Black Choreographers Festival Offers a Moving Tapestry
of Kinetic Expression
By Lou Fancher
At the 2017 Black Choreographers Festival an array of cosmic and practical questions and kinetic answers define the substance and essence of dances created by artists of color. In fact, if there were a caveat for the rich offerings during three weekends of performances in Oakland and San Francisco, it would be that there is no single generality that can encompass the fulsomeness of black choreography in the Bay Area.
Perhaps honesty is the shared feature in works from Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Raissa Simpson, Gregory Dawson, Deborah Vaughan, Robert Moses, Phylicia Stroud, Maurya Kerr, and other established choreographers.
And add to honesty a refreshing humanity that buoyantly springboards from less-well-known choreographers cutting their teeth at the festival: Sheena Johnson, Erik Lee, Dazaun Soleyn, Alexander Zander Brown, dana e. fitchett, Ashley Gayle and Noah James, and Stephanie Hewett.
The subtle, but distinguishable diversity of the collected artists will be further extended by two film screenings. Bare Soles Bare Soul, by Delina Patrice Brooks, follows several women engaged for more than 15 years in African dance. Herencia de un Pueblo (Inheriting a Legacy), written and directed by Oakland-based Cunamacué director Carmen Román, honors the work of African descendants as they preserve their dance legacy in the Peruvian town of El Carmen.
Laura Elaine Ellis, festival co-director with Kendra Barnes, writes in an email that most of the works are premieres. For that reason, she’s not able to preview the content, except to say that, “artists’ perception of society and that keen ability to articulate through dance theater is powerful, often accessible, and relatable.” While supporting artists by providing a venue for their work is always a priority, Ellis notes the festival’s larger implications: “Addressing social justice issues through an artistic lens can impact, motivate, and inspire. Coming together to celebrate art and culture — that in itself is important. It reminds us of our humanity — which we must continue to value, and hold dear.”
The transcendent ideas expressed by Ellis come into focus through the lens of dance: “I’m just trying to be in touch with my own blackness,” says Maurya Kerr, about her most recent work. Fable : 3 is the third section of a trilogy she is developing and will be presented on Feb. 18–19.
Kerr is widely known for her soulful, astute performances as a member of Alonzo King LINES Ballet from 1994–2006. After leaving the company, she founded the San Francisco-based dance company, tinypistol, while continuing to teach and conduct residencies with LINES Ballet educational programs and other organizations nationwide. As an ODC artist-in-residence, Kerr’s 2017 spring/summer calendar includes the second-weekend appearance at BCF, participation in the D.I.R.T. Festival in early April, and a presentation of the full trilogy at the Walking Distance Festival at ODC in June.
“I want people to feel something: wonder, empathy, self-recognition, discomfort, curiosity,” she says. “I want it to resonate on a human-to-human level. I want a body speaking to make another body react.”
Kerr hopes her work will be “forever antipretty” and move beyond her ballet background, whose classically dictated lines, “pretty bodies,” and entertainment she no longer cares to emphasize. “I’m trying to do human experiences: I don’t think they’re pretty. They’re messy. I’m trying to move beyond the step-iness of contemporary dance.”
She’s also profoundly interested in being a voice that counters contemporary politics. “We just elected a fascist as president. [President Trump] is racist, homophobic, a misogynist. I’m thinking specifically about the election. I feel that women, people of color, Muslims, queer people — the government is going to try to quiet them.”
In response, Kerr says artists and everyone must be “resoundingly loud and prolific, proficient, creative. To do things that aren’t consigned to stereotypes. We have to be truthful in public.”
Which leads to complex thoughts about a festival devoted to black choreography.
“Because blackness is not honored the same way whiteness is, there needs to be avenues for blackness to be honored,” Kerr says. At the same time, she mentions and understands the position of Adrian Piper, a conceptual artist who has in the past declined presentation or pulled out of exhibitions labeled “African-American art” on the grounds that the classification ghettoizes or marginalizes black art and artists. And no, Kerr doesn’t believe that holding the Black Choreographers festival reduces the opportunities for their work to be presented at dance festivals in general. “It doesn’t make white festivals feel they don’t have to do work by black artists. It’s not even on their radar. I think they don’t invite them because they’re just not conscious: They’re prejudiced and not even aware of it.”
Even so, she’s grateful for the platform, because the first step to altering the present dynamic is to be—and encourage audiences to be—more engaged with black artists. The solo section of Kerr’s trilogy that Alexander Diaz will perform puts on display the talents of a young male dancer of color. “He’s in LINES’ two-year training program. I felt it was important in this time to present works with a person of color. I’m presenting a different image of black men. Instead of beastly and monstrous, or a dope pusher, athlete, entertainer, I’m trying to turn down the volume to a male who’s quiet, vulnerable, not having to prove something. He can just have value by being.” Based on fairy tales, Kerr says the piece is wrestling its way into existence past a veneer of the “white prince,” who rescues damsels and conquers dragons. “Most little black boys don’t grow up dreaming it’s a possibility for their life. The ability to wonder, be curious, be innocent. To be labeled only as heroic,” she says is not commonly in their narrative, but should be.
Perhaps all of BCF boils down to this fragmentary phrase pulled from her words: “to have value by being.” Celebrate our worth, the artists seem to suggest. Celebrate honest humanity.