"I dance not to entertain but to help people better understand each other. Because through dance I have experienced the wordless joy of freedom, I seek it more fully now for my people and for all people everywhere.”
This quote, from dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Pearl Primus, set the stage for a thought-provoking discussion about the intersection of dance and social justice at Manhattan Country School Tuesday evening. Part of the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, the program, titled “Perspectives: Dance & Social Justice,” featured diverse viewpoints from members of the dance community.
The evening began with a dramatic rendition of “Strange Fruit (1945),” a Primus-choreographed piece about lynching based on Lewis Allan’s poem of the same name, performed by Brandy White and Justin Perez of Nimbus Dance Works. Steven Melendez, a 2001 graduate of MCS and principal dancer with New York Theatre Ballet, served as emcee for the evening. In his opening remarks he made the case for dance as a way to open minds and effect change. He presented archival footage of Alvin Ailey dancers’ 1960s visit to Malaysia in which the black American dancers and their Malay hosts connected through movement. The Malays taught the Ailey representatives some of their cultural dances and the Ailey dancers shared a bit of black American culture through performances of “Revelations” and “Wade in the Water.”
Lèo Holder, son of dancer and Alvin Ailey company co-creator Carmen de Lavallade and dancer, choreographer and actor Geoffrey Holder, joined Steven to share his insights about his parents and their life’s work. He told the story of how his parents met (performing in the 1950s musical “House of Flowers”) and shared some of the experiences they faced as black dancers. The couple’s performance in a Lester Horton production, which received critical acclaim but drew no audience, is just one example of the prejudice they faced.
Another of the evening’s presenters, Gus Solomons jr, faced a different type of prejudice. A dancer, choreographer, actor and writer raised in a predominantly white neighborhood of Boston, Solomons was drawn to crafting abstract, non-objective dances that weren’t born of oppression. “When curators were sent the programs, the white ones categorized me as a black choreographer, and so excluded my work,” said Gus, “and the black ones were puzzled by the notion of pure abstraction and so they [thought] my work appealed to white audiences.” When asked about being a black choreographer, Gus said his standard response is “I’m black, but my dances aren’t about that.”
Following Gus’ presentation, Steven screened film footage of Agnes deMille’s “The Four Marys,” based on the libretto “The Ballad of Mary Hamilton.” In this ballet, performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, a black woman gives birth to an illegitimate child with a white man. She subsequently drowns the baby and is hanged for murder. With “The Four Marys,” deMille, known for the cheerier choreography of musicals such as “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and “Brigadoon,” explored the darker side of society through a tale of miscegenation during the era of slavery.
For the next portion of the program, Steven welcomed Samuel Pott, a 1990 MCS graduate. Samuel explained how his time at MCS and the school’s focus on social justice, diversity and equity influenced his work as a dancer and as founding artistic director of Jersey City, New Jersey-based Nimbus Dance Works. He said he makes a conscious effort to ensure that he has a multiracial group of dancers in his company and his works often tackle social justice issues. He is the founder of the School of Nimbus Dance Works, which approaches dance as a meeting point for diverse communities and makes high-quality dance training available to children in Jersey City regardless of their financial background.
Hannah Weeks and Devon Louis, members of Nimbus Dance Works, performed “Fractured Time,” a work in progress choreographed by Darshan Singh Bhuller, which imagines the experience of an interracial couple in middle America in 1968. Following this performance, the presenters engaged in Q&A, with a focus on the role of race in casting. Samuel said he tries to break stereotypes whenever possible. The role of the prima ballerina in “The Nutcracker” is just one example. Traditionally performed by a white woman, Samuel has cast dancers of color in this role. Steven provided an example of the impact diverse casting can have on young, impressionable audiences. After a performance in Fresno, California where Steven played the Cavalier in “The Nutcracker,” he said a little girl told him, “I’ve never seen a black prince before.” Breaking casting traditions can challenge stereotypes and present that world as full of opportunity for future generations.
MCS Director Michèle Solá closed the evening by reflecting on the importance of cultivating these types of conversations. Discussions continued at the post-event wine and cheese reception and are sure to endure in the days, weeks and years to come.