Deep Roots, Many Branches: Black Choreographers Festival, Jan/ Feb 2008

By Lily Kharrazi

January 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

It is 1992 and Katherine Dunham, the renowned dance artist and anthropologist has begun a hunger strike. The woman whose performing career is synonymous with theatricalizing African dance for the stage since the 1940s, is going to subsist on cranberry juice. She is protesting the treatment of Haitian refugees who will be deported back to that chaotic island, arguing that they are not economic refugees but political ones. Although she has just been awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Bush (Sr.), she wants his attention again. Her 47 day fast will only end because of the intervention of Reverend Jesse Jackson and the exiled Haitian president Aristide, along with countless letters of support and concern from Black dance artists. One such letter is from artists in California and it is printed in the souvenir program of Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, Theater Artaud, 1992.

Flash forward and consider that the 2008 Black Choreographer’s Festival: Here and Now, will take place again in San Francisco and Oakland and in its incarnation sixteen years later, we still find Haiti a vortex of creative impetus. We need look no further for evidence of this than BCF participant Colette Eloi, a Haitian-American raised primarily outside of Haiti who discovered Haitian dance in local classes. Also a participant in the new Artistic Mentorship component of the Festival, she will have the opportunity to move to the next level of artistic development through a concentrated one on one working relationship. For Ms. Eloi, her mentor will be Alicia Pierce, long time dance faculty at San Francisco State University. In a further vote of confidence, Colette has just been awarded a chance to further her studies with two associates mentors from Haiti, thanks to the help of the Regional Dance Development Initiative, a program of the New England Foundation of the Arts in partnership with ODC Theater.

Two other formidable Bay Area artists, Amara Tabor Smith (formerly with Urban Bush Women and artistic director of newly formed company, Deep Waters Dance Theater), and Ramon Ramos Alayo (trained in Cuba and artistic director of the Alayo Dance Company), will partner with mentors Deborah Vaughn of Dimensions Dance Theater and Robert Moses of Robert Moses’ Kin respectively. While Ms. Eloi represents up and coming talent, these two artists will have the eye and critique of peers. While this may seem easy enough to access, formalizing this four-month mentorship creates a different relationship. “As an artist, my learning never stops; I do not have a prior relationship with Deborah Vaughn and so it requires opening up to a different experience,” relates Amara. It was at the historic 1992 BCF that Amara first met Urban Bush Woman’s founder and artistic director, Jowale Willa Jo Zollar. Taking that master class was a turning point in her professional and personal path.

Another mercurial talent whose artistic stretch spans from the 1992 program listing to the present is Robert Henry Johnson. He will perform a work in progress based on the life and work of Billie Holiday. “A festival like this is important to me as a Black man and important for the world,” he answers when questioned about the Festival’s longevity and what it has meant to him as an artist. “I am always digging for the meaning of what is the Black world presence or the African world presence. It no longer means dark skin.”

His comments underscore profoundly the impetus for the original festival, which are documented in the souvenir program book. In the words of founder Halifu Osumar, “I did not envision a ‘Black Dance Festival,’ per se, but rather a well-rounded experience of the diverse and innovative approaches represented by Black choreographers. One of the key aesthetic points of this national dance festival is that Black choreographers cannot be stereotyped.”

The leadership of the Festival is in the capable hands of Laura E. Ellis and Kendra Kimbrough, both of whom are dance artists in their own right. Laura Ellis, who will not be performing work on stage this year, is solidly administrating the myriad pieces together. With African American business partners coming on board and educational components complimenting the artistic work she says the main vision is “about bringing community together, making connections.” Returning to Laney College is an important step in reviving the usage of this auditorium for community shows. “Through our Festival programs and our presenting structure,” says Ellis, “we are working with a consortium of community partners from both sides of the Bay.”

Perhaps sixteen years forward, we will be able to chart the rise of the next artists impacted by the master classes that changed the course of their lives, the mentorship lessons based on what can happen at the 2008 BCF: Here and Now.

The Black Choreographer’s Festival: Here and Now 2008 takes place on February 8-10, at Laney College in Oakland and continues in San Francisco on February 15-17 at Theater Artaud. This comprehensive festival celebrates the diverse artistic expression within the context of African and African American dance and culture. The festival strives to offer multi-faceted programming that addresses the needs of artists: networking, mentoring, training, outreach, and the community: affordable/accessible programming, cultural enrichment and arts education. A full calendar listing at highlights the performances, master classes, symposia, and art showing family matinee by pre-professional youth dancers and technical training program for high school seniors.

Lily Kharrazi is the program manager of the Living Cultures Grants Program at the Alliance for California Traditional Arts where she has had the privilege of meeting and working with many of the communities whose portraits helped to inform this essay. A dance ethnologist by training, she has worked in refugee resettlement and was formerly program director at World Arts West, producing nine seasons of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. She serves as a consultant to both local and national projects involved with arts and culture. A first generation American, she is trying to figure out if it’s family folklore or truth to say that she is the first one in her family to be born outside of Iran in 14 generations.