Monday, February 23, 2015

A few thoughts on the 2015 Dance/NYC Symposium

I attended just one complete session at the Dance/NYC Symposium held yesterday at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center. No surprise--given what is surely my explicit/implicit bias--it was the three-panel Power, Privilege, & Perception: Voices on Race and Dance session curated by Dance/USA Executive Director Amy Fitterer and former Dance/NYC Director Michelle Ramos-Burkhart.

Before attending those panels, I did manage to catch maybe the final ten minutes of Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl's presentation on Diversity & NYC Cultural Leadership, just enough to note that there's a serious disconnect between what neighborhoods, small, homegrown institutions and independent artists need and what city government can imagine and support. Under repeated questioning by Dr. Marta Moreno Vega (founder, Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute) and other audience members, Finkelpearl--former Queens Museum ED and president, well regarded in that post--sounded lightweight and defensive. I thought back to Bill de Blasio's lackluster performance at a 2013 mayoral candidates forum on the arts when, as a potential mayor, he clearly had one thing on his mind: the looming contract battles with city unions. De Blasio seemed reluctant to engage with the arts community, even under the constrained and very safe arts-are-wholesome-for-schoolkids premise that governed that forum. I also thought back to the recent New York Times item announcing that children and families of the South Bronx would soon benefit from "films, music, dance, opera and more from Lincoln Center’s resident organizations’ great and talented artists." As if the South Bronx has not long nurtured its own artists and initiatives worthy of much more exposure, funding and other resources that make creativity and survival possible.

As introduced by Fitterer, Power, Privilege, & Perception sounded far more promising. Panelists would examine how racist power and privilege within the arts ecology cannot be dealt with while ignoring systemic, societal racism. Moreover, panelists would be encouraged--as they were, repeatedly--to offer practical solutions.

In her opening section, My Lens, My Dance, Ramos-Burkhart argued that everyone harbors implicit bias which may be detected through a cognitive test. Earlier in the day, she had administered this test to two dance artists--a white woman and a Black man, both of whom joined Ramos-Burkhart at her presentation. The white dancer-choreographer confessed that the test had made her deeply uncomfortable; the Black artist recalled tensing up as he grappled with the test. We were left to imagine the test's content as Ramos-Burkhart reported that the white artist's test results were inconclusive while the Black artist's results showed a slight bias in favor of Black people. The white artist interpreted her results as a sign of ambivalence due to her wanting to not be, as she called it, "a bad white person." Ramos-Burkhart issued no judgement of the results, which was fine, but her silence around the Black artist's results troubled me.

This idea that everyone has bias might have merit (especially dear to a self-serving racist) but is merely part of the story. After all, why shouldn't this Black artist have, at the very least, some small bias in favor of Black people given what we have experienced under white supremacy? All things are not equal until they are. The white artist's possible bias (even as she struggled to not be a bad white person) would not be equivalent to the Black artist's bias.  I would expect the Black artist to embrace and struggle for his people. Racism, naturally, has created in people of color a spectrum of resistance from mild to militant. It has also shaped a people who, when truly healthy of mind and heart, love themselves fiercely and seek to uplift their own whenever possible.

BTW, I'd be delighted to see the typical New York dance critic or culture desk editor take Ramos-Burkhart's test. That could prove revealing--and useful--but that's a matter, perhaps, for another day.

Ramos-Burkhart also directed several people in a demonstration showing the limits of how we think about diversity and privilege, how we fail to take into account how possession of privilege shifts as the social context changes. Like, say, when a white actress, wielding her new Oscar, declares that it's time for gay people and people of color (all presumed to be men, I guess) to fight for women's rights as hard as women (white?) have surely fought for theirs.

Tammy Boormann, chair of Urban Bush Women's board, is a white ally to a venerable dance troupe founded by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a Black choreographer and educator grounded in commitment to social justice. In Boorman's panel--National Voices--Fitterer and Ramos-Burkhart were joined by Denise Saunders Thompson (chair and ED of International Association of Blacks in Dance) and Carlton Turner (ED of Atlanta-based Alternate ROOTS). Boormann made repeated efforts to solicit solutions but, in this, the panel came up short. Instead, we learned how difficult it is to revise the Dance/USA mission statement in a meaningful, progressive way without alienating the organization's board.

I appreciated Turner's stark, contextual perspective: Why would we expect a society that does not value our lives to value our art? For Turner and Alternate ROOTS, the bottom line is transformation, and the choice is clear: You either contribute to societal transformation, or you do not. Not every artist is going to make explicitly political work or participate in overtly political actions, and yet, as artists make and share their work, they can consciously choose to strive to serve progress towards equity and justice.

Turner moderated the session's concluding panel, Making Change: Artist Voices, which included representatives from three major troupes--Dance Theater of Harlem (Virginia Johnson), Ballet Hispanico (Eduardo Vilaro) and American Ballet Theater (Richard Toda). In addition, Sydnie Mosley (Artistic Director, Sydnie L. Mosley Dances) and Alice Sheppard (independent dancer and choreographer) brought more of an urgent, activist, community-invested experience of resisting silence and invisibility. Mosley's work as a performer, choreographer and educator deals provocatively with issues of race and gender; Sheppard's work affirms the capacity and rich language of dancers with disabilities. Much more could have been learned, especially from these last two artists, had we had time to examine details of their ideas and projects. I would argue that Dance/NYC would do well to offer an expanded version of Turner's panel with indepth presentations by artists like Mosley and Sheppard on how to innovate around the challenges and opportunities of difference.

For the purpose of this afternoon's program, the Gibney theater proved to be fatally formal with the audience seated in rising rows opposite panelists lined up behind a long table. Off in the far distance, sheets of paper covered the theater's wall of mirrors, but few people accepted the many invitations to take markers and share their evolving thoughts and feelings. It seemed a little awkward to get up from your seat and cross in front of the panel to reach the paper. Maybe, for future events, each participant can be issued a sheet of paper or a few index cards or grab a few sticky notes to capture words or sketches while listening. We can then hand them in or tack them up when the event is finished--a better way to draw out spontaneous responses and feedback.


For information about Dance/NYC Symposium's full day of programming, click here.

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