By Laura Elaine Ellis

January 1, 2016, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Solo male dancer in a white t-shirt and jeans
Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon

THE MOTTO for the Black Choreographers Festival (BCF)—Keeping the Vision For-ward—is at the core of all that we plan, curate, and present. The summer of 2003 began two years of planning; of building a model of community partnerships to bring back the BCF after a decade. Bring it back…go and fetch it…Sankofa!

Looking Back

First thing, we had to go to the source, Dr. Halifu Osumare, the founder and creative visionary of the Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century (BCM). We asked for her blessing and support to begin the planning to revive the Black Choreographers Festival. Dr. Osumare had a vision for BCM, a national festival that ran from 1989 to 1995, that included symposia, workshops, and performances aimed to address the cultural inequities prevalent in the dance field regard-ing performance opportunities, funding, and arts management and leadership.

I wanted to galvanize public attention around black choreographers and their work. I wanted to showcase their work in a festival format, both to introduce their work to critics and the general public. And also so the artists themselves get a chance to look at each other’s work.” -Dr. Osumare

I remember seeing that quote from Dr. Osumare and it stuck with me. Such a straight ahead and clear concept…and so needed.

Then there was actually being a part of the BCM Festival – okay…so that certainly stays with me, and for sure that experience gave me insight to what the synergy and verve of the Festival was like. I debuted as a choreographer at the BCM in 1995 and that stage saw the works of many other Bay Area choreographers including Robert Henry Johnson, Joanna Haigood, Robert Moses, Deborah Vaughan, Reginald Savage, the late Ben Carter, to name a few. It was an AMAZING experience. The audience at Theater Artaud (now Z Space) was standing room only – and folks lost their minds – stomping, shouting, standing ovations… the festival that year was a huge success.

And then it was over.

What remained—the need for that festival and what BCM meant to folks—became the inspiration, the foundation on which BCF was created. In February of 2005, a decade after BCM ended, Black Choreographers Festival: Here & Now debuted. We are talk-ing about LEGACY!

Female dancer in a red dress
Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon

Envisioning the Here & Now

What is exciting is that in 2015, myself and Kendra Kimbrough Barnes, co-founder and co-director of BCF, envisioned what we called BCF is bustin’ out of February!

Think it, speak it, then watch it manifest. 2015 saw BCF extend its programming into a summer showcase, in August events took place at Laney College Theater in Oakland, then we expanded our community partnerships to include SAFEhouse Arts, co-curating an evening at the West Wave Dance Festival. This became a performance opportunity that highlighted two of our programs, the Artist Mentoring Program (AMP) and the Next Wave Choreographers Showcase. For 2016, we have further deepened our community partnership with Dance Brigade/Dance Mission Theater, and will curate an evening of BCF as part of their D.I.R.T. Festival in January.

Community partnerships are a crucial part of our programming – YBCA, Dimensions Dance Theater, ODC Theater, La Peña, Youth Speaks/The Living Word Project, Stepology, and Laney College have all been down for the vision of BCF and have supported the community programs; helping to provide the teaching and performance opportunities for the artists involved.

Over 150 local, national, and international artists and their companies—far too many to name them all here—have been generous with their time and talent teaching masterclasses, workshops, participating in our public symposia, and presenting original works; Bay Area and world premieres.

This year, the 12th Annual festival will feature our New Voices/New Works program highlighting AMP artists Erik Lee, Joslyn Mathis, and Dazaun Soleyn, as well as mid-career and emerg-ing artists in the Next Wave Choreographers Showcase—all presenting premieres. The Artists Mentoring Program nurtures the development of work by emerging and mid-career artists and builds relation-ships in the dance community between established artists and artists of the next generation, creating a sup-port network for choreographers.

The AMP program came about because Kendra and I understand what it takes to create new work. We remember what it was like when we were starting out as choreographers, and having a mentor aided us in our creative process. To have a trusted person be a sounding board for your concepts and give you feedback about your work – what a gift. To have five mentors, that is a treasure-trove! Deborah Vaughan, Joanna Haigood, Robert Moses, Raissa Simpson, and Gregory Dawson mentored the AMP artists this year. Each of the mentors shared valuable feedback with the AMP artists that helped them shape gorgeous original works – soulful and unique. Equally awesome was seeing the mentors delight in hanging out together, talking about art-making – truly inspiring to witness.

The Next Wave Choreographers Show-case began as a one day event in 2006 and has grown in popularity. Artists are chosen through a call for submissions and new works are encouraged. Over the years, emerging artists have made their debut in this showcase and mid-career artists have tried out new concepts or works-in-progress in this forum. In 2009, the Next Wave Show-case garnered BCF a Best of the Bay award.

For BCF 2016 we will continue with the legacy of presenting symposia. We have instituted a number of ways to engage audience in a public forum, such as post-performance Q & A’s with the artists. We also host our post-concert Cake & Chat receptions: an informal exchange between artists and audience members – a time to just chill together, enjoy cake…and chat. This year, we will host The Matter of Our Lives, a community conversation series in partnership with Deli-naDreamProductions’ founder Delina Patrice Brooks. Brooks has designed the concept for this symposium and will facilitate a conversation on the power of dance as an art form, and the important connections to health, well-being, and humanity.

BCF 2016 continues the vision of galvanizing the arts community around the artistic contributions of African American choreographers. But as we move forward, Kendra and I are asking ourselves and our community: is that enough? What more should we be doing? In what ways do we need to improve on what we do and how we do it?

Vision Forward

We know that we want to deepen our efforts to reinforce our infrastructure. We are mostly a volunteer-based organization and often have issues with human resources and capacity. With additional funding, we can strategize around developing administrative and tech support to create more opportunities for “artists to serve artists” through our programs and concert series.

We know that we want to create a sustain-able touring model for BCF and pick up the national touring initiative Dr. Osumare began with BCM. We already have relationships that we are cultivating with arts organizations in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Minnesota.

Kendra and I often talk about the fact that the next generation of leaders is in our midst ready for mentorship and direction. And this prompted us to ask: What are the ways and means by which we can move forward creating cultural equity in the areas of arts administration, leadership, funding, and community activism?

For the summer of 2016, we are looking to host a leadership conference and opportunity faire. We want to get our allies involved, folks around the table who are interested in developing the next generation of African American leaders in the dance community.

Standing on Shoulders (S.O.S.) is in the visioning stages. An initiative to call on African American arts leaders that are currently working in positions as arts administrators and create a space for these leaders to men-tor; to build a network that bridges the next generation of arts leaders to sustainable opportunities; to devise a transformative model that promotes community building and cultural equity in the dance fi eld that will ripple out to the Bay Area arts community at large.

I knew that I needed to create my own institutions and to have power over it in order to really do it in the way I knew it needed to be done for my people, so that’s what I did—rolled up my sleeves and found people who were of like minds and spirits and did it. And that’s what it takes with each generation.” –Dr. Osumare

We will continue to look back, to learn from what came before, as we move forward in our vision for the future of this festival. Honoring the legacy, here and now, makes a way for all that is yet to come.

1. Visually and symbolically “Sankofa” is expressed as a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth. 2. Stanford University Press, 1989 3. In Dance, 2008




laura elaine ellis, co-founder and director of the African & African American Performing Arts Coalition co-presents the Black Choreographers Festival with Kendra Kimbrough Barnes, founder and director of K*Star*Productions. The Black Choreographers Festival is an all-community event made possible by the generous support and involvement of many folks committed to its success and service.