By Karyn D. Collins
The official theme for this year’s iteration of Dance/USA’s annual Dance Forum in advance of APAP was: “Exploring relevance, community, place-based work, and truth telling.” But the current political climate served as a constant undercurrent for the Jan. 12 New York event, imbuing each session with an even greater sense of import and intensity.
“To be clear, a lot of these issues we’ve been talking about for years and years and years, but as often happens, there comes a moment in time that presents itself where you get the opportunity to step out and push forward with things you’ve been talking about for decades,” said Michelle Ramos, Dance/USA’s board chair, who hosted the Forum. “We’ve had these same conversations around issues of inclusion, equity and race for a while now. But some of the Dance/USA constituency wasn’t as ready to really have those conversations back then. The time wasn’t right. Now the time is right.”
Ramos and others noted that a year ago, those attending the popular Dance Forum were still digesting what the Trump Administration might mean for the arts, artists, the dance field, and the country as a whole. One year later, a definite sense of that reality and its implications for all was palpable. “It does feel like there’s an urgency, which is real,” said Sharon Levy, president of Dovetail Productions in New York, a performing arts production company, when asked about the Forum. “I’m old enough to know we’ve been saying these things many times in the past. So I do feel there’s this sense of high energy about what can we do and how we can do things to the greatest degree possible.”
In her opening remarks, Ramos noted the Dance/USA statement on sexual harassment created in collaboration with members of its Service Organization Council. The statement was released in response to issues raised in the dance community in the wake of the burgeoning #MeToo movement. Ramos said that in addition to Dance/USA’s public statement, it would also ramp up plans to educate the Dance/USA membership as well as its staff on the issue. She also encouraged members to contact Dance/USA for information about the recently passed tax reform legislation and its potential impact especially on charitable giving.
But most of last Friday’s Forum, which was dedicated to longtime Dance/USA board member Jane Efroymson who died late last year, focused on examples of work that represented the future of the dance field in different ways. The Forum was moderated by arts consultant Karina Mangu-Ward.
In the opening segment, panelists talked not only about different possibilities when it comes to integrating dancers with disabilities in performances, but the realities of presenting dance with performers with disabilities. Panelists said one problem was the limitations suggested in even using the term “physically integrated dance.” “That really means, ‘Oh, it’s for the disabled,’” said panelist Jerron Herman, development director and a dancer with Heidi Latsky Dance in New York. Herman has cerebral palsy hemiplegia. “It reinforces the separate but equal.”
Beyond the issue of labeling and the limited thinking the labels represent, panelists also said more thought needed to be given to also achieving true inclusivity behind the scenes in the dance field. For example, Gina Gibney, artistic director and CEO of Gibney Dance in New York pointed out that even though her building meets federal standards for accessibility, her organization is grappling with how to make all levels of her facility easily accessible backstage. “We can welcome dancers and dancers with disabilities into our space … but there’s so much more that’s needed,” she said.
In the second segment two groupings of artists and administrators discussed the impact of programs that are community-based. Panelists like Linda Yudin, artistic director of Viver Brasil of Los Angeles, and Birmingham, Ala.-based dance anthropologist and educator Joan Hamby Burroughs agreed that the true richness of their programs stemmed from the fact that they were fully embedded in the communities, not just temporary visitors. That long-term investment in the community also meant that the organization was constantly thinking of where barriers existed between the community and the dance organization and worked on ways to dissolve those barriers.
Panelists reflected a variety of approaches to dissolving those barriers. And, as Malik Robinson, executive director for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance of Denver, noted, “People want to participate in the creative process in some way.” Forklift Danceworks of Austin’s Krissie Marty talked about its focus on residencies utilizing non-dancers to create dance pieces informed by their working environments. “We show up with curiosity and real interest and get to know [the participants] and the job they’re doing,” said Marty, Forklift’s associate choreographer and director of education. “Building relationships is really integral to what we do.”
The danger, panelists said, is to assume that a choreographer or company comes in with answers for what a particular community knows or needs to express.
Sean Dorsey, founder and artistic director of Sean Dorsey Dance and Fresh Meat Productions in San Francisco, said he saw his work as an opportunity not only to reflect the fullness of the LGBTQ community, including transgender individuals, but to educate the dance community on the need to expand its thinking behind the scenes on issues from gender identifications of bathrooms and dressing areas to language used at auditions to define roles and performers. “There is a way that the word and the phenomenon of trans has entered into popular culture so there’s opportunity there,” Dorsey said. “But the real danger, for me, is that it’s happening in a time before we have a real understanding. We have a lot of appropriation and a loss of voice by trans people. We’re not being elevated to tell those stories.”
Ramos said the energetic discussions between attendees and panelists showed the intense resolve in the dance community to listen to and utilize the knowledge of a broad spectrum of those in the field. “We have such a broad and diverse community. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to tap into our existing constituents and new potential members and partners to move forward effectively,” she said. “In the times that we are living in, issues of community, justice and inclusion must be at the center of everything that’s driving our work and dance ecosystem”
“It just makes sense,” Ramos added, “to lift up the voices of the artists, to lift up the voices of the people doing the work.”
Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for more than 30 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, the Camden Courier-Post, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, William Paterson University, Seton Hall University, and Bloomfield College in N.J. A faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque and Mahwah, N.J., Collins is also a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.
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