Expanding Possibilities: Providing More Options for Women Choreographers of Color

BY KATRINA REID
As published in Dance/USA's eJournal: From the Green Room

As a New York-based performer and choreographer, I am continually amazed at the staggering number of artistic possibilities that exist here. And yet, in an industry so ripe with opportunities, I’m left craving experiences that will help ground and invigorate my choreographic development. As I navigate my identity as a black, female artist, I’m especially interested in creative efforts that prioritize cultural equity and embody more empowering models of community participation.

One such experience was the 2014 Project Next Generation (PNG) convening hosted by Urban Bush Women. Part presentation, part cypher, and part reunion, the convening’s main goal was to share research findings as to the inadequate representation of women of color choreographers in the field. Most attendees were a cross-section of dancemakers from around the country who discussed their experiences in the dance field with regard to race, gender, socio-cultural biases and challenges. Writers and scholars as well as professional allies also participated.

Through the convening and interviews, UBW and research partners Lizzy Cooper Davis and Dana Whitco from New York University began unearthing real and perceived barriers preventing advancement and sustainability for women of color choreographers. Some major findings drawn from the PNG research materials are:

  • Gender and racial privilege are prevalent in the dance field and are both related to and reflective of national issues and conversations around race and the racial wealth gap.
  • Much of what is true for all choreographers, especially female choreographers, is true for women choreographers of color; but in such instances, the existing gaps are even wider in terms of funding, developmental support, administrative infrastructure, presenter engagement, criticism, and scholarship.
  • Formal training programs, whether in the university or the conservatory, often sever women choreographers of color from their artistic lineage. “Balanchine and Graham rep are mandatory, while West African classes if available … are viewed as supplements,” someone noted at the Project Next Generation convening.
  • There is an immediate need and desire for more mentorship across the board, from encouraging developing artists in the studio to informing them of the process of getting a work into production.
  • Women choreographers of color acknowledge that “getting work out” is possible only through formal and informal collaboration across the industry, but feel isolated in many ways from their peers, mentors and potential collaborators.

A large part of the convening was acknowledging how those in the room experience these and other issues individually and as a whole. This was buoyed by affirmative conversations around the breadth of resources and skills we held collectively. We also had a chance to highlight those who are already in motion with new platforms that offer intentional choreographic development for this population.

Dancing While Black, founded by Paloma McGregor of Angela’s Pulse, is one such growing platform. This artist-led initiative is offering choreographers opportunities to engage in vital dialogue across performances, panels and master classes. Along with the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX), DWB just launched a fellowship program for emerging choreographers. Details of the fellowship include workshops, free rehearsal space, and participation in an artist service day leading up to a 2016 works-in-process showing, all held at BAX. One member of its inaugural class of fellows is Harlem-based choreographer Sydnie Mosley, whose artistic practice has frequently referenced her academic experience in African-American and women’s studies. “In the last five to six years it’s gone from something I was just exploring … to something that is now a necessity. I need to make dances that are connected to my identity.… It’s part of my survival and also connects me to the larger world.” 

One of the most sustainable tactics for reaching out to a larger community is through leveraging partnerships. The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance/BAAD! has been one of Dancing While Black’s early supporters. In addition to its own dynamic festival series, BAAD is moving into a new residency model withPepatián.

Supported by funds from the Jerome Foundation, BAAD! and Pepatián are managing the Open Call residency, which commissions dance artists who are Latina/o and/or residents of the Bronx borough. Rebecca Lloyd-Jones is one of the three recipients for the 2015 cycle and is now moving toward accomplishing a professional milestone – her first solo evening-length show. Opportunities like these are tremendous, offering the stepping stones to advancement in one’s choreographic career. At times the weight of this playing field is fraught with of a lack of resources to help navigate a larger scale of production and to fully realize one’s vision. Open Call is an example of a program that addresses the gap between commission to presentation on multiple levels – offering months of free space, a choreographic workshop, informal showing, and an artistic mentor. Lloyd-Jones shared: “It’s a great support to be given space and time to really develop a new work. Of course, we wish it was like this all the time.”

Additional New York platforms that consistently provide development support to women of color choreographers are Harlem Stage’s E-moves series, partnering commissioned choreographers with mentors; and 651 Arts’ Artist Development Initiative, which provides personalized assistance depending on an artist’s exact production needs.

At the PNG convening most of the participants were based in New York, but various areas of the country were also represented, including Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Colorado, Atlanta and the West Coast. This wide focus speaks to the increasing national need to provide choreographic support on a far-reaching level. 

Urban Bush Women is currently laying the groundwork to address this need through a national choreographic center that will serve women of color choreographers and other under-heard voices in the dance field. The UBW choreographic center will take a two-pronged approach: supporting the individual choreographer and bringing about systemic change in the field of dance. Programming will reflect a multi-generational focus, offering various kinds of support to choreographers at all stages of their careers – from those who are beginning to find their own voices all the way to choreographers with an established legacy in the field, who may still face challenges in producing and getting their work seen. This will be accomplished with a choreographic center that is not personified by a physical building, but instead will encompass a working hub of information and resources that will activate a strategic network of organizational partners.

As a contemporary dance company with a strong community engagement arm, UBW has a deep history of researching and teaching best practices around cultural equity around the country. These practices are anchored by its annual Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) where for more than 15 years UBW has spoken to the intersectionality of dance professionals, social activism, and civic involvement. 

At this year’s 2015 SLI, participants were reminded time and time again that addressing inequity, whether related to economics, race, or gender, is tiring work and it cannot be done alone. This is what strikes me about all the initiatives highlighted here. Not only do they demonstrate a streak of innovation and determination, these initiatives also emphasize working in tandem. Systemic change will only happen with all of us – women of color choreographers and our allies – forging a web of partnerships, relationships and institutional alliances that will come together with a specificity of focus and an eye toward the long term. 

Katrina Reid (www.instagram.com/kattyrealnessis a performing artist and writer. Since arriving in New York by way of Georgia, her work has been presented at the Cocoon Theatre, Studio 26 Gallery, BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Warefamos, Dance Chance Atlanta, and Florida A&M University. As a performer she has the great fortune to work with directors Megan Byrne, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Peter Born, and is a new company member with Third Rail Projects. 

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