Celebrating Black History Month Through Contemporary Dance

February is Black History Month in the United States and Dance Repertory Theatre is marking the occasion in a celebration of African American culture upon contemporary dance in Momentumunder the artistic direction of Charles O. Anderson, Jeremy Arnold and Lyn C. Wiltshire.

two people dancing together

Momentum pays tribute to two significant African American events in dance that transformed the field to come: 1932’s The First Negro Dance Recital in America produced by Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy, and Parallels produced by Ishmael Houston Jones in 1982 and 2012,” shares co-artistic director Charles O. Anderson. “These events, in their time, asked and answered the question: What is Black Dance?”

The works by Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy featured a program of thirteen performers who presented a range of works in what many consider to be a turning point in the presentation and execution of Black Dance, different from the theatrical performances before them. “They hoped to clear a space for African-American artists to create and exhibit choreography that drew on both developments in the emerging field of modern dance and the extensive and resilient dance traditions of the African diaspora.” (Dance Research Journal 35/2 and 36/1 (Winter 2003 and Summer 2004)).

dancers running in front of green screen

As modern dance evolved, so too did the concept of what “Black Dance” meant. While Winfield and Guy continued to be prominent players, other artists emerged including Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey, whose company, American Dance Theater (founded in 1958), is now considered a significant cultural institution and a leader in world-renowned education and performance. Ailey is often credited with establishing modern and Black dance on the global stage in way that hadn’t been seen before. In 1969, Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded under the direction of Arthur Mitchell, the first black dancer to perform with the New York City Ballet. The company originally focused on bringing more African American ballet dancers to the stage, but has since evolved to include more contemporary works, including choreography by Alonzo King, Alvin Ailey and Robert Garland.

one man holding up another in beige

In 1982, Ishmael Houston-Jones presented Parallels at St. Mark’s Dancespace. Houston-Jones saw black dance artists as living simultaneously as members of the larger movement of “Black Dance,” a growing and recognized form of performance, but “modernism had been the preserve of white artists [and] now young black choreographers had joined them. That was their other universe.” (“A History Lesson” by Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, 2012). Parallels was an alternative interpretation of what the term “Black Dance” signified and an attempted response to Zita Allen’s question: “What is ‘Black Dance?'” In the program note, Houston-Jones explained “[He] chose the name Parallels for the series because while all the choreographers participating are Black and in some ways relate to the rich tradition of Afro-American dance, each has chosen a form outside of that tradition and even outside the tradition of mainstream modern dance.” (Ishmael Houston-Jones curatorial statement, PLATFORM 2012; Studio Museum).

Momentum seeks to celebrate to the history and evolution of Black Dance as a contemporary art form and the many ways in which it can be created, performed and perceived. Students in Dance Repertory Theatre have used works like The First Negro Dance Recital in America and Parallels, among others as a means of understanding the greater importance of the choreography they’re performing. Through this clarity, they are able to explore their own relationship with what a twenty-first century definition of Black Dance might look like and understand the full weight and meaning behind each step.

“While not all the works in Momentum are explicitly about Black culture, they collectively are an embodied conversation with African Diasporic aesthetics, histories, politics and/or movement forms,” explains Charles O. Anderson. “Our hope is to have a concert that features not only African American choreographers but choreographers of other cultural backgrounds that work within idioms that can be found within the African American and African Diasporic ethos.”

February 15-26, 2017
Oscar G. Brockett Theatre 

Images pictured from Dance Repertory Theatre’s Bodies & Souls (2016); Photos by Lawrence Peart