Urban Bush Women Announces Second Cohort of Choreographic Fellowship Candidates

With major support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and additional support from the Ford Foundation and Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Urban Bush Women (UBW) has named a new Cohort of five Choreographic Fellowship Candidates: Maria Bauman (NY), Hope Boykin (NY), Ananya Chatterjea (MN), Stephanie McKee (LA) and Ni’Ja Whitson (CA/NY). The new Cohort was selected through a nationwide vetting process to identify choreographers who have distinctive artistic voices, compelling point of views addressing particular issues of cultural narrative and history, and exemplified readiness for the program.

The UBW Choreographic Fellowship Program is structured over two years and includes a 9-month planning process with Fellowship Candidates, followed by a full year of Fellowship activity. The program supports the development of work dealing with complex narratives addressing race, history, cultural identity, ethnicity and pressing social issues.

The Fellowship program is designed to ensure the work and the works’ vision and multiplicity of components are more fully realized than would be possible without additional edification, reinforcement or support. The program includes direct financial support, one or more residencies, mentorship, writing and reflection. Participating choreographers have made a commitment to placing one’s choreographic process as the highest priority examining questions of craft, clarity of vision and execution of ideas in a rigorous and granular way through a dramaturgical and research process.

Read more about the new class of choreographers below. Feature articles will be released on each choreographer over the course of the next year.

The inaugural Cohort of Fellows – Marjani Forté-Saunders, Francesca Harper, Marguerite Hemmings, Paloma McGregor and Amara Tabor-Smith – are in their second year of the program. Working alongside dramaturges including Lizzy Cooper-Davis, Douglas Corbin, John Perpener and Talvin Wilks; and developing work through residencies at Arizona State University, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Jacob’s Pillow, Junebug Productions, the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, Stanford University, University of the Arts and Virginia Commonwealth University; these choreographers and cultural organizers are forging new paths for themselves and the field with support from Urban Bush Women.

Follow these links to read more about  Urban Bush Women and the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative

 Photo Credit: Thomas Dunn

Photo Credit: Thomas Dunn

Maria Bauman is a multi-disciplinary artist from Jacksonville, FL. She creates bold and honest artworks for her company MBDance, based on physical and emotional power, insistence on equity, and fascination with intimacy. In particular, Bauman’s dance work centers the non-linear and linear stories and bodies of queer people of color onstage. She draws on her studies of English literature, capoeira, improvisation, dancing in living rooms and nightclubs, as well as concert dance classes to embody interconnectedness, joy, and tenacity. Bauman was recently recognized with a Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance with Skeleton Architecture. Currently, she is Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange and just finished her tenure as Community Action Artist in Residence at Gibney Dance. Bauman is also a community organizer and co-founder of ACRE (Artists Co-creating Real Equity). Organizing to undo racism informs her art-making and the two are folded together within her practice.

 Photo Credit: Andrew Eccles

Photo Credit: Andrew Eccles

Hope Boykin born and raised in Durham, North Carolina was a three-time recipient of the American Dance Festival’s Young Tuition Scholarship. While attending Howard University in Washington, DC, she felt a call to seriously continue her studies in dance and moved to New York City where she studied at The Ailey School and worked as assistant to choreographers Milton Myers and the late Talley Beatty. She was an original member of Complexions, danced many years with Philadanco–The Philadelphia Dance Company, where she received a “Bessie” a New York Dance and Performance award. Hope joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2000 and continues to perform, educate, speak, and create for the company. Hope shares her heart lessons, as an author of “MOMENTS,” and continues to guide young artists who have a desire and are willing to learn from her mistakes and grow from her transparency.

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Ananya Chatterjea (2011, Guggenheim Choreography Fellowship; 2012, McKnight Choreography Fellowship; 2016, Joyce Award; 2016, NPN Creation Fund; 2017, NDP Production Grant, 2018, MapFund) is Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theatre and makes “People Powered Dances of Transformation” intersecting women artists of color and social justice choreography. She has presented her work at the Crossing Boundaries Festival, Ethiopia (2015), the Harare International Dance Festival, Zimbabwe (2013), the New Waves Institute of Dance and Performance, Trinidad (2012), and other locations. Ananya is Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches courses in Dance Studies and technique. She is currently writing her second book (Palgrave McMillan), exploring the politics of “contemporary dance” from the perspective of artists from global communities of color.

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Stephanie McKee is a performer, choreographer, educator, facilitator and cultural organizer who is deeply committed to creating art that substantively reflects disparate conditions, and then leveraging the art as a powerful tool for change. Based in New Orleans, she is the Artistic Director for Junebug Productions Inc., the organizational successor to the Free Southern Theater (FST), which was formed in 1963 to be a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement and was a major influence in the Black Theater Movement.  In 2015 Ms. McKee was awarded a National Theater Project Grant for Gomel/To Return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue which she directed. Additionally, she is a member of Alternate ROOTS, a 2007 New Voices emerging Leader alumnus, a 2015 APAP Leadership Fellow and a Dance USA Leadership mentor.

 Photo Credit: Maggie Shannon

Photo Credit: Maggie Shannon

Ni’Ja Whitson (MFA, MFAW) is a gender nonconforming/Trans interdisciplinary artist and writer who has been referred to as “majestic” by the New York Times, and by Brooklyn Magazine as a “culture influencer.” They received a 2017 Bessie Award as one of 21 Black Womnyn and Gender Nonconforming artists curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa for Danspace/Platforms. Recent awards include MAP Fund, Camargo Fellowship, Dance in Process (DiP) Residency, and a Hedgebrook Fellowship. Whitson collaborates as choreographer, performer, director, with notables cross-disciplinarily including Douglas Ewart, Cynthia Oliver, Jaamil Kosoko, Sharon Bridgforth, Charlotte Brathwaite, Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis. Recent commissions include EMPAC, Cornell Council for the Arts Biennial, BAM Next Wave Art, and American Realness Festival. Ni’Ja Whitson is an Assistant Professor at the University of California Riverside and is founder/artistic director of The NWA Project.

Marjani Forté-Saunders’ Unicorns and the Act of Becoming

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate, Co-Founder of LOVE|FORTÉ A COLLECTIVE and Co-Director of Alkebulon Cultural Center, Marjani Fortè-Saunders offers insight into the intentions and influences behind the performance installation "Memoirs of a ... Unicorn: The Act of Becoming" and how the project is evolving. This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

 

Energy & Timelessness

“Once the energy body is within a certain range, which varies for each of us individually, anyone, through discipline, can forge it into the exact replica of their physical body; that is to say, a three-dimensional, solid being. Hence the sorcerers' idea of the other or the double. 

By the same token, through the same processes of discipline, anyone can forge their three-dimensional, solid physical body to be a perfect replica of their energy body; that is to say, an ethereal change of energy invisible to the human eye, as all energy is.” - don Juan Matus       

― Carlos Castaneda, The Eagle’s Gift

For me, this is performance. It is the act of becoming two, both earthly or organic, and ethereal or inorganic. In its otherness, its sacredness, the performance is (among many things) revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, and fresh. Beyond time.

 

Language

“How did we come here, after all? Not with upturned chins and bright eyes but rather in chains, across a chasm. But what did we do? We built a nation, and we built its art.”

― Elizabeth AlexanderThe Light of the World

As I prepare to present Memoirs of a … Unicorn: The Act of Becoming, a work almost too close to my heart to perform, I wonder how it might show up in the conversations of its viewers.  Unicorn weaves personal narratives, collective memories, and historical fragments into an embodied tale of spiritual exploration, unabated love, and metaphysical warriorship.  The work continues to evolve and has landed as a performed non-linear installation, describing the celestial ecliptic journeys of folks identifying with—and building legacies within—the spectrums of blackness, maleness, and womb-ness.

I will feel successful if folks fail to come up with the right words to describe what they experience when they see this work. In that case, perhaps I should consider the aggressive imitation of a dance review by NY Times writer Alistair MacCauley a compliment (read more about this in Movement Research Critical Correspondence with Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Ali Rosa-Salas and Nia Love). Perhaps the empty, unimaginative, impersonal bottomlessness in the tone of his writing, reflected his utter incapacity to find himself reflected in a work about Gods.

Sankofa, looking back to move forward, I bring together ancestral memories, fevered dreams, and mystical visions, in a lofty attempt to describe the insurmountable awe I have for the Unicorns in my life, occupying roles like Father, Husband, Brother, Son, Uncle, Cousin, Homie, Pahtna, and Fam.  These powerful male figures merge with images of the magical creature that has always been shrouded in mystery.  Unicorns are full of mercurial passion, timeless purity, and unpredictable wildness.  But, they can only be approached by kindred spirits.  You can only see one if you know how to see it.

In the crafting of Memoirs of a … Unicorn, I found myself foraging and dwelling in spaces where the English language—at least in its common form—was insufficient. Fortunately, I’m a Black girl, steeped in the infinite fortuity and ingenuity of Blackness. I am in love with the way Black Folks have bent the English Language, and turned inside-out the Cultural Untruths that shape our reality. We take seemingly flat, linear binaries and flex them to hold the expansive conical and often contradictory reality of nature and our existence. I’m convinced we are Aliens, AT THE LEAST—defined and sustained by the cosmos, and the essence of energy itself.  

So, note to the reader:

In the few places I drop into Black-Speak, I am accessing a Divine Vernacular.

I spend a large part of Unicorn taking my own stab at this bend, twisting text from don Juan Matus’ lessons on Warriorship, from legible sentence structures to illegible exclamations. I start with the act of twisting language, as I begin my labyrinth walk. With witnesses in tow, the combination of the walk, the mental effort of twisting language, and the witnesses’ efforts to decipher, become energetic forces I need to conjure my energetic body forward.

In Memoirs of a … Unicorn, and perhaps from now on, I craft and regard performance as:  the act of becoming earthly AND organic, ethereal AND inorganic.

In its otherness, its “sacredness”, the performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh and (in the tradition of Blackness) Un-nameable.

 

Dimensionation

"I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I'm forced to be an optimist. I'm forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive." 

— James Baldwin

My father—one of my central Unicorns—has lived his life in a way that reflects the words of James Baldwin.  He had to stop pursuing his formal education at an early age, but he persistently found alternative ways to accumulate knowledge.  He read obsessively; and he was the one who introduced me to Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan Matus. His love of science-fiction led him to authors like Octavia Butler, whose books he shared with me.  My father also deems himself an architect of his reality, and that led to his penchant for building things.  In Unicorn I draw on the mystical knowledge he shared with me; and I draw on his crafting of both structures and realities.  He constructed my central set-piece, a rough-hewn pyramid with all of its associations of celestial ancestry and immortality.

But what if we aren’t aliens? What if we are merely humans subjected to the baneful and worst of human existence FOR GENERATIONS!? What if Virginia Hamilton’s “The People Who Could Fly” was only a Folktale, and not the history lesson I took it to be when I first read it as a child? What if Octavia Butler’s Doro and Anyanwu weren’t the original X-Men, having pre-dated Stan Lee’s imagination, with only Butler to finally transcribe the story of their lives?  And what if Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan Matus is in fact a figment of Castaneda’s imagination, not the Shaman-like Transcendental Warrior, Man of Knowledge, Teacher I’ve studied from through Castaneda’s Eagle’s Gift and Teachings of Don Juan?  What if EZ Rawlins never had to check his murderous friend/alter ego Mouse, and if Tananarive Due’s David (Daweed) had never drank Christ’s blood and lived among a colony of African Immortals?

If so, I want nothing to do with that reality. I’ll live in the world of my art, where there is space for my wings in all their girth and might. Where the Sun doesn't wither in my Moonlight and in the place where our majesty and earthliness collide. My Daddy introduced me to this place when he shared the amazing beauty of his Unicorn-nature, showed me Kirikou, put Octavia Butler in my hand, and scared the shit out of my dreams with Freddy Kreuger. My Mommy showed it to me everyday, when she created mosaic murals from her shattered panes of family and partnership.  They, too, were illuminated from within by beauty. 

Sci-Fi is my map, and portal. It has given me permission to BEND time, to explore inter-dimensional occurrences. Such that in my storytelling a pyramid structure can live among a 10ft Unicorn Horn, made of chicken wire fastened to a red naked body.  With breasts flapping and ass clapping, in Memoirs of a Unicorn, I imagine I have a scrotum, and then… the story begins.

In a millennial time of hard-earned resurgence and renewal, in collective imaginings of liberation, Unicorn invites its audience to bend, flex, squint, and most of all, ACCEPT, that in the dimension of this performance, all are not always invited nor will all “relate”— as within the construct of race-based thinking and imprisonment, some simply will not and cannot find themselves reflected in this work. I’m okay with that.

Because performance is the act of becoming earthly AND organic ethereal AND inorganic. In its otherness, its “sacredness”, performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh. It is Dimensionation.

 

Inter-connectedness

I am a student. I study the occurrence of magic and the bizarre in seemingly mundane circumstances and concepts. I believe the infinite formulas for our elevation (of the human consciousness) are within our capacities to be both independent and deeply inter-connected.

That is the work of one of my richest collaborations, LOVE|FORTÉ, a creative partnership between, myself, and choreographer Nia Love. Our work oscillates between our individual and collective practices, moving through time as interconnected beings tethered by an intentional and metaphysical promise to be “Both, And”.

So the gathering of collaborators for Memoirs of a … Unicorn (Set Designer Mimi Lien, Installation Artist Peiyi Wong, Lighting Designer Tuce Yasak) adhered to the promise; that whatever we made or contributed would reflect the majestic, the mundane, and the mystical. That was our rubric, our measure for worthy content. Among those collaborations were also two thought partners, Unicorn’s media designer Meena Murugesan and composer/sound designer Everett Saunders (my partner). Each of these artists, their ideas and impulses became as integral to the development of the work, as they were to its performance. While Everett had long been a chief consultant in my work, I found, in Meena, a friendship that would keep me from being protective with the personal content that informed my choreographic choices. I believe these relationships emboldened my honesty and supported my sense of abandon in performance.

Thus the power of perhaps more than collaboration- but interconnectedness.

Moreover, after returning from a site visit in Chicago I was reminded that Memoirs of a … Unicorn, and the mounting of this work in various communities across the globe, would be an intentional, dedicated effort to be in alignment with local community organizers and organizations. Standing in solidarity and support of their work, while utilizing its platform as "guest/visitor" to echo the magic of our collective histories and the promise of our future. Unicorn, in its fullest execution, would not simply show up on stages and depart after closing night. Its collaborative nature and robust production grants us the opportunity to engage the local creative power and resources of the communities we visit. 

Aaaah! This light bulb of a thought was the confluence of my many hats as a community organizer, cultural worker, experimental artist, student, and partner! Touring Memoirs of a … Unicorn is a commitment to connect!

It is a commitment to performatively share the grandness, the majesty, of Black Fortitude and Vision through the embodied parceled story of my Father. And, to behind-the-scenes, garner institutional and organizational partnerships that affirm the important work of the local organizer/organization. It offers the larger institution an opportunity to deepen its resonance in often geographically distant and marginalized communities.

If the formulas for our elevation lie within our capacities to be both independent and collective,, and if performance is the act of becoming earthly AND organic, ethereal AND inorganic; then in its otherness, its “sacredness”, performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh. And as a platform for organizing, it is intricately interconnected.

 

Birth-Transcendence

“For me, Art is the restoration of order. It may discuss all sort of terrible things, but there must be satisfaction at the end. A little bit of hunger, but also satisfaction.” 

— Toni Morrison

The most Science Fictional, Alien-like, Divine shit I’ve ever seen or experienced – EVER! -- was my experience as a portal for Everett Nkosi Zaire Saunders’ entrance into this dimension. My son’s birth continues to be a deep well for me as I seek to tell my stories of past, present, and future.  His amazing presence reminds me of the historical lies and contemporary dangers that stalk black men, that hunt my Unicorns.  His amazing presence belies the fictions that characterize black boys as “less than.”  Through my art I can change the conversation from those negative images to the positive manifestations I see in my son, my father, my husband, and countless other black men.  And yes, in Unicorn I become them, donning a hat and a suit; because—in another instance of inter-dimensionality—my performance enables me to cross boundaries and transcend the fluid categories of gender. 

When legitimized audiences insist on their authority within the binaries of “good and bad art”, our collective commitment as artists and witnesses:

To become earthly AND organic ethereal AND inorganic.

To, in our otherness, in our sacredness, revolutionize, transform, be wild, ancient, and fresh

To be un-nameable

To surf dimensions

To Connect

And to Transcend

These actions, these mantras, render the authoritative limited supremacist view—USELESS.

Their voices become barren among the fruitful minds and hearts buzzing in the hot salty summer days and nights of protest. Tossed about, in the swift gripping winds of change. Winds that whisper #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #FuckYourPronoun, and #FUCKYOURPIPELINE! Winds that ROAR!

Memoirs of a … Unicorn is simply a chord, in a collective, timeless and timely ROAR.

 

Additional Resource Links:

Joy DeGruy Ph D, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

Bell Hooks, We Real Cool

The People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond

Contact Marjani Forté & Works Admin Partner, Nadia Tykulsker at nadiatyk@gmail.com for more information and video excerpt of the work.

 

Special thanks to Dance Historian and Independent Scholar John Perpener for his dramaturgical support in helping craft this article.

Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

On Making My Way to the Middle... by Paloma McGregor

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate, Founder of Dancing While Black and Co-Founder of Angela's Pulse, Paloma McGregor offers insight into her iterative performance project "Building a Better Fishtrap". This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

 Photo by Whitney Browne

Photo by Whitney Browne

Artist’s Note: Since 2011, I’ve been working on Building a Better Fishtrap, an iterative performance project that explores questions that emerged for me more than two decades after leaving St. Croix, my ancestral home: What do you take with you? Leave behind? Return to reclaim? The project is rooted in my reclamation of my 93-year-old father’s vanishing fishing tradition. For the past seven years, through collaborative process and performance-making, I have been working to figure out the connections between my father’s practice of building fish traps - so rooted in culture and function - and my art, my organizing, my being.

This essay is a reflection of some discoveries so far. It is an iteration of my thinking for the right now. It is a window, a door, a keyhole...to a sea of possibility.

I.

Start in the middle. It's the best advice my father has ever given me.

It was really more of a warning, delivered while teaching me and several of my collaborators how to build a fish trap in the living room of my Harlem home. Dad, then in his late 80s, had already criticized the thin chicken wire I'd gathered for the lesson - a fish could chew right through it - and wanted to make sure we at least didn't build a crooked trap.

In. The. Middle.

That stuck.

The Middle

in process, from somewhere, central/relevant/necessary

the middle

liminality…

                grey areas...

density…

                   connection

THE MIDDLE

the core / the crossroads / the nexus

These associations have transformed Dad’s simple instruction, intended to prevent us from messing up his design, into a guidepost for how I think about and make my work.

I am the middle. I start here. Anything else will end up crooked.

It is one example of how Building a Better Fishtrap - the project and the act of shepherding it - has transformed my practice, unearthing a newfound agency as a maker, performer, first generation American, girl child who has spent much of my mainland life trying to fit myself into molds that were not created with me, or my vision, in mind.

----

II.

I wasn’t always funny. Most folks who know me now don’t believe that. My mind works fast; I spout clever synthesis with great ease. If I’m comin’ with it, which I enjoy doing, you are bound to chuckle.

If you look at my work over the years, though, I think it would become painfully clear that I was a serious child and have remained contemplative at my core. As a 22-year-old journalist, I became the youngest reporter at one of the largest newspapers in the country; I opted to cover crime because I wanted to ensure the old white guys in the business never questioned my capacity to do hard news, especially because I aspired to be their boss. I left my journalism career five years later to get my MFA in dance; I had spent most of my adolescence and 20s missing my first love and decided I didn’t want to live a life of regret. My thesis concert focused on works about race and matriarchy. My first major work in New York was about Hurricane Katrina, a collaboration with my director sister Patricia McGregor, based on an award-winning poetry collection by Patricia Smith.

Everything I have pursued has carried great weight and purpose. I have largely seen myself as a vessel for something that wants to become. But what did I want to become?

I started working on Fishtrap after telling some friends about the time, when I was 7 or so, that I built my own small trap, which Dad took out to Salt Pond. It caught dozens of shrimp and I fancied I’d provided the night’s dinner.

I do not know how much of that memory is fact. Just as I do not know precisely how or when I learned to build a trap.

But that’s not the point of this part. The point is that the origins of Fishtrap is childhood. And when I think of childhood I think of adventure, play, authenticity and a profound connection to nature - the sea, fruit trees, seasons.

Nature has a sense of humor, I imagine. And I wondered early in my process how I could allow my humor, from 6-year-old delight to 40-something sarcasm, to surface in the work.

It started with telling stories, and inviting my collaborators to do the same: What is your first or most significant memory of water? I tell a story of the time, before I can really remember, that I nearly drown in a pool; five minutes after I was pulled to safety I dove in again.

Not so funny.

But the invitation - both my overarching one for humor to surface and my specific one to tell whatever story came to mind - touched the funny bone of others. One woman, a beautiful actor with a wickedly sweet Southern tongue, told us about the time she was hosed down in an outhouse by her cousins - while pooping. Another dancer from New Orleans told a story I can’t remember, but its embodiment included these quirky, idiosyncratic back-scratching gestures.

We were getting there. But was I?

I wouldn’t fully know until my 2-year artist residency at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. There, at the strong urging of a couple cherished advisers, I challenged myself to do solo work.

By myself. ...Ugh. I am a collaborator by nature and practice. I do not like to play alone.

Ugh.

The first year of the residency, I had a baby. Among other things, parenthood has taught me that I will never be alone again - not in the bathroom, while on the phone, or in my own bed. After having a child, solo work didn’t seem so daunting.

In year two of the residency, I realized that making solo work doesn’t mean being alone at all. I invited folks I trust into the space in new ways: a fellow dancer helped me by moving through scores I’d been working with; a colleague who had performed in the work came in as a dramaturg; a visual artist whose work also tangles in themes of family and migration began visioning a huge paper ocean.

Still, the freedom to joke didn’t come until the week of my culminating performance. And it came because of fear, largely. I’d carefully crafted three worlds on three separate floors of BAX, including the roof. But while sections two and three seemed well attended to choreographically, the opening section - a world full of mason jar time capsules filled with thread and pop rocks, rice and barrettes - was brand new.

I was afraid I wouldn’t really know what I was doing. Rather than scrap the idea and just go with the two floors that felt more finished, I trusted that I could discover something by crossing this uncertain threshold. Or at least I hoped so.

On opening night, I was put to the test. Early on in the section, I accidentally tried to plug in the wrong side of a power chord...then shot the object side eye as though it intended to baffle me. Later, I discovered a jar of red pop rocks, poured some in my mouth, opened it wide so folks could hear the sound then offered bits of it to the audience. At some point, an audience member laughed a little extra loud at something I did and I dashed to a deck of cards I’d shuffled earlier and swiftly delivered them a “Joker.” None of these actions were scripted, but the framework of letting these significant objects drive me unlocked my spontaneous brand of humor.

And it taught me about trusting my own process, in the way that collaborators have trusted me. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but that was an important threshold crossed, one that brings me closer to fashioning a better fishtrap.

-------

III.

How to build a Fishtrap in Harlem.

How to take a Fishtrap home.

I am standing in the shallow, transparent waters of Gallows Bay, pouring a libation with a group of two dozen folks who have followed me here from my family’s abandoned land in town. My young daughter, not yet 2, is helping me tilt the fat mason jar at the shoreline.  

Just an hour before, I was sweeping the stone staircase of my great-godparent’s home - the only part of the two story abode that is structurally sound after it burned down in 2005. I had spent the morning raking trash from a shady section of the yard, preparing it for guests. A choreographed reclamation. A meditation. A memory.

I lived here when I was 5 or so - Oshun’s number. Some of clearest memories of this place are from that time:

  • Germinating a lizard egg in a cup in my bedroom window

  • Watching my grey tomcat Smokey walk across the street, never to return

  • Feeling scared of Flying Monkeys after seeing The Wizard of Oz on TV for the first time

The home that held these memories is gone now. But they have a home in my body.

So what to do with a longing for what my body doesn’t hold?

I will never know what it would be like to go fishing with my father. I will never sit with him at the calm waters of Gallows Bay, slowly crafting each trap. Nor do I have any of the last set of traps he built before his hands, now feeling this dry earth for 92 years,  got too shaky.

But I do have this kaleidoscope of memories - some experienced, some passed down, some imagined.

From this, I will have to build my own Fishtraps…

I doubt they will be better than his, but they will be mine.

 Photo by Charles R. Berenguer Jr.

Photo by Charles R. Berenguer Jr.

The Evolution of "My Story" by Francesca Harper

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Francesca Harper offers insights into her artistic trajectory through personal narrative and in conversation with dance journalist Zita Allen.  This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

 Photo Credit Richard Termine

Photo Credit Richard Termine

 

"Like Euridyce, I think I have reached a point in my life that I have to look back to make sense of moving forward.  Both of my parents have passed, I have become a mother, and am living a life that is very different to decades of my life as an independent artist, touring the world with Ballet Frankfurt or performing on Broadway.  Now, my choices from day to day constantly affect others.  It has prompted a period of deep reflection.  In this new phase, I feel like I am constantly contemplating mortality and what I want to do with the rest of my life.  I have also uncovered a deep need to document my experiences in various ways so my daughter, the younger generation, and aspiring artists can have more information.  I don't know why I was born to two people who gave themselves over to civil rights, feminism, and community work, but I do know that the work they did in their lives, has given me a deep sense of purpose and reinforces this feeling of belonging.  Memories of our intersectionality have soothed my heart as I look back to move forward into this a new chapter in life.

As a little girl I fell in love with ballet, a world of fairies and sylphs. But a world that celebrated traditional white culture.  I saw very few other African American girls that wanted to pursue ballet, and very few African American women in New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre.  I found this disheartening.  However, my mother shared a story that inspired me.  Her dance teacher, Edna McRae, told her she was extremely talented and could become a professional dancer.  But she’d have to fight because there were no principal ballerinas of color in any of the major ballet companies.  This story, drenched in racial injustice, fueled my passion to become a ballerina.  An infinite number of plies, tendus, and pirouettes became my armor.  Growing up as a woman of color in the ballet world was a challenge.  I was lucky enough to have support from mentors who instilled a strong work ethic and sense of determination, and guided me towards communicating truthful emotions through my dance.

I studied at the Joffrey Ballet School and The School of American Ballet, but my most influential teachers were my godfather Walter Raines, Director of The Dance Theatre of Harlem School and my mother Denise Jefferson, Director of the Alvin Ailey School.

My senior year of high school I auditioned for the Ailey Company in my deshanked pointe shoes.  I highlight that because Ailey was a Modern / Jazz Company.  After the audition Mr. Ailey, who had known me since I was three, took me in his office, looked me in the eye and asked “didn’t I want to be a ballerina?”.  I started crying and a sense of relief overtook my body, because he was right.  I went to Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) the next week and received a contract with their Junior Company, quickly became an apprentice with the main company, and traveled to Paris and Russia my first year there.

When DTH was having financial difficulties, we were laid off for eight months and I freelanced, traveled to Europe, saw William Forsythe’s choreography in Frankfurt, Germany and instantaneously knew I wanted to perform with Ballet Frankfurt.  I joined his company in 1991, became a Principal dancer in 1994, and was constantly stimulated by the spectrum of artistic opportunities I was given.  I danced en pointe in one piece, would recite text in the next, and sing in another.

I started choreographing while working collaboratively with Bill Forsythe and choreographed my first full evening work for the Korzo Theater in Den Haag, while I was still dancing in Ballet Frankfurt.

I moved back to New York and with the taste for acting I’d developed in Frankfurt, thought Broadway would be a good place to explore next.  I performed in Fosse, All Shook Up, The Frogs, and The Color Purple.  I performed in the national tour of The Producers, and took on leading roles in Sweet Charity and Sophisticated Ladies.  In 2005 I started my own company The Francesca Harper Project (FHP).  We’ve been touring internationally for over ten years now.

Besides FHP, I have choreographed on the Ailey Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dallas Black Dance Theater, for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Harvard University, Barnard College, Princeton University and many more.

While developing my new piece, (y)ourstory, a participatory work exploring autobiographies (which had a work-in-progress showing at Harlem Stage this spring), I had a visceral realization: I need to clearly tell my own story.  This work will integrate both my ballet training and my contemporary training; my love of the dance-theater that I became fluent in while working with Forsythe; and the acting and singing I did both with Bill and the work I continue to do in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.  My Story will stretch my voice in every way.  Needless to say, this will be a journey, but one I need to, and am ready to make.  Another idea I’m ruminating on is less formed, but has just as strong a hold on me is I want to explore my language of contemporary ballet, research how to make ballet more accessible, to bring this art form closer to the people, to being for everyone, as I felt Ballet Frankfurt did.

 

I reached out to writer and scholar Zita Allen whose work I admire greatly to interview me and delve more deeply into what my current artistic research is:"

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ZDA: What are you working on and planning on researching in the next two years?

 FH: Currently I am researching and developing the dramatic components of my work.  While most of my professional experience has been in dance, acting has become a significant in my life.  It allows me to delve deeper into intentionality and the process of personalizing movement.  What’s the connection?  What are the collaborative truths that are being shared from my point of view as the griot/translator, designer/choreographer and/or the dancer/actor/artist?

This is particularly important at this point in my life as most of my professional experience has been that of an African American woman in the predominantly white world of ballet and Broadway.  Lately, my work has traveled through the acting and dance worlds as I’ve begun to use both the voice and music to personalize my work while shaping (y)ourstory.  What I want to do now is allow My Story, to be incorporated into (y)ourstory.

ZDA: Given that creativity is an organic process that can result in the transformative evolution of the initial vision into something new and unexpected, can you describe a rough sketch of the work you currently have in mind?

 FH: I envision My Story (my autobiography) as a component of a larger immersive work that interconnects with the autobiographies of others.  I want to create a full-length and immersive work that utilizes dance, music, and narrative in a non-traditional setting.  It dives into our autobiographies and discovers intersections, and connections with others.

 ZDA: Based on your description of the shape and scope of the work it sounds like it’s not only an immersive work but one that relies on collaborative process.

 FH: That’s true.  There was a moment, as I started working on the stories of the dancers in (y)ourstory, when I realized they were giving me their lives and I felt they had to be managed with real care.  Their stories and experiences impacted me deeply.  I sat there and had to really…it slowed me down.  I needed to consider where I was taking the work and to make sure I was taking care of them.  They were revealing secrets and some of them were deeply personal.  The truthful human story behind all it is really what touches others.

 ZDA What are some of your influences in developing this work?

 FH: Bill Forsythe, Anna Deavere Smith, Susan Batson, Alvin Ailey and my mother, Denise Jefferson.  As you know, I for years I danced with William Forsythe and I grew up at the Ailey School beginning at three years old through my high school years.  My mother was both a dancer and head of the Ailey School and a key architect of the School’s curriculum.

As a child I was able to watch Alvin at work.  As a student, he used to come into our lounge in his socks and ask how our grades were.  He knew each of us by name. Bill Forsythe was very similar.  He would come into the studio in his socks and sit down with us and we would share our personal stories with him and he with us.

With the two of them, for me, there was this relaxed personal connection that was at the root of the work.  I think many successful creative people understand that the creative process is really all about the sharing…  Now, for me, too, it is about this sharing this personal connection with each dancer.  It is actually part of my process, to sit down and talk.

 ZDA: What drives you to create works with a narrative thread?  Are there particular messages you feel driven to communicate to your audience or that you want to prod them into discovering for themselves?

 FH: Working on My Story, has made me think about myself as an African American woman with all this training in the world of ballet.  My mother’s story is my primary inspiration as I look at this world from her point of view and share the experience of what prevented her from pursuing dance as a ballet dancer.  Yet, it also allows me to acknowledge her strength.  She became a modern dancer and later head of The Ailey School and an architect of a program that today trains thousands of dancers of color to be more than proficient in ballet.  I think she poured her frustration into the work and translated it into productive energy.  My mother’s story inspired me to become this strong, well-trained ballet dancer in a world that historically was not open to her or, years later, not totally open to me.  Driven by my mom’s experience of racism in ballet, I worked extra hard to be taken seriously in that world and had a wonderful time becoming a Principal Contemporary Ballet Dancer in Ballet Frankfurt.

In many ways, I am an heir to this countercultural movement in ballet that includes dancers being both diverse and empowering their personal voice.

 

When I was a little girl in the children’s program at the Ailey School, although I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer, I remember taking an African dance class and the feeling an innate connection to it.  It felt so natural and organic that I really felt like it was in my DNA.  On the other hand, I had to do battle in the world of ballet.  I remember having to straighten my hair and put it up in the bun in order to make sure I looked like all of the other girls.  I think that’s what I’m coming to terms with in My Story.  It wasn’t until years later while doing a play in Atlanta about a Black dance company, that I realized how much assimilating I had done as a child in the predominantly white institutions and how much of my own kind of groundedness I had been willing to relinquish to fit in.  This is also at the heart of what drew me to William Forsythe’s work and why I worked with him for eight years in Germany.

 ZDA: What was it about William Forsythe that attracted you to him as a choreographer?

 FH: When I saw the piece, Limbs Theorem, a ballet designed to Thom Willem’s electronic music with its almost African rhythms.  I was blown away. In addition, I felt he shared a deep connection to African American culture. When I saw Ballet Frankfurt, I immediately thought, that’s what I want to do.  That was it! I had never seen anything like his work and the fact that Forsythe took that chance to create this hybrid language was amazing.  What’s also so interesting is the culture he fostered at the Frankfurt Ballet.  After a rigorous classical ballet class we would put on Misty Elliot and Busta Rhymes and we would jam in the studio to that music en pointe.  Through that simple gesture he was telling us how important our culture was to him, and how much it inspired him.

My mission is simple – I want to take the time to examine my personal story and document my experience in contemporary ballet.  Because I do feel in our current society, we have very little sense of ownership as African Americans when it comes to ballet.  For example, it is not commonly known in the ballet world that at one point a third of the Ballet Frankfurt’s Company consisted of people of color.  If we don’t have documentation of the change that has already been established, we will get looked over again and I feel very strongly that this cannot and should not happen.

ZDA: Explain how this ties into the a longer term vision for the work you wish to do in the coming years.  It seems to grow organically out of the work you’re doing in your first year developing My Story.

FH: You know, I think spending time researching My Story will, on an intimate personal level, bring me closer to defining contemporary ballet and my mission moving forward, while also helping me understand my history and why I’m so passionate about it.  What is really at the root of this is the passionate desire to make sure that there is a seat at the table for African American dancers in the ballet world. In that respect it’s a natural outgrowth of being the daughter of my mother – a woman who helped shape the dance world as it is today and a father who as a Civil Rights lawyer helped make the world a more inviting place for people of color.  What I feel is important is to redefine the world of ballet to inspire systemic change and for people to feel comfortable in their skin.

 

Zita Allen, the first African American dance critic for Dance Magazine, has written for the Amsterdam News, New York Times, Village Voice, Essence and others. Her works also include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 25th Anniversary Souvenir book, the Kennedy Center’s "Masters of African American Choreography" booklet, the American Dance Festival/PBS documentary Free to Dance website, the book Black Women Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (Scholastic) and several chapters in the Smithsonian’s book Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theatre Shaped American Entertainment (Random House). Ms. Allen holds a Masters Degree in Dance History from New York University.

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