When Did the Avant-Garde Become Black?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 29, 2014 by bdixongottschild

These are introductory comments I gave at the Bill (T. Jones) Chat of the same name, March 23 2014, New York Live Arts. Other panelists: Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Dianne McIntyre, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Adrienne Edwards, and Charmaine Warren–hosted of course by Bill T. If anyone wants to quote anything, please feel free, just CREDIT ME ACCORDINGLY:

The question posed for this conversation – namely, when did it become acceptable for a person who defines her/himself as black to also say “I’m avant-garde”—opens up a web of complexities. I believe I know full well what Bill T. is getting at, but bear with me while I trouble the waters a bit and take a wide-angle perspective. He’s addressing the avant-garde as a SCENE; I want to address it as a PRINCIPLE.Yes: at a moment in late-20th century history, certain black dancers could acknowledge belonging to the dominant culture’s DEFINITION of avant-garde, but it behooves us to also acknowledge the avant-garde history embedded in and integral to AFRICANIST traditions, of which many of us may or may not be aware.

I might UPDATE the question to ask when black dancers felt EMPOWERED enough to own up to the Africanist avant-garde in their work: the surrealist, the abstract-expressionist, the minimalist elements that consciously or subconsciously informed how they presented dance to the downtown audience.   I’ll stay with the term, “avant-garde,” but be aware that it’s an OUTSIDER term, in the same sense that Cubism was NOT Picasso’s or Braque’s moniker for a certain style of visual art, but a conceit dreamed up by an art critic.  All this to say that the so-called avant-garde is an ongoing thread in Africanist [i.e. AFRICAN AND AFRICAN AMERICAN] genres of visual art, music, and dance—part of the disjunctive dissonances; the high-affect juxtapositions; the aesthetics of HOT-AND-COOL; the chromatic scales of African American blues and field hollers; the abstract nature of rhythm tap dance; the DOWN grassroots poetry of signifyin’ and the dozens—and, ironically, these are elements that Europeanist cultures appropriated in the service of infusing and injecting new blood, new life, into the dominant culture.  And then, in typical recursive fashion, Europeanist appropriation circled back into counter-appropriation.  In other words, even though INVISIBILIZED, what was characterized as avant-garde is, IN PART, an Africanist thread TEASED OUT AND REPURPOSED to fit the needs of the dominant culture.

 Not to beat my own drum, but I discussed these issues in my first book, [SHOW], Digging the Africanist Presence in American Culture, Dance and Other Contexts, published during the culture wars of the 1990s, particularly in the chapter titled “Barefoot & Hot, Sneakered & Cool: Africanist subtexts in Modern and Postmodern Dance,” and in the previous chapter titled, “Don’t Take Away My Picasso: Cultural Borrowing and the Afro-Euro-American Triangle.” There I cited John Cage’s debt to Southern Black gut-bucket musics in the following passage(s):      [QUOTE FROM DIGGING: pp.30- four penultimate lines through 31, four top lines, & ENDNOTE #10 p.43]

 Thus, it points us back to Bill T.’s question and the fact that it can only be “THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE”—namely , systemic racism—that invisibilized information like this and made it controversial for a black dancer to claim avant-garde status.

 I’ll leave off with an interesting statement by Paloma McGregor, choreographer/researcher in residency at NYU’s Hemispheric Institute:  “Black has always felt connected to the edges in my experience, if the avant-garde operates at the edges. Of course, what we are really talking about is avant [garde] being defined as largely white artistic production that is almost always operating much at the center of this structure—even much of the radical work.   I hope there is some talking about what is meant by avant-garde and who decides who is and isn’t ‘included’ in that group.” (email communication, March 13, 2014)

 

 

Flamenco Festival, March 2014, Philadelphia

Posted in Uncategorized on February 3, 2014 by bdixongottschild

This was posted this morning on the PhiladelphiaFlamencoFestival website. Adelante!

By Way of Introduction. By Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Ph.D.

February 3, 2014

 I am honored to be working with Pasion y Arte as a consultant, blog writer, and post-performance moderator for the Flamenco Festival.  You will hear from me on these pages soon after Rosario Toledo‘s rehearsals begin in February. I’m savoring this and looking forward to it more as a treat than a task!I see my role as the proverbial, anthropological “fly on the wall;” sitting unobtrusively in the corner of the dance studio, taking notes, and registering my reflections/insights during Toledo’s collaborative ventures with three Philadelphia-based dance artists.
This is an assignment that’s almost as fulfilling for me as performance itself; and this is how I am working with artists these days. To witness the process is as nurturing an experience as to witness the final product. It excites and stimulates me to watch work take shape, perhaps because I remember my years (decades ago, but still vivid) as a performance artist in New York City and in Europe–dancing with others, making dances, and as an actor in a collaborative and experimental theater group (the legendary Open Theater, directed by Joseph Chaikin).
The fact that Pasion y Arte commissioned me to write on the Festival says a mouthful about the expanding reach and scope of Flamenco culture. It is wonderful to know that my insights are valued, albeit I am most frequently recognized as a writer on postmodern and Africanist (that is, African and African American) dance cultures. Likewise, the fact that the three collaborators with Rosario Toledo are Korean-American (Eun Jung Choi), African-American (Germaine Ingram), and European-American (Meg Foley) speaks volumes about Pasion y Arte’s commitment to Flamenco as a millennial performance genre, inclusive and progressive.
You’ll hear from me again the week of February 10!  Abrazos, Brenda

 

International Association of Blacks in Dance Annual Conference, 2014

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2014 by bdixongottschild

This year’s conference, in Dallas TX, was hosted by the Dallas Black Dance Theater. With panels, roundtables, workshops, classes, and performances, the IABD event is always a deeply moving convocation–literally and metaphorically.  From the midnight African dance class  and evening concerts to the Sunday morning breakfast featuring liturgical dance by  students from special arts high schools, we came together once again to shore up our forces and reaffirm and celebrate our gorgeous dance heritage. Honored this year were Ann Williams, retiring founder/director of Dallas Black Dance Theater ; choreographer/master teacher Milton Myers; and Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director of the newly configured Dance Theater of Harlem.

Students from the Cleveland School of the Arts before performing Sunday Morning

Students from the Cleveland School of the Arts before performing Sunday Morning

IABD Board members, with Milton Myers and Virginia Johnson, center l. & r.
IABD Board members, with Milton Myers and Virginia Johnson, center l. & r.

 

l. to r.: Judith Palmer, Chair of the board of the  London based Association of Dance of the African Diaspora; yours truly; and Mercy Nabirye, Director of ADAD. Internationals in the house!

l. to r.: Judith Palmer, Chair of the board of the London based Association of Dance of the African Diaspora; yours truly; and Mercy Nabirye, Director of ADAD. Internationals in the house!

l. to r.: the venerable Ann Williams, acknowledged by IABD founder and  Board member Joan Myers Brown; and Denise Saunders Thompson, IABD Chair

l. to r.: the venerable Ann Williams, acknowledged by IABD founder and Board member Joan Myers Brown; and Denise Saunders Thompson, IABD Chair

l.tor. Cleo Parker Robinson, founder/director of  her eponymous Denver-based company; yours truly; and Lula Washington, founder/director of her eponymous company based in Los Angeles

l.tor. Cleo Parker Robinson, founder/director of her eponymous Denver-based company; yours truly; and Lula Washington, founder/director of her eponymous company based in Los Angeles

 

Priya Srinivasan, Decentering Conference Co-Coordinator, and yours truly

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2013 by bdixongottschild

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Decentering Dance Studies

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2013 by bdixongottschild

This is a paper I delivered  Nov. 8, 2013 at the joint CORD/SDHS Conference in Riverside CA, sponsored by the Dance Program in Critical Studies, UC Riverside. The format is prepared for oral presentation:

Thoughts on Decentering Dance Studies -©Brenda Dixon Gottschild. All Rights Reserved

I feel decentered. NOT in a good way. I’m in a corner. I’m still cornered by SYSTEMIC racism. I want out. I want to move from the margins to the center. I want the center widened, biggered, more inclusive. Don’t DECENTER ME: CENTER ME!  I want so-called white folks to be as angry about racism as I am. And I want you to realized that, behind the anger, is hurt and fear.  Hurt, that my sisters and brothers of color are not admitted to the white comfort zone. Fear that things will never change. I can’t get out of the corner without you. And you can’t be humanized without me.

Priya Srinivasan wrote us speakers asking us to “meditate on the theme of the conference and the notion of ‘decentering’ as it relates to your own work.”  So, here goes.

Why DO we do what we do?

What is dance studies? Dance research? Performance Studies? Any studies? Why do we study? What are our aims? What is theory? Theorizing? What’s the point and why?  What are our deepest desires in doing what we do? Do our intentions reflect our desires, do our deeds reflect our intentions?

I know someone who applied to this program a few years back and was told her work wasn’t CRITICAL ENOUGH.  An older student returning to academia after a professional dance career and now a campus administrator and student counselor, she was interested in certain topics around women and black dance. WHY was she rejected? Isn’t graduate school where we learn how to hook up theory and practice? She may have been in the practice corner, while the program’s in the theory corner.  Both are corners, in opposing sides of the box—or the ring! Isn’t there another way?

In 2010 I was told by the director of the Dance History Scholars Editorial Board that my proposal for my most recent book was not THEORETICAL enough to be published in their series. I believe the Board was unable to understand DuBoisian ideas and the subject of identity as theory, especially when it was put to the test of practice, as I always do in my work.

Theory loosed from practice is like food without nutrients: WHITE BREAD, if you will—and the double entendre’s intended!

Scientific theory, mathematic theory, theological theory—at their best, all are studied in the service of advancing the cause of humanity, to extend and embrace the human good. And performance theory?  Can we reach for humanistic excellence? If our aim is NOT to find ways to truly DECENTER by EXPANDING THE CENTER and removing ourselves from our boxes—to make the way easier for the next generation of “theorists,” to also shed light on the whys and wherefores of people dancing—that is, if our principal interest is not humanism, but theory derailed from its link to practice, then we might as well repose ourselves in that final box, the coffin!

I fear for performance theory because of its potential to make either/or DISTINCTIONS that ultimately amount to mean-spirited DECISIONS that continue the pattern of exclusion for scholars of color—blacks, in particular.  I see this elitism rearing its ghastly countenance in a newly minted, millennial fashion. Young Diasporan scholars, largely women, are hired so that the Human Resources and/or Equal Opportunity Office can be satisfied that equity is alive and well at their institution. “We know how to recruit scholars of color: hoorary for us! We won’t lose our funding; we’re lookin’ good!” But what about RETENTION? Do these scholars gain tenure? Are they promoted? Do you want them in your family? It’s a sad story, and here’s an example.

Early in 2012 things reached untenable proportions for two emerging African American female dancer-scholars.  For one it was around her MFA concert and degree; the other was at the end of her first year in a tenure-track position and was coming up for review. Long story short: both were being tossed dangerous curve balls.  Each independently contacted me online to ask for any advice I could give. Now, I’d had this same scenario, different players, several times the previous year, and that’s a lot, given the small percentage of black dance faculty and grad students in academia.  This time, I decided to take action, and that’s how the Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving(CDSM) came about. You can read our Mission Statement and Manifesto in your registration packets. [HOLD IT UP] And if you’re interested in the case of these two women in particular, read their abbreviated stories on the Movement Research website, under Conversations -Critical Correspondence, Sept. 5, 2013.

Another emerging scholar related to me this incident. She was at the CORD Special Topics Conference in Leicester, England soon after the death of Michael Jackson, one of the most astoundingly creative dancers whose feet ever graced the earth. (Okay, I admit: I’m biased!) Anyway, since no mention was made of his passing and his immense contribution to our profession, she did so at one session, and was met with little or no interest. I’d like to upend—if not decenter—old presumptions about who or what kinds of dance matter—presumptions that allowed for this kind of “invisibilization.”

MOSTLY I’m interested in DECENTERING the race trope: the assumptions, biases, and knee-jerk, goose-step patterns we fall into when white comfort levels and centrality are threatened by the presence of THE OTHER.  So, back to square one: yes—I want white people to be as angry about racism, bias, exclusionism, and elitism as I am! I want it to be the task of white people—not only black and colored people—to speak out. Here are some questions to ask yourself: [READ ALOUD CIRCLED ITEMS IN TEACHING TOLERANCE MAGAZINE, FALL 2013, P. 44]

So let’s end with a decentering meditation—the task the conference organizers set before us.  Close eyes, sit comfortably, and for this Guided Meditation, ask yourself: who am I and how does my dance trajectory relate to anything Dr. Brenda said?  [60 seconds]

Ashé!

 

Posted in Uncategorized on October 4, 2013 by bdixongottschild

Here’s the brief essay I wrote for the Boyzie Cekwana (South Africa)/Panaibra Canda (Mozambique) performance at New York Live Arts. Their concert opened the fall, 2013 season. The ensemble is incredible, laudable, sterling.

The Discomfiting Discord of “The Incomati [dis]cord”

 “I turn my back on a future I don’t remember . . . .” “I do have to get back, for the past is under siege, and I have a truth to tell.. . .” “But then again it could be a lie.” “I don’t remember I ever had a name and who it was that gave it. . .  .I’ve walked so far into the future that I’ve lost the present.”

These musings, extracted from the litany uttered by Boyzie Cekwana, invoked in me my own memories: the news of the day in all its horror; the voices of reporters putting spin on fact; the impotence of people in the face of power—all adding up to the surreal reality of life “as is,” on this planet, at this time. How do we remember/recall/retrieve who we are and on whose ancestral shoulders we stand, when the ground we inhabit and the air we breathe is polluted with lies?

 There are three movements or moods to The Inkomati [dis]cord, and there’s a kind of music to the madness: the calm before the storm (lento); the storm (presto); and finally the aftermath/commentary section (tenuto). The parts hang loosely in a structure that keeps improvisation precariously riffing and balancing on its frame. The calm opening moves slowly, deliberately, building up a backstory with intimations of repression.  Cekwana’s voice, throaty, husky, draws you in. (He sounds like Harry Belafonte in another incarnation, without the songs or the panache.) He tells of lies and wasted lives. His articulations are Kafkaesque, and he may be addressing them to an interrogator.  In the sustained conclusion the cast calmly sit together and act as subject (Maria Tembe), translator (Amelia Socovinho), interpreter (Cekwana), and reporter (Canda) in a scene that is both hilarious and bitingly ironic. We leave with the message that speech is compromise, truth is lies, and words can be re- and mis-interpreted until their meaning is transformed to meaninglessness.

 But I want to focus on the duet—the storm—that is central to the middle section.  When Maria Tembe is catapulted from her wheelchair to the floor, all hell breaks loose—presto/change-o! To the strains of Astor Piazzolla, she and Panaibra Canda tear across the stage and collapse, run-fall-collapse, again and again, laid flat by beautiful music when it would’ve been bullets in the life described by Cekwana’s utterances. But, we remind ourselves, this is theater. Tembe’s and Canda’s duet is shocking. Not leaning on emotional expression but tapping deeply into kinetic reality, they roll/tumble/scuttle across the stage, on top of, under, beside each other, giving, taking, throwing, catching weight and hiding none of the effort. It shocks, at the beginning, because this duet’s moves are predicated—that is, extended and limited—by the fact that Tembe is legless. Exploitation? No! As the duet continues—and by the expression of agency and power in her half-body, by her beauty as a dancing half-body, by her facial expressions—we come to understand that she is nobody’s victim. Occasionally she stares at the audience, her visage calm, sometimes almost haughty, as though she’s saying, “and you thought I was handicapped!” Sometimes it looks as though she’s trapped underneath Canda and trying to escape as they race across the stage, crawling, crouching, running. They’re panting—but it’s physical effort, not emotional. At one point he makes a yoga bridge, supporting himself on hands and feet with hips and chest lifted, and in this pose carries Tembe atop his torso across the stage. Then they switch so that she’s underneath, facing him, her arms holding onto his back as he walks dog-like, on all fours, while she suspends herself from his chest, her short torso swinging back and forth like breasts on his body.

 This duet makes a layered statement. It bespeaks torture. How can we not assume, given the words spoken in the first section, that Tembe’s condition is anything other than the result of malfeasance? But, then, it also speaks transcendence. They’re dancing a kick-ass contact duet, unlike any that’s ever been danced on any concert dance stage anywhere else, as far as I know. Just as the first time two males danced a love duet on some stage decades ago and forced spectators to rethink and revise, so also here. (Or think of Arthur Mitchell for the first time partnering a white ballerina in “Afternoon of a Faun” on the staid New York City Ballet stage in the 1950s.) This one makes us look, see, and maybe accept a wider lens on beauty, moving us farther away from our preconceived notions of who should dance, on a public stage, and why.  And that’s what I want from my dance world: stretch me, reshape me, open me to embrace what I’d never imagined.

         Brenda Dixon Gottschild is the author of Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance_Dance and Other Contexts; Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era (winner of the 2001 Congress on Research in Dance Award for Outstanding Scholarly Dance Publication); and The Black Dancing Body – A Geography from Coon to Cool (winner of the 2004 de la Torre Bueno prize for scholarly excellence in dance publication). Her most recent book, Joan Myers Brown and The Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina-A Biohistory of American Performance, was published in 2012. A freelance writer, consultant, and presenter, and former consultant and writer for Dance Magazine, she is Professor Emerita of dance studies at Temple University.

 

Interview with BDG on Dance Theater of Harlem, by Ellen Gerdes

Posted in Uncategorized on June 23, 2013 by bdixongottschild
Open this link to read this interview/article on Dance Theater of Harlem’s recent Philly run. Ellen’s a savvy emerging dancer-scholar, and DTH was fantastic–young and exuberant:http://thinkingdance.net/articles/2013/06/08/3/Dance-Theatre-of-Harlem-In-Conversation-with-Brenda-Dixon-Gottschild/?utm_source=Lisa%27s+Database+11.11&utm_campaign=5b188cd630-6_17_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d266e1bc81-5b188cd630-309223081
Dance Theatre of Harlem: In Conversation with Brenda Dixon Gottschild | Ellen Gerdes | thINKingDANCE
thinkingdance.net

 

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