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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…

 

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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…

 

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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? 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

 

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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. 

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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…”

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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. 

 

 

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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…

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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

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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... 

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of margaritas and nylon ceilings

When I got to the restaurant on the night of this photo, it took me a minute to find Misty Copeland.  Nice night, authentic little Spanish tapas bar, beautiful people sitting all around.  But what became clear right away is that in much the same way that a few friends of ours had planned this get together before her historic promotion at ABT, I was simply as happy to join her with a margarita as I would have been on any other occasion.  

      Of course, I got that we were not just celebrating a friend anymore. Her friends/colleagues/peers, represented in that gathering alone by Kylie Lewallen, whose gorgeous lines are featured in Ducati ads, Darius Crenshaw, who danced while black for New York City Ballet for eight years, Ebony Williams, fierce Beyonce “single lady” and mainstay at recently defunct Cedar Lake Dance Company (she skyped in), and me, would understand that Misty Copeland’s meteoric rise is not without its challenges.   We would field Facebook comments about why she “chooses” to identify as black. We would address the bittersweetness of black family members so disconnected from ballet until now that they had no idea we were doing it before this promotion.  We would educate people confused about the significance of principal status at American Ballet Theatre when compared to Dance Theatre of Harlem in the vicious hierarchy of classical ballet, all while explaining that dancers at the latter (historically) were no less good. This was within the first three days of this photo.

      I can only imagine what Misty has had to do.

      Then there is the history.  In a nation exponentially more interested in paying $2,000 for a ticket to the Superbowl than even $20 for a ticket to see Swan Lake, few Americans care who is in the principal tutu.  Few care what a tutu is, or what the lines are supposed to look like beneath it.  So You Think You Can Dance andDancing with the Stars have done little (if anything) to educate the masses about ballet, even when it is presented on their shows.

      For these reasons, the explanation that Misty is not the first black principal in an American ballet company has to be treated carefully, handled like the donor organ in an ER, where the quickness to mistake nuance for hateration can infect like a sneeze.   That there is a legacy of noteworthy black ballerinas in the nation who have been fighting for jobs and acknowledgment for years is not part of the current (or past) PR, which those of us in the know are compelled to address (please read fellow dancer/blogger and formidable ballerina Theresa Howard’s comprehensive article The Misty-rious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color).

      Then of course there is the irony:  while I have been a fan of Misty Copeland as far back as when she was in the ABT corps de ballet, I have lots of dance colleagues who are suddenly dying to meet her, as if she just got to the scene last year.  She made it to household-name status last year, sure. And yes I did spend at least a few hours total in a thread battling radicals who believe she is denouncing all mixed race individuals by not calling herself mixed, a conversation that might not have happened in 2012. But the truth is, Misty didn’t just learn to dance a few weeks before she got the contract.  She’s been here in New York for a while, on pointe paying dues, with solid membership in the elite company of several black girls excelling in tutus.

      The beautiful part is that Misty wants you to celebrate them all. She is gracious that way. She wants rise for her chocolate sistren in other companies who are striving to stay relevant and en pointe.  She wants you to go and see Princess Grace Award Winner Jenelle Figgins at Aspen Ballet, Ashley Murphy at  The Washington Ballet, and any of the other worthy black ballerinas without PR or hashtag campaign.  She has acknowledged on several occasions mentors like longtime Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson, who managed to rip through the pink nylon ceiling of the field decades ago. 

      I’m still giddy over this picture of us. And honestly, the fun conversations we had that night were hardly about tendu and plié. Actually, my biggest challenge was trying to figure out whether she suspected that days later, her port de bras (balletspeak for arm carriage) was going to be burdened with the weight of a heavy rock on her finger... At her engagement party more recently, I congratulated her finally. And explained that I needed her to please return to me that very high attitude derriere line that she borrowed for the cover of Essence Magazine. I'd been wondering where that line went, why my body couldn't do it over the past few weeks. Years.

      "Would you like me to return the hair as well?" she said, laughing at me. 

      "Of course. It's been so confusing when I brush it out of my face and don't feel it in my fingers..."

 

 

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Jeremiah 1:8

"Do not be afraid of them; for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the Lord. 

"Recruitment" (duet from a piece choreographed in 2010)

When Jeremiah was 13 and I was 18, he told me he wanted to be like me.  He committed himself to learning how to gain complete control of his (then) spidery collection of limbs and torso. He would learn to tumble. He would stride with laser focus through any obstacles between him and solid ballet technique.  He tread water and then swam laps under the same paces Lula Washington put me through. 

He didn't stop there.  One year he trained at the San Francisco Ballet school and strove for enviable, in-your-face classical aesthetics (fifth to fifth double tours, textbook lines, etc).  He spent hours with his straddled legs against a wall waiting for his hips to open up.   He grew up, taller and bigger than I, majestic in his presentation. Of course, he added the relentlessly deep perspective of black dance performance and seasoned his craft with it so that every time he stood on stage, he snatched focus, as if channeling both dance ancestors and spiritual saviors alike. 

When Jeremiah was 18 and I was 23, I wanted to be like him.  I would sit before him, even while offering whatever counsel I had, and marvel at how he attacked life with the force of a grande battement (kick).  Unlike me, he was gloriously unafraid of failure.  He put the pursuit of his artistic self—which some of us know as “getting your life”—over worries of how things might turn out.   He made choices. He went after things. He learned lessons.  And then rather than re-spin them into back pedaling pleas of being misunderstood, he had the audacity to own and share his foibles with others.  He was generous that way, as much off stage as he was on it. 

He was also unafraid of what people thought.  He cared perhaps, but he was never afraid to face it.  A pair of daisy dukes and a second-skin tank and a little eyeliner did not stop him from a trek to deeper Brooklyn. “They can bring it if they bad enough,” he told me when I eyed him with worry. “I put these headphones on and press, I'll be fine.”  Who didn’t want to be this brave, this unapologetically unafraid?

So yesterday, when I woke up a 38-year-old artist, I had to remind myself that Jeremiah would not condone my slow slide into an emotional abyss, even if his exit from the world pushed me there.  He would remind me of all the ways that I was more like him than I knew, and that to forego class or an audition or a dance date would be unbecoming.  I’m supposed to go twirl in somebody’s ballet combination, or stomp down a club pumping the right beat. Or turn a prosaic sidewalk into the last great runway…  I’m supposed to press.

I will miss him forever nevertheless.  I loved Jeremy the kid as if he belonged to me and Jeremiah the adult as the brother every only child wants to claim.  But even more, I recognize him as one of the last products of a dance generation too reverent of our predecessors to shirk our responsibility to dance craft.    In a time of commercialized art and a world teeming with young dancers so dangerously submerged in their egos that their service to art suffers, Jeremiah maintained respect.  He never needed our teachers to prove themselves worthy of our attention.  He realized that his expertise was built on the backs, legs, arms, torsos, and physical articulation of our predecessors.  Jeremiah knew names like Ralph Glenmore, Carmen De Lavallade, Talley Beatty, and Gwen Verdun, and honored the artists who owned them. He never complained about the work, he simply did it.   And as confident as he was, he always understood he could be better.

So it’s no wonder he danced up until his last breath, that he had just finished a solo as grand as his most fabulous ensemble.   He was as fully committed and fearless, ancestors on call, dancing at his grandmother’s 80th birthday party as he would have been at the Kennedy Center, or at an elementary school auditorium for a classroom of kids.   Because he knew that he was engaged in his divine purpose on this planet and at the splendid mercy of every bit of God in him.  

We should all want to be like Jeremiah.

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                        

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Broadcasts

                It was one of those nice social gatherings with palm tree breeze energy and post-work relaxation, cold be damned. Fairly new, swanky midtown Manhattan hotel bar, plush sofas, accent colors splashed on pillows and end tables, supportive café music, this sort of thing.  The broadcasters were jovial, particularly because the 9 to 5 committee meeting that brought them together from assorted markets was so successful.                 

                One particularly stunning anchor, who had displayed focused brilliance every time she spoke during the meeting, sat waxing with me and a few others about dance, the union, and the TV/Radio Communications degree that made my inner journalist giddy in present company.  It was this anchor, Leticia, who had invited me after all, sparing me the stalker brand I might have sported otherwise.                

A colleague (because now, this is what I considered them) was buying drinks and asked my preference.                

“Coffee, Bailey’s and Frangelico if they have it.”               

“Great,” he said. “If they don’t have it, I’ll just come back.”                

I thanked him, bewildered at this measure. The bar was rather far away actually…                

“You know, you could be missing out,” Leticia told me. “The bartender up there is quite gorgeous.”                

I leaned over beyond a red pillar to scan the bar. I saw immediately a reasonably good-looking guy, but I couldn’t tell from afar if he warranted swift drawers-dropping.  During this split second cruise, Leticia continued.                

“Her name is Nicole and she looks amazing. I met her earlier…”                

More scanning revealed Leticia was right.  Nicole’s eyes are so outstanding, they shone from where she stood. Good reason to buy drinks for everybody.  I decided instantly that they would take a while, that our colleague would sooner convince Nicole to freeze water into cubes and grind the coffee by hand than leave the view of her at the bar.                 

When he returned, he joined Leticia, me and a few others in working out the worlds bigger issues—marriage, parenting, kids.  Leticia asked if I had any and I confessed I did not, that I waffle personally on fathering, that my other half and I weren’t quite ready.                

“How long have you been together?”                

“We’ve been off and on for about seven years,” I said.  “But I would want to have my kids naturally, so the conversation would be complicated.”                

We spoke about this, about how much cheaper it is than in vitro fertilization or surrogacy, and how my and my mothers lack of siblings create a biological compulsion that nags at me from time to time.                

About twenty minutes later, when the conversation died down, Leticia told me that she owed me an apology.  She looked at my bewilderment and, just when I thought I could admire this woman no further, she revealed more integrity.                

“Earlier I made a comment about your missing out on the beautiful bartender, Nicole, and made assumptions about your sexuality that I shouldn’t have. I’m so sorry.”                 

“No offense taken at all,” I said.  Then I confessed that the reason I had no time to be bothered by her assumption is that I was busy making the same one about the colleague who bought us drinks. Tall, subtly good-looking, the slight bend of his nose more charming because he’s not a fan of it, qualities that might snag him a fetching bartendress—I was busy wishing him luck.                

So I was no less guilty, just internalized with my execution of the crime. My method, the kind that allows for crow chewing to be suffered in silence vs. in mortifying surround sound, is more common, eclipsed only by those who spew thoughtlessly from the sides of their necks and then leave the scene.  What struck me is that Leticia did not let herself off the hook with a private oops (with my lack of objection, she could have cozied herself in the idea that either bartender would work for me).  That she owned her broadcasts and their origins completely made her convictions braver.   Then she acknowledged her oops and humbly cleaned up the crime scene herself.                 

This is broadcasting at its finest.                 

I neglected to thank her.  Next time we’re in the same city, I’ll buy the drinks (I owe our subtly good-looking colleague one as well.)                

And just so we’re clear, Nicole is the clear winner behind that bar…

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The Wiz

Sunday morning, during the first all-call rehearsal for the mash-up-medley of “The Wiz,” Brian Harlan Brooks stood in front of the room and explained all the ways it touched him to choreograph this presentation. He represented the majority of us when he confirmed for Andre De Shields, Ken Page, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Lillias White, the four principals from touring and Broadway productions of the original show 40 years ago, that we are direct beneficiaries of their efforts. Some of us saw it when we were kids. A few of us audition with songs from the show. Brian and I have been known to sit with friends and dissect dance sequences for hours, noting the hilarious details only a large flatscreen can show.

 Brian also echoed De Shield’s sentiments that this is an important time for 35 black artists to share the studio and the stage.

 Because days before, when the Eric Garner verdict came out, Brian huddled the dancers to explain that here and now and with this work, we had an opportunity to protest. He confessed that he aimed his palpable anger, ready as anyone else’s (mine, ours) to bulldoze buildings, annihilate police stations and raze legislation, into the creation of every mess around, developpe, passé and spiral.

 And while the concept may not be original – Marvin Gaye recorded “Mercy, Mercy Me” and Nina Simone wrote, well, entire albums – it is effective, and we are its beneficiaries as well. The dowries for our divine marriages of craft to career had been paid by people of color brave enough to perform their discontent or work in spite of it.

 So on Sunday morning, we had church. Not the kind regulated by dogma or judgment, but plunged in the perfect understanding of our assembly and our calling. Our sermon on legacy was delivered in four parts by originals who made clear the good, bad and sustaining impacts the show had on them. Tom Viola and staff at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, ushers unaware until that moment how affirming was their idea to make this the opening number for Gypsy of the Year 2013, sat teary-eyed. And the active congregation of dancers and singers were riveted with our Amens. Because within the privilege of performing, every step is both balm drop and picket, every note both poultice and bullhorn. And we understood that the love and festivity not capturable on video would be felt by a packed New Amsterdam Theatre for whom our worth could not be annexed to some factoid about ticket sales or relegated to a conversation about our color.

 The presentation was spectacular, and I say it with no ego, only excitement to have participated and relief that I did it any justice. It was an even more brilliant investment of mind, heart and nerve, as all of us had consulted the wizard on Sunday for reminders of what we had in spades to begin with.

 Now, Devin’s involuntary, constant full-body (literally) focus pull, Desmond’s chair warm-up and Lillias’ full company class stage left really deserve their own blog, so I’ll save it. And of course there was my stint singing on a handheld microphone for the first time as Dee Dee Bridgewater—all the ambiguity I left in the sentence applies. Another blog.

 And by the way, if there are producers quietly trying to figure out how to revive “The Wiz,” at least 12 minutes of the show are done if you stick with BC/EFA’s choices of choreographer and director….

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Red Cars

There I was at the Hertz car rental desk trying to decide whether to be shuttled to another location to get a car there or take one of the three red vehicles they had in stock to fill my reservation. The woman sitting in the only chair in the place was also waiting for service from the one employee working in this small branch.

           “They are good cars,” the attendant told me. “And I still have to take this woman back to her house.”

            I looked back at the seated black woman, who looked to be in her forties but, per all rules of black-don’t-crack-dom, was old enough to be my mother for sure. She looked back at me and shook her head.

            “You have children don’t you?”

            She nodded.

            “One of them is a son?”

            She nodded again.

            “And you would veto him driving around Los Angeles in a shiny red rental wouldn’t you?”

            She nodded with emphasis. “I’m in no rush. I can wait for you to get the other car.”

            Our conversation of few sentences in even fewer minutes underlines a problem that every woman of color with a son in America understands. I have statistically higher chance of being pulled over for driving while black, and red cars are more likely to attract police. So this woman sat proxy for my mother, who would do anything to mitigate the chances of my being shot by cops.

            I’ve been raised my whole life with intel on how to thwart this possibility. They've happened before, the shootings that go unpunished with scarce atonement.

            So I was not surprised about the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Wilson. I was there in Los Angeles 20 years ago when, despite the most readily available form of laymen-made footage, four cops were acquitted of the heinous Rodney King beating. I got to sit in P.E. and listen to the adjunct explain why this was not excessive force, argue that it was instead deserved because Rodney resisted arrest. With Ferguson, we have graduated from beating to murder. But the fundamental systemic scaffold that made acquittal possible during my teens is firmly in place now.

            It is why, in the spirit of keeping my discourse above shoddy laws and decrepit legal proceedings, I said to my black friends disgruntled with “Dear White People” that incorporating a sociopolitical definition of racism into the narrative is not mundane or redundant. Sure, the murder of Michael Brown would be no less devastating to his mother if they were white; the human tragedy looms regardless. But until we see this narrative on the national news with opposite gunman/victim race ID's, we cannot ignore the conversation about the evils of racism as if it does not include power and majority as qualifiers.

            It is why, in the spirit of dousing hypocrisy with integrity, I have rallied for a more comprehensive lens through which history can include completely black participation in the erection of America, instead of a decision every February of how much “black history” we will teach. Meanwhile, Texas housed talks of removing slavery from the history curriculum across the state within days of the Oscar-winning “Twelve Years a Slave.”

            It is why no, Iggy Azalea, you cannot use the N word.

             It is why I can find no logic with which to pooh-pooh conspiracy theories that the flagrant lack of consequence for Wilson is in direct proportion to the profuse enmity engorged by many about Obama's White House residence. No legal friend has been able to provide me with an explanation for why prosecutors would pass on such an easy victory.

            It is why the irony and atrocity of black men being perceived as threats continues to make me laugh and cry in tandem.

           This is not new conversation, and we are not done having it. Since racial lines are starting to get blurred by a generation uninterested in adhering to whatever segregationist ideals their parents or grandparents might have recommended, the Michael Brown archetypal tragedy will soon not belong only to the black community. And while the problem is clearly ours now, the profound diversity of protesters indicates to me that our anger is shared.

            Speaking of color, it’s not true about red cars.  Insurance companies report that the highest incidence of drivers ticketed involve gray vehicles. Before Monday, I would have relegated my renting paradigms to paranoia.

            Michael Brown.

            Amadou Diallo.

            Trayvon Martin.

            Kimani Gray.

            Kendrec McDade.

            Timothy Stansbury Jr.

            Sean Bell.

            I will not rent red cars.

 

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Com[mitm]e[n]t

Wednesday morning I woke up in a quiet hotel on the coast of Padre Island in Corpus Christi, turned on CNN and sat riveted as scientists explained the calm but nervous expressions of the people in the a European control room. They were waiting to see if the probe they sent out years ago had landed successfully on a comet. Within five minutes, there were high fives, hugs, smiles as wide as Andromeda: they had succeeded.

The talking heads were poised and ready to comment on this human victory, to spew incredible details about landing a small module on a body moving 140,000 mph, on how the comet has (relatively) only a pinky finger’s worth of the gravity on Earth’s heavenly body. But what moved me more than anything was the statement about the trial and error, the thankless saga of these science devotees who gambled entire careers on the hope that the work therein would payoff. That the misfortune of a bad launch meant the choice of a different comet and then two years more of waiting for a replacement host. That the power on the probe would run out if they did not turn it off in the meantime and hope that when they were ready they could re-engage it.

I am awestruck by the largess of faith and investment these scientists were able to make.

It made me feel much better about my work in Texas this week. I had made a slew of give-back commitments based on the originally scheduled dates for my boss’s “Dressed to Kill” tour, including a round-robin Q&A for dance students at the University of Texas (Austin), a master class for the division of dance at State University of Texas (San Marcos), and master classes at Teffany’s Dance Studio in Corpus Christi. Making good meant researching and booking flights, arranging car rentals, re-routing a box of #TossintheEthers that were meant to land on the tour opening in Lubbock, TX, and driving seven hours in a 24-hour period, among other things.

Since all of my engagements were rewarding, and my imaginary assistant (alterego) Trisha did a good job with logistics, I did not complain. But watching the CNN report about the production staff of this asteroid drama left me no space to (pun intended). It reminds me that there are people who sacrifice galaxies of time and energy for tiny bits of achievement. Of course parents are on the list too, which is why I was determined to offer an assuaging conversation with them about their kids in dance. But with any luck, the kids grow up and give back, unlike this comet, which may refuse to cooperate and then disintegrate without concern for twenty years of investment…

So far so good. I love the beauty of human beings celebrating in different tongues the joy of a human triumph against the mystery of space, which really does put our trifles of war in perspective. Hopefully, the human aspect extends even further into what I long to express to those scientists is an even bigger vestige of their efforts: inspiration.

I got to take it with me to teach two classes that day, and its tail is still hanging around...

 

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Geoffrey's Gala

Having just lost Geoffrey Holder, legendary choreographer, director, actor and artist who was for 7-Up what Stephanie Courtney is for Progessive, I was in a state of mind going to the Gala. It felt sacrilegious not to celebrate him and his work, which includes dazzling spectacles on the Ailey company, and cracking us up in with that miraculously rich voice in “Boomerang.” But the Career Transitions for Dancers program was set to go at City Center, and scrambling a tribute would not have done him justice. Five minutes before the curtain, as I sat in my three-piece suit waiting for fellow SAG-AFTRA Board members, it was too late to volunteer to crash the show line-up with a solo or something in honor.

     So I was feeling a kind of weird regret. Then Mike Hodge, my president, showed up and I stood to let him into the row of seats.

     “Well hello Mr. Jones,” he said to the man behind me. And there he was, James Earl Jones, sitting in the orchestra aisle seat, looking just like himself. If he had opened his mouth and said anything I’d have recognized him right away.

     It was a reprieve – Geoffrey Holder had moved on to some other celestial corner where, amidst directing a few planets maybe, he was laughing at me listening to the last two phenomenal basses on this one. I was excited finally to not only meet him, but be introduced even. But the other Board members arrived, pulled my focus to greetings. A sweet woman behind me got in on it, seasoning my torture with positivity I felt guilty about wanting to postpone.

     I was fully seated in a conversation with Mike Hodge when I realized the moment of introduction had passed.
     I swung around. “Well I know you too sir, or I’m going to say I do anyway,” I said to Mr. Jones.

     He laughed his rumbling laugh. “Oh you know me too?”

     “Of course.”

     Mike then introduced us officially, told me that they had done “Fences” together.

     “Wait a minute, I saw that show,” I said.

     “You were a kid,” Mr. Jones said. “Yes I was,” I said. “I also saw you in—” And this is where I lost my mind literally. I could not remember the name of the show and I felt crazy. Here I was about to offer the man praise on an American classic play I couldn’t remember.

     “Not ‘Streetcar’ but….” “The other Tennessee…” Mr. Jones said. And that’s when I knew from the expressions on their faces that they had drawn the same blank. Long seconds passed. “Maggie the cat,” Mr. Jones finally said.

     “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!” I said, as relieved at the fact that we got this out as I was by the fact that it was a group effort. We nodded as if we'd raised the Dow Jones.

      I was also relieved that I got to meet him before he left. When he disappeared mid-show, it was to present the Rolex Award to Angela Lansbury. I was ecstatic. She mentioned that she and Mr. Jones had just done "Driving Ms. Daisy" or six months in Australia. Not prone to star "struckedness," I was immeasurably moved by the fact that these artists, fame be damned, believe in working for the art of it, and love what they do enough not to retire just because they can. It is one of the philosophies that motivates me to not think in terms of retirement.

     Geoffrey Holder, who literally choreographed a dance from his bed the other night before transcending, had visited me this night once again. He wasn't done. The Dance Theatre of Harlem, whom I have come to adore over the years of rehearsing their curtain closer, shone. Ballet Hispanico was stunning. Kirven Boyd’s “Takedeme” was stellar and so were the other presentations.

     Then I saw Keisa, one of my students from my hometown on stage as a Rockette. I was thrilled! Later we had a great reunion and I got to watch her explain to her old boss that I had some influence over her development.

      After even the wealthiest and decadently dressed were unconcerned about sweated gowns, a tall, beautiful dancer from Ballet Hispanico came over to me.

     “Hi, I’m sorry to interrupt your dancing,” he said. I begged him not to worry, told him I probably needed to be interrupted before I split my suit pants. He continued, “I know you’re Jamal Story. I have to tell you that I saw you dance years ago in a show at Central Park.”

       “Francesca Harper’s show?” He nodded. “It had a really big impact on my dancing. Very big. You have no idea how much. I wanted to tell you that.”

     I was moved. The fact that we seldom know the level of impact we have is clear, but I felt this on a visceral level. I had paid it forward and had the pleasure of seeing the flowers in full bloom on stage. Mr. Holder’s grand finale for the life experience he directed for me this night.

     I thanked the dancer for sharing this with me, thanked God, and then thanked Mr. Holder. I suspect he will be choreographing and directing quite a few other life productions posthumously. And to think that there I was worried that he wouldn't be there...

 

P.S. It was a celebration indeed; we commandeered the DJ, taught a few millionaires how to wobble, closed the ballroom.

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Handy-ish

     Home improvement can be very Game of Thrones around this time.  Lots of things are threatening the sanctity of the realm. Brute force is always necessary. It gets dirty. Winter is coming.

        But I did not know there were so many lessons to be learned in this. Here is a list of a few that came out of trying to install a kitchen faucet, re-install window shades and sponge-paint my bedroom:

 

1)      More than one kind of wrench is necessary if your goal is to unscrew a rusted nut from a screw so short on surround space, manipulating the tool handle is impossible.

2)      Youtube provides instructions on how to remove your current faucet, because there are none in the box with the new one you just bought.

3)      The manual with the new one has parts and diagrams you will scarcely understand without a magnifying glass.

4)      The 3-D glasses that you brought home from “Godzilla” and did not recycle can work in lieu of the suggested goggles you forgot to buy, at least to minimize the amount of potential damage to your eyes.

5)      Buckets are necessary when efforts to turn off the water valve are not enough to stop the flow completely, no matter what that Youtube tutorial suggests (see #2).

6)      The sponge is a living thing even when it comes out of the plastic packaging; how could it behave differently from day to day with my paint otherwise?

7)      The Autobiography of Mark Twain, though functionally thick enough for height, is not quite wide enough in surface area to provide a good booster for the step-stool when you have 9-ft walls. Releve  (for you Toss in the Ether readers) is the position of the foot that high heels put women in, only with no heel.  This is how I edged the top of the wall…

7.5)      This is still better than the bakers rack on wheels as far as ladder replacements go.

8)    Installing window shade brackets without anchors means that one day you will yank the cord and pull down the entire fixture, leaving a mess of traumatized drywall in the bay frame. 

9)      There are paint spirits who guarantee that unless you are blessed by them, whatever brilliant sponge pattern you did the first day is inimitable from then on.

10)   Sponge technique improved tremendously when besieged by the goal of trying to apply the second layer during commercial breaks from “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”

11)   Massive do-it-yourself projects like this, precipitated by what I call “artist budgetry” needs (not to be confused with starving artist syndrome), are often exacerbated by a learning curve and desperate OCD.

12)   I have been to the Home Depot in Brooklyn and/or Bed Bath & Beyond so many times that my best friend is calling me a lesbian.  Is that a thing? I try to be up on my gay/lesbian stereotypes, although I get my gay card revoked on a pretty regular basis, so...

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