Learning a New Way of Being in Community
By Lisa Traiger
Thaddeus Davis is an associate professor at The University of South Carolina in the Departments of Theatre and Dance and African American Studies. In addition to his scholarly work, he is also co-artistic director of Wideman/Davis Dance. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Butler University in 1993 and his Master of Fine Arts from Hollins University/ADF in 2011. After an extensive performing career with leading professional companies, he continues to perform, research, choreograph, collaborate, and teach.
His current research explores the intersections of gender, class, race, and technology through an African-American lens. His research is reflected in his choreography and writings, including: Ruptured Silence Racist Symbols and Signs (2015), past-carry-forward (2014), A Dissembled Life (2011), Dance Theatre of Harlem: Modernism, History, Culture (2011), and Balance (2009).
Davis has received multiple honors and grants for his work including: the 2019 APAP|NYC Duke Access Award; 2019 Alternate Roots Artistic Assistance Project Development Grant; 2018 South Arts Momentum Program Grant (for Wideman/Davis Dance ), 2018 NEFA National Dance Project Grant; 2017 Provost Grant for the research and development of Migratuse Ataraxia; 2013 Map Fund Grant to support the research and development of Ruptured Silence: Racist Symbols and Signs; Jerome Robbins New Essential Works Grant; Dance Magazine’s 2002 “25 to Watch”; Best Premiere of the Season, Dance Europe, Once Before, Twice After (2002-03); New York Times top-ten dance highlight of the 2002 season for Once Before, Twice After, calling it “reassuring evidence of New York dance’s promising future.”
Davis performed with renowned companies including Donald Byrd/The Group (1998-2002), Dance Theatre of Harlem (1994-1998), Complexions Contemporary Ballet (1995-2005), Fugate/Bahiri Ballet NY (Dance Galaxy) (2000-2002), Indianapolis Ballet (1991-1993), Atlanta Dance Theatre (1988), and Alabama Dance Theatre. As a visiting professor or guest artist he taught at many dance companies and college and conservatory dance programs including Ailey II, Boston Ballet, Butler University, Arizona State University, and The Juilliard School.
As a fellow of the 2016 South Carolina Collaboration on Race and Reconciliation, Davis is an active participant in South Carolina’s efforts to improve community relations and support conversations on race and reconciliation. In addition, Davis serves as a member of Dance/USA’s Board of Trustees.
Dance/USA: You grew up in a big extended family in Montgomery, Alabama. What brought you to dance?
Thaddeus Davis: As a kid in Alabama there were always performances or dance experiences or songs in my house. I grew up with my mother, her sisters, my grandparents, and my great, great grandma. I was taken care of by a lot of people in my family. I spent a lot of time in choir rehearsals – my aunts were music majors in college – and I did my own stint in choirs as well.
I also grew up playing sports. I was a football player in elementary school. Then one day watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Mr. Rogers visited a dance studio. [Football player] Lynn Swann comes in with a helmet, full shoulder pads – the whole uniform. He takes them off one by one and explains what they are. Then he joins the ballet class. I thought, “Oh my God, he’s already a professional football player and he just started dancing; if I start dancing, and I’m only 12 or 13, I’m guaranteed to be professional because he’s already there.”
I go tell my mom, “I need to take dance classes,” but not just any class, ballet classes. I looked up ballet in the phone book and found Montgomery Civic Ballet. The teacher there, who was the director of the company at the time, Don Stephie, had a men’s ballet class on Thursday nights. But it wasn’t ballet as I know it now; it was stretching and moving and introduction to these forms and shapes that were really like calisthenics. There was a football player and two men in the military and their sons in the class.
It was a workout atmosphere, very similar to being in a sports environment. One of my teachers suggested I should try out for the performing arts high school. I auditioned and that’s how it all started.
D/USA: I love your origin story. It’s emblematic of experiences of many dancers who have had a life-changing moment at a school lecture/demonstration, watching television or a movie. It reminds us how important school and public arts programs are; they are so formative.
T.D.: When I graduated high school I didn’t get any college scholarships for football. I wasn’t as good as I thought. I went to college in Montgomery for about a year and a half and I was not really successful academically. Then my dance teacher, Dian Robinson, told me I should be a dance major. I had no idea you could go to college and study dance. She went to Butler University, so she called, set up an audition and I went to Butler.
After four years at Butler, I moved to New York with the intention of dancing with Dance Theatre of Harlem. But I didn’t go straight to DTH because I knew there were some things I had to work on: perspectives on movement – that Balanchine perspective, which I didn’t have. [When I was ready,] I went to the audition for Dance Theatre of Harlem, got accepted into the school and … then I was working with the company right away.
D/USA: Why did you begin to choreograph?
T.D.: I did four-and-a-half years at DTH. I left because I wanted to choreograph. I had started working with Complexions [Contemporary Ballet] at the time. I really needed to be in a creative space. I auditioned for Donald Byrd/The Group and in auditioning for him, I was really intimidated by his different ways of approaching movement. But I was also intrigued. I worked with Donald for four years. It changed everything about how I think about the aesthetics of the art of dance, about dance and social politics, about my reflections on the African-American experience in dancemaking, about the contemporary experience in dancemaking, and the level of intellect demanded in dance making.
Donald’s work took dance out of just objectifying the body [and] brought it into the mind-body connection in a way that was really quite beautiful and vigorous, intellectually and physically. Even though sometimes the process wasn’t enjoyable, I really enjoyed the work. When I was at DTH working with choreographers, it just seemed magical, like they were anointed with other worldly experiences that came to them. Then they told you to do it. In Donald’s process we went through the nuts and bolts: this is how you make a dance. This is how you make theater. It made the path less daunting, but more about the rigor of daily work.
D/USA: Your works often focus on ideas and process drawing from the African-American community. That’s a very different approach than classical ballet with an aesthetic of virtuosic bodies in space, which you knew from DTH. How did you find your artistic voice?
T.D.: I’m from the South. I’m a part of a family that danced, but we didn’t study dance. I don’t come from a place where people study dance to perform. The performance could happen spontaneously in a park; the performance could happen spontaneously in a front yard, or as you’re driving down the street, seeing someone standing on a block, speakers playing. Studying dance as a concert artist or performing entity, takes on a whole different positionality. Here I am at 51, trying to figure out how to get back in touch with the dances and the spaces of my youth: the spontaneity of dance, the cool kind of physicality.
The elements have mostly been the same, but for me they were segregated — one lives in a theater for a paying audience and the other lives just because, which is really positive when you own it. If someone pays to see you move, that means you have a different validity and we’re taught to have a different kind of respect for that. If you dance and give it away free, maybe it has no value. Though I’ve learned over the years that the opposite is true. It’s all of value.
D/USA: Tell us about your collaborative process. You work with your creative and life partner, your wife Tanya Wideman-Davis.
T.D.: I entered a partnership on many levels with my collaborator and wife, Tanya Wideman-Davis. That collaboration has been constant and our work together has helped me dismantle the notion of the “single genius male choreographer.” I realize that it takes the whole room to make whatever we’re making. As I said, I grew up in a house, where I was raised by a lot of people and so there were always many voices. That contributes to the collaborative process.
Back to this notion of physical classical concert dance rigor that I’m trained in: I love the ballet aesthetic. Pure movement is what I know as an athlete, a former football player, and as a person who just loves to watch the human body move. In my collaboration, though, I’m getting closer to being the person that I left behind when I left Alabama. I’m hoping that I can retouch those authentic and original things that were untrained. We just loved moving; we didn’t care about what aesthetic it represented. That’s where I want to be.
Working in community, first of all, is how Tanya and I bring our family experiences to the work. This past summer we did site visits and community work in Harpersville, Alabama, the site of our premiere work in January. Over three visits there, sometimes there were movement ideas, sometimes there was simply sitting with the community, with the elders, and letting them tell us about their life experiences in Harpersville, Alabama.
We’re learning a new way of being in community, which is not the way we learned in a dance company. There, you go teach the master class, teach the kids, and get the funding. That’s great work. But we realized there’s another way. We kindle things of importance in our lives and others’ lives. We see it in their eyes when we’re in community settings with others, when they can share and listen and interact. That experience changed how we think about our black experience in America, our American experience and our blackness.
This shifts how we think about dance and community and the importance of it. It shifts how we can continue to interact and to dance as we get older. We can continue to be a part of the multigenerational experience in our art-making practice.
D/USA: We’re finding that younger generations desire different experiences. They don’t want to just sit in an audience and watch. That’s how the older generation consumed art. Today’s audiences want interaction. Engagement is the trend to reach this current generation. With this growth in interest in community-related work, what advice do you have for artists who wish to embark on that path?
T.D.: First, you have to be interested in community. From time to time I’m on NEA and other panels, and when I read statements from artists about their community work, I get a sense of authenticity or not. I get the sense that this artist is really interested in this process because it challenges that notion of what you think concert dance is. It challenges how it will look because you are hopefully reflecting the community. Instead of bringing something to them and saying, “Hey, this is what you want,” you go into a community and say, “I’m really interested in figuring out the cause and effect as it relates to this community.”
Authenticity is the first thing of importance. Second, one thing that we do a lot as artmakers is we go for originality, which is totally honest and what we should be doing. But that does not mean we cannot cite, we cannot borrow, we cannot request an audience with those who have gone before us and done what we are interested in doing. We have to cite the people and use the people who have come before us – for example, [choreographers] Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Liz Lerman. We have to reference and examine what they’ve done in community. If we can’t connect with them personally, we must do our research and, hopefully, reach out and connect with them or really be engaged in their process and learn how they did what they did.
Third, we have to stop looking exclusively at dance. We should look at other art forms, other mediums, other means of expression. I love this statement I learned in dance history: “Dance is the product of four parents: the composer, the choreographer, the dramaturg and the designer.”
D/USA: You live in two cities – Columbia, S.C., and Chicago, Ill. – so you see what’s happening in two parts of the country that are very different. What are your thoughts on where we are as a field and where does the field need to do more work?
T.D.: When I first came to University of South Carolina, there was a collection of Dance Magazines from the 1960s into the early ‘70s. I took the time to read them all cover to cover over the course of the first year and a half. I was fascinated with this one section that dealt with the regions of the country. They had voices from different parts of the country reporting on what was happening. I was fascinated with that. It told me that we made space for difference.
That’s something our company Wideman/Davis Dance does as part of the South Arts Momentum program, which is designed to prepare five southern dance companies to launch touring and to support Southern dance makers. The idea is supporting artists who are living in the South and trying to make work from the South, which is a different experience based on the culture in the South, if for no other reason, the heat alone and the humidity affects artists. And, then, sending those artists to other regions of the country. So the idea is not just to bring companies from big northern cities down to the South, to show us what should be. Instead, let’s nurture and share what’s happening in our region.
As a member of Dance/USA, I’m reading various publications and listening to people from around the country. There are big holes in the South, there are big holes in the Midwest, beyond Chicago. There are big holes around the country where dance is just not represented. Is dance going on? Absolutely, but it’s not going on in the same ways or getting enough attention. This regionality, getting a sense of other regions in the country, is really exciting for me.
D/USA: Is there anything that you think the dance field should work on?
T.D.: We’re moving forward toward diversity, equity and inclusion, but we cannot move fast enough. It is going to change how the field looks, and I think that is a good thing. We have to move toward that. There’s a lot of work that’s going on with introductions of multiple people of color, black and brown people, into positions of leadership. We simply cannot change the way we perceive our field until we accept that there are multiple ways of being in the field.
Finally, because of where I’m situated in academia, modern dance got started in colleges. All the so-called legends went to the colleges, that’s where the dancers were. There are a few programs today — Alonzo King/Lines’ BFA, Alvin Ailey’s Fordham BFA and a few others – that are attaching themselves to universities. We need each other: The university needs the professional world and the professional world needs the university. This segregated highbrow/lowbrow idea of those who can’t are over there and those who can are over here, needs to be dismantled. That will make the field richer and more informed. The professional perspective allows us to expand and leap in different directions because we’re grounded in something that’s solid academically. We need to figure out how these two worlds can come together.
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for publications including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week. An award-winning arts journalist, she is a former co-president of the Dance Critics Association and holds an MFA in choreography from University of Maryland.
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