A Celebration of Community: Black Choreographers Festival Here & Now

By Mary Carbonara

January 1, 2012, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Born of the desire to give Black choreographers greater exposure to broader audiences, the Black Choreographers Festival: Here & Now—now in its eighth year—has evolved as an important annual community building and strengthening event as well as a notable performance showcase of well-established and emerging African and African American choreographers. In a recent interview about BCF: Here & Now the word “community” trips frequently off the tongue of co-producer Kendra Kimbrough Barnes of K*Star*Productions and Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble. Barnes says that at the heart of the Festival there is a sense of sharing and coming together in celebration of the artists and the audience alike. “At every performance there’s always a reception, a connecting, a thank-you to our community,” she says. Barnes goes on, “One of my visions for the Festival when we first started it was to create community with Black choreographers throughout the Bay, to create a sense of celebration and community within the Black community, wherein we can support each other, share audiences, and give artists a different platform that they can grow into.”

The 2012 celebration begins on February 10 and runs through February 26. Over three weekends BCF: Here & Now offers Bay Area audiences a showcase of performance talent in celebration of African and African American traditions and culture. With venues in Oakland and San Francisco, BCF: Here & Now includes live performances, a film series, master classes, and family matinees, as well as the Artist Mentoring Program for emerging choreographers, and technical training for aspiring stage workers. Co-produced by the African & African American Performing Arts Coalition and K*Star*Productions, BCF: Here & Now is supported by a network of Bay Area arts organizations, including Dimensions Dance Theater, La Peña Cultural Center, Living Word Project/Youth Speaks Inc., Dance Mission Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Theater and Dance Departments of Laney College. The Festival remains inclusive, ambitious and an annual highlight for audiences on both sides of the Bay.

Since its inception in 2005, BCF: Here & Now has presented the work of Zak Diouf and Naomi Washington of Diamano Coura West African Music & Dance Ensemble, Paco Gomes, Raissa Simpson, Deborah Vaughan and Dimensions Dance Theater, Mahealani Uchiyama, Robert Henry Johnson, Robert Moses, Corey Action, Joanna Haigood, Latanya Tigner, Savage Jazz, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, to name a few. While an important showcase of the Bay Area’s finest Black choreographers, the Festival is also dedicated to providing mentoring and performance opportunities to emerging talent. “A need is being served and this is the place where it all happens,” says Barnes.

“Some festivals have specific themes and request specific kinds of work, but we’re not huge on curating,” explains Barnes. “We trust our artists to freely bring what they’re inspired to bring. We encourage artists to dream their wildest dream and then we help them realize it as best we can,” she says. Barnes adds, “We make it possible for artists to be fierce and brave about putting their work out there.”

Fostering emerging talent is one of the important ways BCF: Here & Now helps young artists work on their craft while getting their work seen. Through the Artist Mentoring Program (AMP), each year BCF: Here & Now presents the work of three artists selected to participate in a six-month mentoring program with experienced and well-seasoned choreographers/mentors. This year’s mentee/mentor pairs are Kharyshi Wiginton with Robert Henry Johnson, Jasmine Donaldson with Deborah Vaughan, and Jamar Welch with Naomi Diouf. Barnes notes that one of the emerging talents on the Festival several years ago was choreographer Raissa Simpson, now the founder and artistic director of her own highly productive touring company, Push Dance Company. Simpson has since returned to BCF: Here & Now to mentor the new generation of emerging talent, bringing her full-circle through the festival. “This process has legacy,” says Barnes.

New to BCF: Here & Now this year, La Peña Cultural Center is partnering with the Festival to co-produce Marc Bathmuti Joseph’s widely acclaimed Word Becomes Flesh with Youth Speaks for performances in both Oakland and San Francisco (see schedule highlights). Through spoken word, dance, and visuals, the talented collective—Youth Speaks Living Word Project vets Daveed Diggs, Dahlak Brathwaite, Dion Decibels, Ben Turner, Mic Turner and B. Yung—delivers audiences a series of performed letters spanning a nine-month period reflecting a young single father’s thoughts and emotions in anticipation of his unborn son. As women continue to live out the pro life vs. choice debate, men continue to live out their social right to choose between committing to fatherhood vs. being absent from responsibility. Word Becomes Flesh critically, lyrically, and choreographically examines this domestic phenomenon within the constructs of hip-hip culture.

The Festival also celebrates an important milestone for Barnes whose own Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble and K*Star Production celebrate 15 years of performing and producing. As part of the Festival, KKDE will perform an excerpt of a breast cancer awareness piece entitled In the Meantime, which looks at the phenomenon of waiting—waiting for test results, waiting for a loved one in surgery, waiting to get treatment. In the Meantime is inspired by Barnes’ close experience with breast cancer—her mother passed away from the disease when Barnes was 17 while several other family members have also been affected by it.

BCF: Here & Now co-producer Laura Elaine Ellis of the African & African American Performing Arts Coalition says that in the eight years since the Festival began the biggest challenge remains having enough time to bring it all together while keeping the pricing for events affordable. With a cadre of dedicated volunteers and generous support from foundations and community partners, Ellis and Barnes have managed to keep prices relatively low, offering master classes for $10 or less, for example. Ellis explains, “Having experienced and talented partners that share our mission and believe in our purpose is key. We could not bring this Festival to folks year after year without our artistic allies.” She adds that the Festival has taught her many things over the years, the most important being, “Staying true to your vision, to what brings your heart joy, those are the creative projects that bring the most satisfaction.”

And, indeed, what better reason to celebrate?

Mary Carbonara has been choreographing, performing and teaching in the Bay Area since 1988. She is also a writer and performing arts publicist. She can be reached at marycarb@aol.com.

This article appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of In Dance.

Mary Carbonara is a teacher and choreographer based in San Francisco since 1991. She teaches absolute beginners through professionals at Alonzo King LINES Ballet Center, dance pedagogy through the LINES Ballet Training Program, and creative movement for children age 3-11 in public schools as well as through her own independent program, Hamster Dance Academy. She was recently hired as the Outreach and Teen Program Manager at Alonzo King LINES Dance Center where she is thrilled to be introducing a new Teen Program this fall. She can be reached at mary@linesballet.org.