment

Comment

Technology

A close, young friend came by for the holidays and looked at my Fujitsu laptop with absolute disgust.  He was horrified that I still had it.  He asked me why. He asked me with the urgency of someone asking why you would keep a chimpanzee in your house, or attempt acupuncture with safety pins.  

I could only shake my head. He wasn’t really interested in an answer of course, no matter how salient. I tried anyway.  You know, because it’s an adorable complete laptop with a DVD drive which is useful to play and copy dance videos from 501(c)(3) companies too poor to upgrade their technology. Or because it has a wonderful keyboard without the obnoxious space the chiclet key platforms offer these days (which always slows down my 80 wpm). Or that it’s small enough to fit into my backpack laptop sleeve with no issues and still large enough to have a real screen that requires no squinting or adjustment to see.

He listened to none of this.  He saw the computer software working and asked what I was doing, his face deepening further with worry.

“I’m archiving dance videos. I convert them from VHS to DVD first then make mp4’s on the laptop and save them to the external hard drive,” I explained, very proud of myself for the successful upgrades.

He was not. He was appalled.  “Why don’t you just send those to a place that does video transfer?”

“Can’t afford it. My way is cheaper. Besides, shipping them runs the risk that they get lost in the mail or that the digital company misplaces them or something.  They aren’t films that I purchased, they are videos of mostly dance works that I can’t replace, hence the digitizing.”

“What makes you think you’re better at protecting them than the couriers or the digitizing company?”

“Because the cassettes only have to make it from the bedroom to the guest room where the machine lives,” I said, confused about this departure from common sense. “And as I said before, I can’t afford it a service”

“I will pay for it,” he said, more gunfire than benevolence in his voice. "I will pay for it and replace this junk."

“That’ll work,” I said. “But I’m still not sure what is particularly unevolved about this method. And as for my computer, when I took it in for a busted screen and asked if I should just replace the machine, the expert said not to, that this has an Intel Core i7 processor that is top notch.”

Then he sat down on the bar stool next to mine, kind of the way that M in Casino Royale did before prefacing with her top agent that what she was about to say “might be too difficult for a blunt object to understand.”  My whippersnapper's version of this went:  “You know how you’re a dancer and if there was anything I needed to know about movement I should just trust you on it? Well, I am an expert on this stuff you’re doing and what I would tell you about this is so far over your head, you should just trust me and let me do this. Let me upgrade all of this.”

It is only because he had volunteered to pay for it—and doesn’t have a fraction of Judi Dench’s shade chops—that I neglected to relegate him to a corner of my house for a time out. Plus, he’s too adorable (most of the time) to throw out the window.

The thing is, it was charming, this kind of love.  And I was fascinated at how earnestly he defended what I realized in that second is the secondary religion of his generation: full technological integration for the sake of forward momentum and convenience.  And general coolness of course.

I am not a fan. I was mad when the market decided that flip phones were obsolete. For me it was already bad enough that I don’t have an actual receiver for the moments I need to slam a phone down to hang up on somebody who pisses me off (remember that joy, anybody?); now I can’t even have a reasonable facsimile.   There was something delicious about the tactility of a blackberry keypad, but the swipe mania has swiped away my options. 

Options.  There it is. We don’t have any.  It scares me that as we move further into the 21st century, the market is not expanding with options but rather diminishing.  I must conform to whatever way of life Apple, Sony and the leading droid and computer companies prescribe. Period.  It’s not the first time I’ve been given this news. The genius boyfriend of one of my proteges told me in a coffee shop in Seattle last December that he was working on micro-chip-in-body integration. It was my turn to be horrified.  He went on to say that I should go ahead and submit to the movement so as not to become a techno-neanderthal, unable to adapt and destined to die off like the other Clan of the Cave Bear hominids (shout out if you’re old enough to know that reference).

Meanwhile, I’m thrilled that he’s willing to pay for my upgrade. But where does that leave the grassroots organizations that are still willing their old technology to hang in there until the miracle of arts funding happens upon them?  I explained to someone recently that since manufacturers are moving away from flash drives—at least this seems to be so based on the lack of ports on portable hardware—it becomes harder to interface with companies that still carry data on them. Unless your grassroots constituents have really solid Wifi. Good enough to facilitate high speed internet…

I took a sip of my drink.  “Sure, come over and upgrade me anytime,” I said.  “I won’t stop you.  But I need you to make sure that whatever machine you purchase has a keyboard similar to this one. And a USB port.  And…”

Comment

Comment

Residency

The problem with residencies for me is that I attach. It’s true. I admit it.  I’m supposed to go in and do my job, communicate the information, pass on the steps of the brilliant dance maker whose work I’m entrusted with, give the students tools to do it with integrity and go on about my business.  If there is any inspiration, it should be because of my work ethic, or my physical embodiment of the goals the dancers are trying to realize, but not necessarily because I’ve done anything other than my job.

Not that there is anything wrong with investing in young dancers every chance we get.  A few dancer/teachers I know also do visual diagnostics about body restrictions that might prohibit dancers from getting to the work. We tailor exercises in technique classes to answer specific problems.   We learn names.

But then I start to prescribe fixes for their individual technical quirks, worry about whether they got enough rest,  whether they really understand what they are doing, how they will get jobs in this industry later on, you know stuff I can’t do anything about in a week.

What slowed my roll at George Mason University last week is that I felt  deathly ill the night I arrived to the hotel.  For the first three days of teaching class (and the ballet), I lumbered into the building, and pushed through a grenade-blown immune system. I vowed daily not to search symptoms on the internet and then diagnose myself with a life-threatening disease, which is what the website would have surely confirmed.  So the head cold (let’s go with that) crept into my sinuses and frontal lobe and literally slowed down thought it was so painful.  Sleep was a struggle and negotiating the cold—which must have been the same kind that killed the French when they ignorantly tried to invade the Soviet Union back in the day—left me able to do only the bare minimum.

Still I was determined to get the hallmarks of Byrd’s technique into the dancers' bodies. The work ethic of the dancers and the hospitality of the staff helped.  One of the biggest concepts in his work – and also in life if you want to relieve lower back stress and increase everyday efficiency – is to keep the hips on top of the legs at all times in a neutral configuration as weight gets shifted from leg to leg. By neutral, I mean aligned the way hips would be situated on a hanging skeleton model. Of course, there are muscular imbalances that may displace it, but given the option to drop it likes it hot or clap it, saying no is best if you want to succeed at the glacial physical demands in a Byrd ballet.  Also, it’s important to know where those hips and pelvis are facing at all times so that specificity of steps is achievable.

By Wednesday I was well enough to invest fully and yell at the dancers when their hips were all over the place, sliding back, facing weird angles. I had complained about how orientation of the pelvis helps rudder what happens next and how (mixable into life paradigms as well).  In one of my rude moments, imperative to the thorough development of dancers into great artists, I must have yelled, “Where is your pelvis? Where is your pelvis? WHERE is your pelvis?” Then, before pressing the play button, I thought, “I need a T-shirt that says that…”

Except that it wasn’t just a thought because on the last day of the residency, the dancers presented me with a gift bag containing a card, a GMU sweatshirt and the tee I’m wearing in this photo.  

It made my entire week.  It made any complaints my body may have had worth it.  It made the hours of learning the ballet myself in advance (so that I could teach it) worth it.  It reinforced my belief that the extra investment is not in vain, and that dancers are paying attention and do seek the information. It validated my choice to give back during my dance career vs. once the ballet slippers are buried.  It got to me profoundly,  nudging deeply under my ribcage in the best way.

And on top of it too, as I wore the shirt for the rest of the day starting from when this picture was taken.   It made for very interesting reactions when strangers saw me in it later, but that’s another blog.  Where is your pelvis?  These dancers are going to always know the answer and it warms my heart. 

 

 

Comment

1 Comment

Purple Geisha Returns

 Purple 1 dancers Grasan, me, Eric, Darius, James Harkness plus composers Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray (James Brown III was there in spirit)

Purple 1 dancers Grasan, me, Eric, Darius, James Harkness plus composers Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray (James Brown III was there in spirit)

 

                We had already been standing outside of the dark theatre for about an hour and a half.  Earlier, before this second preview, we had joined our Purple family of the original production in becoming a spectacle.  Allee had interviewed and hugged us all, putting us on camera for new documentary footage. We had screamed words of good faith and support upstairs to the current cast members who thrust their heads out of the window with every measure of gladness that we were there.

                We had seen the show, our hearts nudged in every direction by the continuity of this thing we were privileged enough to have started. We marveled at the divinity of this original production reunion occurring 10 years to the day from when the entire cast taped The Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago.

                Now, Eric Christian was standing on 45th Street recounting flight attendant perils to Grasan, James Harkness, me, and Darius—three of the four other original male dancer ensemble members of the original production and the tour assistant dance captain.  Our full reversion to dressing room re-enactment tendencies fully engaged, Grasan and James had cast themselves (you know, to help out) as an obnoxious star’s assistant and another steward while Eric inserted himself between them and said, “You can tell me directly if there is anything you need.”  He underscored all manner of the passive aggressive star being forced to deal with a flight attendant who aggressively refused to be disrespected.

                This seems a digression, I know.  But it’s important to understand because it cued a shady brother to saunter across the street seconds later aiming directly at our circle.  We gathered our wits as New Yorkers accustomed to post-midnight crazy do, and prepared for what we knew was going to be a situation.

                “Hey, I heard that you’re the person that gives out whatever people need,” he said to Eric, planting himself beside me.

                “I was telling a story,” Eric said.

                Oh, he must just wanted some money, and what a good beg segue.  Except that I could smell traces of cologne still there, and he took too long a beat before the next question.

                “Yeah, but are you the person people ask for what they need?” he said.  “I heard it from across the street and that’s why I came over here.”

                Eric reiterated that this was re-enactment.

                Grasan reiterated too.

                At this point we knew he was probably not homeless and there was no telling what was in his pocket.  And is that a knife scar going from the lip crease to his cheek? We readied our guerilla counterattack protocols, should the need arise, especially since the stranger was now standing, hand in pocket, beside Eric’s plus-one.

                To get us out of the Matrix de ja vu loop, Grasan asked the guy pointedly, “What do you do?”

                “I offer sex?”

                The entire group offered a resounding “Oh,” replete with satisfaction that this had turned the corner indeed.  Of course. And Darius would blame me later, commenting that I always attract the crazy people (please see previous blog about the Sarah Palin/Tweet hybrid who turned a downtown Memphis Denny’s out years back).  

                The hand shoved in the sex offerers pocket pulled out a stack of business cards advertising….a car service?

                I shifted his focus my way, taking the card and speaking for the others. “No, one is good, we’re all together.  But wait. Connect the sex with the car service for me.” I waved the card.

                “The limo will get you to the sex,” he said, smiling.

                Most of us nodded. James Harkness’ face could suffer no pretense.  Before words could follow his train of thought, I suggested the guy go down 45th toward Times Square, that he would get much better business.

                He insisted I take his stack of cards instead, and I assured him I would make sure to distribute them to everyone else there. 

                 “So, how do you like your sex?” he asked.

                And scene.

                Years ago as a present to Oprah, I re-wrote several journal entries as letters to her and to God to celebrate the epistolary approach of Alice Walker's masterpiece and called it  To Walk Past a Field and Notice. Later, as a present to these guys and a few other cast members, I dug up the incriminating letters that I had taken out of the original.  I called it Memoirs of  a Purple Geisha (ask me if you're interested) and it includes dressing room gondola talks, scandals and a few NC-17 Lou Myers stories -  is this hustler one of his exponents?   Anyway, it was clear this night that The Color Purple, its stunning remnants, its artistic legacy, its bonding agency and the “Purple Geisha”  are alive and well.

                “You know I think Iron Bar is still open we should do that…”  Grasan said to initiate our sprint.

                We spent another hour on the corner of 45th and 8th once we made it there.

                And I still have limo/sex business cards for anybody who wants them…

1 Comment

Comment

Dancing #blacklivesmatter

The process of choreographing on uber-talented teenager Jared Brown a response to the problem with #allLivesmatter.  

Imagine for a moment that you broke your left wrist. In excruciating pain, you rush to the emergency room for treatment only to run into a doctor who insists on examining not just your mangled left wrist, but your uninjured right wrist, rib cage, femur, fibula, sacrum, humerus, phalanges, the whole bag of bones that is you.  You say, ‘Doc, it’s just my left wrist that hurts.’ And [the doctor] says ‘Hey, all bones matter.’ If you understand why that remark would be factual, yet also fatuous, silly, patronizing and off-point, then you should understand why ‘All lives matter’ is the same. It’s not about elevating some lives any more than it would be about elevating some bones.  Rather, it’s about treating where it hurts. - Leonard Pitts to the Miami Herald

Comment

Comment

things I learned in Zurich

 

Sitting on the co-ed deck of Utoqai, an early 20th century swimming house that Zurich residents often use to relax between dips into the gorgeous freshwater Zurich Lake, I drank a Coke. It was a revelation to be drinking a Coke without the usual acids and chemicals that corrode the teeth. 

There were more revelations. I talked to three wise gentlemen, all in their late 50’s at least, about the state of affairs in Zurich.  We covered other stuff too, such as the dissolution of Czechoslavakia and its mostly sorted residue, along with the scarcity of gorgeous summer days like this one.  But here is what I learned about common perceptions of Americans:

-         A lot of them think we are unscrupulously hypocritical in business, which is one reason Switzerland forbids Americans from opening bank accounts there (effective 2009). They marvel at how we can, after the Loehmann Brothers catastrophe, levy strict policies on others banking with us and follow almost none of them ourselves.

-          We are hilarious when it comes to how we campaign for office over a full year before the elections.  The only thing more absurd to them is Donald Trump.

-          They are outraged at how we allow police officers to get away with murder literally.  They cannot believe that our legal system has in it loopholes that excuse the perpetrators featured in youtube videos of what are essentially snuff shorts.  They are baffled by the counter movement "All lives matter" as a response to #blacklivesmatter

I thought about this last point on the plane ride back, how people lounging on a sun deck on the other side of the planet with probably cursory understanding of deep history of race relations in this country are able to calibrate the idiocy.

After my first Bailey’s and coffee, I opened the copy of USA Today the flight attendant brought and found one of the most beautifully stated, compellingly logical reasons that “All lives matter” is a ridiculous response to hashtag outrage over Trayvon Martin/Michael Brown/Tamir Rice/etc:  

Imagine for a moment that you broke your left wrist. In excruciating pain, you rush to the emergency room for treatment only to run into a doctor who insists on examining not just your mangled left wrist, but your uninjured right wrist, rib cage, femur, fibula, sacrum, humerus, phalanges, the whole bag of bones that is you.  You say, ‘Doc, it’s just my left wrist that hurts.’ And [the doctor] says ‘Hey, all bones matter.’ If you understand why that remark would be factual, yet also fatuous, silly, patronizing and off-point, then you should understand why ‘All lives matter’ is the same. It’s not about elevating some lives any more than it would be about elevating some bones.  Rather, it’s about treating where it hurts.   

Thank you Leonard Pitts for writing the above in a letter to the editors of the Miami Herald.  

For the record, I agree with Leonard wholeheartedly, and I can't say that I don't understand or agree to a certain extent with the Swiss perceptions above. They are not way off base. In fact, I considered the possibility of moving over there (understanding that they have their own national issues), until I remembered that I wouldn't be able to open a bank account... 

Comment