Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Danni Gee celebrates Ailey and ten years with SummerStage

Danni Gee performs her solo
in Judith Jamison's Riverside.
(photo: Roy Volkmann
for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater)

On Wednesday, August 16, Dance Films Association and SummerStage will co-sponsor a screening of Great American Dance: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield.
In addition to Revelations, the beloved Ailey signature piece, the documentary features Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, Robert Battle’s Takademe as well as behind-the-scenes interviews with members of the troupe. Doors open at 7pm, and the screening starts at 8pm.

The screening is free and will be preceded at 6pm by a special Revelations workshop, which is also free. To attend the workshop, you must pre-register with an RSVP to: RSVP@CityParksFoundation.org.
Danni Gee, formerly a principal dancer with Philadanco and Ailey, celebrates her tenth season this year as curator of dance for New York's SummerStage. Below, read her reflections on recovering from career-ending hip injury, pursuing her passion for music and the happy opportunity, now, to partner with Dance Films Association in presenting an evening devoted to the glories of Ailey.

Danni Gee and Leonard Meek in Ailey photo shoot
(photo: Andrew Eccles)

EYA: I'm curious about any support you might have called upon as you moved towards a new career following your dance injury. Who or what could you call upon--particularly as a woman and as a woman of color--for practical or psychological or moral support as you stepped into an important new role?

DG: When I initially stopped dancing, I went into a pretty deep depression. My family helped as best they could, especially my mother, but in hindsight, I should have gotten professional help. Getting therapy, unfortunately, was something that was frowned upon; too much stigma attached to it.

I believe what saved me was turning to music. I reconnected with Kathy Sledge, of Sister Sledge, whom I worked with as a backing dancer briefly before joining Alvin Ailey, and she hired me again, but this time as a singer. I toured with her for close to eight years as "the baby sister." Around this time, I also started my band Suga Bush. Writing and performing really helped me through that dark time.

I did seek help years later, as there was still lingering sadness. My therapist helped me properly mourn the loss of my dance career and fully embrace my new life.

EYA: What challenges did you face in the beginning? How did you learn to cope with them?

DG: In the beginning, the challenges were mostly dealing with the loss of my dance career and artist life. So much of my identity had become enmeshed with being an "Ailey dancer." Along with that, there were some financial challenges. I received compensation, as it was a work-related injury, but it is only a portion, as you know, of your salary and doesn't last forever. Thankfully, I naturally have a pretty buoyant personality. I refused to let myself get too down as I was truly grateful to have had at least the experience to dance for two such wonderful companies [Philadanco and Ailey].

I eventually landed in fitness and started teaching aerobics. I was also starting to make some money from singing which was great. I have been blessed to not only sing with Kathy Sledge but also Gloria Gaynor and Cher.

The position with SummerStage literally fell in my lap some ten years after I stopped dancing. I was recommended for the position by then-Theater Director, Freedome Bradley. Initially, the challenges came in the administrative side of the position: drafting contracts, artist payments, etc. I had never done that kind of work before. I had a great set of people around me and a fantastic mentor in Alexa Birdsong, who was the Director of Arts at the time. The other difficult part was having to say no to artists and companies who were looking to perform at the festival. Some of these people were friends I've known through my own dancing career. But, over time, I learned that not everyone is ready, and being truthful is best.

EYA: What has been some of the rewards of working as a curator for SummerStage?

DG: The biggest reward for me has been giving a platform to some truly talented artists who might not otherwise have been given such an opportunity in this city and definitely for companies of color. It's also rewarding for me to know that I am continuing Alvin Ailey's mission of "giving dance back to the people." I think concert dance can still feel very exclusionary to people, and I want our audiences to know that dance is for everyone. The other joy has been reconnecting with dancers and choreographers I've known for over 20 years, either through booking them to appear at the festival or having them attend a performance.

EYA: What lessons and values did you take away from your years with Philadanco and Ailey that you have found invaluable in your work in music and in curation?

DG: Discipline, discipline, discipline. You have to do the work to get results. Good time management is also key. And staying healthy, especially when we're in season. And being a team player. Knowing how to navigate through various personalities whether as a leader or part of the group is important. When you've toured with forty people for sometimes up to three months at a time, you learn this. And respect for others' time, space and individuality.

EYA: What's most exciting for you about the SummerStage screening of Great American Dance: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater?

DG: I am excited to share a film about a company that has been such a HUGE part of who I am and who I STILL am. Also, with this being my 10th anniversary season, I wanted to celebrate my legacy with SummerStage which includes dancing on this very stage with Ailey in 1993!!! I also love these ballets that are going to be shown in the film. It really shows the breadth of the company's repertoire and talent.

EYA: Tell us about the pre-screening Ailey dance workshop at 6pm.

DG: The workshop will be led by the amazing Nasha Thomas, also a former Ailey dancer. We were in the company together at the same time. She is now the National Director of AileyCamp/Spokesperson & Master Teacher for Arts In Education. I believe another Ailey diva from my time will also be on hand to assist, Miss Renee Robinson! The attendees will get to learn sections of Alvin Ailey's masterpiece "Revelations," namely, "I Been Buked," "Wade in the Water," and Rocka My Soul." It's the first time we've ever done a dance workshop at our Central Park location. I have them typically before all of my CityWide dance programs. Also, the class will take place on stage!

EYA: Do you have ideas or plans for future collaborations with Dance Films Association?

DG: Yes, I would love to collaborate with DFA in future seasons. They have been amazing to work with, with a special nod to Galen Bremer. Just lovely. I am looking forward to discussing several ideas for next year.

EYA: New York City has put an enormous effort into delving into how its arts organizations can better reflect and serve its many communities. When you think about our city's needs--and the needs of artists--what's top of mind for you?

DG: Maintaining diversity. Making everyone feel included. The fact that we have so many free programs including music, dance, sports and so forth, is incredible. We are also doing a lot more surveying at our programs to see what the reactions are and to inquire what people would like to see in their communities. There needs to be an open dialogue so our participation in their neighborhoods is not a forced marriage.

For SummerStage, I think the increased dialogue with community leaders, residents and centers is key. Maintaining respect with the community is fundamental, and listening to feedback, good and bad, whether it's from our audiences or the artists themselves is necessary.

EYA: Is there anything else that readers should know or might like to know about you, about SummerStage 2017, about the DFA collaboration or this specific screening?

DG: About me? Well that I am still active in my music endeavors, that I am very passionate about the work that I do here at SummerStage and that if you see me out in the park, you can always come up and say hello!

We are about two thirds of the way through our season and we have some incredible shows coming up in August and some benefit concerts (ticketed events) going into October.

Specifically about the film? Just come and enjoy a nice night out in the park, watching a film about one of the most iconic dance companies in the world. There are some great on-camera interviews and rehearsal footage as well.  We may also have a special guest coming to introduce the film, but I can't give that away!


SummerStage at Rumsey PlayfieldCentral Park

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